Jay Z's latest album, "Magna Carta Holy Grail," arose a collective "meh" among music critics. But the promotion of the album, his 12th, has been a intriguing ride to say the least.
First there was the unveiling of a massive, $5 million business deal he secured with Samsung, in which the telecom company bought 1 million copies to be released a few days early through an exclusive Samsung app. The maneuver caused the RIAA to change its rules on how it counted its album sales and "Magna Carta Holy Grail" went platinum before the album was even officially released. It also drew the scorn of fans and music writers alike, with The Washington Post's Chris Richards declaring, "Rooting for this man in 2013 is like rooting for Pfizer. Or PepsiCo. Or PRISM."
Nevertheless, more than just the $5 million upfront, it got people talking about the album – which was announced only a few weeks ahead of its release, in a summer already packed with big rap albums from Kanye West, Wale and J. Cole – without hearing much of anything about its actual music. The fact that business story trumped all early buzz for the album had some feeling cynical. No matter, the deal gave Jay-Z the best first week sales of his career.
Then on the eve of the official release, Jay-Z hijacked everyone's attention Monday on Twitter, when he began randomly responding to fans' questions and comments. The move delighted his followers, not only because Jay-Z tweets sparingly (and hypocritically, as he threw a fair amount of shade toward social media in the new album), but for eschewing Internet conventions entirely, using brackets to reply to fans and replacing "LOL" for his own "#mylaugh."
RT @azizansari Was it true the original title of Tom Ford was Izod? [Yes but you knew that]— Mr. Carter (@S_C_) July 8, 2013
"A famous rapper who doesn't care about Twitter just logged in and invented a better Twitter in, like, five minutes. We should be embarrassed! Ashamed!," wrote Buzzfeed technology reporter John Herrman, calling the rapper (hyperbolically, we think?) "the only sane person on Twitter."
Jay-Z took his album campaign from the Internet to the Pace Gallery in New York, where he performed "Picasso Baby" (a song that drops numerous art references) for six hours straight. New York Magazine's art critic Jerry Saltz was present at the top secret event, an invitation he first treated with skepticism. "Does every celebrity have to turn into a performance-art marathoner?," he wrote, comparing Jay-Z to Marina Abramovic and various other celebs who have followed her model. "I got sick to my stomach. One of the most creative forces of the last decades, trying to mimic another performer? And an artist?"
But once the act began, Saltz was self-admittedly smitten. "I stayed for just about the whole six hours, and all I can say is that I don't think I saw one instance where Jay-Z was not totally there, in the moment, working the energy."
Jay-Z may be winning over high art critics, but the whole gambit has an "The Emperor's New Clothes" feel. And some of his other stunts – like the unveiling of the album's cover art next to the actual Magna Carta – have been met with more groans than gasps.
Music fans can tell you why The Beatles' "Abbey Road," Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" or even Jay-Z's "Reasonable Doubt" are such monumental albums, but no one remembers their marketing campaigns. Nevertheless, its effective. Billboard, which refuses to count the Samsung downloads in its calculation, estimates "Magna Carta Holy Grail" will sell another 500,000 copies in its first week, which would land Jay-Z at the top of their charts.