Today, Jay-Z revealed the ostentatious cover art for his new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, in the most ostentatious possible way by installing it next to one of the four remaining copies of the actual Magna Carta, at the Salisbury Cathedral Chapter House. It’s the newest bit of Headline Marketing for Hov’s press campaign as it builds toward the record’s July 9 release date, though if you’ve got a Samsung phone you’ll be able to download the #magnacarta app at midnight and hopefully be one of the eligible few to receive the thing for free. Previous highlights of this campaign have included that star-studded commercial that aired during the NBA Finals in which Hov discussed the record with an all-star posse of collaborators, a bunch of clips in which he discusses the album’s themes to a supine Gandalf, and a series of carefully macro’d lyric sheets which have revealed baldly displayed allusions to R.E.M. and Nirvana lyrics, both of which look pretty awkward on paper (though it’s fair to save judgment until we hear how it actually comes together).
It’s the latest example of stunt promotion in 2013, highlighted by Daft Punk’s Coachella/SNL commercials for Random Access Memories and Kanye West’s Yeezus projections that, in both cases, helped to fuel the anticipation and sense that we were participating in a “big” cultural moment. It helped, also, that both of those albums are—personally speaking—pretty fantastic, if not objectively worth paying attention to. But what makes Hov’s marketing savvy seem a little more transparent is how little we know about the actual music, and how the partnership with Samsung makes it harder to shake the feeling that this isn’t just a clever campaign to sell some phones. While Daft Punk and Kanye stayed mostly mysterious, they’d released enough snippets of music to get fans excited about what they were going to hear—”Get Lucky” was already remixed into a million forms before the official radio edit, and clips of ‘Ye doing “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” on SNL were played thousands of times.
By contrast: We’re 12 hours away from Jay-Z’s record coming out, and there’s nothing outside of some detached beat snippets. It makes more sense when you figure he hasn’t released a compelling solo record since 2007’s American Gangster, or if you’re being uncharitable, 2003’s The Black Album. It makes even more sense when you read comments from Rick Rubin, who was conscripted into appearing in those commercials despite not having anything to do with the music. “It was a little difficult — after just coming from the Kanye sessions — to listen to Jay’s album, because they’re so different,” he said. “I was in a very alternative and progressive headspace, and Jay’s record is a more traditional hip-hop record.” Then it’s easy to imagine the cynical truth: that in lieu of making an interesting record, Hov substituted an interesting marketing campaign so he’d at least move some product. And when it’s out, it’ll immediately be classified as platinum thanks to some rule-changing—a win for Jay-Z, loves making money or at least seeming like someone who makes a lot of money. That’s ultimately fine, in coldly capitalist sense, but it augurs something shitty about the future of marketing for those who’ve passed their creative sell date by showing you don’t need to be a good artist to gin up interest in your art.