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Love or Hate: Jay-Z’s ‘Magna Carta… Holy Grail’ – clever or too commercial?

By Sebastian Torrelio and Tony Huang

July 8, 2013 12:50 a.m.

Hip-hop appears to be the dominating force in landmark music releases this summer. J. Cole’s “Born Sinner” was finally released after great anticipation caused by several months of delays. Kanye West’s “Yeezus” further fueled his evident God complex with an artwork-lacking album. And last week, Jay-Z’s 12th studio album, “Magna Carta… Holy Grail,” debuted on a Samsung Galaxy app for free download before its retail release.

Already causing a stir within the Billboard and Recording Industry Association of America sales figures, is the album an intelligent marketing strategy or just a ploy for attention? In this special summer edition of Love | Hate, columnist Sebastian Torrelio supports the breaking of new music-releasing ground, while columnist Tony Huang finds Jay-Z’s new act particularly hollow.


By Sebastian Torrelio

A&E; senior staff

Thanks to all the hustlers and most importantly you, the customer, Jay-Z’s newest release is making the rounds as the must-listen-to album of the moment. Unfortunately, “Magna Carta… Holy Grail” is also creating a bit of a sales controversy. Billboard has stated that the one million copies bought by Samsung to give to its users for free will not be counted toward the album’s chart count.

In the end, however, this is only a minor (and predictable) setback in Jay-Z’s blueprint for cultural dominance. The RIAA has recently changed its own policy because of the album (and the changing methods of the music business as a whole) to allow “Magna Carta… Holy Grail” to be certified for market sales upon release, rather than after the usual 30-day waiting period for digital purchases. With one million first-day sales, this will make it the fastest album to become platinum certified in history.

But why is any of this significant? Historically, albums backed by innovative forms of release and promotion have aged well and shaped the industry’s practices, even those that didn’t make a big impact on the charts. This is especially true in the 21st century, an era in which bands like Radiohead made history with their free online streaming release of “Kid A,” and “pay what you want” release of “In Rainbows.” Perhaps it’s only the inherent brilliance of Thom Yorke, but both remain two of the most critically acclaimed albums in history.

2013 has seen its fair share of breakthrough practices. Boards of Canada promoted its new album with cryptic television commercials and online messages. Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk provided enough viral promotion to rival that of major blockbusters. A lot of Jay-Z’s album’s future importance will inevitably depend on its quality, but such a bold promotional move is still an intelligently exceptional way to make a cultural impact.

But 2013’s most interesting release so far still goes to Kanye West, who promoted tracks on chart-topper “Yeezus” by projecting his rapping face onto the walls of buildings around the world. And that’s cray, ain’t it, Jay?

– Email Sebastian Torrelio if you are on the “love” side at [email protected].


By Tony Huang

A&E; contributor

Jay-Z’s been off his game for a while now. “American Gangster” underwhelmed and “The Blueprint 3” thoroughly disappointed. People can clamor over “Watch the Throne” all they want, but that’s mostly a Kanye album, and one on which, bar-for-bar, Jay-Z tends to lose. If I were to pinpoint the most recent Jay-Z verse I truly enjoyed, it’d be his contribution to Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix),” where he pops the eerily prophetic line: “I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man.”

Nowadays it reads ironically, especially given that I’m not entirely sure whether his newest album is called “Magna Carta… Holy Grail” or “Samsung Galaxy… App Release.” And that’s only a slight exaggeration: I honestly find it hard to separate the album from how it’s being marketed due to its blatant commercial intentions.

To be fair, artists sell out frequently to good effect. I’d argue that Jay-Z’s career was built on a very cunning back-and-forth between commercial pandering and artistic inspiration (which is why his singles tend not to be great, “99 Problems” notwithstanding). But when it’s laid bare like this, it feels a little distasteful. He’s definitely a business now (even the Supreme Court agrees), but does his music claim no higher integrity?

Look at Kanye West (sorry, he just keeps coming up!), whose polarizing latest, “Yeezus,” practically walks the exact opposite marketing path, and yet still manages to drum up hype, sales and whatever else a music artist might desire. Kanye managed to both make a statement and make money; Jay-Z seems only interested in the latter. Even if “Magna Carta… Holy Grail” winds up being one of his better albums and sells as many records as is enough to fund his daughter Blue Ivy’s preschool, it sets a sour precedent. This new method of money-grubbing only beckons a day in which music, rather than merely being used in commercials, is actually just a commercial. And no matter what the price or quality, that kind of music will always feel cheap.

– Email Tony Huang if you are on the “hate” side at [email protected].

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