I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Jay-Z put an album out this past weekend. It’s called 4:44. By all accounts, it’s pretty good. It’s been called Jay’s most humanizing album, his most mature, his most vulnerable, and his best lyrically in a long time. Not only that, but it’s already platinum — after less than a week. It’s been pretty clearly recognized as a far and away better project than his last album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, which was also commercially successful but critically panned.
However, what’s really interesting is how both albums became as successful as they did. The success may or may not be owed to the content — Jay-Z’s literal raps — and more to Jay’s business acumen and forward-thinking; both albums sold more copies based on the corporate sponsorships associated with them than to actual physical album sales or even digital streams. Back in 2013 when Jay struck a deal with Samsung to hit the benchmark of a million copies sold, critics used this marketing technique to skewer the record. Now, just four years later, Jay looks like the prescient business man he’s always been, man.
MCHG was released exclusively through Samsung, while 4:44 was an exclusive release (at least at first) through Sprint. These deals — and others like them — are changing the way in which music is purchased and consumed in music’s streaming era, when entertainers from rap to rock to country need to be constantly looking for new ways to monetize their product.
Jay did receive platinum plaques for both MCHG and 4:44 as part of revised RIAA rules that would count the “pre-shipped” copies of the former (Samsung paid $5 million upfront for the rights to exclusively release the album through their phones), but not sales. But, this splitting of hairs yields a further question — how much do these ancient Billboard accolades even matter in the era of corporate patronage and digital streaming? More bluntly: Does it really matter if it’s Apple Music, Tidal, or a phone company paying an artist to make a great record? At the end of the day, is there really a difference?
The details of the deal between Sprint and Jay-Z haven’t been revealed yet, but the two are probably similar. Both are prime examples of the sort of corporate maneuvering that has to be managed at the top levels of the recording industry to maintain anything resembling the sales standards of old. The reaction to each one has been wildly different.