Jay-Z Is Selling 'Magna Carta' So Hard Everyone Forgot About the Music

Magna Carta Holy Grail is seeming less like a new album than a flashy new tech product. Are these the "new rules"?

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Here's a quiz. Without leaving this tab, list every fact you know about Magna Carta Holy Grail, the much-discussed forthcoming release from Jay-Z. If you've clicked this far — or, you know, gone on the Internet in the past two weeks — chances are you know something. Great. Now list every fact you know about the music that is contained on Magna Carta. Not the marketing or the Samsung deal. Just the music.


If your latter list is slim — and I can't imagine how it isn't, unless you happen to be Hov himself — then it's probably time to consider how the massive marketing apparatus behind Jay-Z's twelfth album, including but not limited to the controversial Samsung promotion deal, has gradually but indisputably overshadowed interest in the album itself. The latest stunt involves displaying the album art on a lectern in Salisbury Cathedral, directly beside a frayed copy of the actual Magna Carta. If that seems like enough to make Bono blush with modesty, it's because it is. Tonight, when the album is made available to Samsung users at 12:01, Jay-Z's boldness will almost certainly pay off. But it's increasingly hard to tell if the people scrambling to download the #magnacarta app are buzzing about an album or a flashy new tech product by Samsung.

Bullett Media's Jeremy Gordon argued today that it doesn't particularly matter if Magna Carta is good or not, considering how slim our knowledge of the music is; so far it's been defined as much by what's not true about it as by what is. There was Rick Rubin, for example, holding fort in the initial primetime announcement, but then news broke that the Gandalf-bearded producer didn't actually work on Magna Carta — Jay-Z just invited him to be in the commercial for moral support, or something. Rubin did, of course, chip in with Kanye West's Yeezus, and the marketing contrast is irresistible. Sure, premiering "New Slaves" by hosting futuristic video projections in 66 cities around the world is a tad extravagant, if not outright goofy. But at least there was music involved, not to mention those SNL performance clips. By contrast, Gordon writes, "we're 12 hours away from Jay-Z's record coming out, and there's nothing outside of some detached beat snippets." In lieu of a single, there's a lyric sheet for a track called "Holy Grail" — made available, naturally, on the Samsung app.

Even Rick Rubin — whose inexplicable presence remains gimmicky at best — has defined the album in terms of what it's not, telling XXL that it was difficult to listen to (read: not produce) Magna Carta after Yeezus because "I was in a very alternative and progressive headspace, and Jay's record is a more traditional hip-hop record." Which is about as revealing as saying that Morrissey's upcoming LP might be a little bit, eh, moody.

Meanwhile, instead of discussing a single or teaser, the rest of us are busy bickering over whether or not Magna Carta can actually go platinum if Samsung has already purchased a million copies of the album before a single fan bought in. (Even Jay himself weighed in on Twitter.) As we discovered yesterday, the magnitude of the debate is such that Magna Carta actually caused the Recording Industry Association of America to change its rules, letting digital sales count for certification on an album's release date. "That’s why the internet is like the wild west, the wild, wild west," Jay argued in his primetime slot. "We need to write the new rules."

What isn't in question, amidst all these "new rules" and what-have-you, is whether or not Samsung will end up moving a metric fuck-ton of phones this month. "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man," Jay-Z mouthed eight years ago. So is Samsung — and a savvy one at that.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.