In a dense, riveting chat with Elliott Wilson for his #FACTSONLY series, Jay Z has offered his observations on the record industry, parallels between music and art, his Samsung deal and the future of hip-hop. Here are five things we’ve learned from his candid – and erudite – insights.
Just prior to the release of ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was still waiting 30 days before handing out certifications for album sales. This was set because first-day sales would not predict returns, so 30 days was a safe period to measure actual units shifted. But Jay Z made a salient point: “There’s no returns in digital!” Even while the one million downloads of ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ distributed through the Samsung app weren’t eligible for the charts, they were still eligible for certification – and, by any yardstick, at the exact moment of ‘sale’ too. The RIAA has now changed its certifications policy.
“It’s not like we were trying to trick the system,” Jay Z insists. “I wasn’t looking for a number one album.” The point is, “We’re in a dying business, everyone sees that… What am I supposed to do – just wait? It’s reversing. Do I sit here and wait ’til it gets to zero before I do something?”
As Jay understands it, the RIAA’s job is “to bring new revenue streams into the business,” so he was enabling them – with the Samsung deal and resulting rule changes. “I was just the agent of change,” he says. Not that any common-or-garden new artist could step in and strike a deal like the Samsung arrangement – “I warranted that level of deal… what I’ve done, the groundwork that I put in.”
Jay Z had actually had it in mind for ‘Watch The Throne’, surmising that nothing he and Kanye West could do musically could match the event itself, so he wanted to hold back the album and deliver it and the experience whole, in one multimedia package. Seems Kanye’s too focused on the music though – he wanted to get ‘H.A.M.’, the album, everything, all of it out there as soon as it was laid down, so Jay held the scheme back for himself.
Not that he’s was ever “gonna let them put a phone on my forehead”. From early Roc-A-Fella days he’s been in the system but rebelling against it at the same time, fighting for his own identity. “This is Roc-A-Fella – we love you Def Jam and thank you Universal, but this is Roc-A-Fella.” So he had no fear of working with a corporate giant like Samsung, and even kept overt branding out of the commercial. “It’s tastefully done; it was all about the vision.” Making this kind of deal work for him is his own rage against the dying of the record industry’s light.
“Shakespeare was a man who wrote poetry, I’m a man who writes poetry. Why not compare yourself to the best? What am I supposed to be here – second best?” No diminishing of the old ego here. In response to people who wonder about his interest in art – take ‘Picasso’ on ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ – he says it’s just like music. It’s an expression. “The way people consume music, I consume art.” A Jean-Michel Basquiat painting is about metaphor, just like hip-hop, and if you put yourself against art you’re just trying to say you’re no different. “It’s not due to bravado or arrogance, it’s just I have confidence. I put in so much work.” He didn’t get where he is today by believing he’s not worthy.
And a lot of that’s down to the last generation – like Jay – still being around. He’s got no intention to do the “Rolling Stones thing at 70” but, unlike when he first appeared in the 90s, there’s a sense that the old guard will stick around a little while to hand down their stone tablets. “I’m like, ‘How can I help, what you need?’,” he tells Wilson. “I’m constantly opening doors for that next generation.” This is good news for the likes of J Cole, Wale, Kendrick Lamar and Drake who can pick that big brain before it checks out. But he’s happy about the future. “There was a point when we were thinking, ‘What’s gonna happen next?’ There wasn’t no Kendricks or Drakes.” There is now.