It'll likely come as no surprise to anybody when, early next week, the big chart-topping album of June, Kanye West's somewhat provocatively titled "Yeezus," gets knocked off its commercial pedestal by a Jay-Z July 4 behemoth with a characteristically lofty title, "Magna Carta Holy Grail."
Indeed, that particular narrative is pretty much a foregone conclusion.
"Yeezus" has yet to officially break the 500,000 units moved mark. Meanwhile, the South Korean information technology conglomerate Samsung has already pre-purchased a cool million copies of Jay-Z's 12th studio album for users of Galaxy phones, who only needed to download a free "Magna Carta Holy Grail" app to access the disc beginning 72 hours before its official release at the stroke of midnight on July 3.
You don't need an accountant to crunch those numbers. Whether or not the original script for this particular media drama included a subplot in which the sophomore album by J. Cole, a lesser-known rap upstart signed to Jay-Z's Roc Nation imprint, would give West's "Yeezus" an impressive run for its money in its first week of sales, is unclear. But, yes, thanks to a multi-million dollar co-branding deal between Samsung Galaxy and Jay-Z industries, the age of the album as app has at last arrived.
As the substance of the Samsung deal — which itself appears to have been timed to cut into the buzz surrounding Apple's imminent launch of its iTunes Radio streaming service — was being dissected by business experts and entertainment industry pundits, music and basketball fans were treated to a stylized, if rather enigmatic, three-minute ad that first ran during game five of the NBA finals and didn't really explain very much.
Shot in cool black and white, it catches an earnestly candid yet always imposing Jay-Z lounging, philosophizing and, for lack of a better term, game-planning in faux-verité fashion in the company of a few creative collaborators who may as well be business associates.
Decked out nonchalantly in a grey sweatshirt and a Brooklyn Nets baseball cap (he was a minority owner of the team until he founded his Roc Nation sports agency earlier this year and had to divest his shares), Jay-Z looms over a mixing console. He looks over proofs of what appears to be artwork for the new album. And, at one crucial point, he conspicuously checks a small tablet device that seems to have lyrics scrawled across the screen, even though this is a rapper who is fairly famous for not committing his rhymes to paper of the real or virtual sort. Eventually, the words "The Next Big Thing Is Here" flash portentously, followed by Samsung Galaxy logo.
The first time I saw the ad, it felt like coming in cold to a midseason episode of "Mad Men," with Jay-Z as Don Draper presiding over a casually chaotic brainstorming session for the launch of a new product campaign.
Nobody in the scene — not even Jay-Z — is explicitly identified, but the barefoot bearded guru dude laying on the sofa is slimmed down heavyweight producer Rick Rubin, and the wiry guy tapping out beats on the desk is multi-platinum songwriter/producer Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes and N.E.R.D.
"We don't have any rules," Jay-Z opines to nobody in particular. "That's why everyone is trying to figure it out. That's why the internet is like the wild west — the wild, wild west. We need to write the new rules."
There are far less qualified minds at work on drafting a new set of business guidelines for the music in-dustry in the digital age, if that's what Jay-Z's referring to with that little quip.
And Jay-Z is certainly no stranger when it comes to writing new rules.
When he first emerged from Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood as a deft rapper of the gangsta persuasion in the early 1990s, he didn't bother with the then-entrenched major-label system; he simply took what he had learned from selling CDs on the street and created his own Roc-A-Fella imprint, inked a distribution deal with Def Jam and quickly worked his way to the top of the game.
Once he'd established himself as New York City’s King of Rap, he retired from active duty and took over as president of Def Jam in 2004. Along the way, he'd become uniquely adept at the process of furthering his own career and artistic ambitions by promoting those of other artists, songwriters and producers, racking up an impressively stellar list of collaborators that reads like a who's who of hip-hop and R&B.
It was fitting when the a cappella raps from his first "final" studio album, 2003's "The Black Album," were recast with sampled tracks from the Beatles' "White Album" onto "The Grey Album," an unauthorized 2004 creation by Danger Mouse that popularized mash-ups and confounded copyright attorneys.
Through no extra effort on his own part, "The Grey Album" put Jay-Z's name at the forefront of cutting-edge music while simultaneously associating it with that of the Fab Four. Not a bad way to pretend end your career as a recording artist.
Of course, it didn't take long for Jay-Z to retire from retirement, which he accomplished triumphantly in 2006 with "Kingdom Come," a chart-topper that, among its expected A-list producers (Dr. Dre, the Neptunes, Quincy Jones) and guest artists (Jon Legend, Usher and his future wife Beyoncé), also included a major cameo by Coldplay's Chris Martin.
But even as he's continued to rack up platinum sales figures, Jay-Z's genuine artistic talents have been eclipsed by his marketing acumen and the remarkable degree to which he's been able to successfully leverage the Jay-Z brand, expanding it to include a diverse portfolio of fashion, beauty and real estate interests, as well as an upscale sports bar franchise called 40/40, and his ventures into the realm of professional sports.
He's not the first entertainer or even rapper to invest his earnings elsewhere, but his successes have set a new bar for aspiring young hip-hop entrepreneurs. The lucrative and forward-thinking Samsung Galaxy endeavor is just his latest branding coup.
If Jay-Z's emergence as the defining icon for an entire era in hip-hop rests as much or more on his marketing schemes and investments — his branding brilliance — instead of his rhymes and flow, that doesn't diminish his artistic stature or the relative quality of "Magna Carta Holy Grail."
It's just that in the shadow of what he's accomplished by harnessing the steroidal capitalism of the gangsta ethos and proving his mettle as a mainstream tastemaker, his skills as a rapper, while a crucial element of the brand, seem merely modest.
And, in that sense, he's got a soulmate in Kanye West, an artist whose first big break came when Jay-Z took him on board as a Roc-A-Fella go-to producer in 2001, and then helped him jumpstart his career as a rapper by giving him a verse on the 2002 track "The Bounce." (It's a bond they at least tacitly acknowledged when they joined forces on the 2011 blockbuster album "Watch the Throne.")
West has proven, over his past decade as a recording artist, to be more temperamental than Jay-Z, and something of a hip-hop oddity in that he doesn't have a street/stage name because, well, he didn't come up on the street or the stage.
He's also been a canny tastemaker himself, first building a trademark sound or production approach around messing with samples from unabashedly familiar tunes and other rap hits to craft his own hooks.
It’s an approach he's abandoned from time to time, only to return to, most notably on the "Yeezus" track "Blood on the Leaves," which nicks a segment from Nina Simone's version of the Billie Holiday classic "Strange Fruit."
West has also deployed lush string arrangements and collaborated with gentle indie-pop auteur Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, written intensely personal raps that veer from the salacious to the spiritual and, on 2008's "808s & Heartbreak," taken a major left turn toward the experimental by using an Auto-Tune vocal processor and Roland TR-808 drum machine to create a stripped-down electro-pop tour-de-force.
"Yeezus," with its dark synth tones, jarring rhythmic shifts and distorted beats, is more of a hip-hop take on what West was getting at back in 2008.
But, as with Jay-Z, West's artistic endeavors are at risk of being overshadowed by his extra-musical activities, which have included, in no particular order, fathering a daughter with Kim Kardashian, rudely interrupting Taylor Swift during an acceptance speech for an MTV Video Music Award, calling President Bush out on his handling of Katrina, putting his stamp of approval on Nike's Air Yeezys and starting a couple of his own fashion lines.
Perhaps more noteworthy has been West's strategy for marketing himself through social networking. Upset with the way the press had portrayed him, he took matters into his own hands a few years ago and began using Twitter and a blog to communicate directly and often with his followers, providing a steady stream of oddly detailed information about his day-to-day activities.
He's not quite up to Jay-Z's level in the realm of mogul-dom, but West has become a fairly well branded cottage industry, which is to say he's also working on drafting a few new rules himself.