Eight summers ago, Jay-Z described his impossible journey from no-name to brand name in eight sly words: "I'm not a businessman/I'm a business, man."
A triumphant little zinger, no doubt. But what about the rest of us? When an artist self-identifies as a corporate entity, are we still Jay-Z fans? Or are we Jay-Z customers?
The answer to that late-capitalist riddle arrives with the rap icon's insidious new album, "Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail" — which first appeared last week as a data collection exercise disguised as a smartphone app capable of delivering a bundle of mediocre rap songs to your mobile device.
Here's how it worked: Samsung purchased a million copies of "Magna Carta" in advance, then, via the app, made the album available to subscribers five days before its widespread release. In exchange, users were asked to share access to their social media accounts, their phone calls, their GPS location and more. If the medium is the message, we finally had an answer to that fan-or-customer question.
And now who would want to be either? Throughout "Magna Carta," the 43-year-old pretends he's a threat to a system he's so eagerly become a part of, as if his life as a champion capitalist is some perpetually escalating act of subversion. Hooray? Rooting for this man in 2013 is like rooting for Pfizer. Or PepsiCo. Or PRISM.
Plus, all of this Samsung hullabaloo has only distracted listeners from the fact that, musically and lyrically, "Magna Carta" is one of Jay-Z's blandest offerings. Over 16 joylessly professional tracks, our hero laces up his sneakers for his bazillion-thousandth victory lap around the hip-hop universe. There's no mood, no verve, no vision to this music. It's the sound of champagne being sprayed around an empty locker room.
And that's disappointing considering the blitz of Web and TV ads for "Magna Carta," which suggested we'd be basking in a richly sculpted songbook. The first television spot crash-landed during Game 5 of the NBA Finals, with Jay jawing about his craft in the studio with the album's producers, Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz and Rick Rubin — the last of whom wasn't actually involved in the making of the album at all.
Also in the ad, the rapper promised to document the difficulty of maintaining his sense of self in the riptides of fame and fortune. But as ever, Jay-Z maintains Oz-like distance on this album, refusing to expose the personal vulnerabilities that Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Drake and a generation of hip-hop stars rising in his wake have built their careers on.
Instead, "Magna Carta" is packed with his patented American dreaming at its most unimaginative. He name-drops Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francis Bacon as if the only point of art is to own it. He name-drops convicted D.C. gangster Wayne "Silk" Perry on a song named after fashion designer Tom Ford. And in a mysterious courtship ritual with Gen X, he recycles the hooks of R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
The last wheel falls off during the album's final cut, "Nickels and Dimes." After coughing up a weak Lady Gaga pun — "Taking food out my little monster's mouth/That'll drive me gaga" — and rekindling a weird media beef with 86-year-old Harry Belafonte, he closes the album by insulting the listeners who made him a superstar: "Y'all not worthy/Sometimes I feel like y'all don't deserve me."
But that didn't stop Jay-Z from reanimating his oft-dormant Twitter account Monday afternoon — where he answered questions and cracked jokes. It was as if he was trying to remind us that he was still human the only way he seems to know how: by shaking hands with his customers on the digital sales floor.