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Business, man

Jay-Z's expansive pandering: a savvy business move or commercial dishonesty?

When I was a kid, there was a rapper named Jay-Z. He released hip-hop albums that were maybe a little better than the other stuff that was being released at the time, and the albums were popular and even created a few crossover hits for the "TRL" crowd, but basically he just was another rapper.

Things have changed since then. Jay-Z's late ascendancy to the status of "American icon" has been one of the more surprising phenomena within the hip-hop culture of the new millennium, if indeed Jay-Z still belongs to "hip-hop culture" - which is questionable, given that people who actually care about rap music haven't been interested in him in a decade and that the people who have anointed him (along with maybe Steve Jobs and Barack Obama) as one of the key inspirational figures of our era probably don't even like rap at all.

Shawn Carter's (who is almost always known by his stage name Jay-Z) heroic standing has perhaps been fully cemented by his newest album, "Magna Carta… Holy Grail" - not because of the album itself, which of course is incredibly boring, but because of its high-tech, groundbreaking corporate sponsorship: Jay struck a deal with Samsung, which purchased a million digital copies of "Magna Carta" for free distribution to its customers, rendering the album RIAA-Platinum even before its release date.

Jay-Z and his Universal Music Group overlords win because their album is a guaranteed financial success; Samsung wins by way of increased hipness and relevance; consumers win because they get to download a free album. What's not to love here?

Over the past decade, Jay-Z has increasingly come to represent an ideal integration of art and capitalism - an "edgy," "authentic," acclaimed voice that not only is (in reality) bland enough to appeal to virtually every demographic but also unabashedly promotes consumerism and is unafraid to shill - and, to that end, the Samsung stunt may be his masterstroke. From pretending to own a record label to pretending to own the Nets, Jay has always desired to enter corporate America and triumph there, and he's always been careful to present this quest as a virtuous fulfillment of a from-the-ground-up American Dream, in which he creatively outwits the fat cats at their own game without sacrificing his cultural identity or whitewashing his gritty personal history.

Corporate America realized it could use him: his promotion of "business" as a cool, creative endeavor on par with rapping has helped the companies associated with him in their mission to rebrand themselves, in this interactive age, as dynamic, semi-human presences that enrich our lives rather than just selling us stuff. Let Mr. Z think that he's "doing it on his own terms." Don't even mention that our free album giveaway is actually just a data-mining scam.

In his super-fame era, Jay-Z has come to mean a lot of things to a lot of people, and he's done a remarkably good job of tailoring his image to suit each perception. To some, he's a classic Horatio Alger story. To rock critics pretending to respect rap music, he's the culture's primary figurehead, whose recently granted Springsteen-level eminence represents the official integration of hip-hop into their musical purview; Jay-Z reaches out to these folks on "Magna Carta" by interpolating Nirvana and REM choruses, and he compares himself to Frank Sinatra to remind us that he is a superstar not just of a ghettoized genre but of all music. To people who are way behind the times, Jay represents the inherent vibrancy of urban communities and the tantalizingly dangerous, subversive strains of art that necessarily emerge from them; consequently, for a certain ultra-privileged high-culture set, he's become the token Basquiat, having made himself sufficiently unfrightening by befriending Gwyneth Paltrow and staging events at famous art galleries.

This has in turn contributed to Jay's reputation as a multicultural mingler of the Obama era: a Bed-Stuy kid who, in our unprejudiced society, can freely interact with the international intelligentsia, business leaders, and our most important politicians, with benefits to be had for each side. Having made his initial fame with the gangsta crowd, his latter-day records have remained just thuggish enough to retain his early fans even as he's become the most admired figure of the post-thug era, where - for young professionals and college students whose old resentments toward white America might once have caused them to "act out" in unproductive ways - being ambitious and enthusiastic and tech-savvy and unconflicted is now the way to go. Jay-Z can be a rebel, hurling indictments at the society that imprisoned him in the Marcy Projects; while his music is also a laid-back advertisement for luxury goods. He can be a sensitive poet, or he can be just another cocky jerk having a great time in the club. There's an audience for each one of these personae, from white-collar drones who overspend on alcohol and entertainment in order to feel like "ballers" to Barack Obama himself.

It is, moreover, the sheer number of personae that, I think, causes Jay-Z's listeners to remark upon the complexity of the identity advanced by his lyrics. But it isn't really complex; it's just expansively pandering. He identifies mildly provocative roles and then plays them with utter superficiality. The "high art" section of his personality consists of name-dropping painters and fashion designers but not offering any perspective on them, and even his conspicuous consumption seems less nuanced than it could be - simply listing, as it sometimes does, various rhyming product names. When he gestures toward examining the contradiction between his materialism and his social conscience, it suggests not any real internal discord but just another pose: he's playing "the introspective guy," for those who require that sort of thing.

I wonder whether, ultimately, the obviousness of Jay-Z's commercial dishonesty may just be another reason for his admirers - who, like Jay himself, surely value commerce over art - to worship him. They can see him catering to the right people in the right ways, and they recognize that as a savvy business decision - which, of course, is the most important thing.