By the time Jay Z became a household name, he had fashioned himself as the most aspirational of contemporary aspirational figures, a walking American Dream whose strongly held belief in the promise of capitalist possibility existed to teach onlookers, be they teenaged girls listening thousands of miles away or teenaged boys walking the same streets of Brooklyn he once did, that if he could do it, so could they. If a former crack dealer, a fatherless child subject to the most insidious effects of American racism and poverty, could escape geography and sociology, so could we.
Just under two decades into an unprecedented career, Jay Z is halfway to a billion dollars and pals with the president and the first lady. He is a business powerhouse who raps occasionally, rather than a rapper with business ambitions on the side. It is a prophecy he willed into existence and described best himself with this lyric on Kanye West's "Diamonds (Remix)": "I'm not a businessman / I'm a business, man." True enough.
Over the past year alone, Jay Z pre-sold a million digital copies of his twelfth solo album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, to Samsung in a deal estimated to have been worth $20 million; brokered the third-largest contract in MLB history through his newly established Roc Nation Sports agency; partnered with Cohiba to launch a line of fancy cigars; and created a fashion collection with Barney’s that included a $58,000 Rick Owens-designed crocodile jacket. In his downtime, he nosedived into the art world, announced two arena tours, and managed to earn nine Grammy nominations for an album that yielded no ubiquitous, song-of-the-summer style singles.
And yet, the narrative is beginning to crumble. Despite his long list of accomplishments, by year's end, there was a palpable sense that Jay Z had wasted much of his cultural cachet by making decisions purely in pursuit of profit and often at the expense of both art and responsibility. Recent musical projects, including Magna Carta Holy Grail, translate as exercises in tepid flexing that have yielded more cringeworthy, out-of-touch flows and lyrics—for instance, “Y’all religion creates division like my Mayback partition” on “Heaven”—than should be legal. It, and a lot of the guest verses he's proffered over the past few years, seem more like vehicles for his business ambitions than true creative expressions. There is an audience that will buy anything he sells, but he rarely even looks like he's enjoying it anymore.
Last fall, critics and fans wanted to see Jay Z take a principled stance by publicly condemning Barney's for its proven track record of racially profiling black customers; instead, he moved to donate 100 percent, rather than the original 25 percent, of his capsule line's revenue to charity. No doubt contracts and other constraints limited his choices, but it further entrenched the perception that he is actively retreating deeper into strictly self-serving territory. The same applies to his involvement with the Brooklyn Nets, whose Barclays Center eyesore is a $700 million monument to forced gentrification; Jay Z’s co-sign, which was used to legitimize the project, was seen as a betrayal. The unexpected divestment of his Nets shares in 2013 followed as a harsh blow, and the resulting sense of mistrust has magnified every misstep and every terrible lyric, redefining Jay Z's brand to ill effect.
Recent research published by “celebrity branding expert” Jeetendr Sehdev identified Jay Z's Samsung deal as the second least popular celebrity marketing partnership of last year, among consumers aged 13-31. The research revealed that his ruthless business mind led perceptions of his trustworthiness and honesty to rank significantly lower, by 70 percent, than other celebrities.
"Millennials questions his approach to loyalty, whether it be to a business deal or his fans," Sehdev told Business Insider. "His motivations to just make money can be viewed by this audience as self-centered, even if they may be business savvy."
When the volley of accusations that he had forsaken his duties to his so-called community began, I felt unprepared to judge Jay Z’s ambitions. The statistic improbability of his success, for someone who grew up a black boy in the Marcy Projects during the Reagan era, was reason enough to support it. But the tighter he appears to cling to the mythical, fundamentally American notion that wealth guarantees redemption, the more perverse our faith in him seems.
Jay Z should perhaps take some cues from his wife, Beyoncé, who has just done the exact opposite with great éclat. Over the past year or two, she has leveraged media, social and otherwise, to present a more authentic version of herself. It may be controlled or steeped in strategy, but it’s effective. Despite marketing deals of her own—including a notable one that landed her face on Pepsi cans—Beyoncé’s focus is firmly on her art, and it shows. On “Haunted,” a song on her latest album, she laments “Soul not for sale / Probably won’t make no money off this / Oh well.” It would be naïve to take that statement at face value, but the sentiment works in her favor.
With the surprise release of Beyoncé, and an accompanying mini-documentary posted to YouTube in multiple parts, her risk-taking has revealed a creative, open, and inspiring artist, woman, and mother, one in whom we can collectively place our trust. It is not that Beyoncé is more trustworthy than Jay Z; it is that she appears so. Her recent work demonstrates a commitment to the performance of her music and of her public persona, daily proof that you can be both business-minded and ethical. That much alone is a lesson that could alter the current trajectory of Jay Z’s brand.
When Athens, Georgia, indie band of Montreal was criticized for licensing a couple of songs to be used in TV commercials, frontman Kevin Barnes published a passionate invective against the notion of “selling out.” “It’s impossible to be a sellout in a capitalist society. You’re only a winner or a loser," he wrote. Jay Z is in the middle of an obnoxious endzone celebration.