The strange and ingenious evolution of JAY-Z’s approach to selling albums

“I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.”

When JAY-Z made that famous boast on a Kanye West song in 2005, he was in the midst of his “retirement” from rapping and had shifted his focus to the strictly corporate side of music and popular culture.

In his three-year hiatus from music after the release of 2003’s “The Black Album,” JAY-Z had become the CEO and president of Def Jam Recordings. He had also expanded on the entrepreneurial projects – including his clothing line, Rocawear, and several other ventures – that would go on to make him one of the wealthiest artists in the music industry today.

Jay’s experimentation in the business world would soon carry over into his evolving, risk-taking approach to the business of selling albums.

After the traditional release of his commercially successful 2006 comeback album, “Kingdom Come,” Jay flipped the script for his 2007 LP “American Gangster” by keeping the album off of the iTunes store.

The move foreshadowed more radical album-release strategies to come from the rap mogul – many of which have focused on exclusivity and increasing profit, both in partnerships with various companies and through his streaming service, Tidal, as we will explore.

Jay’s 13th studio album, “4:44,” is out Friday as a Tidal and Sprint exclusive.


2007: Removing “American Gangster” from iTunes

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Def Jam

JAY-Z’s decision to keep his 2007 album based on the Denzel Washington film “American Gangster” off of the iTunes store was founded in his distaste for single track sales diluting the importance of the album format in the digital era.

“As movies are not sold scene by scene, this collection will not be sold as individual singles,” Jay explained in 2007.

Of course, keeping the album off of iTunes also meant that the artist didn’t have to pay Apple 30% of the album’s sales. The album went on to become his tenth No. 1 album and has sold over a million copies.


2011: Staggering the digital and physical releases of “Watch The Throne”

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Michael Buckner/Getty

JAY-Z’s collaborative album with Kanye West, “Watch The Throne,” became the first major album of the internet age to completely avoid leaking before its release date, thanks to the duo’s innovative, industry-shifting release strategy.

Jay and Kanye staggered the digital and physical releases of “Watch The Throne” by a week and made iTunes the first, exclusive purveyor of the LP to ensure that the album wouldn’t leak from CD manufacturers.

The strategy instantly became the standard mode of operation for labels to prevent leaks of their high-profile albums. Frank Ocean’s 2012 album “Channel Orange” adopted the same staggered release, for instance.


2013: Giving a million free copies of “Magna Carta Holy Grail” to Samsung users

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Larry Busacca/Getty

As part of a $20 million deal between Samsung and JAY-Z’s Roc Nation label in 2013, Samsung users were able to claim a million free copies of Jay’s album “Magna Carta Holy Grail” through an app, three days before the album saw its wide release.

The exclusive, Samsung-bought copies did not end up counting toward the album’s first week sales total due to Billboard’s existing rules on the matter.

JAY-Z took to Twitter to joke about the sales discrepancy upon the album’s release, writing, “If 1 Million records gets SOLD and billboard doesn’t report it, did it happen? Ha.#newrules #magnacartaholygrail Platinum!!! VII IV XIII.”

Nonetheless, “Magna Carta” went on to become Jay’s 13th consecutive No. 1 album, and it is currently certified double platinum by RIAA.


2016: Ushering in the controversial era of streaming exclusives

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Columbia; Def Jam

When JAY-Z acquired Tidal parent company Aspiro in March 2015, he relaunched the stagnated Tidal service by trotting out some of the biggest names in the industry – his wife, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Rihanna, and many others – as the “owners of Tidal.”

Starting with Rihanna’s January 2016 album, “Anti,” Jay’s streaming service would become the exclusive site of the three biggest album releases of the year – ushering in a controversial era of streaming exclusives among high-profile acts.

In February, Kanye West released his album “The Life of Pablo” exclusively on Tidal, and the album was subsequently pirated over 500,000 times by fans in its first week. “Pablo” began streaming on other streaming services in April, despite West’s initial insistence that the album would permanently stream on Tidal alone.

When Beyoncé’s April 2016 album “Lemonade” premiered as a Tidal exclusive, its window of exclusivity was much shorter, as it was available for purchase on iTunes the next day.


2017: Partnering with Sprint for “4:44,” a Tidal-exclusive album

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Twitter/Tidal

Early this year, JAY-Z sold 33 percent of Tidal to phone company Sprint.

The $200 million deal allows new and current Sprint customers access to exclusive Tidal content, the first of which will be Jay’s new album “4:44,” out this Friday.

In a head-scratching move that seems to illustrate the totality of Sprint’s exclusive partnership with Tidal, “4:44” is reportedly only available to those who either switch to (or currently use) Sprint, or who subscribed to Tidal before June 26.

On the “4:44” standout track “Smile,” Jay directly acknowledges the downside of such an exclusive release when he nods to the fact that many listeners will likely “rip [his] sh– off Tidal” and pirate the album.

No amount of pirating, however, will stop the man in the billion dollar couple from laughing to the bank with another $200 million from yet another ingenious corporate deal.