With the recent release of his album 4:44, Jay-Z is still trying to flex his artistic muscles in the rap scene, but the core act here is a money move. Jay-Z has long since transformed from a rap icon to a business one, despite the fact that he continues to produce platinum-certified albums, including 4:44. But this certification was achieved abnormally fast, raising questions about the nature of the achievement and the performance of his streaming service Tidal.
Let’s work backwards.
4:44 is certified “Platinum”
The album 4:44 was released on June 30th, 2017 and was certified platinum on July 5th, 2017. That’s less than one week. For those unaware, this certification time frame is like light speed in the industry. Certification takes time, both for the sales (it takes a while to sell a million albums, even for an accomplished artist) and for the certification itself.
Check out this picture of Jay-Z sporting the Platinum certification with a representative from the RIAA;
The most notable part about the picture isn’t the cheesy grin from the RIAA or the confused expression on Jay-Z’s face, it’s the fact that “the plaque presentation took place before the album was even released.” .
It seems there was a pretty high expectation that the album would reach platinum certification.
— RIAA (@RIAA) July 5, 2017
The Sprint Connection
At the moment, the album is only available on Tidal, a music streaming platform owned by the artist himself. According to the RIAA guidelines, one album sale is given for every 1,500 online plays, meaning the album would need to have achieved 1.5 billion streams online within the week to be granted the platinum certification .
Yet the streaming platform only has about 1 million users , so this can’t be the true source of the certification. Rather, many of the album sales came from a different source: Sprint.
According to Forbes, Jay-Z sold copies of the album to Sprint, which in turn handed them out for free to its users . Presumably this is how he (and the RIAA) knew the album would go platinum before it even happened – because the certification was preemptively arranged by Sprint purchasing the necessary volume of albums.
Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time he’s done this.
In a recent video, Anthony Fantano, iconic rap music critic, called the certification “fake platinum.”  He went on to say: “it is kind of obnoxious that Jay-Z continues to drop albums in this way … he’s essentially having his own accolades bought for him.”
What he’s referring to is the 2013 Samsung deal , wherein Jay-Z sold a million copies of his album Magna Carta Holy Grail to Samsung, which then passed it on for free to Galaxy users in a 72-hour window before the album’s official release. This move triggered an almost immediate platinum certification for the album, but only after the RIAA changed its certification rules shortly beforehand to count such behavior as equivalent to standard album purchases . This effectively transitioned the certification process from a tally of music performance to a financial lever pullable by those with immense business prowess (ahem … Jay-Z).
Looking forward, he will probably pull this move again. According to billboard.com, “the corporate partnership behind the U.S. release is the first in a series of music exclusives, according to a joint statement, and it follows the announcement in January that Tidal sold a 33 percent stake in the company to Sprint for $200 million …”  So Sprint’s motive is now clear – they are trying to promote the album because they own a significant stake in the company streaming it.
According to the RIAA, 2016 was the first year ever that streaming music platforms generated the majority of the music industry’s revenues . Since 4:44 is only available on Tidal, it’s no surprise Jay-Z is trying to generate more subscribers for the service, and this is only the most recent in a long line of such albums.
— RIAA (@RIAA) July 5, 2017
One of the most famous examples of this was Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, which was also released exclusively on Tidal (about 45 days later it was released on other platforms as well). At the time Kanye was also a part owner in Tidal, and he had several business agreements with Jay-Z .
But those business agreements became issues.
Kanye claims the streaming service owes him a $3M bonus for bringing 1.5M new subscribers to the service from the release of The Life of Pablo. Tidal disputes this and other such claims made by Kanye, leading him to split up with the service on July 1st, 2017, the day after Jay-Z released 4:44. Tidal even claimed they would sue Kanye if he took his music to another platform instead .
Coincidentally, Jay-Z mentioned the beef on the album – “You dropped outta school, you lost your principles. You have him 20 million without thinking, he gave you 20 minutes on stage – f*ck was he thinking?”, referencing Kanye’s 20-minute rant about the growing distance between him and Jay-Z.
Tidal has been quite controversial since its release, and with these new issues it’s unclear what the future holds for Tidal, but one thing is clear: Kanye is making music and Jay-Z is making money.
The Album’s Legacy
Despite the business deal(s) generating an inflated certification, the album’s legacy is not destroyed. Jay-Z put out an incredibly deep and emotionally revealing record. It’s a refreshing breath of air from an older voice in the modern era of rap music and one that shows the depth of his maturity gained over the years. His album focuses on topics like fatherhood, financial freedom (go figure), and admitting past mistakes, showing a more humanized side of the iconic artist.