Creative Roundtable: A Jay-Z State of Mind

Industry insiders discuss the rapper’s new venture

by Christine Champagne, Saturday, January 1, 2011, 12:00 AM
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Jay-Z isn’t just a rapper – or The New Sinatra as he boasts in Empire State of Mind, or The King of America, a title bestowed on him by Rolling Stone, or The Biggest Mr. Fancy Pants in Rap Ever.

Okay, I made up that last one. It’s catchy, isn’t it?

He is also a successful businessman behind ventures ranging from Rocawear to the New Jersey Nets and he’s known for his creative and innovative approaches to marketing his products: the artist created all sorts of buzz and excitement last October when he promoted his autobiography “Decoded” through a location-based scavenger hunt with Bing.

Jay-Z followed up with the subject of this creative roundtable, an AgencyNet-created Web site – jayzhitscollection.com – designed to spark sales of his latest album, The Hits Collection: Volume 1, which came out last November.

The site uses black-and-white photography and video as well as music to take visitors on a tour through the rapper’s career, dividing it into four phases: The Beginning, Marcy to Madison Square, Corporate Takeover and I Run the Map. “The guy is legend, and I don’t think everyone realizes how long his career has spanned and how influential he’s been,” says AgencyNet founder and CEO Richard Lent. “So we wanted to provide a retrospective of his career and give a look back on how incredibly impactful his music and personality have been on the rap game.”

Social media integration comes in the form of a “Tweets Is Watching” feature through which fan commentary from Twitter appears on a graphical interface resembling an equalizer. “We wanted to bring that fan voice into the site experience,” Lent says. “The site experience would not be as strong without it.”

But is this site as strong as it could be?

It’s time to face the critics and find out whether they’re haters or fans of Jay-Z’s latest effort in online marketing. Read on as Jeremy Davis, partner/creative director at Built By The Factory; Razorfish executive creative director Frederic Bonn; and Rashaun Hall, a former journalist turned digital marketing strategist who now serves as senior manager of digital marketing at Music Choice, drop their thoughts.

A symphony of black-and-white images of New York City and Jay-Z’s anthemic Empire State of Mind greet you when you arrive at the site. It makes me teary in a good way. Do you like the welcome?
Davis: I do. It’s extremely impactful and I really like the use of the large black-and-white images.
Hall: When sites automatically play music and don’t allow you to stop it, it can be a little discombobulating. But beyond that I thought it was a great front-door experience. I love the montage at the beginning. It’s reminiscent of his recent Empire State of Mind video with Alicia Keys.
Bonn: The first time I visited the site, I tried it on my iPad, and I was greeted with, “You need a Flash player to see the site,” so I was pretty much greeted with nothing.

Was it wrong to build this site in Flash?
Bonn:
The question is not whether you do a site in Flash or not. The question is, do you provide the access from any device? You have a lot of Flash sites that have alternate versions for iPad and for iPhone.
Hall: I’m of the opinion that as many touch points as possible are best.
Davis: With the iPad taking so much prominence in the market right now, I think they lost some of their audience. I’m not knocking the site. It’s a phenomenal site. I’m just saying we would have made sure it was iPad-compatible.

Do you think the design of the site is in line with Jay-Z’s aesthetic?
Hall:
Absolutely. He is very much a meticulous guy when it comes to his brand and how things that he is affiliated with work, even down to it being straight black and white and not being a lot of color. His video imagery has been like that over the last several years. It fits with his branding.
Davis: He has really strong branding and he’s really aware of what he’s doing in that sense and pays a lot of attention to the importance of the consistency of that branding, so this makes sense.
Bonn: There are some nice elements – the video introductions are nicely treated, the black-and-white photography is interesting. It works fine for me, but I wouldn’t say it’s the most beautifully designed site I’ve seen. It’s kind of simple and pretty straightforward.

The site offers a retrospective of Jay-Z’s career, breaking it down into four eras. Is the content compelling?
Hall:
Putting things in this chronological sense allows you to walk the path with him and if you’ve been a fan as long as I have, from the beginning, you get to reminisce and if you’re a younger fan of his, you get to discover new things.
Davis: This was definitely a creative approach to the content. The content was really stripped down and clean, so it was easy to use and easy to understand and navigate.

The site taps in to the already ongoing conversation about Jay-Z on Twitter, pulling the tweets into this site. You can also add your own thoughts. Was Twitter the best way to make this site social?
Bonn:
Everyone’s doing it now for promotion, especially for albums, putting Twitter everywhere you can, so their recognizing the ability for users to add their own voices is important, which is great.
Davis: The use of the equalizer was a really fun way to visualize Twitter on this site, but I would have liked it to be more obvious, because if you’re not interacting with the equalizer, it just looks like a bunch of bars.
Hall: I like that you can scroll through the tweets at your discretion and you’re allowed to go back and forth and respond to individual tweets as well as add your own tweet.

Ultimately, the site aims to get people to buy Jay-Z’s latest album, and, hopefully, spring for a more expensive package that includes limited edition headphones. But it is more of a celebration of Jay-Z’s career than a hard sell. Do you think that was a smart approach?
Davis:
[That an album was being sold] wasn’t the first thing that hit me, which is always a good thing. There are a lot of artist sites where you get there, and it’s a picture of the artist and a record in their hand. So and so’s Jesus Christ Superstar out now! Buy it at Amazon and iTunes! So I think it was good it wasn’t being shoved down your throat here. It is a really engaging, interesting, beautifully done site.
Bonn: It is a reminder of Jay-Z’s great songs, and I really like the integration of music and video, but I was expecting more, expecting to go deeper and be able to see more in terms of the level of content.
Hall: Given the difficult market in terms of selling albums, this is an innovative and fun way to opt people in to buying a product. I think the site is a success.