Jay-Z has ascended all the barriers that rap stars fall into. He hangs out with the president, performs at Carnegie Hall, and writes best selling books that legitimize the entire genre. He’s married to the queen of pop and has sired the most important musical heir in the history of music. He is the embodiment of the american dream, a rags to riches story set in the 21st century. He’s not a business man, he’s a business, man. J. Hova has evolved beyond the rap game, so why does he keep making music? With Magna Carta Holy Grail, his 13th number one album (only The Beatles have more), Jay-Z pushes his case for relevancy.
Many people don’t like Jay-Z. Even though his reputation as the G.O.A.T. has been cemented in recent years, he’s been written off as a has-been. Rap has always been a young man’s game and it’s hard to rap with hunger when you’ve accomplished everything. As Andre 3000 says, “I used to be a way better writer and a rapper when I used to want a black Karmann Ghia.” The more common critique of Jay-Z, and the most popular dismissal of this album and his recent work, is his success is alienating. Rappers have always boasted about material wealth, but Jigga takes it to a whole other level. Popping bottles on a yacht is one thing, but going ham at the auction isn’t resonant at all. Where other rappers are fun, Jay-Z is smug and elitist. I’m not sure why the 1% raps have become so stigmatized in the critical world for Hov but for every other rapper it’s ok. The lightning rod for this album has been the infamous Samsung marketing deal. He sold a million copies of Magna Carta to Samsung who gave it away for free to the first million people who downloaded an exclusive app. A lot of people were offended by the corporate synergy that Jay-Z represented, how he was co-opting the extensive internet culture that Hip Hop had developed in the past decade, and how he was gaming the system. And that’s what all the reviews zeroed in on, how Jay-Z had become out of touch with the common man and that his album and the way it was sold exemplifies that.
Magna Carta Holy Grail isn’t a great album, but it is a fun one. In the rush to defame the album, everyone missed the good parts. Timbaland handles the majority of the production and boy does he do a good job. Timbaland had been in a rut for a while and it looks like 2013 is his reawakening. He constructs mini pop kaleidoscopes for Hov to fall into. The beats all have an ambition to them. The plodding keys of “Picasso Baby” transform into swirling guitars and “F.U.T.W.” alternates between shimmers of piano and floating horns. Other guest producers add on to the luxurious soundscape that Timbaland sets. Boi-1da’s “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” broods and swirls while Rick Ross stomps around in probably his best appearance of the year, and Mike Will Made It’s “Beach Is Better” only lasts for a minute but has enough power to destroy the world (seriously, if Jay-Z is smart he’ll put out a 5 minute remix with a new verse from him, and add in Kanye and 2 Chainz. Track of the year). And standout “Somewhere In America,” courtesy of Hit-Boy is the best track that never appeared on the Great Gatsby soundtrack, all swing and jive.
The album that warrants comparison to Magna Carta isn’t from Kanye or any other rapper; it’s Timbaland’s other baby The 20/20 Experience. Timbo started his bid for MVP this year with Justin Timberlake’s comeback album and there’s a lot of similarities. Album statements over singles, “grown-up” sophisticated pop music, unusual track times. Jay-Z and JT are working together, on tour together, have features on each others albums, and they’re both trying very hard to sell a classy image that they like art and wear tuxedos. If there’s any general theme on Magna Carta, it’s this image. Jay-Z really likes Picasso and Basquiat. He doesn’t pop molly, he rocks Tom Ford suits. He wants people to let him be great. Lyrically, the album doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it just synthesizes elements of his past two records. Jigga combines the The Blueprint 3’s rap chart assimilation with Watch The Throne‘s Horatio Alger tale. He’s either thoughtfully reflecting on his fame and fortune, or reveling in it.
There are deep moments. Jay-Z contemplates how far he’s made it compared to his ancestors while Frank Ocean serenades him on “Oceans.” “Jay Z Blue” is a letter to his daughter and doesn’t shy away from his fears of being a father. But the thing that’s been downplayed about Hov is his ability to change up the flow and have fun, and he does that more on this album than any of his other late period releases. He didn’t become famous because he could rap pound for pound like Nas; it was his flow and versatility, his ability to hop on trends right at the moment they teetered over into popular consciousness. “Tom Ford” does just that, hopping on a EDM jacking “Molly” beat while undermining the current popularity of the form at the same time. Using a song’s structure to juxtapose a message is something that other rappers do too (even underground favorites like Freddie Gibbs and Danny Brown), but I don’t care about the purpose. I like how Jay stretches out the words in the chorus, how he growls and you can hear his face scrunch up when he talks about how everyone is sweet. I like Beyonce, instead of having a credited normal boring singing part, simply swags out over the chorus echoing her husbands sentiments. Yes Jay-Z has lost a step, yes he’s not as good as he once was, yes he adds in a few too many “uhs” to fill pauses, but he still is miles above other mainstream rappers. And it’s fun to hear him use his skills to have fun. And he still flexes when he wants to. “Heaven” is the best track on the album, where he combines his playful delivery with a more in depth topic. He confronts the illuminati discourse surrounding him and scoffs it away, smoking hashish with his fellowship while everyone points fingers at him. “These are not 16’s these are verses from the bible, tell the preacher he’s a preacher, I’m a motherfuckin prophet, smoke a tree of knowledge.” Just nasty.
Magna Carta Holy Grail isn’t great. For all the high points of the album, there are a lot of moments where it feels stuffy and boring. It’s so frustrating to hear Beyonce and Justin Timberlake, the two best pop singers of their generation, used for such maudlin tracks like “On The Run (Part II)” and “Holy Grail.” There’s no cohesion to the album. It doesn’t have Watch The Throne‘s grandeur, The Blueprint 3‘s commercial power, American Gangster’s story concept, or even Kingdom Come‘s gimmick. I suppose that’s why everyone latched on to the Samsung deal; it was the only thing to hold on to. But this is just a regular album that certainly didn’t deserve the scorn that has been piled on it as of late. As Hov says himself “Even my old fans like ‘old man just stop,’ I could if I would but I can’t I’m hot.” Just listen and enjoy what you can, because somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerking and Jigga man will be performing at the MoMA.