Jay-Z: Magna Carta…Holy Grail

Music Reviews Jay-Z
Jay-Z: Magna Carta…Holy Grail

It’s not that people hate the super-rich; it’s that they don’t like the isolation that being super-rich signifies. One rap catchphrase of the moment is “no new friends.” Complacency is the new 30. As my colleague Al Shipley pointed out on Twitter, Jay loves to haze new producers, squeezing under a minute of current MVP Mike Will Made It in for “Beach Is Better” without letting him trademark-tag the intro with his name. Justin Timberlake and Frank Ocean are brought out and paraded just like Jay’s Basquiat collection, as tasteful knick-knacks, in two of the album’s least compelling moments.

But there’s a cute little loophole in Jay’s too-rich album: the super-rich don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. This means there are flaws. This means there are interesting parts. For one, he has no idea what a rap song sounds like in 2013, sort of to his credit considering the album wholly avoids Eurosynths and sweeping Autotune, sounds that even ushers Daft Punk are sick of. There’s nearly boom-bap on the bassline cruncher “Picasso Baby,” diet-Neptunes cave-clang on “Tom Ford” and Macklemore-nodding horns on “Somewhere in America” with Premier-style piano plinks. There are samples from Mommie Dearest and Biggie that sound like they were taped off the TV. There’s a tribute to his daughter Blue Ivy, “Jay Z Blue,” that contains the word “fuck” more than once, and the defeated admission “I need a joint right now,” over one of Jay’s most disturbing beats in years, a menacing glint a la Ghostface’s “Mighty Healthy.” We get the deluded “F.U.T.W.” as if Jay could fuck up the world if he wanted, or that he ever would. Unlike Kanye’s flawed opus, Jay’s never broken a rule in his life except for maybe when he bodied Cristal champagne for cryptoracism against the rap community. He’s a master of playing by the rules and winning the game. This album’s a tribute to winning fair and square.

Emphasis on the square: a meditation on “Heaven” sets off the album’s most interesting stretch. The best moment goes to Beyonce’s “Part II (On the Run)” chorus, where she denounces the power couple’s own love story as “a toast to clichés in a dark past” over dizzy, diving synths. “Versus” and “Beach Is Better” have a stylish, if rehashed thump to them, while the Nas reunion “BBC” takes the de-funked Latin bells and whistles from Timberlake’s own lukewarm LP and improves on it. And Nas sums up the album itself: “My whole life is leisure.”

The thing is, it’s not that listeners can’t connect to Jigga’s art-collecting on “Picasso Baby” or suits on “Tom Ford;” it’s that we expect more from anyone with that much access. On Watch the Throne, there was a sense of competition, that Jay needed his “Five passports, never going to jail” lest Kanye steal the crown. The title of that project was about the paranoia necessary to keep the fight in these guys. And The Blueprint 3 knew what it was doing too: the beats were more hi-tech (“Off That,” “On to the Next One”) and hooks more blatant (“Young Forever,” “Run This Town”) at the same time. “Venus vs. Mars” had something funny left to say about gender. “Empire State of Mind” had something passionate to yell at the Yankees.

What are we expecting from Jay-Z at this point though? Excitement? Certainly not another Manchurian crime memory like American Gangster. This is by far Hova’s most casual record; he could’ve called it Shrugging in Luxury. It’s interesting, but it’s never happy, sad, angry or romantic. It’s not even overly smug. The egregious lines will sink into history and casual admirers (who are now coming out of the woodwork) will need excuses to listen to it by the end of the year. This suits a record fine that would rather be placed in a museum than pulled out for recreation.

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