Rating:Victory has defeated Jay-Z. The drug dealer turned rapper turned mogul’s career is an American success story to a nearly mythical degree, like a Horatio Alger fable with a lot more guns and crack rock. And while Jay-Z has always manipulated his public image to a degree normally only seen in the most successful of political spin doctors, he finally seems to be trapped by it. Whereas his ascent to the top of the rap game, then to popular music, then to popular culture as a whole has often been his subject matter, on his latest release Magna Carta…Holy Grail, it’s essentially his only subject matter. Rather than controlling the image of massive success and hardscrabble street roots that made him a star, his 12th studio album shows him as unable to see anything beyond it.
The strange thing about Magna Carta is that Jay-Z seems unaware of this. No one gets to the stature of Shawn Carter without being a master judge of trend and self-image, but for once, he doesn’t seem to get that what he projects is not something that can be related to by the average fan or even aspired to. The 16 tracks on the album show him in a strange juxtaposition: boastful of his immense status but unaware that the boasts are no longer what matters. Everyone knows Jay-Z is the king of hip-hop. He’s been so for so long that discussing it is even a moot subject, yet it’s by far the chief topic of his lyrics. Although his relationships with wife Beyoncé (who appears on “Part II (On the Run)”) and daughter Blue (who merits being the subject of “Jay Z Blue”) are brought up periodically, the majority of the album is devoted to Jay-Z’s opinion that he is the best rapper/businessman/business around. And without any true rivals, it’s not exactly a hollow boast, but it’s almost increasingly devoid of meaning.
Fortunately, while Jay-Z’s own understanding of what makes him a compelling figure appears to be stuck in a self-congratulatory loop from around the time of The Black Album, he has retained his taste in collaborators. As a result, Magna Carta frequently sounds great, with production work by The-Dream, Timbaland, J-Roc and Pharrell Williams among others. In addition, the album features guest turns by a slew of brilliant performers, including the aforementioned Mrs. Carter, Justin Timberlake, Frank Ocean, Rick Ross, Miguel and even Jay-Z’s former nemesis Nas. None of them contribute any verses that are spectacular enough to merit real note, but they all acquit themselves well, particularly against Hov himself. While his lyrical skills are calcifying, his actual flow appears to be fully intact, frequently utilizing the rapid fire, word-peppering style he made his trademark.
Previous to the album’s much touted Samsung-only release, it was revealed that Magna Carta would include lyrical nods to Nirvana and R.E.M, which true enough it does. But frankly, so what? Quotations from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Losing My Religion,” two of the most iconic rock hits of the 1990s, feels like Jay-Z attempting to squeeze a little more juice out of the reaction to his snotty “Wonderwall” cover at Glastonbury, and that was in 2008. Neither are even particularly integrated into the songs (respectively “Holy Grail” and “Heaven”) as the Weeknd did to great effect on their first release, more just haphazardly thrown into the mix, as if Jay-Z is saying, “Hey, look what I’m doing.” Similarly, lifting a Biggie line from “My Downfall” (as well as sampling his voice) to use as a chorus in “Jay Z Blue” is so poorly thought out in its subtext as to be mystifying, and not in a good way.
On his most recent album, the excellent Life Is Good, Nas (whose verse on “BBC” is a highlight here) mused “I shouldn’t even be smiling, I should be angry and depressed/ I been rich longer than I been broke, I confess.” It was a moment of self-awareness that is sorely lacking on Magna Carta, in which the Queensbridge rapper acknowledged that success was no longer a goal that could simply be measured in dollars and boasts. For perhaps the first time in his career, Jay-Z is caught behind the times, failing to understand that the accumulation of money and the flaunting of it is no longer a means to itself. For all of the technical prowess behind Magna Carta, it’s simply an album without much behind the surface.