Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne was introduced by Frank Ocean parsing the respective qualities of gods and kings. Two years later, both rappers have new solo albums that expound on the distinction. Kanye infamously proclaimed “I Am a God” on Yeezus; you could either gape in awe or call it heresy, but you couldn’t doubt his conviction. And just as the brutal and blasphemous Yeezus is true to its title, Magna Carta…Holy Grail offers a jumbled juxtaposition of the regal and divine– hear Jay-Z gasp “You in the presence of a king/ Scratch that, you in the presence of a god” on “Crown”. It’s one of the few lines here that scans as wishful thinking. The album is a celebration of unlimited financial privilege and power that even used its literally game-changing release as a Samsung Galaxy app to separate Jay-Z’s fans into haves and have-nots. Only a small subset could acquire Magna Carta Holy Grail on its release date, and it seems safe to say that fewer still will relate to it in a meaningful way.
Which is problematic, since here the “voice of the young people” seems bent on addressing the public. “I ball so hard on ESPN/ See my name come across CNN/ About six minutes you gonna see it again,” he later claims on “Crown”. Between his newborn daughter, budding sports agency, political controversies, and his equally famous wife, Magna Carta has the most personal material to work with since The Black Album. But the songs rarely go deep. On “Picasso Baby”, Jay boasts “House like the Louvre or the Tate Modern/ Because I be goin’ ape at the auction.” I doubt he meant it to be “Poppin’ Tags” for the Sotheby’s set– a vulgar display of net worth that puts him in the tax bracket of shipping magnates and NBA owners– but it comes across as a context and appraisal-free recitation of famous names, a Winner’s History of Modern Art.
The same can be said of the collaborators. Like The 20/20 Experience, the latest album from his Legends of the Summer tourmate Justin Timberlake, Magna is a hedge-betting, black-tie/Black Card affair that’s not just an account of luxury, but an accessory to it. Marquee names Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell, Timberlake, Beyoncé, and Nas all lend their talents– and all appear on “BBC”. The money isn’t totally wasted, as these are some of the stranger beats Jay’s rapped over in some time. Witness the contorted, metallic pings of “Tom Ford”, “Somewhereinamerica”’s drunken ragtime horns, or the codeine-laced, dubby “Crown”. Jay is at least trying to interact with a hip-hop mainstream that has evolved a great deal since his last true solo album, though relegating the production of reigning MVP Mike Will Made It to a one-minute interlude (“Beach Is Better”) smacks of unintended elitism.
At its best, Magna is a record that only a 43-year-old Jay-Z could make. “Heaven” is the most thought-provoking spiritual meditation he’s written, and the willful misreading of “Losing My Religion” is used to powerful effect. “Jay-Z Blue” ruminates on the responsibilities and cyclical pathologies of fatherhood with warmth and self-doubt rather than the bitterness that marked what had previously been his most family-minded LP, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. But Jay also manifests a worst case scenario for “dad-rap.” Twelve albums in, he’s still Muhammad Ali, he’s Michael Jackson, he’s Michael Jordan, he’s Frank Sinatra– the latter is the most deflating comparison, if only because Jay-Z is using him as a prop for yet another lyric about how he did it “my way.” As tedious as these hoary references can be, it’s worse when Magna Carta dabbles in contemporary name-drops and Jay-Z becomes Jay Leno– mentions of Homeland, Instagram, Scott Boras, and Miley Cyrus’ twerkin’ incident bomb like failed monologue jokes between idle chatter.
Unlike Watch the Throne, Jay-Z lacks a foil to bring out an emotional or sociological underpinning, someone to help Magna Carta resonate beyond “look at my shit.” Timberlake is in “my name is Bob and I work at my job” mode during the laughably overblown “Holy Grail”, cycling through every tortured artist cliché short of a crucifixion metaphor. And as bad as the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” interpolation reads on paper, once you hear JT and Jay-Z duet on “and we all just entertainers/ And we’re stupid and contagious,” the Nirvana song becomes just another forgettable status symbol. And where Kurt Cobain felt compromised by his fame, Jay and Timberlake are doing everything in their power not to offend the money people– whether it’s Samsung, Target, or someone dropping $250 to see them at the Rose Bowl.
Jay-Z rapping about the incomprehensible awesomeness of his life is nothing new, and the corporate synergy is hardly a novelty: The Black Album doubled as a retirement party, Kingdom Come was launched by a Budweiser commercial, American Gangster coincided with a Hollywood blockbuster of the same name, and, in hindsight, Blueprint 3 was made with full knowledge that Jay-Z would be Coachella’s first hip-hop headliner. He’s a businessman and a business, man. After all, while Samsung shelled out seven figures for exclusive access to the Jay-Z brand, Shawn Carter was the guy signing the contract and cashing the check. But the best of those joint ventures seemed determined to reach a new audience and create a connection. The weirdly distant and safe Magna Carta Holy Grail abides by the tried and true business principle that the customer is always right: you just have to remember who the customer is here.