Sunday, September 8, 2013

Jay-Z: Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)


This is kinda bad, but kinda not. Its main crime is being pretty much just what you'd expect a modern Jay-Z record to sound like. That is to say, it's the sound of music that one makes when one is in the middle of supervising several global empires, raising a family of superheroes, probably creating fragrances and fashion lines and producing a new version of Metropolis or something I don't fuckin' know, and then getting a conference call from President Obama, Stephen Hawking, Prince and the ghost of Steve Jobs who are all like "Jay, you should make a new album" and Jay is like "lol sure why not." So he goes down to his glass-encased $400 billion chamber full of gold bars that doubles as a recording studio and expends whatever energy he might have to prove he's still a motherfucker, only he kinda doesn't have to because being the most famous person in the world just about everybody knows that so instead he trolls everyone by rhyming "Kubrick" with "hubris" and "two bricks" and saying shit like "my brothers is my brother like my brother is," I think that's what he said.

Thing is it's Paul McCartney syndrome because Jay-Z is a mogul, a superstar, so much more than an entertainer. He's a living icon and he really, completely and totally doesn't have to record a new album for you. If he does, it's largely just to give some statisticians somewhere the ability to say "yes, there he is, still in the pop music marketplace," keeping a foot in, just in case at some point that becomes really important to the guy again. Not that music was only Jay's ticket to the top, but his power and widespread influence make the music he's choosing to write and release kind of redundant. Who the fuck is going to push him to do something crazy or really adventurous, and why should he unless he has the impulse? Magna Carta is an obligatory business decision, something for the year-end tax return, and try as I might, I can't really see a problem with that except that it's a pretty limp listening experience.

It's really not that he is lazy or his performance here is bad, just that it doesn't matter. The relatively relaxed Watch the Throne was a hit to the jugular compared to this, and the contrast of this album to fellow Throne sitter Kanye West's Yeezus is dramatic. West is a chronic fuckup and contrarian who wants to get into people's faces; Jay-Z at this point is just riding high. Even though he's in nearly every sense a more skilled rapper and more consummate performer than West (has anyone contributed more to the modern American vernacular, seriously?), the guy's not interested in taking Yeezus-styled risks. No doubt he could compose a fully chilled-down treasure with little effort. Sadly, the record we get just seems like the compromise of, well, a guy who works in the upstairs office; striving to please the far-ranging audience he's collected, whose tastes and needs vary as broadly as those of any top-level pop performer at this point, he ends up signifying not much at all. He has so much more to lose than West does, or at least he acts like it, and that's our loss.

It's also politics, and capitalism, in action. He can still buy a beat, the best money can buy; he can make the marketing of his record -- released automatically to your cell phone or something if you have a certain plan, fuck all if I have any clue about that stuff -- a bigger story than its content, and he can make it a risk-free investment for all concerned, which I'm sure is lots of people. Again, sounds like I'm being a cynic but I don't blame him a bit. But if he'd only go all the way with this, like he does on the throttling cut "Part II (On the Run)," featuring some singer he married a few years back, and as he did on parts of The Blueprint III: just go for it, man, make a fucking unabashedly slick and showboaty pop album and drop the half-hearted "Juicy"-baiting we-used-to-eat-government-cheese-and-now-we-have-a-Sega-Genesis stuff, and the FBI paranoia and being the "head / o' the / fami-LEE." And maybe smarten up the boasting past "Said I'd never sell a million records / I sold a million records like a million times," which isn't exactly Muddy Waters; good at math, indeed.

But who am I to tell Jay-Z what to talk about? Nobody, that's who. And the glimpses into the guy's life are frankly pretty absorbing. He watches Homeland, loves his wife, rambles a lot, never stuck his cock in the fox's box (or so he says), and probably listens to very cheesy guitar music if "Picasso Baby" is any clue. He's also cheekier and more modest than his blustery lyrics still pretend to, or else it's unlikely he'd take a mumbled back seat to Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, and Rick Ross (who does not justify the center stage with one of his more idiotic verses), or give the floor in the first seconds of the album to the overwrought sounds of fellow top-of-the-world entrepreneur Justin Timberlake. Can't wait to see 'em together on Jack Paar.

Of course, what Jay-Z deems worthy of our attention sometimes suggests that there aren't a lot of people around saying no to him, including himself, but maybe I'm just tone-deaf and "fuck that shit y'all talkin' 'bout / I'm your nigga" is a good way to assert your first album in four years. Maybe warbling along to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (throw that money where it counts), basically inviting everyone into your probably spotless car with Nevermind in the aux plug while you sing in a traffic jam, wait do you even drive, is kind of a homey and charming thing and not as annoying as it seems. I mean, "Holy Grail" is terrible and great and kind of a rollercoaster and that's a stunt in its way, like having a song that sounds like Baha Men ("BBC") and one whose chorus is "Tom Ford / Tom Ford." Maybe it's just fun to goof off on a break from your day job.

w/ Kanye West: Watch the Throne (2011)

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