Review Summary: The death of Jay-Z
The most endearing image from the Watch the Throne
era comes in the “Otis” music video. With the American flag as a backdrop, Kanye West has his arm, adorned with an icy watch, around Jay-Z, who rocks a thousand-watt grin and his trademark Yankees cap. It’s a symbol of unity and mutual respect; two titans of hip-hop, forever in each other’s debt, sitting at the apex of their genre, living their version of the American dream. Since then, it’s been hard to mention one without considering the other, so we won’t.
Magna Carta… Holy Grail
is nothing like Yeezus
and a huge difference is that, while Kanye was criticized for tarnishing the message of his earlier material, Jay refuses to forget the past. His boasts are followed by throwbacks to his days on the streets, perhaps acknowledging the resonance of his music in the Reasonable Doubt
days compared to what it is now. Instead of finding a new edge or using his prominence to make a point, he sounds content brushing off his wealth and recycling lines about MC Hammer with the polish of someone who has too good an understanding of what sells. Thus, the line “I sold a million records like a million times” has true resonance: Jay’s business chops that started Roc-a-Fella Records (and sold a million records of Magna Carta to Samsung before it was officially released) also motivate his rhymes.
It’s futile to argue artistic integrity, but not when it sounds as manufactured as this. The official album trailer was a good indication of what to expect as Jay, Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, Pharrell and Rick Rubin sit around the studio in a round-table of established names. Each has been involved in the hit parade for the last decade or more, as have guest performers Beyonce and Justin Timberlake. For his part, Timbaland contributes an incredibly solid string of beats, especially the explosive “Picasso Baby” which was featured in the trailer, but it’s nothing that challenges the status quo like his work on Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience
did. The contributions from everyone else aren’t immediately noticeable, although the Pharrell-produced “Oceans” has a nice feels to it, thanks to young gun Frank Ocean, whose falsetto will forever add flavor to even the blandest dish.
What stands out most about Magna Carta…Holy Grail
’s homogeneity is its lack of urgency. If Kanye is Yeezus, then Jay truly is his artificer, discussing his many watches and cars in a way someone of lesser wealth would talk about their refrigerator. Even when Blue Ivy is name-dropped, egregiously often, her father sounds weary, like her wails awoke him at 3 AM the morning he recorded. All sense of hunger and purpose from his hustling days are gone even though we hear about them constantly. The fact of the matter is Jay-Z is no longer a hustler, he’s barely even a rapper; he’s a father, a husband, an agent, as mentioned on “Crown,” and a businessman, rapping only when he can collect his posse at the Parthenon.
was created by a slew of guests too, but they were a whole different breed (although Rubin, Frank Ocean and Travi$ $cott were involved in both projects). Instead of Swizz on the beat, it’s TNGHT producer Hudson Mohawke; it’s not Timberlake as the hook-man, it’s Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Kanye created an innovative work by incorporating many industry newcomers, rising stars and his staple inner circle to draw on an underappreciated facet of production and did it with the conviction that had him proclaiming himself a God. The contributions from industry staples might have sold Jay-Z another truckload of CDs, but the finished product is barely worthy of the HOVA name.
What Jay-Z has created in 2013 is the hip-hop version of the Ringling Brothers circus, giving us the same show every time but with a shinier veneer which will probably delight those who thought Yeezus
was hip-hop sacrilege. This time around, it seems more obvious that he’s a pitchman, if it’s possible to be more obvious than his Budweiser-sponsored comeback Kingdom Come
. Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter is certainly the greatest of all time, not for his skills on the microphone, but because for his mark on the music industry. Anyone with a Samsung phone could have heard this before I did on Independence Day- perhaps the “Otis” flag was foreshadowing- and has already changed the way the RIAA classifies album sales. This is just the latest innovation from the man on the throne, but he might have been too busy signing Kevin Durant to notice.