opinion byDREW MALMUTH
“Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.”
While it is becoming less defensible to criticize musicians for embracing commercialism, criticism is due when one of the best purveyors of hip-hop comes to embody commercialism more so than he does music. The way Jay-Z released Magna Carta... Holy Grail – by teaming with Samsung, selling a million copies before the album was even released, and releasing it via a specialized app – is troubling not because it was heavily commercialized, it's because the marketing process turned out to be more thoroughly thought out than the majority of the album's lyrics. He turned an album release into another way to flaunt his business prowess, to show the influence he has accrued in the professional world. But as Jay-Z has slowly become the most successful entrepreneur in hip-hop, his actual hip-hop music has become steadily less interesting. Magna Carta... Holy Grail is, above all else, a celebration of Jay-Z's success. But Rap is not about taking a victory lap; it's about people who can tell a story that actually feels like it means something.
Sonically, MCHG is the best collection of songs Jay has released since 2003's The Black Album. It's arguable that he never should have eschewed the spry, soulful production that has characterized most of his career. His flow seemed built for Bobby Bland's spunky guitar riffs or the timeless piano sample on “Feelin It.” But this album embraces the post-Hit-Boy rap aesthetic – beats filled with sub-bass, claps drenched in reverb, synths where samples used to be. Not the first choice for a traditionalist, but, in going for a more “of the moment” sound, things could have turned out substantially worse. Timbaland does a good job of making beats that sound good. Rather than compressing every track beyond recognition, there is a actually an effort to space the mix and create arrangements that are worth paying attention to. “Picasso Baby,” for all its lyrical inadequacies, is a hypnotic production that weaves an odd assortment of layers (laser synths, indecipherable female voices, eery background singing) into a snarling beat. “JAY Z Blue” takes overused string synths and, by dropping them out as if a needle is falling off a record, turns them into an inventive part of the harmony. These sonic flourishes (and Frank Ocean) add pockets of excitement that make the album entirely listenable; but they can't obscure the suffocating sense of pointless that drapes itself over MCHG.
The album often feels like the equivalent of a lazy student sitting smugly in class while his teacher screams “do you even want to be here?” It's not that Jay-Z has become more boastful – he has always rapped with exceeding arrogance – it's that he has lost that sense of conflict that gave his lyricism energy. On “D'evils” he rapped about turning on a friend: “the closest of friends when we first started/ we grew apart as the money grew/ soon grew black hearted/ thinkin' back when we first learned to use rubbers/ he never learned so in turn I'm kidnappin his baby's mother.” Not only are these bars exceptionally structured (filled with cadence switches and internal rhymes), they are reflective of something personal, difficult, and troubling. His rhymes on Reasonable Doubt were unsettling and even deplorable in various ways, but they dripped with a sense of purpose and told the kinds of stories that inspire young hip-hop heads (myself included) to pour over lyrics sheets. The lyrics were released early for MCHG, but did anyone really pay attention?
It's unfair to begrudge Jay-Z for being wealthy, but consistently reminding your listeners of their inadequacy is not only lame, it's stylistically boring. He takes the knocking beats on “Tom Ford” and “F.U.T.W.” and seemingly makes an effort to plug his entire wardrobe. This is par for the course in the case of most rappers but Shawn Carter should be held to a higher standard. On the MCHG commercial he tells Rick Rubin the album is about, “like this duality of how do you navigate through this whole things, through success, through failures, through all this and remain yourself.” As soon as he said it was about something, implying there was a narrative, he was already lying. It's true, songs like “Heaven” (a lyrically intricate, albeit awkward take on religion) and “JAY Z Blue” (the album's only sincere window into fatherhood) gives one a sense that Jay-Z still has things in his life other than Basquiats and having sex with Beyonce. The question is why those elements of struggle and difficulty didn't form the crux of the album's narrative structure. When a song called “Somewhereinamerica” begins and that fantastic, soulful piano line kicks in one wouldn't be wrong to expect Jay-Z to rap coherently about something relevant to the country's ills. Instead we get tone deaf celebrations of ostentatiousness and Jay's creepy giggling at the thought of Miley Cyrus twerking.
In a classic episode of MTV Cribs, Redman gives a tour of his very unimpressive house in Staten Island. He talks about why he still lives in his old neighborhood, saying that it “gives him a feeling...that [he] can move up.” It raises the question: is it more difficult to be creative once you've achieved a certain level of success. As Redman would probably attest, it depends on your relationship with what you've achieved. Jay-Z is comfortable as an inordinately wealthy business mogul and he seems to have very few reasons to be unhappy. It's a remarkable personal achievement; but it still makes for bland rap music. Beyond some excellent beats and a few flashes of lyrical prowess, Magna Carta... Holy Grail doesn't invite the kind of intrigue that Jay-Z is capable of. He spends the whole album reminding us that he is the center of attention but by about halfway through most people will be doing something else. [B-]