Jay-Z's quest for brilliance in 'Magna Carta, Holy Grail'

Posted: July 10, 2013

It's no secret that Jay-Z thinks highly of himself.

Long before Kanye West declared "I Am a God" on his new album Yeezus, Jay-Z, the rapper and entertainment mogul born Shawn Carter, embraced the nickname "Hova," short for Jay-hova. His one-word job description on Twitter is "Genius." And his new album, which became available to owners of the Samsung Galaxy smartphone on July 4 and to everyone else Tuesday, is called Magna Carta Holy Grail (Roc-A-Fella ***).

Boasting, of course, is de rigueur in rap. It'd be hard to think of an MC who would nothave reacted as Jay-Z did when he stood on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art last year to announce his inaugural Budweiser Made in America festival, and a fan called out "You're the best, Hov!"

His succinct reply: "I agree."

(MIA happens again this Labor Day weekend, with Jay's wife Beyoncé headlining, with Nine Inch Nails.)

But what makes Jay-Z unique is that he's been on top for so long. The 43-year-old rhymer released his first album, Reasonable Doubt, in 1996, and he'd ascended to superstar status by the time of Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life in 1998.

Since then, his theme has essentially remained the same: I came from the streets - the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn - and I used the skills acquired while dealing drugs there to forge a career so successful that you have no choice but to envy me.

Or, as he puts it in Magna Carta's "Picasso Baby," a song that smartly samples rising producer Adrian Younge, compares Beyoncé favorably to the Mona Lisa, and indulges his interest in modern art with references to Mark Rothko, Jeff Koons, and Jean-Michel Basquiat: "Let's make love on a million, in a dirty hotel / With the fan on the ceiling, all for the love of drug dealing."

The challenge for Jay-Z artistically is to make music and tell stories that are compelling even as he observes life from the loftiest of perches. There's no questioning his business acumen - although the much-hyped deal with Samsung hardly has turned out to be a genius marketing move. Selling a million copies at $5 a pop to a cellphone company certainly created the desired media hubbub, but it backfired on two levels.

First, Billboard decided it wasn't going to count those million Magna Carta copies as sales. (The Recording Industry Association of America disagreed, and granted Magna instant platinum status.)

Second, the Magna app has been criticized for being invasive. Users have to give it permission to access their personal data. Critics have included teenage rapper Chief Keef and New York Times critic Jon Pareles. One tech-savvy Samsung-using Hova-fan associate I queried, however, characterized it as more "annoying" than "evil."

Enough of the business. What about the music?

The first voice heard on Magna Carta belongs not to Jay-Z but to Justin Timberlake, his partner in the Legends of the Summer tour, which comes to Hershey Park Stadium Aug. 4 and Citizens Bank Park Aug. 13. The Timbaland-produced track "Holy Grail" is jarring at first. Timberlake seems to be sweetly singing about a woman - "One day you're screaming you love me loud/ The next day you're so cold" - while Jay tries to say something fresh about whether it's worth it to be famous, when paparazzi follow you and your daughter Blue Ivy around.

It turns out that JT's hook is about fame, too, and the Holy Grail in question is the cup of success that just might turn out to be poison, as it was for Kurt Cobain.

The song, which rephrases some lyrics from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," is a complicated opener. But it gets Magna Carta off on the right foot, setting an intermittently introspective mood that pops up among bangers, boasts, and brand-name-dropping. (There's even a track called "Tom Ford," in which it is revealed that Jay-Z would rather dress up in a suit and tie than gobble fistfuls of ecstasy, as many young upstarts might do.)

The album has more than its share of intriguing tracks. On the Pharrell Williams-produced "Oceans," the Magna magnate sails off the coast of Africa in a yacht, contemplating the route his ancestors took to America on slave ships. Its lush chorus is sung by Frank Ocean. And save for the umpteenth reference to Basquiat - Jay-Z really wants you to know he owns high-priced art - the track is full of pained, poignant, beautifully wrought imagery. "I hope this black skin don't dirt this white tuxedo," Ocean sings. "This water drowned my family, this water mixed my blood/ This water tells my story, this water knows it all."

Like many a 16-track album in a no-attention-span age, Magna Carta goes on too long. After an energetic start, it gets bogged down in murky soundscapes, starting with "Crown," produced by 16-year-old Canadian producer WondaGurl. In "Crown," Jay-Z, now a sports agent to boot, picks a fight with baseball mover and shaker Scott Boras.

As a cohesive statement, Magna Carta doesn't hold up to West's confrontational Yeezus, which for all its flaws is the sound of an impulsive auteur following his instincts. In keeping with the Watch the Throne duo's contrasting personalities, Magna Carta is a more measured crowd-pleaser. But while it's by no means a masterpiece that can measure up to its pompous title, the album still shows that Jay is expert at changing up his flow to fit state-of-the-art beat-makers. And he's a top-shelf lyricist when engaged in topics he cares about, such as parenthood or aiming to become a black billionaire.

In any case, Magna Carta accomplishes what it sets out to do. It loudly announces that its oft-distracted creator is back in the business of making music. And it supplies a clutch of likely-to-be-hits. "Holy Grail," the ebullient party-starter "BBC," and a rugged Rick Ross collaboration whose title cannot be printed attest to Jay-Z's continued relevance, and knack for staying on top.

Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.inquirer.com/inthemix.

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