By Ian Cory
Shawn Carter is in a truly unique position. There is no rapper that has remained as commercially successful and culturally relevant for as long as he has. Every style that he built his fortress with – the Mafioso rap of Reasonable Doubt, the shiny suits of the late 90’s, the soul sample revival of The Blueprint – has fallen away, but Hova has remained. Not only has he persevered but he has grown. He’s been married happily since 2008, and has stayed out of the public eye for the last few years to help raise his daughter. So what does it mean for a rapper to be the undisputed king for this long? We can watch the throne, but only Jay-Z has to sit on it and bear the weight of that question among a variety of others. To help him sort it out he’s assembled the best hip-hop producers and beat makers that money can buy, ranging from old stalwarts like Timbaland and Pharrell, to rising stars like Mike Will Made It. The resulting album, Magna Carta... Holy Grail is a slick modern record, but its attempts to solve the conundrum of Jay-Z’s place in the world almost universally fall flat.
It’s likely that this varied and highly professional sound was meant to serve as a backdrop for Jay-Z while he explored more mature and complex themes. With a few exceptions, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. While his newfound fatherhood does find its way into his lyrics, Carter’s family life only appears as a flavor in the broth of usual Jay-Z subjects, i.e. wealth, his past as a drug dealer, his skill as an MC, and art appreciation. Blue Ivy is mentioned in passing as a way of establishing how little Jay-Z cares about damaging his priceless art, and Beyonce is brought up as a testament to how high he’s risen in society*. The repetition of old topics wouldn’t matter too much if it weren’t for the lazy execution of the actual performance. Although it’s been over a decade since Jay-Z has even attempted to match the dizzying swirl of his early flow, he is especially sluggish on MCHG. Too often he’ll cut his verses into simple one-bar patterns, each punctuated by a short “UH”. Any additional syllables are crammed in with no regards to symmetry or any overarching rhythmic scheme. What makes this all so much worse by comparison is that when he does approach a topic with more gravity, like the spiritual confusion of “Heaven” his flow improves by leaps and bounds. The fact of the matter is that when Jay-Z feels like he has something to prove, he’ll spare no effort to prove it. On both of the tracks featuring guest rappers (Rick Ross and former rival Nas) Jay-Z reverts back to his unrelenting double time. But instead of just saving his writing for the songs that matter, Carter wastes everyone’s time with corny punch lines about tumblr and hashtags.
There’s simply no way of avoiding it; hearing Jay-Z rap about instagram or quote the “ain’t nobody got time for that” meme brings to mind one of my friends' parents trying to use Facebook. I don’t think it’s fair to lay all of this onto Jay-Z’s age; he’s only 43, perhaps old for Hip-Hop but not for art as a whole. Sure there are numerous examples of musicians losing their drive in the third decade of their career; the Scott Walker model of artistic growth isn’t unheard of either. The difference comes down to the artists who let their art grow and mature with them, without feeling trapped by their past or hamstrung by trying to keep up with the younger generation. Magna Carta... Holy Grail certainly isn’t as embarrassing as other attempts to stay relevant (see: the new Iggy & The Stooges) it is a missed opportunity. Jay-Z could have written the new rules about how to age gracefully in a youth dominated genre. Instead we got a king stuck on his throne as the world begins to leave monarchy behind.
*As much as I love Jay-Z and Beyonce as a power couple, I hope I’m not the only one who gets kind of weirded out by how consistently Hov raps about her as if she were a trophy wife instead one of the most talented pop stars on earth.