Premature Evaluation: Jay-Z Magna Carta Holy Grail
Jay-Z has compared himself to a lot of people in his decades-long career: Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson on “Niggas In Paris,” before that “Biggie in his prime” on the disturbingly prescient “The City Is Mine.” But on Magna Carta Holy Grail, he knights himself the Jean-Michel Basquiat of hip-hop and oddly also self-anoints as the Rap Game Joan Crawford. It’s a curious parallel, but it works. Near the end of the album, on “Jay-Z Blue,” an ominous sample of Faye Dunaway playing Crawford in the 1981 biopic Mommie Dearest crawls across a static background. “I worked and worked till I’m half-dead. And I hear people saying, ‘She’s getting old.’ And what do I get?” The bass kicks in and Dunaway continues, “A daughter, who cares as much about the beautiful dresses I gave her as she cares about me!” The public has been complaining about Jay’s age since he rebuked his retirement with the lackluster, adult-contemporary rap of Kingdom Come, and it seemed that with the birth of his daughter, Blue Ivy, with still-steadily performing wife Beyoncé, his music career might finally be put on hold. Invoking an actress whose daughter Christina wrote a disturbing memoir about how fame-obsessed and abusive her mother was during her wilting career would be odd, but Jay flips it. Instead of using the famous “No wire hangers!” scene to talk about how disrespected by the public and by his child he feels, he uses it to symbolize his own fear of becoming that, especially growing up without a good example of proper paternal behavior.
But this is barely an album about being a father, despite two very distinct songs about Blue Ivy. On the other, a crunchy-bass’d thumper called “Picasso Baby,” Jay flexes his moderate knowledge of fine artists and makes the aforementioned Basquiat comparison. In all walks of life, owning art is a mark of wealth — it’s expensive and requires some semblance of taste or, if you don’t have it, even more money to hire someone who does to buy it for you. There’s no dearth of look at what I have-prattle in Hov’s music — although, the bottles, the penthouse, and the Paris parties are often used as symbols of liberation at this point in his career — but when he raps, “Go ‘head and lean on it, Blue/ you own it,” it’s one of the most opulent statements he’s ever made: Not only is there a Picasso in his house, but he doesn’t even care if his greasy toddler touches it. And he wants you to react to a lyric like this. When he’s flaunting, he’s taunting.
Elsewhere on the album, he references that jealousy as he ruminates on slavery and jewelry on “Oceans.” The warbler that features, weirdly, Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean is home to the third set of lyrics Jay-Z released during the short, albeit obnoxiously lofty promotional roll-out for Magna Carta. I suppose the fact that as this is published, the album is technically still only available via Samsung Galaxy app, is a white elephant looming over the review. A lot has been written about what the corporate partnership means — and you can read our take on his #NewRules here — but it was with “Oceans” that I caught a new view on why Jay was doing so much rappersplaining before anyone got a chance to hear the music. In the commercial about the song he explains to Timbaland, Rick Rubin, and Pharrell that when he raps, “silk and fleeces/ lay on my Jesus/ oh my god/ I hope you don’t get seasick,” he’s equating the ocean’s waves to the way his chain (“Jesus”) swings, and turns seasick into a double entendre — physically seasick from the movement and, as he explains in the promo, when you see it, you get sick with envy.
We know Jay to be keen with his quips, so why did he have to Rap Genius himself before the goons of RG could get their fingers on the tracks? He wants us to know that he’s still adept at lyrical tricks, not just espousing laundry lists of his riches or boasts about his amazing wife and the dream-life they live together. Those views into the studio, with a superstar cast of producers and a lounging Rick Rubin, must have been an attempt to silence anyone who doesn’t think he’s still got it. In the year that he started Roc Nation Sports and sold his one-third-of-his-pinkie stake in the Brooklyn Nets so he could legally rep clients in the NBA, he still wants his biggest news story to be that he made a great album.
But that doesn’t mean he lets his new job go unaddressed. With “Crown,” he raps about signing Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, whose superstar status gurgles just under the fray of the likes of LeBron and Kobe. It’s an expected moment, especially in that it sounds like a Yeezus reject and there had to be one. What distinguishes it, though, from a Kanye copycat is that it was produced by Wondagurl, a 16-year-old upstart from Ontario, whose only other production credit is for her track “Uptown” on Travi$ Scott’s proto-Yeezus mixtape Owl Pharaoh. Other trends pop up throughout the album, as well, like the heavily trap-informed “Tom Ford.” But when Jay indulges in new-jack behavior, there’s usually a sly sense that he’s poking fun and we get that when he declares, “I don’t pop molly/ I rock Tom Ford” on the hook.
He lays in just as heavy on youth culture on head-knocker “Somewhereinamerica.” It brims with Jay’s trademark subtlety, as he raps, “Ask Bun B about me/ this ain’t no snapback/ a nigga been trill” in reference to the Tumblr-famous #Been #Trill collective and their #NY# hats — although, whether Tumblr-rap or the odd use of the Yankees logo hurts him more is up in the air. More obtusely, he pokes fun at social media while reminding us of his past as drug dealer: “When I was talking ‘insta-gram’/ last thing you wanted was your picture snapped.” But his most pointed target is Miley Cyrus and her new image. Back in 2009, on the heels of the explosive success of Cyrus’s song “Party In The U.S.A.,” the pop star admitted that she had never heard a song by Hov before, even though her hit referenced the soothing familiarity of listening to him. He never chose to respond, but with her rap culture-appropriating cut “We Can’t Stop” featuring Make Will on production, accolades from Juicy J, and her newfound propensity for booty-popping, it’s a wonder whether she would have just been a target anyway. Still, four years later he acknowledges her with a hearty chuckle and the lyrics, “Feds is still lurkin’/ they see I’m still puttin’ work in/ cuz somewhere in America /Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’/ HA,” and follows-up with a sarcastic refrain of “twerk, twerk, twerk.” That’s the Jay we’ve known since he was spitting lines on his debut Reasonable Doubt like, “life ills poison my body/ I used to say, ‘fuck mic skills’/ I never prayed to God/ I prayed to Gotti.”
Which is all to say, Jay-Z is still as lyrically rich of a rapper whose songs require close attention as he’s always been. Many of Magna Carta’s tracks are lacking interesting production — especially when we’re all still fresh off Yeezus and Run The Jewels — save the unbelievably ebullient “BBC,” a verse-trade-off with former adversary Nas that has Timbaland, Beyoncé, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell, and Justin Timberlake doing gang vocals(!!!!) on the hook. But what we expect and, frankly, want from Hov is for him to write couplets that we apply to our own lives. We want to have buttons that play, “We don’t believe you/ you need more people” at those who talk a big game with no back-up. We’re all “making short term goals/ when the weather folds.” We’ve been letting Jay dictate that since he rapped, “you held it down long enough/ let me get those reins/ and just like your spirit/ the Commission  remains” on 1997 tribute to the Notorious B.I.G. “The City Is Mine.” He’s maintained that promise, after inducting himself to take over where Biggie left off, and has preserved the memory while taking his place as Brooklyn’s most beloved (living) son. The nods are especially large here, with full vocal samples of Biggie’s signature “unhh” ad-lib in a few songs, and full lyric clips from Life After Death cut “My Downfall.” Those appear on “Jay-Z Blue,” co-mingling with a clip of Dunaway, again, screaming, “Don’t fuck with me, fellas. This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.” That scene takes place at a Pepsico board meeting, where Crawford served as a director, a position she inherited after her husband, Pepsi Chairman Alfred Steele, passed away. It’s yet another strange layer that works to connect Hov and Crawford. No doubt, he is fully aware of the corollary — it’s just not a connection one makes with ease and it’s a tight knot that makes Magna Carta Holy Grail as much of a thinkpiece as the material Old Man Carter has given us so many times.
 The Commission was a Jay-Z and Biggie-led supergroup. Members also included producer and labelhead Lance “Un” Rivera, producer and head of labels Undeas (Lil’ Kim’s debut Hard Core) and Untertainment (Cam’ron’s debut Confessions Of Fire), Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Lil’ Cease, and Biggie’s girlfriend and Untertainment signee Charli Baltimore.