By FEMI ABORISADE
Shawn Carter, the artist more commonly known as Jay-Z, is full of himself. “Magna Carta… Holy Grail,” his twelfth studio album, follows Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, and Kanye West in the current industry trend of ballooning routine album promotion into a culture- or industry-defining event. In Jay-Z’s case, a well-placed ad during the NBA Finals drove fans and naysayers rabid for an album that, while offering a decent listen, is more of a capitalist flexing of muscles than a real need to get in the booth.
And in terms of rich tastemakers flexing their biceps for dramatic returns, Jay-Z wields massive guns: he instantly sold one million copies July 4, 2013 in exchange for $5,000,000, through an exclusive distribution deal with Samsung that benefited customers who purchased their Samsung Galaxy phone. The album’s austere cover was featured next to a surviving copy of the Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral. Lastly, in a terrifying display of legal arm-twisting, the ordeal concerning “Magna Carta” prompted the Record Industry Association of America to change the certification for Gold and Platinum plaques to the day of release from 30 days.
All of these hefty items add to the gravity of the project, yet when it finally plays, the record barely feels as powerful, at least in terms of legacy. “Magna Carta” will initially wow due to its top-notch, scene-setting production built by industry titans like Timbaland, Pharrell and Mike Dean and features great talents such as Timberlake, fellow New York rapper Nas and well-received R&B artist Frank Ocean, but Jay-Z stands in the center of it all, too self-absorbed to produce a truly definitive product or even relate with the public: “See my name on CNN/ ‘bout six minutes, you gonna see it again,” he asserts on the dancehall-tinged “Crown.” At the moment, the only other Americans who can boast in that are Robert Zimmerman, Aaron Hernandez and Edward Snowden.
Jay-Z brings nothing but elaborately panned-out boasts that ride over his production team’s belligerent beats; the clanking, spacious rumble on “Tom Ford” combined with Beyonce’s ad-libs make for an exhilarating moment. Catchy, fun and energizing, “Magna Carta” brings the flair of a great time, but it gets hard to fully enjoy when he brags about his baby daughter Blue Ivy leaning on a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, blowing half a million in one night on a regular basis or the most glaring fact that his wife is the R&B superstar Beyonce Knowles.
Jay-Z certainly has a right to celebrate his life; he has advanced from the grips of poverty, of a morbid life as a drug dealer to a spot on the Forbes’ List, being able to break ground on a day that previously complemented everyone but his ancestors. Yet instead of shouting out designer liquors or stroking his ego with his certainly impressive depth in wordplay, he could have made more outwardly motivating tracks like “F.U.T.W.” or maybe start a children’s mentorship program in the Marcy Projects, his birthplace, instead.
On “Part II (On The Run),” Jay-Z says “My past ain’t pretty, my lady is, my Mercedes is.” Despite crassly counting his wife and his car as equally desired objects, it hints at the greater point of the 43-year-old rapper finding fulfillment in the things that surround him and the attention he receives rather than anything substantial. This becomes most telling on “Heaven,” a cold, iconoclastic take on religion in which Jay-Z almost deliberately distances himself from the world, smirking at people debate faith as his thumbs grow tired from counting hundred dollar bills. The only true joy he has is found on “Jay Z Blue,” the second song dedicated to his newborn child, but it soon reveals itself as a vow to be more than the father who abandoned him as a youth.
Other than this solemn song, Jay-Z has nothing to offer but popped bottles and supermodels. The major problem still lies in understanding and relating to such a privileged lifestyle when his core demographic’s unemployment rate hangs at 50%. “Magna Carta” rewrites the rules for its king, but offers mere cake for its subjects. It is tasty for the moment, but it does not last.