Jay-Z Thinks out Loud ; on New Album, Rapper Makes the Usual Boasts, but the Music Is Less Vain

By Pareles, Jon | International Herald Tribune, July 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

Jay-Z Thinks out Loud ; on New Album, Rapper Makes the Usual Boasts, but the Music Is Less Vain


Pareles, Jon, International Herald Tribune


On his new album, the rapper makes the usual boasts, but the music is often less vainglorious and more ambivalent.

The mood swings are wide and sudden on "Magna Carta ... Holy Grail," the 12th solo studio album by Jay-Z. This rapper who has everything -- sales, fame, cars, clothes, fine art, corporate clout and an equally famous wife, Beyonce -- has started to wonder what it's all for.

"Magna Carta ... Holy Grail" arrives on a tsunami of marketing tied to Jay-Z's long-established role as hip-hop's high achiever. His songs keep retelling his success story: The drug dealer from the Brooklyn projects who became a rapper, a star and an entertainment mogul without forgetting the streets.

In Jay-Z lore, bigness and prestige are mandatory. Samsung bought a million copies of "Magna Carta" at $5 each to give away through a cellphone app on new models in advance of the official release date, five days later. As a result of a change in Recording Industry Association of America certification rules regarding downloads, the album will have gone platinum before appearing in stores, and Jay-Z has become a digital standard-bearer. Maintaining his monumental hubris, Jay-Z unveiled the album cover at Salisbury Cathedral in England, alongside a somewhat more historic document: one of the four extant copies of the original Magna Carta.

In his new songs, Jay-Z boasts his usual boasts. He praises how "special" his flow is, and he compulsively lists acquisitions, destinations and celebrity pals. We get to hear again about his Basquiats, his Maybach, his Lamborghini and his Hublot watch, and he compares himself yet again to Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali. He also touts the corporate expansion of his Roc Nation into sports management. He now aspires to becoming a billionaire. "I crash through glass ceilings, I break through closed doors," he exults in "Oceans."

But on this album, the music often tells a different story: less vainglorious, more ambivalent. "Oceans" itself -- which, true to Jay- Z wordplay, features Frank Ocean on vocals -- juxtaposes thoughts of slave ships with Jay-Z's current luxury, cruising on a yacht; its track is a brass-section elegy. It's typical of an album on which Jay-Z turns away from the anthemic pop of "Empire State of Mind," the rock stomp of "99 Problems," or the lavish melange of electronics, sampled soul music and orchestral buildups that he shared with Kanye West on "Watch the Throne," their brilliant 2011 duo album.

In retrospect, "Watch the Throne" set new, diverging trajectories for both rappers: Mr. West toward a self-righteous, confrontational crudeness and Jay-Z toward reflection, perspective and a little more self-questioning. That album also led them to experiment. This year, they have both gambled that name recognition and pent-up anticipation would get their new albums noticed with or without radio hits.

At 43, Jay-Z has grown-up concerns, particularly parenthood; Blue Ivy Carter was born in January 2012, making "Magna Carta ... Holy Grail" Jay-Z's first dad-rap album. Its most conflicted and vulnerable song is "Jay Z Blue (Daddy Dearest). …

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