Doc Zeus has accepted a full-time position at XXL. This will be his last post here for the immediate future. Buy him a bottle of Riesling to celebrate.
Let me tell you about my favorite moment of Jay-Z’s post-retirement career. It occurs on “New Day,” off the 1% fantasy Watch The Throne–but ultimately, it underscores a greater point about Jay-Z in 2013. In that song, Jay is on the precipice of fatherhood, fearing that before his child has even drawn breath, the sheer force of his celebrity will have already irreparably damaged his child. He’s scared to death that the paparazzi will hound his unborn child and wreak havoc. Most importantly, he apologizes for this and asks forgiveness.
It’s a truly powerful moment because it undercuts the calculated, market-tested image that Jay-Z has carefully crafted over his nearly two decade career. He ditches all pretense of being “Jay-Z,” the unflappable lord of capitalist cool, and becomes a human again. Suddenly, he’s vulnerable and fearing for his child’s life. As a longtime listener, you can begin to relate again with Shawn Carter far beyond the lavish, 1% lifestyle that he has ostensibly dedicated his life to obtaining.
It’s with this notion in my head that I come to bury Magna Carta, Holy Grail, a record of remarkable condescension and soulless aristocrat rap. The emotion and soul have been sucked out of this album and placed into a jar on the mantle piece of his manor. It’s a record about a black man crashing the gated towers of the oligarchy without exploring any of the issues or feelings that accomplishment carries in America. At least without any significant nuance or depth.
Let’s start with the obvious. It’s been apparent for a while that Jay-Z’s significant rap skills are rapidly diminishing. His once iconic flow has started to sag with age and the delicate intricacy of his rhymes has become rote and tired. On Magna Carta, Holy Grail, it feels as if the weight of time has robbed Jay-Z of not only his delivery but also his wit. Hov’s rhymes are simply painful to hear. For a rapper that once had a chameleonic ability to morph his flow with the times, it’s difficult to hear Jay-Z resorting to lame hash-tag flows and stilted pop culture references. Awkward pauses and Rick Rossian grunts act merely fill space in his bars where Jay-Z would have subtly slipped in a liquid tongue twister in his younger days. It often feels like he’s trying to employ many of the rhetorical techniques of his hey day but the words don’t mesh as fluidly. It feels forced and awkward.
Moreover, his awkward and sandwiched pop culture references often feel embarrassing to hear from a 43 year-old multi-millionaire. We should not be living in a world where Jay-Z references Miley Cyrus twerking or turning Lady Gaga into a pun anywhere in his music. It’s the lyrical equivalent of your mom asking you if you are still into the Backstreet Boys at age twenty-six. It’s nice that he’s trying to relate but you’d rather he’d not.
The most disheartening aspect of the record is not his diminished lyrical skills. It’s the lack of depth with everything involved. Jay-Z might legitimately be the most impressive entrepreneur in all of America. For a man who has truly humble beginnings – a black kid from the Marcy Projects that transformed illegal drug money into a hydra of a legitimate business empire – he seems to almost condescend to those who lack as much wealth. It’s certainly true that a large part of Jay-Z’s music has always been a celebration of wealth. The first lines on his debut album were “I’m making short turn goals when the weather folds/just put away the leathers and put ice on the gold.” However, the obsession with obscene wealth and material goods described on Magna Carta, Holy Grail is alienating. At times, it feels like a rap Atlas Shrugged.
On the loathsome “Picasso Baby,” he taunts us with the million dollar art pieces from iconic artists that only he can afford. At one point, he describes his daughter leaning against a Basquiat in his kitchen because “Fuck it. It’s her inheritance and she can do what she wants.” Jay-Z obviously intends these rhymes to be as boastful as rhyming bout expensive cars or a diamond watch. But there’s a big difference between popping bottles in a club and “going ham in the auction house.”
If we save and splurge, most of us can dream about buying a bottle of expensive champagne and splitting it with our friend’s on our birthday. 99% of us couldn’t dream of buying a Picasso if we pooled the resources of everybody we know. Let alone being so careless to let our daughter smudge one. Its wholly unrelatable. Meanwhile, Jay-Z’s attitude suggests that he’s insulted that you aren’t as refined as he is. On one moment, he’s complaining that high society is turning up their noses at him and the next, he’s smirking at being so plebeian that you’d prefer Riesling over a Bordeaux. He’s not rocking Roc-a-wear, anymore. He’s mocking you for not rocking Tom Ford.
It’s a shame that this album is so shallow because for the most part, these beats truly knock. Timbaland is doing God’s work on this album (when he’s not out right jacking Adrian Younge) and is proving that 2013 has been a return to form for him. Unfortunately, if Jay’s lyrics aren’t embarrassing or outright loathsome, his subject matter is remarkably boring. Ultimately, this is truth of Jay-Z’s life. He’s the soon-to-be billionaire member of the new upper class and his life is far more “Gossip Girl” than “Streets Is Watching” these days. One imagines that if he were to truly dig deep and not make auto-pilot rap in his Bugatti, he’d be able to make a fascinating album about the contradictions of being a member of the 1% when you were on the opposite end. Jay-Z could write the modern Great Gatsby if he wanted too. The man aspires to be Fitzgerald. The problem is he’s become Baz Luhrmann.