Hey, everyone, Jay-Z has lots of money! Lots and lots of money! More money than you! There, I’ve saved you the experience of listening to the colossally awful Magna Carta Holy Grail, an album that’s the aural equivalent of standing and watching while a motorcade of crushingly expensive Hummer limos with tinted windows drives by.
It’s been clear for at least the last decade that Jay-Z’s musical career has been just one aspect of his empire, something he uses to cross-promote his other business ventures. Magna Carta Holy Grail brings this relationship to its logical extreme. The album is what happens when all that remains is the branding — Jay-Z’s art has been subjugated to his mogul persona for so long that, look, there’s no art left. Well, not unless it’s the kind you can buy for eye-watering sums to put on the wall of your eye-wateringly expensive Tribeca apartment, anyway. “I just want a Picasso/ In my casa,” our man raps on “Picasso Baby,” about five minutes into this album, discounting the principles of both rhyme and common decency as he catalogs all the shit he wants to deck out his place.
It’s hard to decide what’s more absurd, the lyrics (“It ain’t hard to tell/ I’m the new Jean-Michel/ Surrounded by Warhols/ My whole team ball”) or the sentiment. The experience of listening to this track, and Magna Carta Holy Grail as a whole, is like that episode of Mad Men where everyone tries to decide what deep, mysterious meaning is conveyed by the Rothko on Bert Cooper’s wall, only to discover that he couldn’t care less — he just cares that it’ll double in value by next Christmas. Jay-Z has lots of money. You don’t. Remember that. Always remember that.
It’s a shame, because this album promised more. For all that its music was largely awful, the Cobain-quotin’ lead single “Holy Grail” suggested that this record might involve some sort of assessment of the price of success. And it does, but only insofar as the entire album is proof that the price of success is this: in 2013, Jay-Z has nothing to say anymore. All that’s left is a businessman talking loudly and at tiresome length about how great he is. It’s no more interesting or relevant to you or me than getting stuck next to a bunch of godawful investment bankers at an upscale bar and having to endure them banging on about how much money they make.
In this respect, it’s interesting to compare this record to Kanye West’s Yeezus, and not just because they’re records issued by America’s biggest hip-hop stars within several weeks of one another. Both albums find their creators at a point where they’ve gotten everything they want, at the end of a journey in which they came from the gutter to mix with the stars, in a place where they’re now very much part of the firmament.
Surprisingly enough, it’s West who examines the consequences of this with subtlety and perceptiveness; compare and contrast his examination of aspirationalist consumerism in “New Slaves” with the aforementioned “Picasso Baby,” for instance, or the kicking-down-the-doors-of-the-establishment rant of “Black Skinhead” with the way Jay-Z addresses the same subject on “Somewhereinamerica” (which comes with the chorus “Twerk, Miley, twerk”). Jay-Z’s “Crown” even contains a declaration that “you’re in the presence of a god,” but it’s devoid of any of the subtle, croissant-centric humor that characterized West’s version of the same boast. If your ego is making Kanye freaking West look like the restrained, laid-back one, you have serious fucking problems.
But then, Magna Carta Holy Grail is largely devoid of subtlety in any shape or form. Despite all the pre-release hype, it turns out that reports of the death of Jay-Z’s love affair with capitalism and the American dream have been highly exaggerated — this album is so full of brands that it’s like strolling through the shopping section at an expensive hotel, looking through crystalline windows at shoes and handbags that cost more than your month’s rent. There’s a song called “Tom Ford,” for Chrissakes, which is notable for being the single most absurd production of the year to date (if you’ve ever wanted to hear a Jay-Z chiptune track, your long wait is over) and for containing a chorus that goes, “Tom Ford/ Tom Ford/ Tom Ford.” Ker-ching!
Perhaps the key point of this album comes during the intro of “FUTW,” an acronym for “Fuck Up the World.” Like pretty much every other song on this album, the track is devoted to cataloging Jay-Z’s successes, wealth — and the occasional flash of ambivalence about those things. Its title is a reference to the idea of a black man kicking down the door of the establishment, and it begins with the suggestion that “I’m from the bottom, I know y’all can relate.”
That may well be so, but basically no one can relate to Jay-Z anymore, and the entirety of Magna Carta Holy Grail seems determined to make that as clear as possible. “One million, two million, three million, 20 million/ Oh, I’m so good at math,” he sneers during “Somewhereinamerica.” He even references the damn Samsung app in the same song, where he notes, “A million sold before the album dropped.” Well done, Jay. Bravo. But look, again, it’s notable what he’s bragging about: not, “hey, my album’s great,” but “hey, check out this deal I did with Samsung!”
The parts of Magna Carta Holy Grail that are the most interesting and relatable are those rare moments when the mask slips. “Sometimes I feel survivor’s guilt,” Jay-Z notes during “Nickels and Dimes,” an intriguing insight into what it must be like to think of those left behind on this breakneck journey from the Marcy projects to the penthouse suite. He suggests that “I got a problem with the handouts, I took the man route,” an oh-so-American view that again reinforces hip hop’s mythology of the self-made man. But wait, perhaps he’s reconsidering that, too: “No guilt in giving, clear a nigga conscience out/ No guilt in receiving, everything within reason.”
I’d love to hear more of this, but sadly, it’s a rare flash of humanity, a brief glimpse through the window of the limo as it glides by. The most poignant part of this whole sorry business comes during the aforementioned “FUTW,” where Jay-Z proclaims, “America tried to emasculate the greats/ Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes/ Wait, tell them rumble young man rumble/ Try to dim your lights tell you be humble/ You know I’m gonna shine like a trillion watts/ You know a nigga trill as Michael Jackson socks/ Sendin’ light out to Compton and the hundred blocks/ Lil bastard boy, basking on top.” That’s all very well, but how can anyone in Compton or any other enclave of urban deprivation relate to the guy who’s just spent half an hour talking about how much of everything he has?
If Jay-Z really wants to provide some sort of aspirational ideal, then he’s choosing a strange way to go about it. As a whole, the impression this album gives isn’t, “Look at this inspiring rags-to-riches story!” It’s more a case of, “Hey, here’s another rich asshole talking about how much money he has and how my life could never possibly be anything like his.” Only in America? Too damn right. Congratulations, Jay-Z, you are the 1%. But if I wanted to hear more about how depressingly far removed from reality America’s überrich are, seriously, I’d just read the Wall Street Journal (or the New York Times‘ real estate section.) The rhymes are probably better anyway.