I can vividly remember ripping the packaging off of The Black Album when it dropped nearly a decade ago, months of avid anticipation coming to fruition as I finally dove head first into my favorite artist's new, and possibly final set of original material. In fact, this crescendo had become a familiar yearly tradition for me -- as long as I could remember, I'd spend months eagerly awaiting the yearly opus, gifted to us by Jay-Z each summer like clockwork.
Back in those days, the promise of a Jay album almost always reaped ample dividends. In Herculean fashion, Jigga would turn out the year's most important hip hop statement as if he was casually tossing dimes at a bum, never looking down or breaking a sweat. Even near-misses like the flawed The Blueprint 2 were still loaded with forward-thinking beats and sometimes sneering, sometimes introspective, always prime Jay-Z rhymes that mitigated the missteps, themselves inherently fascinating despite their obvious flaws (Let's all take a moment to remember Lenny Kravitz rhyming "Roses" and "Foeses" on the hook of "Guns & Roses.")
Like most Jay albums both past and present, the release of The Black Album was also timed perfectly with one of America's many annual consumerist bonanzas, streeting at the beginning of the holiday shopping season in November 2003. Indeed, the interplay between these passions both for business and art is something Jay has worn on his sleeve for his entire career -- after all, one his most enduring rhymes reads, "I'm not a 'business man,' I'm a Business, man!"
Jay's fascination with the relationship between art and commerce can be clearly traced back to his polarizing second album, Vol 1: In My Lifetime. Released in 1997 and laden with then-trendy Puff Daddy beats and fructose pop hooks, Vol 1 already saw the Jigga Man dancing cautiously on the border of financial and artistic ambition. True, Vol 1 was dismissed by the hip-hop heads who swore by his seminal, dope-peddling debut "Reasonable Doubt," but it also sold twice as many copies. Jay has recently said that in retrospect, he thinks Vol 1 is a near-classic.
As all Hova fans now know, The Black Album turned out to be one of Jay's most universally revered efforts, both critically and commercially: A "retirement" album with real depth, genuine self-reflection and top-notch collaborators like Kanye West, Timbaland and Just Blaze doing some of their most innovative and thrilling work. Jay was in top form, still hungry to prove himself as a rapper after all those years, and TBA managed to sum up everything that came before it perfectly without ever sounding like a retread, a rare feat.
As it turns out, it was also his last solo album to effectively nail the patented Jay-Z trifecta: ample commercial success, broad critical acclaim and most importantly, the presence of a cohesive, compelling artistic statement.
Flash-forward to last Thursday when Jay's 12th solo album (his fourth since "retiring"), Magna Carta Holy Grail, was released through a special deal where phone giant Samsung purchased the first million copies at $5 a pop, then gave them away through an app downloadable exclusively on their devices.
I have to admit that I was turned off by the Samsung deal from the minute I saw the first Instagram-filtered commercial on Youtube. The mere premise of MCHG's release presented concerning evidence that the once-elegant ballet Jay had choreographed between art and commerce was teetering, treading dangerously close to the corporate side of things. Sure, Jay had technically come up with a way to give his album away "for free" (i.e. if you purchase a Samsung), but the near-billionaire did so in a way that allowed him to pocket $5 million before anyone had even heard his work.
As usual, Jay's business acumen is to be commended, but was his genius for business going to translate into an equally thrilling collection of music? Given the blatant cooperate-ism of the Samsung deal, it better have, but taking into account his post-TBA output, I was really worried. Unfortunately, MCHG has since confirmed most of my worst fears about the detached cooperate fat-cat Jay-Z has been slowly morphing into since his first post-retirement effort, the 2007 dud "Kingdom Come."
"Come" represented an important transition in Jay's lyrics. In that period, he (rightfully) decided he could no longer compellingly spend an entire album spitting the street-hustler tales that had made him famous. Now hip hop's most significant success story, he replaced his earlier tales of slinging crack in early '90s Bed Stuy with a far-less interesting topic, although one more in standing with his current trappings: the acquisition of wealth. The result has been a relentless, decade-long focus on material items, apexing with MCHG.
Jay's compulsion to brag about the trappings of a billionaire lifestyle as his primary art-form has created a totally new kind of Jay-Z album from the ones released prior to his retirement: The new Jay album is itself a material item, not a piece of art. While every Jay-Z album since Vol 1 has certainly had an eye on commercial success, the new kind of Jay-Z album is presented merely as expensive filler product used to further the brand known as Jay-Z Incorporated. This is much in the same way that a Britney Spears album is turned out on a factory line every three years in order to launch a multi-million dollar tour, fragrances and the like.
Listening to MCHG often feels like watching a well-produced episode of MTV Cribs with Jay playing host, showing off all his Basquiats and Buggatis, Bezels and Beyonces, while you both secretly know he owns it all and you're just a visitor. Each beat sounds like, well, a billion dollars, with most produced by frequent-collaborator Timbaland. It's worth noting that beat-wise, MCHG is Jay's most sonically interesting and cohesive solo album since TBA. But on the flip-side, hearing Jay appropriate Kurt Cobain's iconic anthem of teen angst "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on an album released through a Samsung app makes my skin crawl and I'm sure, somewhere, Kurt's as well. In Jay-Z's America and on MCHG, however, money trumps substance at every turn, even when it comes to the samples his millions can buy.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most interesting and vital moments on both MCHG and indeed throughout Jay's entire post-retirement era have been in the rare moments when he's stepped away from this ferocious fixation on his bottom line. His best solo album of the last decade has undoubtably been American Gangster, a subtle and coherent work that riffed on the Ridley Scott film of the same name. Inspired by Frank Lucas's rise as a drug kingpin, Jay used the film's premise as an excuse to return to stories of his own experience as a drug dealer and the result was a deeply-felt, complex and richly realized piece of work that failed to chart a single hit song and barely went platinum.
On MCHG, the most interesting lyrical moments come on "Oceans," a duet with Frank Ocean that explores themes of slavery (but somehow still manages to reference Basquiat for the umpteenth time) and "Jay-Z Blue," a track that honestly depicts his fear that his own fatherless upbringing will effect his ability to be a good parent to his own daughter. Even there, though, the title raises the sneaking suspicion that Jay is doing nothing more than attempting to brand his own daughter.
For the rest of the album, as on his far-superior 2011 collaboration album with Kanye West, Watch The Throne, finds Jay squarely focussed on his modern art collection and favorite vacation spots. Without Kanye there to art-direct and act as a far more fully-realized, complex foil, MCHG casts Jay as a rich old coot, completely removed from the problems of real people and whose lyrics mostly highlight the increasingly stark disparity between the exceedingly prosperous 1 percent, and the rest of us who are just struggling to make ends meet. What once may have been framed as "aspirational" content in his earlier works, feels borderline mean-spirited in 2013.
In his recent New York Times article, "Celebrating Inequality," author George Packer discussed why a remake of The Great Gatsby, a movie which Jay curated the soundtrack for, was relevant to today. He mused at the end, "We know our stars aren't inviting us to think we can be just like them. Their success is based on leaving the rest of us behind." Indeed, MCHG personifies this sentiment: this is an album where Jay equates success with displaying the things he owns, items the majority of those consuming Jay's product will never experience except through the purchase of a Jay-Z album.
This all begs some questions: Is this the same Jay who once so heartbreakingly summarized how a hustler must suppress his emotions on "Song Cry," or taught us the value of living with "Regrets?" Is this the same Jay who once eviscerated Nas' entire career in one swoop on "The Takeover," or gave us one of the most thunderous, raw social commentaries in recent years with "99 Problems"? Does Jay-Z have anything to say anymore?
MCHG is the first time for me, a lifelong fan, where Jay truly feels like a relic living in gilded glory atop a diamond-encrusted tower: a once shiny and indispensable object, the culmination of an entire genre, who now brings little of value to the new conversation, nothing that feels relevant to the current moment. Lest we forget, 2013 is a year when a white rapper called Macklemore dominated the charts with songs about thrift-shopping and gay marriage.
In any case, I know that this will be the last album I'll buy just to listen to 15 songs about the Carters' Basquiat collection (also, can someone please introduce this man to some other modern artists?). The era is officially over, at least for me, where I open a new Jay-Z album with heart-palpitating excitement, awaiting the two-sense of what the genre's foremost figure. One track on MCHG is simply titled, "FuckwitmeyouknowIgotit." Yes Jay, we all certainly know you "got it." I'm just not sure how much of a reason that is to keep fucking with you.