Well, that's it, folks. With the release of Magna Carta... Holy Grail, Jay-Z's commodification is both certain and complete.
The rap mogul's genius has always combined commercial savvy with street credibility, marginalizing showbiz execs by independently marketing a radical answer to black disenfranchisement: his own franchise. Of course, that personal mythology was easier to buy into back when the blueprint for a Jay-Z album worked on multiple levels: underground and mainstream; grit and glamour; high lyricism and lowbrow appeal; story, concept, music.
But now -- 15 albums in, at age 43 -- this?
I don't pop molly, I rock Tom Ford / International bring back the Concorde
Numbers don't lie, check the scoreboard / Tom Ford, Tom Ford, Tom Ford
The beat sounds like a stuttering remix of Galaga, which is kind of cool, but all we learn is that no one has told the rapper 'No' for a long, long time. And "Tom Ford" is just the tip of the iceberg, the most noticeable part of a dull, frozen heap floating nowhere. Front to back, Magna Carta is hip hop's biggest disappointment since Lil Wayne's resurrection last Easter. At least I Am Not A Human Being II was straightforward about what it was (what it was was a 65-minute venereal convulsion -- lest we forget "I just f---d this piano"). Magna Carta, by contrast, tries hard to upsell its confusion: "I wanna Rothko / No, I wanna brothel."
None of which stops Magna Carta...Holy Grail from being a brilliant power play. As part of a larger $20 million deal between Samsung and Jay-Z's company, Roc Nation, the Korean electronics giant bought one million Galaxy users a digital copy of the album five days ahead of the July 9 release. The deal was a game-changer in three ways. Firstly, it stipulated that a multinational conglomerate pick up the tab for one million listeners (read "potential music piraters"). Secondly, it made an album go platinum prior to release. Finally, it made Magna Carta something more (or less) than an album: an event.
It started (and may as well have ended) with the commercials, the first of which aired during Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Sports fans' heartstrings hadn't been yanked with such uncanny pathos since Clint Eastwood proclaimed "Halftime in America" during last year's Superbowl. Cue canned footage of Jay-Z explaining to couch-locked Rick Rubin:
Pretty much, with the album, it's about the duality of, 'How do you navigate your way through this whole thing?'...
In a follow-up ad, the rapper looks lost at sea, eyes misting as words fails him,
My pop left when I was young, so he didn't teach me to be a man, nor how to raise a child. Or treat a woman, right? So, of course, my karma, the two things I need, I don't have, right? And I have a daughter. It's the paranoia of not being a great dad.
"It's most obvious on the song called 'JAY Z Blue,'" he promises, signaling something wise or at least sweet in the mix; some hard-earned insight into fatherless fatherhood. If you haven't heard "JAY Z Blue" yet, the opening rhymes give it away: "babies," "Mercedes," and "acres."
On July 10th, Jay-Z and director Mark Romanek filmed the music video for "Picasso Baby" at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea. The video was conceived as meta-performance art, something between Yoko Ono and David Blaine, documenting a 6-hour marathon of the rapper rapping ("House like the Louvre or the Tate Modern / Because I be going ape at the auction") face to face with a rotation of art-world celebs.
Among the rich and famous, Jay-Z is not the first to buy expensive art, nor to confuse himself with the freshman's textbook worth of names he likes dropping ("I'm the new Jean Michel...I'm the modern day Pablo"). But if this is art, it's only a caricature of the nouveau riche, a crack generation Jed Clampett, the classist reciprocal of black-face: call it bouge-face. By the time we hear him flailing out at Harry Belafonte, calling the singer and social activist "boy," it's hard not to think of that closing scene in Animal Farm.
Released virtually side by side, Magna Carta...Holy Grail is a telling counterpoint to Kanye West's arresting new album, Yeezus (by no coincidence, the former's eighth track, "Crown," sounds like a scrapped Yeezus B-side). Both lay claim to so-called high art. Both titles promise sublimity (Jay-Z's album sounds like a pidgin version of "Mr. Carter's magnum opus"). But only Yeezus delivers the intensity necessary to achieve either. Jay-Z, by contrast, substitutes the pretense of being outrageous for real emotional power: "Knock knock I'm at your neighbor house / Straight cash I bought ya neighbor out / Come and see what your new neighbor 'bout / Yellow Lambo in the driveway." Et cetera.
Hip hop affords its stars ample suspension of disbelief, giving MCs full creative license to be absurd, grand, repugnant, insane, italicized versions of themselves. All that matters is that they take us somewhere worth going. At that, Magna Carta fails. But Hova's devotees needn't despair: Jay-Z™ is a one-man empire, ensuring longterm performance no matter how badly the emperor needs back his clothes. In the meantime, fans can dust off the records he forged back when he had something to prove (Reasonable Doubt), limits to chafe against (Life and Times), challenges to meet (The Blueprint), a coherent statement to make with music (The Black Album).
Or we can listen to the rapper box with shadows on his new track, "F.U.T.W." (as in 'F--- Up The World'), where he pleads, "Just let me be great / Let me be great."
And what can we say?
"Go ahead. No one's stopping you."