Friday, July 5, 2013

album review: 'magna carta holy grail' by jay-z

For those of you who don't follow the Billboard charts and industry news, let me inform you of a recent development that has led to some controversy on music forums. 

Namely, that Jay-Z executed a business deal with Samsung, with the company buying one million copies of the record in order to distribute them to Samsung customers through a downloadable app three days early. In terms of a marketing strategy, it's kind of brilliant, and exactly what you'd expect from Jay-Z, but it led to an interesting controversy, for Jay-Z argued that every sale should be counted through the RIAA charts, giving an instant platinum record before a single CD hit shelves or iTunes. Through this move, Jay-Z would have the sort of instantaneous sales boom that would immediately outstrip his frequent collaborator Justin Timberlake on the Billboard 200 charts, a number one platinum album that sold at a speed unprecedented since the late 90s boy band wars.

Given this completely unprecedented business move, the RIAA moved swiftly to respond - although not precisely the way one would expect. In order to accommodate Jay-Z's scheme, they made it clear in a recent press release that platinum records could indeed be issued before the 30 day evaluation period in order to reflect the changing digital sales climate. Billboard, on the other hand, wasn't nearly so gracious, already stating that Jay-Z's plan would not be permitted to impact the charts. But then again, this is Billboard, whose choice to include YouTube streaming in response to PSY's 'Gangnam Style' about six months too late led to the motherfucking Harlem Shake leaping to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and staying there for five goddamn weeks, so I have no illusions regarding their competence.

But all of that said, I really do admire the business logic behind Jay-Z's scheme here, and the win-win-win spirit in which it was designed. He gets another platinum record, potent sales gains, and a boatload of cash (he's releasing the album on his own label), while Samsung gets an exclusive ad campaign that can potentially rope in new subscribers eager to grab Jay-Z's newest hit, and Samsung customers get the album a couple days early and for a reduced price. To be honest, I think Jay-Z gets the best deal of the three, but that doesn't surprise me in the slightest. Unlike, whose marketing strategy seems to be to annoy everyone attempting to hyperlink his name or get his album/songs to trend on Twitter, Jay-Z has enough business sense to utilize old school deals with modern delivery methods. If is the 'marketing savant', Jay-Z is the Forbes-topping CEO.

And make no mistake, that's not just an appraisal of the man, but his music as well. Jay-Z may have started in the same pit of gangster rap as Nas (who he held an intense rivalry with for several years), but he always aimed higher, with a crisp professionalism that definitely makes him stand out among his peers. He's called himself the 'new Sinatra', and as treasonous as this might sound, I definitely buy it. Like Justin Timberlake, he has the same blend of class and respectability, and with the intelligence to recruit top-of-the-line producers and performers for his material. His frequent collaborations with Kanye West might not make much sense until you realize that Kanye's one of the best names in the game when it comes to production, and Jay-Z knows he can exploit that while lending Kanye some dignity and class the younger artist has always craved, to say nothing of friendship. And while I wasn't a big fan of their collaboration album Watch The Throne, I was definitely appreciative of the elements that worked and how Jay-Z was more on point than he's been in a long time. And this isn't even touching his relationship with Beyonce, one that makes all too much sense when you consider the thesis of both their respective discographies: 'I'm better than you in every single way'. 

So if I have so many good things to say about Jay-Z, why is that I haven't ever really been able to connect with his music? Well, as I said with Justin Timberlake, sheer unbridled arrogance can really put me off if it isn't delivered with the talent to back it up - and make no mistake, there are swathes of Jay-Z's discographies where he hasn't been trying as much as he could have. And while I will admit Jay-Z's refusal to deal with stupid people or incompetence is admirable (particularly the persistent rumors that he was responsible for sabotaging Chris Brown's career for 2009 and 2010 after the assault on Rihanna, who was one of Jay-Z's proteges), it would help Jay-Z's case more if he managed to keep some distance from the collaborators who can't exactly deliver at his level (the collaboration album and tour with R. Kelly spring to mind). 

But it's not just that. As I've said before, I like when artists delve deeper, actually go for some challenging material that might expose vulnerabilities or humanity in the respective artists. It's ultimately why Kanye West, despite all of the many, many problems I have with him, remains interesting enough to entice me to listen to anything to which he's attached. Jay-Z, on the other hand, always seems to be holding the audience at arms' length. He doesn't open up or reveal much about himself beyond the positive or shallowest of subjects. Sure, he'll talk about major issues and he tends to have a greater breadth of songwriting topics than most (as I've said before, the man is seriously smart), but I don't really feel like I know Jay-Z in the way I know other rappers. Sure, he's has personality and some foibles, but outside of that, it can be hard to relate to the problems of a man who is stupefyingly rich and married to Beyonce. And you can definitely tell that Jay-Z is forcibly creating this distance, which makes it hard for me to get past the mask, presuming there is one.

So what does this mean for his new album, the intriguingly-titled Magna Carta Holy Grail?

Well, I'll say this - I certainly didn't expect to like this album as much as I did, because there is enough of Magna Carta Holy Grail that works startlingly well. However, it's not a perfect album, and while it might be an easy step above J. Cole's recent efforts, it doesn't quite reach the heights of Kanye's Yeezus, an album with which Jay-Z's newest endeavour shares plenty of similarities.

And as usual, the things we've come to expect in Jay-Z's music are on full display, particularly in the instrumentation. Jay-Z has always had a talent of recruiting amazing talents for constructing his beats, and here that talent takes center stage in the best possible way. Like R. Kelly and Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z draws a lot of his influences from the past (particularly the jazz and doo-wop eras of music), and coupled with sweeping, pseudo-gothic majesty courtesy of Kanye and Timbaland, Jay-Z's instrumentation reflects class and elegance and opulence. And even when there are trace elements of electronica, it's perfectly blended with the classical touches to create a vista of wealth and power. As I said in my review of Justin Timberlake's new album, by bringing this class to the genre, Jay-Z channels this sort of rich sophistication that only enriches hip-hop.

The strange thing is that this isn't just encapsulated in the instrumentation - it's one of the main themes of the album, and definitely one of the elements that makes Magna Carta Holy Grail more than just a shallow luxury rap. While there are definitely a few songs that feel more than a little decadent and overblown (including a song called 'Tom Ford' that might as well be a commercial for the brand), Jay-Z takes the theme in a very different direction, which can be summed up in the twin concepts of the title which are frequently references throughout the album. The first is 'Magna Carta', a symbol for laws that were transformative and highly influential in England, instrumental for setting the building blocks in place for an empire. Jay-Z uses this symbol in a different way, as he is seeking to redefine the wealth paradigm in order to accommodate black Americans. He actively raps about shattering glass ceilings and rising to the very top, embracing the capitalist American dream with impressive vigor.

But what gets very interesting about this is that, a number of times, Jay-Z openly admits the very real and very dangerous lures associated with fame and wealth, and on one of the album's best tracks ('Oceans', featuring Frank Ocean in a remarkable performance), he draws an interesting comparison between him and the characters of Ocean's Eleven - characters who are thieves. Hell, Frank Ocean's chorus also shows a certain level of discomfort with high wealth, suggesting that as a black American, he's an outsider and doesn't quite fit in in the same way. But what makes this work is evident in both chorus and verse: even if they aren't welcomed, they're going to force the predominantly white upper class to accept them regardless - they will not be held back.

This leads directly into the second phrase of the title, 'Holy Grail', which is a Christian symbol of eternal life which Jay-Z (with some major assistance from Justin Timberlake on the opening track) appropriates as a symbol of fame, religion, and culture with both positive and negative connotations very visible. Jay-Z openly scoffs and mocks any whispered implications of faith over reason (even sampling a verse from R.E.M.'s 'Losing My Religion' to hammer that point home), even to the point of sarcastically saying that he does belong to the Illuminati and they are responsible for his ascent (and you can bet there will be some conspiracy theorists who'll buy into that). And for most of the album, this theme seems to fall in line with 'Magna Carta' - not only will Jay-Z redefine the rules, he'll remake the culture.

The spots where the album gets most interesting, however, are where Jay-Z actively begins to explore the possible negative consequences of this, particularly with regards to his wife and child. The first song where this comes to the forefront is 'Part II: On The Run', very much a superior sequel to his earlier hit with Beyonce '03 Bonnie & Clyde'. I'll definitely give Beyonce credit here for managing to sell emotional reality between her and Jay-Z, and here's where we get one of two glimpses into Jay-Z from behind the mask. This is where we see Jay-Z show some genuine affection for his wife, actively acknowledging her as his better half. And even though the song really is just a sequel to a song I never thought was very good, it's still feels surprisingly real to me.

But the second glimpse on 'Jay-Z Blue' is much more revealing, as Jay-Z openly questions how his lifestyle and his choices might affect his baby girl's life in the future. And while I don't think it's quite as strong as Eminem's songs in this regard, it shows that Jay-Z is actively concerned not just about his daughter, but about how the culture he created might impact her as she grows up. He shows real fear here, and unsurprisingly, it lends humanity and emotional weight to the song. And all of it is bookended by introspective questioning regarding whether Jay-Z has lost touch with the culture that created him and by attempting to cement his 'Magna Carta' in the upper class, he'll lose his connection to his roots entirely while still being ostracized. I'm reminded more than a little of Uncle Phil's interactions with white wealthy families on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which brought up the intriguing questions connected to race and wealth in the United States. Jay-Z seems to be attempting to carve a third path, a middle-ground.

So putting aside all of the interesting arguments and thematic elements that make Magna Carta Holy Grail intriguing, let's ask a different question: is it any good? Well, as I said above, it's far from perfect, mostly because all of the themes I discussed above lack a certain degree of cohesion - something I feel is needed to really cement those cultural changes for which Jay-Z is calling. But even with that, there are definitely elements that seem to work at cross-purposes to Jay-Z's mission statement, particularly the ridiculous greed and obsession with brands and art seemingly for their own sake, not because any deeper meaning is associated with them. And that's to say nothing of the sheer naked commercialism of the album - yes, Jay-Z, I can appreciate that you don't need the Internet to sell your material anymore and I appreciate the broadsides you delivered against as much as anyone, but neither of those change the fact that 'Tom Ford' is essentially a commercial.

On top of that, I've always had a few grievances with Jay-Z's rapping abilities, and they're all on display here: his hard rhyming can get distracting, his obsessions with expensive clothes and cars and art become repetitive, and for some bizarre reason, he sounds out of breath on songs without any apparent reason. And that's not even talking about 'BBC', an odd little experimental track that features Nas, Beyonce, Pharrell, Justin Timberlake, Swiss Beatz, and Timbaland in a highly cluttered luxury rap (that oddly seems to have Nas and Jay-Z imitating each others' rapping styles). Sure, it's a fun experiment, but it feels jarringly out of place in comparison with the rest of the album. Finally, while I wouldn't quite say this album is as bloated or indulgent as Justin Timberlake's, I will say that there is definitely some chaff that could have been trimmed to make Magna Carta Holy Grail a lot tighter and more thematically streamlined.

But really, most of these are minor nitpicks, and while I like Yeezus more than Magna Carta Holy Grail (mostly because of Kanye's rougher production, higher energy, and sheer unbridled edge), I can't deny that Jay-Z put together an extremely solid album here. And while I'd be hardpressed to call it radio-friendly or to pull any distinctive singles from the mix, I still found it surprisingly intelligent and insightful, and I definitely enjoyed the listen.

And as for Jay-Z's mission, I can only wish him the best of luck. But really, he shouldn't need it.

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