Hov Is Watchin: Thoughts on Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail and career risk

Hov Is Watchin

In my middle age I have picked up a funny affectation: I rarely listen to hyped new albums when I get them. A new Jay-Z album is something I try to avoid even hearing about. It takes weeks for me to forget about all the noise of every last pundit offering snap takes that took longer to type than to think up. They dissect the PR campaign, pick out a few lyrics to parachute into their review’s broader theme, describe the beats in the vaguest possible terms, evaluate the degree to which the album pilfers the artist’s back catalogue, and put the cherry on top: reading the lyrics through the gossip-rag-fresh details of the artist’s personal life. Pop music!

I can’t promise to do much better, but I will tell you this: Magna Carta Holy Grail is not the album you have been told it is. Jay-Z is playing the long game, so the least we can do is bring a little perspective.

mchg cover

The high art and Hamptons references are critic bait — but don’t get it twisted

It would be so easy to string Jay up for yet more braggadociexpialidocious references to first-hand knowledge of the trappings of wealth. And on Watch The Throne, it really was genuinely annoying, because the name-drops came without a whisper of substance anywhere around them. There was no real talk on WTT, just talk, sandwiched between Kanye’s increasingly horrifying verses (Yeezus, what got hold of that guy). Here, Jay’s references are for other rappers, they’re not for the club, and neither is the record itself. Go back and listen to Blueprint 3 – were there any drums as hard as “F*ckwithmeyouknowIgotit”? Were there any old-school breaks like the one on “Somewhereinamerica”? Is there anything on MCHG with the flagrant pandering to the charts of “Forever Young”? Oh hail naw. This is Jay moving the goal posts once again — you rappers can talk about spending euros and having Givenchy, but your ignorant asses are still going to have to google Jeff Koons. He’s not trying to court rich white folks. He’s staying one step ahead of the competition. Battle rap 101, cousin.

Jay-Z is a business, man, but this ain’t a commercial album

Everyone is always comparing Jay to a CEO, so let’s think about his albums as a series of strategic business decisions. Reasonable Doubt was a bid for credibility, but it was part of a longer-term strategy. Remember, in 1996 rap solo debuts were the creative benchmarks for the rest of a rapper’s career – Illmatic, Ready To Die and the Wu Tang solo discs were all followed by significantly more commercial, pop-oriented outings. With In My Lifetime Vol 1, Jay-Z followed Nas’ playbook by releasing a critically loathed but more chart-oriented sophomore disc. Since then with every release, Jay has been balancing his artistic goals against whatever he felt his career needed: Vol 2 was a bid for crossover singles, and with Hard Knock Life and Can I Get A, he got them; Vol 3 was a restablishing of his rap bonifides; Roc La Familia was an attempt to bolster his label roster (the man is a genius at creating alternative revenue streams, if not at signing rappers who are worth a shit – ahem Bleek ahem ahem); and so on.

BP3 was a Roc La Familia, a disc whose whole purpose was to remind the world that he signed Rihanna, Kanye and J Cole. Watch The Throne was an extended guest verse that he knew would sell on star power alone. So what’s MCHG? You tell me. There are no obvious massive singles. Jay could have waited until something caught on at radio, the way he did with “Run This Town,” but he had a better idea: sidestep the whole pressure to make pop hits and license the album to Samsung’s app. Five million payday out the gate takes the pressure off sales figures, and needing to remind us that he’s a hit machine. What would Jay the businessman do (WWJD)? What part of his business needs shoring up? You guessed it: Make a rap album for rap fans. All you Galaxy 3 owners bought it anyway, might as well make a bid to win back some old heads. Cynical critics weren’t even looking for the possibility that Jay would use Samsung to score himself some artistic freedom. Y’all got rope a doped.

Is MCHG a career highlight?

With Jay, you never can tell for certain how calculated his moves are; I doubt he can either. All I know is, there are four Jay-Z albums you can and should listen to all the way through if like me, you only have a limited appetite for pop Hov: Reasonable Doubt, Vol. 3, American Gangster and now Magna Carta Holy Grail. The others have great, timeless singles – “99 Problems” is by no means a bid for pop stardom; “I Just Wanna Luv U” absolutely is, so there’s no pattern per se to how they’re organized – but these albums are the ones that came when Jay either felt he needed to prove himself artistically, or felt he could get away with grittier material without compromising his pop appeal.

For real though, MCHG truly belongs among his best, which utterly shocked me more than I can explain. If he’s the Stones of rap, this is his Some Girls: reminding you that he understands the trends and the underlying substance that the people pushing them are barely aware of. Smrik all you want at the line “Somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerkin,” but it’s a subtler version of “I’m overcharging n*ggaz for what they did to the Cold Crush,” of kicking a girl out of his car for making fun of his doo rag. Jay is still angry, still ornery, still about winning and jamming it in America’s face while he does it. If you love old Jay you gotta recognize lines like “your new shit ain’t better than my last shit / your best shit ain’t better than my worst shit.” You have to appreciate the creeping paranoia in “Part II (On The Run),” the gangster gone straight waiting for the feds to bust in the door one day (“I hear sirens when we make love,” B sings, and Jay responds guiltily, saying “she was a good girl before she met me”).

And if you’re an MC or a fan complaining about how rap never talks about serious topics ever, you have to recognize the career risk in making cuts like “Oceans” that muse about black skin and white tuxedos, about black street kids like Basquiat and Carter mixing with old white art world Hamptons money. The danger in talking about slave ships and yachts, and what we owe the past, not to mention our past selves.

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