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  • 05Jul

    On Magna Carta Holy Grail and the evolution of Jay-Z and Hip-Hop Culture


    Magna Carta Holy Grail  finds Jay-Z – the newly proclaimed king of  both hip-hop culture and pop culture-at-large – a semi-retired superstar called into action by mobile technology giant Samsung to put their brand on the map. What follows isn’t so much an album as it is a creative manifesto of #newrules for the future kings – the ultimate player selling the game platinum before telling a single word – a triple OG through and through. Struggling, yet succeeding-at-the-hustle is the stereotype in which hip-hop has arguably found it’s most significant cultural impact. Thus, 2013 finds Jay-Z arguably the most lauded archetypal hip-hop hustler of all time. In being everything from a record mogul to a sports agent (and all spaces in-between), he’s ultimately the ideal voice for such an audacious album. Ultimately, he attempts – and often succeeds – in bearing the weight of such a massive undertaking.

    In speaking to producer Rick Rubin in a promotional video for the release, Jay stated: “The album is about, like this duality of how do you navigate through this whole thing, through success, through failures, through all this and remain yourself.”  Magna Carta Holy Grail is a profound album in that sense – almost as if Samsung’s call-to-arms awakened Jay from moving obliviously to the top of the game. Jay-Z’s been “focused, man,” since hopping on the remix of R & B singer Mya’s “Best of Me” in at the dawn of the new millennium. De-focusing the Roc Nation capo and putting his energies back into rapping over 16 tracks produced largely by Timbaland is quite the feat and yields intriguing, yet maximum results.

    Jay-Z is not a rapper anymore, but rather, he is an “artiste” – an evolved and multi-faceted human being. We don’t get razor sharp flows for the entirety of the album, but what we do get is thoughtful songwriting and words painting panoramic vistas. 20 years ago, there would certainly be a “Reasonable Doubt” that he could create something like “Oceans.” The four-minute Pharrell Williams production blends mentions of Basquiat, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and absurd opulence and has a unique, ear-worming sound. If songs were food, Jigga’s dense, yet basic wordplay is adorned with Frank Ocean’s hook serving as an elegant demi glace.

    If put off by Kanye West’s tense and aggressive take on the ills of black society on Yeezus, then Jay-Hova as the the God M.C. may logically provide an easier-to-digest listening experience. Not much has changed in Jay-Z’s world since Watch the Throne. He’s still wealthy and still willing to rap about things that the average black person now hustling on the streets he formerly ran can’t afford or intellectually understand. Songs like “Tom Ford” and “Picasso Baby” are bourgeois excellence, trap rap for bourgeois Morehouse men and the Harlem intelligentsia. That may be the album’s one failure. If Jay-Z is the first king of fully mainstreamed hip-hop culture, then the wealth and access gap is something he needs to cross. What about the young black people for whom being middle class and comfortably broke is an accomplishment? This is a demographic that hip-hop culture-at-present blindly serves without a voice. Jay clearly cannot do this at this point, and wisely does not attempt to make art to meet this expectation.

    The album’s best moments are on tracks like caustic fame/fear Justin Timberlake duet “Holy Grail,” Mommie Dearest-sampling ‘can I be the dad I never had rap’ “Jay Z Blue,” “La Familia,” “F.U.T.W.,” indulgent pop cultural pastiche “Heaven” and surprisingly his Rick Ross collaboration “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt.” In best exemplifying the maintenance of very specific tropes of rap’s classic eras in Jay’s era of #newrules, these tracks are terrific remembrances of things past from a rap mogul-turned-griot. The inclusion of molly slipping woman rapist (and she ain’t even know it) Ross on the album isn’t as much bold as it is necessary. Ross is a polarizing figure for sure, but absolutely represents a core contingency of black males who are rap fanatics in the 21st century. If this is rap-as-art, not having Ross’ voice in his sonic illustrations would render the album as being far less than effective. “La Familia” is all about the Roc, Jay’s ability to shout out names that Jigga fans haven’t heard in over a decade makes you realize that yes, Bleek STILL can be a hit away his whole career, and if the lyrics in the enormous and significant black culture anthem “Ocean” are true – he could easily end up a billionaire at the end of the day. Jay isn’t so much an old horse winning another race here, as much as an hold horse trotting around a familiar track, then being put out to stud.

    On “Heaven,” Jay-Z states “these is not sixteens, these are verses from the Bible.” In asking a very wealthy semi-retired rapper to put together an album for (at his level) minimal commercial gain, instead of being the “best rapper alive,” Jay-Z instead anointed himself “King of Hip-Hop-as-Pop Culture,” and tried to articulate the massiveness of what that all means. Whether you deem the album a success is not the point. Rather, it’s in the ability of a black man and hip-hop culture-at-large to achieve the audacity of huge and excelling in that notion that truly is inspiring. Though not yet articulated to the greatest extent of their strength and efficacy, the #newrules have arrived.

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