He’s not a rap man, he’s an app, man. The drop of Jay-Z’s new album Magna Carta… Holy Grail at midnight on Independence Day seemed less like a musical event than like a Silicon Valley IPO. Conveyed exclusively by a Samsung application to a million Galaxy phone and tablet users, the release not only forced old-media institutions to rewrite their rules and raised complaints about NSA-style invasions of privacy, but came with a glitch that crashed the promised downloads; the only other way to hear it that night was through a stream from Hot 97 over which DJ Funkmaster Flex interpolated hype-man exclamations that mostly dissed iPhones.
Rubbing out the boundary between art and entrepreneurship always has been part of Jay-Z’s hustle. But now that some of the pixelated fog has dissipated and we’ve had the long weekend to listen to the leaks, how does the music measure up? For a creator who crows, “Oh, I’m so good at math,” Jay’s made a product that’s less than the sum of its impressive surfaces.
The production, by Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, Hit-Boy, and others (including WondaGurl, a 16-year-old from Ontario), gleams like the luxury good it is. But the music is only intermittently moving to head, hips, or heart. The most enticing sonics, like the New Orleans horns on “Somewhereinamerica,” seldom coincide with the freshest bars—even if “Somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’ ” rivals Kanye West’s “Hurry up with my damn croissants!” as 2013’s funniest cross-cultural-double-dutch twist.
While Mr. Carter’s status as an Old Master of rapping is not in doubt, the “old” side of that equation weighs heavier and Hovier. His sights never quite lock in. The multilevel wordplay, wit and wisdom that are his calling cards flicker amid the Fortune 500 asset inventories and street-cred callbacks, and punch lines that often warrant the lamentable tag of Dad Rap.
In the artist’s defense, there aren’t many rappers who’ve survived long enough, physically, psychologically, and commercially, to grapple with aging with dignity the way jazz, blues, country, and (sometimes) rock personalities do. His star has risen right off the road map, as was bound to happen to someone in the genre’s fourth decade. But with the tech at his disposal, perhaps a few extra features engineered into the Magna Carta app would have helped. For example:
1. Reference Auto-Refresher
This search-and-replace engine would catch all the pop-culture references that make Jay seem mired in the 1990s and offer more up-to-date options.
It would flag names he’s dropped repeatedly in the past—is he honestly still worrying he’ll end up like Mike Tyson or MC Hammer?—and tropes tired out within the album itself: If he must keep making Mafia/Roc-A-fella parallels, isn’t it time to come up with models other than The Godfather and Goodfellas? (He twice repeats a dinero/De Niro joke he first made in 1996 on “Bring It On.”) Like at least The Sopranos? And move on from Colombian drug cartels to, say, Mexican ones?
This program also might delete Jay’s attempts to top his own classics—the “Part II (On the Run)” duet with Beyoncé here is pleasant enough till you really remember “ ’03 Bonnie & Clyde.”
Worse yet is the ’90s alt-rock nostalgia, from the quotation of “Losing My Religion” in the generally fine “Heaven” to the goofy Nirvana singalong that euthanizes the already lame opening track. That said, though, would we want them to be switched up with a Vampire Weekend reference? Be careful what you wish for: When Jay says on “F.U.T.W.” that he feels “like Brody from Homeland,” I can only picture him and Beyoncé on the sofa in silver PJs, binge-watching cable, which I suspect is not the epic scale he was aiming for.
2. Art Collection Audio Guide
Perhaps if there were a supplemental track that could just walk us through Jay’s Basquiats and Picassos—whether he owns them or got a viewing at the Tate Modern, MOMA, or Art Basel—he would stop going on about them in the songs themselves.
It’s refreshing to hear high-culture shout-outs in rap songs, with artists rather than dons and CEOs as role models. Yet Jay doesn’t seem to love the paintings but rather the social echelons they represent, an elitism somehow more odious than his Tom Ford and Maybach homages. The conspicuous waddling of his auction paddle, like the yearning he expresses to get “bluebloods” to attend his housewarming, is a more alienating class betrayal than hip-hop’s usual aspirational materialism—a transformation not just of circumstances but of identity and allegiance.
It’s a temporary respite when in the middle of “Picasso Baby,” Jay sasses the art to his baby daughter: “Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner/ Go ahead, lean on that shit, Blue, you own it.” Rap still ought to dethrone icons, not genuflect before them.
It’s difficult for an artist who’s triumphed to thrill as much as an up-and-comer with plenty to prove. That’s one hurdle that’s made the latter-day Jay-Z so much less mesmerizing than he was up until The Black Album. The warrior instinct gets channeled into petty grudges. But I find myself compelled by the final track, “Nickels and Dimes,” partly due to the terrific Gonjasufi sample that underscores it, but also because the debate—with Harry Belafonte’s criticism that celebrities of Jay’s generation don’t give back to charity, plus Jay’s own “survivor’s guilt”— feels worth having.
Jay claims, tongue-in-cheek, that his flow is already more of a gift than humanity deserves. But he earnestly asserts that his generosity plays out more nobly behind the scenes: “You don’t know all the shit I do for the homies. … The greatest form of giving is anonymous to anonymous.”
In that spirit why not add a crowdfunding feature to the Magna Carta app that would permit Jay and his fans alike to suggest worthwhile causes? Though with the built-in GPS tracking and other data-mining capabilities, anonymity would be tough to guarantee.
4. Blue Ivy Baby Monitor
Dad Rap slags aside, fatherhood lends this outing whatever depth it has. It’s not his first visit to the subject, but “Jay-Z Blue (Daddy Dearest)” is a truly affecting exploration of his fears of being a bad husband and parent due to the trauma of his own father’s abandonment. Even the Faye Dunaway-as-Joan Crawford samples are welcome—who’d have thought Jay-Z would dare camp? The side mentions of his wife and daughter in other songs have a rare sweetness, too (despite the squicky evocations of his sex life with Beyoncé).
Along with “Oceans”— where Frank Ocean’s vocals, the strongest guest spot on the album, buoy the complex consideration of being a successful, yacht-owning black man in a nation one’s ancestors reached in slave ships—it allows you to imagine what a wholly mature Jay-Z album might be like.
A function that let us listen quietly to the pulse of Blue Ivy Carter’s heart could reveal the album’s most essential beat.
As it comes just a few weeks after Kanye West’s dramatically staged release of Yeezus, there’s an inevitable drive to compare: Is West’s crasser but more musically inventive deployment of “Strange Fruit” better than Jay’s more tasteful but slight pun about Billie Holiday? Which deals more provocatively with the wealth/race paradox, “Oceans” or “New Slaves”? Who gets to be a “God,” or at least the sacrificial GOAT?
I find the experimental beats of West’s album more arresting. You could make a case for MC… HG’s sheen. Yet I’m more inclined to think back to the pair’s 2011 collaboration, Watch the Throne. It might have been an inconsistent album, but its heights (“No Church in the Wild,” “Niggas in Paris,” and others) endure the way little on MC… HG likely will. This album has nothing to serve as yang to Jay’s yin. Although West is Jay’s protégé and the weaker rapper, the student keeps advancing hip-hop in a manner the master hasn’t in years, pushing the emotive, introspective turn much of the field has followed. When Jay’s steadiness is juxtaposed with West’s self-conscious compulsion, it opens up the humanity of the enterprise. Without such a foil, Jay’s thug swagger starts to seem as smug as Mick Jagger’s.
And so, just as there’s an app that can convert anything to a T-Pain sound (though Jay would hate that), I’d like to push a button that would interlay some of West’s 21st-century uncertainties into more of the 20th-century-bound Magna Carta… Holy Grail.