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.