After a series of false starts (no athletic pun intended) on a variety of sporty topics, I’ve decided to write a post here at Bo Jackson’s Hip that isn’t about sports at all. I started and stopped posts about Jason Collins coming out of the closet, Tim Tebow moving to New England, and most recently, the two epic collapses we saw in Game 6 of the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Final. But none of those topics materialized into something interesting to read, so I’ve scrapped all of that and decided to flex a different linguistic muscle.
In lieu of sports, this post’s focus is Jay-Z, and more specifically his new long player, Magna Carta Holy Grail. Rap music, and Mr. Carter himself, pop up all the time during my posts about sports, so trust me when I say that though this post isn’t about sports, it's still Bo Jackson's Hip.
This isn’t exactly a review of Magna Carta Holy Grail, but more a discussion of it in relation to Jay-Z’s close to two-decade-long career. I’m not a music critic, but still want to examine what the new album says about him and his position in the music industry and the American culture at large. I probably wouldn’t be suited to review a Jay-Z album because of my devotion to his catalogue and belief that he is perhaps the greatest MC of all time, but ironically I do feel suited to talk about what the album and its artist mean in a broader sense. The album is a statement about Jay-Z’s role as a black success story in white America, a hyperbolic but fairly accurate representation of his cultural influence, his navigation of fame’s complex gauntlet, and of course–because he’s still a rapper at the end of the day–the fact that he’s a much better MC than the rest of these lyrical crumbsnatchers.
The first track, “Holy Grail”, features a soulful Justin Timberlake delivering perhaps the performance of his career, and acts as a potent thesis statement for the remainder of the album. It is a song about the trappings of fame, and about Jay-Z's continued escapability. It references black figures that have squandered their wealth like MC Hammer and Mike Tyson, and a white musician who buckled under the fierce gaze of the public eye in Kurt Cobain. A brief melodic and lyrical sampling from "Smells Like Teen Spirit" finds Jay and Justin Timberlake re-working Nirvana's bombastic entry into the mainstream, shifting "here we are now, entertain us" into "and we all just, entertainers." The song and much of the album assert that Jay-Z is near immune to the serious damage that fame can do to an individual, and contains some of Magna Carta Holy Grail's other recurring themes: Jay-Z's position as an influential black American, the responsibility that comes with this power, and his still heavy influence on rap music.
From jump street, I’m buying it. That’s because I believe that Jay-Z means something in America, the same way that Michael Jordan means something, or James Brown means something, or Ernest Hemingway means something, or Orson Welles means something.
Or Muhammad Ali means something.
The boxer is mentioned several times on MCHG (I’m already tired of typing that whole damn thing out), and like Jean-Michel Basquiat, is a continued referential and reverential touchstone. While Jay-Z has never stood up for a cause the way Ali did in his refusal to enter the draft, or spent time in jail for this and his religious convictions, I still think the Ali references are merited. I don’t know that any athlete has ever transcended his own sport to fascinate and inspire both America and the global community the way Muhammad Ali has, and I don’t think that another ever will. Jay-Z no doubt sees himself in a similar light, and while some may call that a typical display of egoism for the rapper, I for one can at least see why he has so much admiration for the champ. Like Ali, Jay’s the greatest, and he’s black, and motherfuckers have to deal with that. Just take a look at the references to the Louisville Lip from MCHG:
Just let me be great, just let me be great
I feel like mothafuckin' Cassius Clay right now, genius!
the black Maybach, I'm back inside the boat
America tried to emasculate the greats
Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes
Wait, tell them rumble young man rumble
Like the greatest heavyweight of all time became more than just a fighter, Jay-Z has become something beyond an artist. This is evident in his move outward into business as the former CEO of Def Jam and current CEO of Roc Nation, and in his co-ownership of the Nets, where he was the driving force behind the NBA team’s move from New Jersey to Brooklyn. And recently, his foray into athlete representation (he’s off to a nice start) forced him to move up and move on, ceding his stake in the NBA franchise that now calls his home-borough home. He’s done all of this while joining into a high-profile marriage with perhaps the most well-known female artist in music since Madonna, Beyoncé Knowles, only increasing an already large pop-cultural cache. Like Ali, this has happened with, for want of a better word, his blackness intact. In the same way that Muhammad Ali’s race wasn’t an aspect of his fame, but inseparable from it, Jay-Z has always been not only prideful of his status as a black American, but intentionally unquiet about what it means in the context of our culture.
This personal motivation, which goes back to his emergence from retirement with 2006’s Kingdom Come, is now a sharpened weapon the rapper wields regularly in response to his critics, an upstart generation of rappers, and frankly anyone who doubts his capabilities. Like Ali, Jay-Z’s confidence, style, and fearlessness are a charismatic combination that captivate the culture as a whole–not just fans of sports or music. Kingdom Come was a warning shot to younger rappers that the king of New York was back, The Blueprint 3 was a continuation of that theme, but also a reminder that even as he aged, Jay-Z was still a forward thinking mainstream artist sonically and topically, and his shared effort with Kanye West, Watch the Throne, was a flag-planting ceremony that decided to forego subtlety in favor of a celebration of the black wealth, power, and influence that both men have cultivated. (In between all of that great music was a spur-of-the-moment classic called American Gangster inspired by the film of the same name. It is a deft exploration of the similarities he found in the story of drug dealer Frank Lucas, but I digress...). And of course, it was Jay-Z who brought Kanye along lo those many years ago, when the kilt-wearing media hound was still rocking brightly colored polo shirts and a backpack on stage (I know, I was there on that first tour, but more on ‘Ye in just a moment...).
By following his farewell to the game, The Black Album (can’t be much clearer than that album title) with Kingdom Come, The Blueprint 3, Watch the Throne, and now Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay-Z’s statement to the music industry and America as a whole about his status as an artist and a black success story in the United States has been, in order: “I’m back”, “I’m the future”, “I matter”, and now, “I’m not finished”.
With, MCHG Jay-Z proves himself smarter, stronger, and bent on expanding his breadth of influence and financial prowess. Unlike Ali, and his rap contemporaries the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, Jay intends to flourish into middle age and work towards injecting a bit of melanin into the lily-white power structure of the United States, which fittingly is now run by a man of mixed white and black blood. After all, as Jay already told us, he himself is a “small part of the reason the president is black.”
And while many assessments of MCHG and Jay-Z’s other recent output point out that the MC is stuck in a “I’m richer than you are” rut, I would argue that his eloquence on the mic is only increasing, and that while his words have begun to ring a familiar bell, like a great novelist Jay-Z is performing deft variations on a theme. His entire career arc can almost be summed up in just one of his most memorable lines: “from Marcy to Madison Square”. He has risen from a low-level street hustler in a Brooklyn housing project to be one of the richest men in entertainment and now to be a multi-dimensional business man who lunches with Warren Buffett and visits with the president.
I’d pound that message home too if I were him.
No wonder that pre-MCHG, Jay-Z’s last appearance on record was a contribution to the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the The Great Gatsby. Like Fitzgerald’s protagonist, Shawn Carter is a stranger in a strange (read: rich) land, with a wealth initially built on criminal behavior that has exploded into a legitimate rise into the upper class. A place where not only do the two Jays seemingly not belong, but must struggle with the old guard of American wealth’s dated ideas about what it means to be rich and powerful. And again, like Ali, B.I.G., Tupac, and Jay Gatsby, Jay-Z refuses to let this life batter him into submission. He will not succumb to figurative and literal beatings, or a fictional or actual death at the hands of his fame and wealth.
The album's intent is reinforced just before halftime with "Somewhere in America", a triumphant tune that serves as prelude to further explorations of the rapper's self-perceived and actual impact. The next three songs embellish "Somewhere"'s vibe and attitude, as "Crown", "Heaven" and the brief but powerful "Versus" take lethal aim at anyone who would dare sell Jay-Z short. This is all done atop the varyingly lush and sparse production of Timbaland, whose near-continuous presence on the album gets assists from J-Roc, Pharrell, Boi-1da, Hit Boy, and The Dream. Conspicuously absent from that list of who's-who producers is Kanye West, whom Jay-Z seems intent on putting in his place. Lyrical shout-outs to Kanye's Yeezus pop up from time to time, and the album seems to be a reminder to Kanye that he is still the Pippen to Jay-Z's Jordan.
With his latest release, Kanye West decided to be so direct in his assessment of himself as a powerful black man that the album borders on parody, while Jay-Z foregoes Yeezy’s hatchet in favor of the scalpel. Kanye titles a song “I Am a God”, on an album called Yeezus while Jigga starts “Crown” with a boastful line in the spirit of rap tradition: ‘You in the presence of a king/scratch that, you in the presence of a god.’ This couplet is in line with the Five-percent Nation’s belief in the black man as god on earth, which is also referenced in “Heaven”, with Jay saying: “Arm, leg, leg, arm, head - this is God body/Knowledge, wisdom, freedom, understanding - we just want our equality.” The Five-percenters take ALLAH as an acronym for arm, leg, leg, arm, head and consider the knowledge of self as an ultimate pursuit.
Jay-Z has a baby with Beyoncé. Kanye has a baby with Kim. Nuff said. Also Magna Carta (Carter) is a much better play on words than Yeezus (Yeezy/Jesus), just sayin’.
Kanye can’t seem to get out of his own ego’s way. He turned what is an important and at times breathtaking sonic contribution to the mainstream of rap in Yeezus into a trite black (mogul) power manifesto. Contrastingly, Jay-Z expertly walks the line between pop artist and black difference-maker, enabling him to deliver his message with a stealthy vigor, and also more effectively than his protege. The album as a whole, from promotion to execution, are a not-so-subtle reminder to Mr. West of where he got his swagger from. While Kanye stirs up a commotion with an arrogant projection of his new video on the side of a building, Jay-Z debuts his album art next to the real Magna Carta. While Kanye strips his record of artistic packaging altogether and doesn’t mind when it leaks to the web early, Jay-Z makes a game-changing move in the age of the download by guaranteeing his record’s platinum status through a million-copy deal with Samsung.
In both content and context, Kanye comes off as a child screaming for attention, while Jay-Z asserts himself as a grown man that everyone notices when he walks into a room.
Yet through all of this chest-puffing, name-dropping (one song on MCHG is called “Tom Ford” for chrissakes), and money-counting, the introspective version of Jay-Z is still the star of the album. Frank Ocean, who joins the MC on the aptly titled “Oceans”, brings out the same Jay-Z he lured forward in Watch the Throne’s “Made In America”. Recognizing his fame and the small odds of his success, he says ‘If it wasn't for these pictures they wouldn't see me at all/Aww, whole world's in awe/I crash through glass ceilings, I break through closed doors.’ Likewise, in “Jay-Z Blue”, he addresses a near-maniacal urge to shelter his new daughter from public torment, sampling Mommie Dearest dialogue and giving us lines like: ‘Now I got my own daughter/taught her how to take her first steps/cut the cord watch her take her first breath/and I’m trying and I’m lying if I said I wasn’t scared.’
A rapper telling you about his fatherly fears is one thing, but when he goes on to talk about how stoked he is about his wife, things really get anti-rap-establishment. What might sound like a cheesy premise for a song is actually anything but, and the modern-day New Jack Swing of “Part II (On The Run)” ends up being a sincere duet with Beyoncé and a sure-fire future hit single. The look inward continues at album’s end, with “Nickels and Dimes”, a last exploration of Jay’s career-spanning theme: his rise from poverty to power. In this fitting closer, he is at once both unsure of his status: ‘I cut myself today to see if I still bleed/success is so sublime/gotta do that time to time so I don’t lose my mind/something ‘bout the struggle so divine/this sort of love is hard to define’ and still clearly comfortable with his self-given title as the best rapper alive: ‘Like Magic in his prime when Kareem sky hooked/Y’all not worthy, sometimes I feel like y’all don’t deserve me, my flow unearthly.’
Just to get all Decoded on your ass real quick, let’s take a look at Jay-Z’s talent on the mic from just those last two songs.
After he hijacks Juvenile’s cadence and flow in “Part II” , bouncing along with: ‘Touch a nigga where his rib at/I click clat/push your motherfuckin’ wig back/I did that’ the next line is about how he’s ‘been wilding since a juvi’. No one makes you listen close like Jay-Z. Not convinced? How about those “Nickels and Dimes” lines, where throwing in the word “worthy” (as in worthiness and James Worthy) after referencing Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabar is the kind of subtle double entendre other rappers just can’t mimic. It’s next-level wordplay that only Shawn Carter seems capable of delivering without beating you over the head with its cleverness–a trait so many new MC’s lack. Toss in the fact that the internal rhyme from that other line in “Nickels”–sublime/time to time/lose my mind–would make Rakim blush and you have a record that just made a bunch of youngsters trolling Rap Genius lose their collective minds.
Magna Carta Holy Grail is a statement on fame, a message to the white establishment, and a vivid reminder to MCs everywhere about who’s still on top. Jay-Z wants you take away a sense of his prominence as a wealthy black man in America, but at the end of the day he still can’t resist sonning a few more rappers before it’s all said and done. MCHG is an example of Jay-Z at his lyrical best, and an example of an artist who is distinctly aware of his own influence and ability.
It’s Magna Carta, the magnum opus...it’s Picasso, baby.