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Jay-Z's previous albums include Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint. He collaborated with Kanye West for Watch the Throne. (AFP/Getty Images)

Jay-Z Swings Triumphant Then Trivial On 'Magna Carta Holy Grail'

Jul 11, 2013 (Fresh Air)

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Now 43 years old, Jay-Z has become the Jay Gatsby of hip-hop: a man with a checkered background playing host to endless parties, celebrating excellence, the good life and himself. It's no wonder that he was asked to oversee the music for director Baz Luhrmann's amusement park ride version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's romantic fantasy. Jay-Z has been popping champagne corks to his own moneymaking abilities for so long now, with Beyonce by his side as a more attainable Daisy, that we're all reduced to being Nick Carraways, looking at him with a mixture of bafflement and envy. It's a mixture Jay-Z seeks to further on his new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, a gaudy puzzler that's both triumphant and trivial.

On the track "Somewhereinamerica," Jay-Z goes over the familiar ground of the nouveau riche versus old money. Lots of black rappers chafe, in their lyrics, over the disdain they sense from moneyed white culture, and Jay-Z doesn't add much to this genre of resentment. The best thing about this variation on the theme is the co-production by the hip-hop artist Hit Boy, which gives a bouncy oomph to the sluggish complaints. Its trombone brass sound effect works as a musical criticism, giving a raspberry to Jay-Z's litany. His more amusing rich-man's-playthings catalog, a composition called "Picasso Baby," finds him rhyming the Miami festival Art Basel with "life colossal," he praises "Jeff Koons balloons," and pronounces himself, rather more weirdly, the new Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Despite guest cameos by Justin Timberlake and Frank Ocean, there is a lassitude to much of Magna Carta. Can it possibly be ascribed to the banality of real life? Much of this album's rhyming sounds tossed-off, distracted — is this the work of a scattered, tired new dad? That doesn't square with the high-living self-described billionaire who is difficult to imagine losing sleep walking a squawking baby Blue Ivy around in the middle of the night, or changing a diaper, although he does use Pampers as an unfortunate rhyme-word with "Hamptons." On the song "Jay-Z Blue," he samples a bit of Faye Dunaway dialogue from the movie Mommy Dearest, but not to worry — he's not implying that the mother of his child, Beyonce, is swinging wire hangers around the crib. On other songs, he compares Beyonce to the Mona Lisa, and also builds a hymn to and around her, inviting his wife to join in.

Magna Carta Holy Grail arrives on the heels of Kayne West's album Yeezus, a far more abrasive production that found Jay Z's onetime protégé proclaiming himself a God and grinding the Billie Holiday classic "Strange Fruit" into a pulp. Jay-Z also compares himself to the deity and invokes "Strange Fruit," but in a shrewder context. In the song "Oceans," he locates the irony of cruising the high seas in a fancy boat while being haunted by the notion that these may be the same waters that transported slaves to America. No one is asking Jay-Z to become a morose historian, but as he's proved in the past, he's frequently at his best when he's not merely self-aware, but aware of a world that existed before his arrival, beyond money, yachts, jewelry and boasting.

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