There comes a point in the career of most financially successful rappers when there’s a noticeable shift from a gritty street narrative – chock full of first person sagas ripe with tragedy and heartbreak - to songs that on first listen appear to be proper noun call-outs to various luxuries and amenities that the commoner will never experience/have. Call it maturation. Call it transparency. Call it a “nana nana boo boo” at the various roadblocks with heartbeats that told the master of ceremony that he/she would never amount to anything but a replica of decadence. That musical transformation is every bit targeted at self-realization as it is for the listeners’ pleasure.
The twelfth studio release from Jay-Z – Magna Carta… Holy Grail – marks the return of a bigger than life businessman more than an unexpected hour plus of music from a rapper who at this stage in his career is probably more comfortable being called a “mogul” than a musician. Why? Because musicians are the pawns on the chess boards and as you know…Jay-Z has already instructed us to Watch the Throne.
Like many others this past weekend, I managed to get a listen to MGHG before it officially hit retailers today, and I have to admit, it was an easy listen. There was nothing provocative or hard to swallow. There were a couple instances when a poignant moment made its way front and center over a production slate including Timberland, J-Roc, Pharrell, Swizz Beatz, Hit-Boy, The-Dream and others. Conceptually, the most dominant through-line appears to be the trappings of the fame. But I couldn’t get over just how many status references Jay-Z peppered in; apparently he used his three installments of the Blueprint to build, buy and consume. The concept of luxury rap is nothing new, but inevitably there’s an instance when the listener wants to really identify with the orator. Sure, most probably can’t relate to to the aforementioned “earlier material,” but it’s often the unfamiliar that sheds more light on the human condition than something shiny that you can see your reflection in. The tale is in the tape. And although the first lines we hear on MCHG are “you’d take the clothes off my back, And I’d let you, You’d steal the food right out my mouth, And I’d watch you eat it” – there is little in the way of adversity on this record. Jay-Z may be 43, but the number that really seems to matter to him is 475. That’s dollars, and I could sense it when listening to his latest record.
A painting by Pablo Picasso
A painting by Mark Rothko
A Jeff Koons “Balloon Dog”
A painting, drawing or sculpture by George Condo
A painting by Andy Warhol
Two Bugatti automobiles
A house like the Louvre or Tate Modern
“The Charles The First” painting by Jean Michel Basquiat
Diamond-encrusted mask by Maison Martin Margiela
A bottle of Pétrus from the Bordeaux region of France
A Sonos home audio system
A glass roof on your car like the Pope
Another new Bugatti
Lamborghini Murcielago doors
Mode Creation Munich car seats
5 kilo Cuban link chain
Having sex with Beyoncé on a million dollars as you pretend she’s a prostitute
Living at the Museum of Modern Art
Delivering a direct message to Miley Cyrus that everyone enjoys her twerkin’
Three weeks in the Hamptons…having sex with Beyonce who is pretending to be Sasha Fierce as they watch Miley Cyrus twerkin’ on stage with Juicy J?
I’m reminded of the Chuck Palahniuk quote from Fight Club: “the things you own end up owning you.” There’s no denying that Jay-Z is a mogul – transcending expectations for what a rapper is and what a rapper does. Then perhaps Jay-Z should change the supposed expectations and create a laundry list of other notable achievements that have little to do with his own personal gain – yet show off his ability to put his money where his mouth is. Consider this excerpt from Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office: “Though Jay-Z is better known for making and spending money than giving it away, he has some experience with the latter. He established the Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation to help underprivileged kids attend college in 2002, donated $1 million to Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005, and joined forces with the United Nations and MTV in 2006 to launch a documentary series called The Diary of Jay-Z: Water for Life, which chronicled his journey to Africa to raise awareness about the world water crisis. He also teamed with a slew of celebrities to raise $57 million for Haiti earthquake aid in 2010.”
Jay-Z doesn’t owe anyone anything. His musical debt to society has been paid in full with a stack of classic albums. If anything, MCHG rewrote one chapter of how music will be released in the future – I only wish that innovation and creative spirit took shape in sweeping treble clefs as opposed to $ signs.
Damon Dash once mentioned, “his loyalty is to his money.” I’d have to agree.
Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based writer who has written for Esquire, Details, Maxim and Playboy in the past. Follow him on Twitter @smart_alec_