2 stars (out of 4)
Jay-Z is one of those MC’s so gifted he often sounds like he’s tossing off his best lines as afterthoughts, the epitome of New York City cool. But that casual air has now given way to name-checking and product-plugging. His 12th studio album, “Magna Carta … Holy Grail” (Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Universal), isn’t an artistic statement so much as a laundry list of acquisitions and accomplishments. It’s the musical equivalent of a Madison Avenue big shot checking his stock portfolio.
It makes sense as a business transaction because that’s how it came to life, with Samsung handing Jay-Z $5 million to release the album as a cellphone application. It was announced via a three-minute prime-time TV ad with Jay-Z chilling in an office suite with his rich and powerful friends, including Pharrell Williams, Rick Rubin, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland. "We need to write new rules," he tells them.
But if the delivery method is new, the music feels rote. Jay-Z brings in his superstar list of collaborators to play clichés of themselves: A smooth and needy Justin Timberlake to croon, Rick Ross to play the thug, Beyonce to coo seductively, Timbaland to keep the production lean, spacious and gleaming.
Frank Ocean gets plenty of room on “Oceans,” and he earns it. He’s typically acute in a few well-chosen lines about the slave trade, his tone tart as he spritzes acid in the party champagne. His bittersweet introspection brings out a deeper and more incisive Jay-Z than we are used to hearing lately: “I'm anti-Santa Maria/Only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace/I don't even like Washingtons in my pocket.”
The rest sounds agreeable enough – an assembly line of pop-centric hip-hop that doesn’t demand a whole lot of investment, and occasionally yields a little gem of unexpected pleasure or insight. A moment of vulnerability creeps into "Jay-Z Blue," as Jay-Z reflects on the paternal love denied him as a child and how this may imperil his efforts to be a good father to his daughter with Beyonce, Blue Ivy. Empathy surfaces on the haunting "Nickels & Dimes," which juxtaposes the rapper’s past with the African-Americans he encounters on the street who can’t overcome their own struggles.
But mostly, this overstuffed album is about Jay-Z and the self-congratulation of his high-powered friends. Pablo Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci are part of the conversation, and so is fashion designer Tom Ford, who gets an entire song named after him. Too bad we can’t collect a buck every time Jay-Z mentions one of the luxury items he’s acquired, whether it’s a car or a painting. At least when he paraphrases Nirvana on “Holy Grail,” he almost sounds appealingly self-deprecating: "We're all just entertainers/And we're stupid and contagious."
From the land of the Basquiats and Maybachs, Jay-Z occasionally tries to shape broader themes. “Somewhere in America” cops a tone reminiscent of his 2011 collaboration with Kanye West, “Watch the Throne,” about the struggles of new-money African-American millionaires. He equates his turmoil with those of the civil-rights era: "America tried to emasculate the greats/Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes."
That’s a stretch, but at least it represents an actual idea. Jay-Z seems to be coming up short on those lately.
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