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Album review: Jay-Z, 'Magna Carta Holy Grail'

** 1/2 (out of 4)

Jay-Z has been rapping about having a lot of money for a long time: "Without rap, I was crazy straight/partner, I'm still spending money from '88" he spat on "Dead Presidents II" in 1996. Back then, though, there was a populist tilt to his rhymes, one that he saw as an empowering road map--a way to "help [thugs] see they way through it." Even though he had a lot, he was there for those with little.

On the new "Magna Carta Holy Grail," his 12th studio album, he's as wealthy as he's ever been, full-on flaunting from the firm buttprint he's made on The Throne. He's also pulled the ladder up behind him, moving a million copies of the record to Samsung on presale and forgoing the democracy of sales or fans.

Hov refers to himself as "El Padrino" ("the godfather") several times on "MCHG," and it fits better than ever here. The godfather is supposed to be untouchable; we're not supposed to be able to relate to him. In the words of Tony Soprano: "All due respect, but you've got no [bleeping] idea what it's like to be number one." Jay emphasizes that disconnect here--there's little to possibly understand about his life, so we're just left to gawk while he takes care of himself and his own.

That makes "MCHG" feel much more like a tour of the Soprano house than a couch session with Dr. Melfi. There's a lot to look at, like a "yellow Basquiat in his kitchen corner" or "twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel" on "Picasso Baby." His rhymes, too, are impressive on a technical level, but even when he underscores his opulence with lines like "My Mirandas don't stand a chance with cops," it sounds like a gutted novelty.

That goes for the gaudy guest list too, full of names like Timbaland, Pharrell and Frank Ocean. Though they all sound good and well-placed, his collabs with new faces like Hit-Boy ("Somewhere in America") yield the best collaborations, when Hova sounds offended but barely affected while mocking Miley Cyrus and old money.

Jay-Z is a human being, however, and his family is the other thing that brings out his visceral side. He and Beyonce again fashion themselves as Bonnie and Clyde on the soulful "Part II (On The Run)," while he forges a scared dad-rap on "Jay-Z Blue," one of the album's best and most personal cuts.

"Yeezus" offers a nice counterpoint to "MCHG." Though their rollouts were both high minded, the ambition of the music and content on Kanye's album towers over that of "MCHG." Jay-Z doesn't have the compulsion to take those kinds of risks anymore, choosing instead to lamp in the Louvre while he sells albums on his legacy alone. A Don doesn't get his hands dirty or take risks--he lets others take the heat while he rests on his laurels.

In concert: July 22 at Soldier Field

Adam Lukach is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic


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