Jay-Z last truly great effort, The Black Album, was a retirement-announcing showcase that was perhaps too effective, signaling an end to the then-regnant MC’s peak period. As for his post-faux-retirement period, it’s significant that the strongest of the bunch hasn’t been one of his self-congratulatory blowout spectacles, but the relatively unassuming American Gangster, an off-the-cuff project apparently motivated by the artist’s kinship with the Ridley Scott movie of the same name. Flush with genuine inspiration, it stands out above Jay’s higher-profile releases, which qualify as either shiftless and embarrassing (the fiasco-ish comeback Kingdom Come, undoubtedly his worst recording to date) or morbidly fascinating (the wildly uneven Blueprint 3, one of the clearest instances of a midlife crisis committed to tape.)
The point is, Jay-Z is at his best when he’s engaged, as the moments of vulnerability and mortality contemplation on the latest Blueprint revealed. The only engagement on Magna Carta…Holy Grail is with the tedious chore of legacy-building, and as a consequence of the prevailing idea that the size and spectacle of the album will speak for themselves, Jay proves less of a presence than ever, and his rapping is lifeless and anemic enough to skirt self-parody. Contrast this with the wrenchingly immediate Yeezus, so forceful and vivid despite its flaws. Both albums flirt with the idea of self-deification, and while Kanye leans more toward the Greco-Roman conception of a god (petty, fickle, and fascinatingly flawed), Jay-Z strives for something closer to the New Testament tradition, detached to the point of potential nonexistence.
Hoary and pompous, Magna Carta definitively signals the rapper’s shift toward creative insignificance, as an artist now primarily defined by his business forays, of which this album is only one of many, and whose unwillingness to do anything other than verbally stack accomplishments has finally painted him into a corner. This is conspicuous consumption at its worst, full of songs propped up on pedestals of lazy acquisition cataloguing, imagining, in a last-ditch grasp at social significance, that wealth accrual can be positioned as the ultimate “fuck you” to a racist society. And while Jay-Z has enjoyed success at a level unparalleled by other rappers, to the point where the usual “rich but not wealthy” glass ceiling that entraps so many in gilded cages of overstretched status-seeking no longer applies, this doesn’t mean that hearing about his victories is any more interesting. He briefly attempts to look outside himself on songs like “Oceans,” nodding toward slavery and historical injustice, but these allusions are inevitably distressing, functioning as mere lead-ups to the eventual conclusion that fabulous wealth is a panacea, part and parcel of Jay’s imaginary notion that his level of accomplishment will be enough to silence haters of all stripes, not to mention his own internal demons.
Those demons still manage to sneak in here and there, yet the creeping sense that the man behind so many platinum albums has nothing left to achieve, and that all his possessions are ephemeral, inspires less emotion than it did on The Blueprint 3, with the cold façade of matchless prosperity acting as the prevailing mode here. Stately pride, bogus reflectiveness, and arrogant flippancy are the only feelings available to Jay-Z circa 2013, which means he can brook no admissions of weakness or personal deficiency. From the beginning he’s been self-consciously occupied with the need to remind us of his greatness, but that compulsion was always backed up by intricate expressions of ruthless narcissism. Here it’s devolved into pure, empty name-checking (reaching an early back-to-back peak on “Picasso Baby” and “Tom Ford”) to the extent that all other parties involved, from Basquiat and Cobain to Timbaland and Timberlake, have their star status pointed back toward Jay-Z himself, used to confirm his own iconic eminence. This escalates to the point where even a song about his baby daughter (“Jay Z Blue”) sounds less like a loving ode to fatherhood than a shout-out to the officially sponsored, fledgling brand known as Blue Ivy (complete with obligatory B.I.G. and Diddy appearances); no one here, whether they’re a family member, old collaborator, or famous producer, is free from the autocratic focus on portfolio diversification.
Jay remains at a purposeful remove through all this, whether he’s sitting back in silence as Justin Timberlake croons out the first few minutes of the opening title track, or letting Rick Ross grunt his way through the barebones “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” the apotheosis of the musical proficiency and droning repetition common to so many of the songs here. The fact that Jay has so little to do with the best moments on the album is key, as is the fact that he’s likely doing this deliberately, showing that he pulls the strings on this whole operation while divesting himself from it, gangland boss-style. This kind of presentation didn’t work all the way back on The Dynasty, and it pays even slimmer dividends here, leaving Magna Carta as an album without a functional center, anchored by a half-interested rapper stripped of his hunger and ambition. On The Blueprint 3, there was at least still the frisson provided by Jay’s insecurity with his waning creative dominance, which resulted in endless swiping at foes both real and imagined. By now he seems more secure, or at least more insistent on pretending to be, and appears to have realized how unbecoming it is for a king to have to lash out at his subjects. The only noticeable target here is the 86-year-old Harry Belafonte, taken to task on “Nickels and Dimes,” for dissing Jay and his wife for what he deemed insufficient charitable presence.
That he’s gone from squaring off with Nas (and countless others) to tossing admonishing rebuffs at old men may show that Jay-Z’s finally at the top of the heap, to the point of no longer being on conversational terms with any but the most remote of cultural icons. Yet while Kanye just managed to crest the same plateau while disappearing further down a personal rabbit hole of tics and anxieties, Jay-Z’s persona only gets more shriveled and impersonal as he soars further outside the realms of mere mortals. The beats still sound expensive, the guests are the best money can buy, but his ivory-tower ascendance has left him unmoored in a detached Gatsybian universe, the opulence of which doesn’t come close to masking how enfeebled of a creative presence he’s become. In this sense, the title reference to the Magna Carta, a document stripping English kings of their unbounded power, is fitting seeing that Magna Carta is an album that does the same, removing the gloss on an artist who’s long since ceased to be untouchable.