Eight summers ago, Jay-Z described his impossible journey from no-name to brand name in eight sly words: “I’m not a businessman/I’m a business, man.”
A triumphant little zinger, no doubt. But what about the rest of us? When an artist self-identifies as a corporate entity, are we still Jay-Z fans? Or are we Jay-Z customers?
The answer to that late-capitalist riddle arrives with the rap icon’s insidious new album, “Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail” — which first appeared last week as a data collection exercise disguised as a smartphone app capable of delivering a bundle of mediocre rap songs to your mobile device.
The songs seem to under-deliver, according to Richards:
Instead, “Magna Carta” is packed with his patented American dreaming at its most unimaginative. He name-drops Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francis Bacon as if the only point of art is to own it. He name-drops convicted D.C. gangster Wayne “Silk” Perry on a song named after fashion designer Tom Ford. And in a mysterious courtship ritual with Gen X, he recycles the hooks of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
The last wheel falls off during the album’s final cut, “Nickels and Dimes.” After coughing up a weak Lady Gaga pun — “Taking food out my little monster’s mouth/That’ll drive me gaga” — and rekindling a weird media beef with 86-year-old Harry Belafonte, he closes the album by insulting the listeners who made him a superstar: “Y’all not worthy/Sometimes I feel like y’all don’t deserve me.”
While the groove is nice, Associate Press critic Mesfin Fekadu says there are no outstanding tracks:
But while Jay-Z continues to make headlines away from music, this album treads familiar ground, which makes the album — dare we say it? — average.
He’ll remind you — a couple times — that Samsung bought 1 million copies of the record and gave it away three days early — on songs like “Somewhere In America.” There’s similar flavor lyrically on “Tom Ford,” with its freaky beats, and the bumping “Picasso Baby,” where Beyonce gets a shout-out: “Sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa, the modern version, with better features.”
And though he collaborates with many familiar names, they occasionally outshine the artist, Fekadu says:
While Timberlake works well with Hova, his collaborations with Beyonce and Frank Ocean on “Part II (On the Run)” and “Ocean” rely too much on the R&B singers. There are other big names on the album, like Rick Ross, Pharrell and Nas, but “Magna Carta,” it isn’t designed like albums in the past. There are no catchy hooks to grab you in. The most excitement about the album hasn’t been generated from the music, but it’s promotion plan — Jay-Z announced the album in a commercial during the NBA Finals and launched a series of videos explaining the recording process and songs. He’s continuing to create new blueprints to debut his music. That should be congratulated, but the songs on “Magna Carta” don’t boom like his business plan.
“Knock me to my knees about a million times, uncle said I’ll never sell a million records, I sold a million records like a million times,” he raps on “Crown.”
Yes, you’ve defied the odds, but we want a little more from the king.
Jay-Z ‘Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail’ review: When fans are reduced to customers
Music Review: Jay-Z has some highlights on ‘Magna Carta,’ but mainly treads familiar ground
Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta … Holy Grail”: Lots of hype, little inspiration