While some would argue Magna Carter Holy Grail is Jay-Z's latest album, I'd disagree. I think it more accurate to call it a delivery system, given the technological and economic dynamics of its release. Although if you didn't cop it through Samsung, perhaps it is as accurate to call it a product.  

I haven't heard it. Don't plan to. Jay-Z for me is the epitome of the neoliberal MC. There is no phrase that captures the neoliberalization of rap better than "I'm not a businessman I'm a business, man." And while he has a lot of life left, I'm not sure that he's got the capacity to take the lifestyle of a half-billionaire and turn that into dramatic art. 

Chris Richards and Bomani Jones get this.

Richards clearly understands the technological dynamics that make MCHG more like a sophisticated marketing survey than to a rap album. 

And now who would want to be either? Throughout “Magna Carta,” the 43-year-old pretends he’s a threat to a system he’s so eagerly become a part of, as if his life as a champion capitalist is some perpetually escalating act of subversion. Hooray? Rooting for this man in 2013 is like rooting for Pfizer. Or PepsiCo. Or PRISM.

Plus, all of this Samsung hullabaloo has only distracted listeners from the fact that, musically and lyrically, “Magna Carta” is one of Jay-Z’s blandest offerings. Over 16 joylessly professional tracks, our hero laces up his sneakers for his bazillion-thousandth victory lap around the hip-hop universe. There’s no mood, no verve, no vision to this music. It’s the sound of champagne being sprayed around an empty locker room.

We don't see the term "neoliberalism" dropped in the Washington Post, but if it WAS dropped, it would definitely be dropped here. There are undoubtedly JayZ fans who probably do root for him like they do Pepsi. And I'll admit to appreciating the anthemic tone he and Kanye have contributed to the artform. But there really isn't a "there" there. 

And Bomani Jones?

Jones doesn't get enough credit…it's been years since Ralph Wiley passed away and only now can I say that without regret.[foot]In fact I’d say that with folks like Kiese Laymon, Jones, and Ta-Nehisi Coates the American essay is in very good hands.[/foot] Like Wiley, Jones understands sports (both as Xs, Os, and contracts, and as commentary on the human condition). Like Wiley, Jones understands popular culture–in fact I'd say that Jones has Wiley beat on the music tip. And while I imagine Wiley would've been excellent on the mic, what I appreciate about Jones is he's able to quickly synthesize his thoughts on the fly for a national televised audience on the regular. The fact that Jones is only a dissertation away from an economics phd is just icing on the cake. Here I see Jones at the top of his game:

That subversiveness, the feeling that Jay-Z is thriving in a place he’s not supposed to be and indifferent to whether he fits in, is missing on Magna Carta… Holy Grail. It’s not just because Jay is rich; his pockets were straight before his first album. It’s that Jay sounds more and more like a card-carrying member of the elite.

Forget about Frank Ocean singing about his blackness staining a white tuxedo on “Oceans.” Jigga has made the cover of Time, and his ability to make the rich even richer has made them embrace him. Jay’s true level of power is up for debate, but he has a seat at the table with power brokers, and the chair is mighty cushy. So cushy that, on “Nickel and Dimes,” he says everyone around him is rich, or will be. That’s hard to relate to and, even worse, it doesn’t sound like he cares.

He has won the game of life, but that doesn’t make for very interesting music. While Jay’s best quality as a musician is making it sound easy, his best music makes clear that it’s not. Now? There are no more rival drug dealers to stave off, no court cases to beat. There may be rappers of his caliber, but none in his class. The only woman with a hand in his pocket doesn’t need his money.


Jones understands JayZ's place in the canon. Understands his ouevre. He's no Johnny Come Lately to the Shawn Carter phenomenon. But he's non-plussed. For good reason. 

Mark Anthony Neal on the other hand takes another route. To be fair there's a big difference in writing for the Wall Street Journal than writing for either the Shadow League or for the Washington Post. Jones and Richards may have the luxury to speak truth without having to defend the very idea of black talent. But JayZ can handle his own. So when Neal drops nuggets like this:

Jay-Z presents a particular challenge for some as he’s always been honest about the fact that he is more than a rapper. Indeed there’s some irony in the fact that so many critics voice disappointment in Mr. Carter’s creative output since his “retirement”—rebranding being the better term—in 2003, holding him to an artistic standard that they willfully ignored during his so-called peak moments of creativity with recordings such as “The Blueprint” and “The Black Album.” Accused of exaggerating a past of drug dealing and hustling, some critics are equally dismissive of Mr. Carter when he talks about the “world he knows,” which these days includes wealth accumulation (imagine folks not wanting to hear that from Bill Gates or Warren Buffett), his burgeoning career as a sports agent, the challenges of fatherhood, and his affection (or addiction) to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings and legacy.

This dynamic is akin to all those commentators who chide Serena Williams for wanting to be more than just a tennis player, while she is, in fact, the best women’s tennis player in the world.

I read him as defending JayZ as opposed to taking the product on its own terms. And the defense is weak. This, for example is what Warren Buffet has to say about wealth accumulation. This is what Bill Gates has to say about wealth accumulation. What, exactly, does JayZ have to contribute to this discussion? Furthermore everything I’ve read about Serena’s streak suggests she’s put more emphasis on her game than she ever has before. Neal writes off the critics as having race on their mind, putting JayZ on a pedestal they wouldn't put Timberlake for example. 

Mr. Carter may want to reduce this all to “And we all just /entertainers / And we’re stupid / And contagious” (a nod to Kurt Cobain’s famous lyrics) as he does with Justin Timberlake on one of “Magna Carta Holy Grail’s” true keepers, but nobody has a problem with Mr. Timberlake being an actor, recording artist and sometime court jester with the “Saturday Night Live” troupe. What Mr. Carter really wants to say—but can’t really because he’s in bed with Samsung and LiveNation and needs to move units —is that it’s often only black artists and sports figures who are told to keep focused on their day jobs.

“Magna Carta Holy Grail” might be Mr. Carter’s most personal and introspective recording since “Reasonable Doubt” (“Kingdom Come” notwithstanding).  “Jay-Z Blue”—once a color that Mr. Carter tried to brand, and now a reference to his daughter Blue Ivy—for example, comes off not as some sentimental throw-away (like the internet leaked “Glory”), but a song that grasps the challenges and joys of parenting with an urgency rarely heard in pop music. Yet it’s important to remember that “Reasonable Doubt” was produced a generation ago. The recording industry as it stands now offers very little space for artists to be thoughtful, complex and contradictory (i.e. to be fully human), especially if you’re black.

No. More like "especially if you call yourself God." Listen. I understand that black creative artists and intellectuals have a burden to bear. But JayZ and by extension people like Serena Williams put it on themselves the moment they not only entered the arena but stated they wanted to dominate it. It bears repeating. JayZ called HIMSELF “Jehovah”. Given the product he might want to rethink that decision. Because right about now, he’s looking a lot more like the money lenders.