Jay-Z’s recent release Magna Carta…Holy Grail was released after a lot of media-created hype and advertisement, from Hulu ads to a spot in the NBA finals, with Jay-Z behind the wheel for most of it. The release of the album itself embraced and took advantage of new media and technology. Jay-Z has always been a forward-thinking businessman, integrating his public image and his business portfolio into his art and vice-versa. Magna Carta is no different. The album comes hot off the heels of Jay-Z’s recent foray into NBA ownership, a partnership with basketball video game franchise NBA2k and the dissolution of said NBA team ownership in favor of creating a sports agency, not to mention the crazy amount of publicity his foray into Cuba garnered. The method of release for the album – to be released exclusively for owners of Samsung mobile devices before the general release – promised to change the way we consume advertisement and media. This release method is its own scary omen for the way major tech companies are taking over social media and pop art consumption, but perhaps that’s another blog post topic. All this combined with the traditional techniques of advertising in television and on the internet set up Magna Carta for great success.
Magna Carta was not Jay-Z selling out, it was supposed to be the culmination of everything he always tried and purported himself to be: “not a businessman…a business, man.” The album was to be the ultimate convergence of art, media, advertising and technology; a work with its finger on the pulse of our media/advertising/technology-driven society. Everything about Magna Carta, from its presentation to its content and its physical (or non-physical, depending on how you view it) form, screams “zeitgeist” for the “digital age.” So why is it a filure? Because while Jay did everything and more to make a modern-day album successful from the business side, he lost sight of what made him a force in the rap world to begin with: cultural relevance. Jay-Z’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail is a masterpiece in marketing and media convergence, truly visionary in its craft, but it overlooks the fact that in our modern society it is not just technology and economy that is connected, but culture as well. Detached from cultural significance and overstepping the line that separates treating the consumer like a source of income versus a fan and a listener, Magna Carta falls flat. The album shows that in a culture obsessed with consumption and intricately intertwined with media and advertising, quality and substance still does matter, even when a media and business genius like Jay-Z plays all of his cards right.
In terms of production, Magna Carta is very solid. While there’s nothing revolutionary about the sound, the beats are enjoyable, the sound tight and the album sounds cohesive. The album has a dark sound that meshes well with all the black-and-white photography that accompanied the album and the beats just sound fucking cool. The lyrics, however, are not among Jay-Z’s best work and at some points they just sound lazy. At some point, when you’re as successful as Jay-Z is, the posturing about how much money you have, how good you are, how you’re a legend, how respected you are, it doesn’t matter any more. It’s not interesting to hear. From new young artists it can be brazen and bold. From veterans who have been in the background of the scene it can be a reminder to the audience of who the fuck the rapper is. From from a mogul like Jay-Z, it just comes off sounding insincere and boring. Jay’s got one of the biggest names and biggest bank rolls in the game, he’s one of the longest-lasting and best-respected rappers ever and he’s got the girl that every other rapper who raps about girls wishes he had. Coming from a guy like Jay-Z, braggadoccio no longer means anything and it’s not exciting. Jay-Z should be bringing something else to the table and he in Magna Carta he just doesn’t do that.
The primary problem is that Jay-Z seems to be treating his own art – his music – in the same way that he treats other works of art: as pieces to be bought and sold as capital or as a showpiece for financial success. The single “Picasso Baby” is a good example for both of these effects. It’s Jay asserting his greatness through his fine art consumption while using the fine art as a stand in for his own art (“yeah I’m good, just check out all this art I have”). Yeah, Jay is good and he’s made some great art. But Magna Carta ain’t it and it’s not what the rap world needs from its most prominent elder statesman. Jay-Z and the work Magna Carta are obsessed with consumption and business from conception all through to release. Indeed, the Samsung-exclusive pre-release of the album is founded on the idea that the most important part of having something is just to have it, not to appreciate it or to enjoy it. The owners of a Samsung Galaxy got to have the album three days before anyone else. They got to enjoy a piece of art the same way Jay enjoys art: as a showpiece for one’s exclusivity.