Sasha Frere-Jones' review of Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail wastes no time in pointing out the hilarity of Jay's echo to Nirvana in the first verse of the opening track:
It’s like Jay Z asked Pandora to produce the record and then left for a meeting.
It's now been over one and a half years since I wrote my senior thesis on hip-hop (which, by the way for anyone still in college, has not been read by anyone since I graduated). The subject of the paper - Demystifying the Corporate Hip Hop and Ethnic Hip Hop Binary - examined the tension between the highly commercialized rap ballads of Jay-Z's repertoire and the more real, often political, themes found in his other works.
The racial profiling scenes elicited in 99 Problems ? Genius. Murder to Excellence , perhaps the most politically charged track on Jay-Z and Kanye West's popular Watch the Throne ? I can't think of a better song equipped with addressing the corporate/political tension in hip hop. In the track, the hip-hop duo dedicate one half of the song to the upper crust of Black society and call on others to strive for what Will Smith, Oprah Winfrey, and yours truly experience in the present today (Now please domino domino/only spot a few blacks the higher I go/What's up Will/shout out to O/that ain't enough we gonna need a million more) . But they only get to this conversation after addressing black on black murder (hence the name of the song) alluding to the friendly fire through an homage to Danroy Henry, a NY college student killed by a policeman in 2012.
All of these layers are absent in Jay-Z's latest album Magna Carta Holy Grail, which, If you've been following, was pre-released after Samsung's sponsored 1 million copies to be downloaded from a promotional app available only on Samsung phones.
The full release of Magna Carta emerges at a time when all eyes are on the Trayvon Martin case. An opportunity one would expect Jay to take up back in the days of yore. Jay's tracks, sprinkled with Basquiat references, trips to the MoMA, and of course his daughter Blue, are seemingly void of the responsibility once apparent in Jay's earlier work. Juxtaposed against Kanye West's highly acclaimed Yeezus and the politically charged singles New Slaves and Black Skinheads and it seems that despite their heavy collaboration just two years ago, the two kings of hip-hop are in two very different stages of their careers.
Frere-Jones elaborates with an argument I wholly accept:
But “Yeezus” is a compelling piece of work, and even if West hadn’t made a single beat on the album (he did) it wouldn’t detract from the unity of a cohesive and off-putting piece of work. How off-putting? Enough so that Spinpublished “Sheezus Talks,” where “seven badass female culture critics assess and, well, psychoanalyze Kanye West’s bachelor party.” That is either a testimony to West’s misogyny or his importance, or both. But Jay Z says things that sound infinitely worse on “Magna Carta,” and few even notice. What hurts more than being mocked? Being ignored, which maybe is why you make a deal with a phone company to make sure a million people hear your album whether or not they like it. (This may be what Jay Z means by the “new rules.”) “Magna Carta” feels like Jay Z grasping for the deep-rooted significance that he had for almost a decade straight, and that West has now.
See here for Frere-Jones full write-up.