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Jay-Z: Magna Carta Holy Grail

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The moment it was released in 2007, the iPhone became a signifier of taste and prosperity, and like all status symbols, it quickly worked its way into rap lyrics, earning name checks from dozens, if not hundreds, of rappers eager to associate themselves with Apple’s trendy gadget. The Samsung Galaxy, on the other hand, has never had anywhere near that kind of cultural reach. According to the lyrics database Rap Genius, rappers have made more references to Nurse Jackie than they have Samsung’s signature phone. Even some of Jay-Z’s biggest defenders joined the Internet’s collective eye roll, then, when the rapper revealed—with typical grandiosity, via an unusual commercial during the fifth game of the NBA finals—that his new Magna Carta Holy Grail would be exclusively pre-released via a Samsung app. Even by the standards of rap’s proudest capitalist, the Samsung sponsorship seemed shameless. When the mogul boasted about having “Obama on the text” on 2009’s The Blueprint 3, it was just assumed the device lighting up was an iPhone, not a plastic, not-quite iPhone with a weird hand feel.


Then again, Jay-Z has always conflated commerce and fortune with authenticity. Throughout Magna Carta, he demonstrates a new fascination with fine art, shouting out Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Mona Lisa. This isn’t too surprising; it makes sense that a near-billionaire running out of ways to burn money would eventually turn to collecting. But Jay-Z’s interest in art is, like so much of Magna Carta, nakedly superficial. In one of the record’s cockiest lines, on the blustery, obliviously goofy “Picasso Baby,” the rapper spots his daughter near one priceless piece and tells her, “Go ’head and lean on that shit, Blue / You own it.” Like everything in Jay-Z’s world, art is a replaceable commodity. Its value lies merely in the fact that it has value.

It’s in that same spirit of collecting expensive art without appreciating it that Jay-Z assembles a roster of high-end producers and guest features on Magna Carta. Justin Timberlake, who is about to share a tour with Jay-Z even though the rapper is seemingly the only living artist that he doesn’t share an effortless chemistry with, is miscast as a mewling Bruno Mars on the overstuffed opener “Holy Grail,” which hits bottom with a few clumsy, borrowed bars from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Frank Ocean pours his heart into the soul abstraction “Oceans” only to watch the song sink like a gold brick when Jay-Z takes an embarrassingly literal, water-themed verse. And primary producer Timbaland crafts track after track of maximalist triumphalism, even as Jay-Z’s boast-by-numbers raps don’t give much cause for celebration. Throughout it all, Hov is flanked by Beyoncé, who in addition to her feature turn on “Part II (On The Run),” lends assists and ad-libs to several songs. She’s his unwaveringly popular first lady; he’s the overly cocky politician hiding behind her when his own platform falls short.


The most common, below-the-belt knock against Jay-Z is that he’s old—old enough, at 43, to have parented many emerging rappers. His real problem is even more fundamental than age, though. Jay-Z owns of one of rap’s greatest narratives: A hustler from the streets climbs his way into wealth and, eventually, unfathomable influence and power. It’s a remarkable, distinctly American story, one that countless rappers have co-opted but none have been able to execute on the same scale. But that narrative is over. It came to its logical conclusion in 2003, when Jay-Z retired at the top of the world, and it received an unexpectedly graceful epilogue on 2011’s Kanye West collaboration, Watch The Throne, which found him reconciling his impossible success and adjusting to life in high society. Detractors dismissed Watch The Throne as two wealthy men bragging about how rich they are, even though Jay-Z’s contributions in particular were dense with sociopolitical anxiety and personal reflection. The bulk of Magna Carta, however, really is just an obscenely rich dude gloating about his spoils. Where West continues to introduce new twists in his ever-unfolding story—with Yeezus, he’s reinvented himself as rap’s most compelling villain—Jay-Z has remained static, frozen in permanent victory.

There’s a reason why caper films end once the heroes hit their payday. Any more than a few shots over the credits of them enjoying cigars and breaking in their new yachts, and suddenly they no longer seem nearly as sympathetic as they were when they were scrappy underdogs. Jay-Z’s story has ended and the credits have finished, but he refuses to leave the screen.