Magna Carta Holy Grail
Jay Z's twelfth studio effort is his first since becoming a father (and since moving the hyphen from his stage name to his real one). In 2012, Shawn Knowles-Carter and wife Beyoncé had their first child, Blue Ivy. It's fair, then, to wonder how fatherhood might have impacted the life of a performer who's spent his career spitting profanity-drenched raps about hustlin' drugs and indulging worldly pleasures. Indeed, Jay Z himself is stoking that curiosity with his much-publicized partnership with cellphone maker Samsung:
Not only did the rapper take the unprecedented step of teaming up with the company to distribute his album via download to a million Samsung phone owners before its official release, a commercial (for both the album and the phone) finds him reflecting on whether he's really got what it takes to be a good dad. "My pop left when I was young," Jay Z tells us in a surprisingly compelling, teary-eyed confession. "So he didn't teach me to be a man, nor how to raise a child or how to treat a woman. … Of course my karma, the two things I need, I don't have. And I have a daughter. It's the paranoia of not being a great dad."
So the question becomes a stark one: Is this new introspective and sensitive Jay Z the same one who shows up on Magna Carta Holy Grail?
"Jay Z Blue" directly addresses those insecurities about fatherhood. We hear that Jay Z fears getting divorced, as happened with his parents ("Praying that things don't get ugly/And I'm stuck in that old cycle like wife leaves hubby/ … Father never taught me how to be a father, treat a mother/I don't wanna have to just repeat another leave another"). And "La Familia" preaches, "Family first/Honor, integrity."
"Holy Grail" ponders how fame changes people (though profanely). "Caught up in all these lights and cameras/But look what that s‑‑‑ did to Hammer." Justin Timberlake's rendition of the chorus from "Smells Like Teen Spirit" further emphasizes the song's message: "And we all just entertainers/And we're stupid and contagious/And we all just entertainers."
"F.U.T.W." rightly encourages (though by way of one of the album's myriad racial slurs), "Don't be good, my n-gga/Be great." "Heaven" finds Jay Z waxing spiritual as he raps, "Knowledge, wisdom, freedom, understanding—we just want our equality/Food, clothing, shelter—help a n-gga find some peace." About his marriage to Beyoncé, he promises, "You know it's 'til the death." "Nickels and Dimes" talks about how hard Jay Z has worked but how he's also haunted at times by his good fortune. "Tom Ford" rejects taking Ecstasy: "I don't pop Molly."
At best, however, moments of socially positive insight or vulnerable introspection are very much in the minority here. More often, Jay Z works hard to convince us that he is among the loftiest mortals ever to have graced the earth. And it's possible, he brags, that he's not mortal all, comparing himself favorably to both God and Jesus. Other "peers" he namedrops include Muhammad, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, Picasso, Martin Luther King Jr., Frank Sinatra, the Pope, Johnny Cash, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Stanley Kubrick. And along the way, he unceasingly shouts out the brand names of high-end cars, liquor, clothes and travel destinations to underscore the idea that he is utterly unlike the rest of us.
With regard to comparing himself to God—and ultimately calling himself one—Jay stands toe-to-toe with Kanye West (who is equally fixated on elevating himself to such a position): "You in the presence of a king/Scratch that, you in the presence of a god/ … B‑‑ch asked if I was God/F‑‑‑, I'm supposed to say no?" That's from the track "Crown," and then on "Heaven," he brags, "Arm, leg, leg, arm, head—this is god body/ … God is my chauffeur." He also quips casually, "Hello, b‑‑ch, it's me again/Fresh in my Easter clothes, feeling like Jesus."
The balance of that last song, by the way, suggests that all religions get it wrong: "Question religion, question it all/Question existence until them questions are solved/Meanwhile, this heretic I be out in Marrakesh/Morocco smoking hashish with my fellowship/ … I'm secular, tell the hecklers to settle down/Y'all, religion creates division." The chorus finds Z rapping R.E.M.'s words, "That's me in the corner/That's me in the spotlight/Losing my religion."
F-words punctuate everything. The extremely foul "F.U.T.W." spells out that acronym in the chorus ("F‑‑‑ up the world/Let's f‑‑‑ up this world") and includes a bizarre reference to the rapper's anatomy ("I want a shot to show my genius/Stand on the top, hold my penis"). And Beyoncé contributes this nasty salvo: "My m‑‑‑‑‑f‑‑‑er is a billionaire m‑‑‑‑‑f‑‑‑er/You heard that s‑‑‑/I said my m‑‑‑‑‑f‑‑‑er is a billionaire/M‑‑‑‑‑f‑‑‑er."
On "Picasso Baby," Jay Z crudely compares the kind of sex he wants from his wife to the kind given by a prostitute. We hear multiple approving references to marijuana, cocaine and drug dealing. "Beach Is Better" brags about spending $100,000 on a single trip to the shoreline.
As rappers become rich and famous, they invariably feel a compelling urge to tell us exactly how rich and famous they are. Jay Z is arguably the biggest of 'em all (sorry, Kanye), but he never seems to find security or comfort or perspective in such a lofty perch. Instead it seems the higher Mr. Knowles-Carter climbs, the more he feels compelled to communicate back down to his earthly supplicants that he's no longer a man, but a god.
That's too bad, because when Jay/Shawn actually takes time to reflect on the what it really means to be human—facing his fears about fatherhood, for example—that momentary vulnerability yields insights that the rest of us mortals can actually relate to.
Most of the time, though, he's more interested in telling us that God is his chauffeur.