Jay-Z is richer than God, and probably about as famous. He headlines the hugest rock festivals, parties with Warren Buffett and, thanks to an unprecedented business maneuver, his 12th solo album went platinum before it even came out. What could he possibly have to complain about?
Plenty, it turns out. "Fuck the fame," Jay spits on the LP's surprisingly moody opener, "Holy Grail," where he vents about intrusive paparazzi and fickle fans, name-checks Kurt Cobain and brings out his buddy Justin Timberlake for a round of twisted "Teen Spirit" karaoke: "And we're all just entertainers/And we're stupid and contagious." And, yet, on the next song, "Picasso Baby," he's celebrating the perks of superstardom by giving us a grand tour of his art collection, displaying his Basquiats, Warhols and Rothkos – names he's been working into his verses for years – over a museum-quality boom-bap backdrop: "House like the Louvre or the Tate Modern/Because I be going ape at the auction."
This is how it goes for most of Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail. Jay-Z sorts through his mixed feelings about celebrity, then cheers himself up by itemizing the awesome things he owns. The production, mostly handled by Timbaland, is woozy and grand – another luxury possession. But Jay often sounds like he's trying to convince himself that he should still be excited about making music. What's disappointing is, he doesn't always seem to be winning that argument.
Take "Tom Ford," which might mark the lyrical nadir of Jay-Z's catalog. "Numbers don't lie, check the scoreboard," he says in a distracted tone. "Tom Ford, Tom Ford, Tom Ford." He sounds bored half to death by the basic rhyme, listlessly repeating the designer's name like it's going to magically transform into a clever or catchy hook. It hurts to see him waste a primo Timbaland beat like this. What happened to the guy who would have devoured those jiggly synth squelches a couple of years ago?
In part, he's the victim of his own remarkable longevity and extraordinary success. Jay-Z has been telling us about himself since 1996. He retired, then unretired, and that was four albums ago. Maybe he's starting to run out of things to say – or maybe, absent a foil like Kanye West on 2011's superb Watch the Throne or Kendrick Lamar on this year's "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" remix, he can't find the energy to push himself creatively.
Even at his most checked-out, Jay-Z remains a great MC; listen to how he layers his imagery on the Frank Ocean-assisted "Oceans": "On the holiday, playing 'Strange Fruit'/If I'm-a make it to a billi, I can't take the same route." But there's not much on Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail that he hasn't said before in more interesting ways.
He sounds most engaged on "Jay-Z Blue," where he grapples with his deepest fears about parenthood: "Father never taught me how to be a father, treat a mother/I don't wanna have to just repeat another, leave another/Baby with no daddy." It's a vivid, powerful moment that reminds you what he can do when he really cares.