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Jay-Z’s latest album: Hubris as outrageous as Ali’s, but without the charisma

2 out of 4 stars

Magna Carta Holy Grail

On his Wikipedia page, the new album from Jay-Z is listed under "Magna Carta Holy Grail and Other Ventures." Hip-hop artists are nothing if not entrepreneurial, and Jay-Z models a mogul's cigar with better believability than most.

"Numbers don't lie," he boasts on Tom Ford, a moody, bloopy and minimalist number produced by Timbaland, "check the scoreboard." We've checked, bruh – you win, which is what this is all about, right?

Due to his deal with Samsung (which purchased one million advance copies of Magna Carta Holy Grail exclusively for its smartphone customers), the Empire State of Mind rapper's 12th album will immediately go platinum.

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The numbers lie, the blues have gone blue-blood, Jay-Z condescends, and his gall and self-esteem is unlimited. "Pardon my laughing," he says, unable to contain himself, his superiority a source of amusement.

But if we should check the scoreboard, he should check his watch and messages. Hip-hop triumphalism is over, and an overdog like Jay-Z either doesn't know it or doesn't care. The message of Magna Carta Holy Grail is that more is more, that a million is a step to billions. Hova has gone high-tower, dropping flower pots on you. The album is the blatant owning of his societal detachment – a crazed emancipation abomination.

And his braggadocio would bore most, if it wasn't so over the top, and thus entertaining.

On F.U.T.W, against a repetitive xylophone twinkle, he compares his destiny to those of Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali, the game-changing boxer who Jay-Z disrespects (for the sake of the flow) with the referral to him as Cassius, which is the name Ali dropped purposely at the height of the civil-rights movement. The rap is a call for the underprivileged to strive for greatness, but the message is obscured, mostly by his insistence to use the first person.

The album begins, on Holy Grail, with the insipid balladic emoting of Justin Timberlake, who will tour with Jay-Z this summer. "You steal the food right out of my mouth, and I watch you eat it," he sings meekly. Gross.

Oceans involves the inspired casting of R&B crooner Frank Ocean on a swooshing, tin-beat track about the Atlantic Ocean and an era when West Africa's prime colonial export was people. And now? Ocean worries that his black skin "don't dirt this white tuxedo" – a good metaphor there – and Jay-Z crows about yachts, glass ceilings and Biggie Smalls.

Elsewhere we have Picasso Baby, which is led by a snaking bass line and inspired by his appreciation for fine art: "Because I be going ape at the auction." He also proclaims that his hustle should not be knocked, which is a valid assertion.

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Where he has has been knocked involves the publicized claim by Harry Belafonte that Jay-Z and his wife Beyoncé (who croons dreamily on Part II (On the Run), a sequel to their '03 Bonnie & Clyde song from 2010) have turned their back on social responsibility.

Jay-Z, who attempted to capitalize on the Occupy Wall Street movement by selling T-shirts that supported his own financial cause, mostly answers the accusation with the hazy album-closing Nickels and Dimes. He lectures that the purist form of giving is anonymous, and that activist/calypso-king's attacks were a "major fail," on his part.

But, again, hubris emerges, as outrageous as Ali's but without the charisma, and with it a dose of unbecoming self-pity. "Y'all not worthy / Sometimes I feel like y'all don't deserve me / my flow unearthly."

Magna Carta Holy Grail is not available officially until July 9. By that time, the world will be tired of it and will return to its regularly scheduled Yeezus listening, and Jay-Z will move on to his next venture.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More


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