I was going to write an article about Jay Z until I found that this one from The New Yorker that already said everything that needed to be said:
JULY 29, 2013
THIS CHARMING MAN
News of the verdict for the Trayvon Martin case reached me when I was in Manchester, England. I knew what the stream of “nooooo” tweets meant and I wanted to believe that I had no idea what they meant. Weeks later, I’m unsure of what to write, and this is part of the nameless American feeling. People who are the constant targets of legal and cultural violence do not care what a person like me, with normative privilege, thinks about their helplessness, nor should they, so the bystander lets his empathy slip into a garbage can and just goes home, mute, not even certain what home means except that we all live here, knee-to-knee. However thick the darkness, we drag ourselves into arguments, up to lecterns, because we have not let go of each other yet. We still think we can fix a thing that shows no sign of ever being fixed. So I decided to fix Jay Z, whom I love, and who needs no fixing. But he, too, can trigger this American feeling, a nauseous awareness of the cracks between us widening.
Jay Z’s new album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” has sold six hundred and seventy-five thousand copies according to Nielsen SoundScan. If you don’t own much music, it’s diverting enough, though it would be hard to get through the whole thing in one sitting. If you know anything about rap, it’s slightly embarrassing. If you love Jay Z, it gives you that American feeling, that “Oh, Christ” feeling that makes you just want to sit down. It is music made for and by people who are in no danger of proximate harm. “Magna Carta Holy Grail” was made by someone who thought it would be appealing to invite the one per cent of the one per cent of the art world and dance for them, with them, for six hours, at a blue-chip art gallery. You weren’t invited, but don’t worry: Sarah Nicole Prickett reported on the experience, and you can see what it looked likesoon, if you have HBO.
How the hell can you transfer the misery of the Trayvon Martin case to Jay Z and his dopey new album? Jay Z grew up in as much danger as Martin, if not more so. He wrote one of his best verses ever about racial profiling (and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution) for “99 Problems.” He is as good a rapper as has ever lived, and if his songs were submitted tosabermetric analysis, he would likely be revealed as our Michael Jordan, our Miles Davis, the playlist that outlasts us all. Hell, forget the numbers—when I saw him a few years ago on the “Watch the Throne” tour, I couldn’t help being delighted by how much rapping delights him. Not because he relishes his own cultural significance or his own cleverness but because of how Jay Z relates to the physical act of saying lots of words in a row. There are only a dozen or so people alive who can rap as effortlessly as Jay Z does, and he does it with an affect that betrays a gift, that lets on how much joy he takes in the work.
Jay Z is as charming a performer as America has. Why wouldn’t Jerry Saltz be converted when Jay looked him in the eye? Whose politics are strong enough to actually throw away an invite to hang with Jay for six hours?
But just like the politician that he occasionally texts, Jay Z is exactly who should disappoint us, unless our admiration is mute conformity and our optimism was a party smile. His friend has disappointed us by allowing a squeegee of surveillance to be dragged across America and approving the killing of foreign civilians with robots. Those civilians, in another country, see America the way Trayvon Martin saw George Zimmerman—a force they couldn’t stop physically creating a story they couldn’t fight historically. So what should Jay Z be doing instead of currying favor with critics in an art gallery? Maybe something like what his friend Kanye West thought up in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he blurted out, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Jay Z may be our most accomplished rapper but he rarely does anything to alienate anyone the way that West continually, and valuably, does. Which is probably why Carter represents athletes now, for profit and pleasure.
Hang on, hang on—no entertainer has to become a political figure because they are, well, de-facto political figures, right? (Jay Z prefers the word “influence,” which he will admit to having.) Jay Z’s performance at the Pace Gallery, a transparent rewrite of Marina Abramović’s “The Artist Is Present,” took place three days before the Zimmerman verdict, so what could he have done to leverage his influence? He could have ditched the idea of lip-synching to “Picasso Baby” (a weak retread of “99 Problems”) and recreated the Zimmerman-Martin showdown with everyone in the room, following them around the perimeter of the gallery and scaring the shit out of them, eventually pulling a gun. And though that would have been the aggressive vision of a different artist, Jay Z is exactly the kind of figure who could weather the ensuing controversy, retaining all of his homes and maybe even his Samsung deal.
Watch this video for Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” especially the inverted, black Klan hoods, and you will find it hard to keep the Zimmerman verdict out of your head. The video’s interactive options—slowing down the track and changing the camera angles—are just dopey eye candy of the moment, but the track is an angry hum that strings together various moments of racially based frustrations without settling on any one topic. It quickly summons a mood, which turned out to be the mood of the country months after the song was released. (The S.N.L. performance, inconveniently, is more exciting than this computer-generated clip.)
West’s “Yeezus” is the ghost that haunts “Magna Carta Holy Grail.” Though West apparently worked on songs that didn’t make the album, Jay Z’s old friend and protégé is nowhere on “Magna Carta.” There are weird echoes. Like “Yeezus,” the tracks for “Magna Carta” accreted in the course of a year or two, and were then completed very quickly, with the help of Rick Rubin, who served as something of an artistic director and advisor for both “Yeezus” and “Magna Carta Holy Grail.” 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 Spin published “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.
The album opens with desperation: “Holy Grail” uses the world’s most popular concierge, Justin Timberlake, to help sing part of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” One minute in, Jay Z invokes his own infant as a source of authority—what, Blue Ivy Carter is supposed to make us cry and also be the voice of God, huh?—and pulls the worst dad-hop move of the year. Nirvana. “Teen Spirit.” It’s like Jay Z asked Pandora to produce the record and then left for a meeting.
“Magna Carta Holy Grail” is a bunch of songs bagged up weakly by the form of the album, like trail mix that’s made by just putting things next to each other. The one good point is that “Magna Carta” contains some of the most vivid production Timbaland has recorded in years, all of it buried underneath cramped, dull rhymes that anyone could have written. If you can make it to the fifteenth track, “La Familia” (an unfortunate reminder of “The Dynasty: Roc La Familia,” Jay Z’s one truly terrible pre-retirement album), you’ll hear Jay say, “Tell these niggas pull they fuckin’ skirt down, I could see they ovaries.” That’s not as directly dismissive as “bitches ain’t shit,” but it’s textbook misogyny. If these words simply strike you as evergreen trash talk, daily sports bravado, all the more reason to pause. This is how we get norms we can’t unhinge, prejudices that yield body counts and restraining orders. In the context of the song, skirts and ovaries are, quite clearly, bad things that signal weakness and deficiency. Women have ovaries. His wife used hers to make Blue, who sure does come in handy as a dramatic foil when Jay needs her. West, for all of his ugly eruptions, rarely generalizes about women on “Yeezus.” He has specific interactions with specific people who, though unnamed, may be enjoying themselves. That’s their business, as Greg Tate points out in his Spin review. At the end of the day, we risk pretty dicey conclusions if we judge West or Carter’s souls—we only have their lyrics. “Yeezus” may be ugly but it doesn’t give me a feeling of generalized fear or hatred (except of West himself). Jay, though, leads with a classic politician move, holding up the baby; the first words out of his mouth on “Magna Carta” are “Blue told me remind you.” But after knocking back a few, he’s on the court, calling his opponents girls.
But don’t take my word for it. Watch this new interview with the journalist Elliott Wilson and let Jay Z tell you what he thinks he should be doing with his “influence.” According to Jay Z, his “presence is charity.” (He says that twice.) Hear him say that the act of not doing things is a sufficient work for Obama and, by implication, Jay Z. Though he allows that there is still “a bit of racism,” he is much more vocal on his need to be active on behalf of incredibly wealthy athletes. He does dedicate “Forever Young” to Trayvon Martin in concerts, which must take up the better part of a minute, and at Jay’s rates, that’s worth almost as much as the work that hangs at Pace Gallery.
In one of the weirdest and least appealing moments, Jay Z defends some of the lyrics on “Nickels and Dimes,” which reference Harry Belafonte’s comment, made last August at the Locarno Film Festival, that artists like Jay Z and Beyoncé had “turned their back on social responsibility.” The eighty-six-year-old Belafonte is actively fighting the Stand Your Ground laws; perhaps spurred by Belafonte (or not), Jay Z and Beyoncé have attended at least one rally in support of Martin (though if your mere presence is charity, maybe you’re doing good every day simply by waking up). On his new song, Jay Z raps, “I’m just trying to find common ground before Mr. Belafonte come and chop a nigga down. Mr. Day-O, major fail.” In the interview, Jay Z devolves into doublespeak, or worse. Of, or to, Belafonte, he says, “You bigged up—Bruce Springsteen is a great guy, you know what I mean?—you a civil-rights activist and you just bigged up the white guy against me in the white media. And I’m not saying that in a racial way, I’m just saying what is, the facts of what it was. And it was like, that was the wrong way to go about it.”
As Belafonte’s comments were widely and agnostically reported, I have no idea what “white media” means here; if Jay Z is talking about a “white guy” but not “in a racial way,” I can only assume he means chromatically. Since Bruce generally sports an even tan, Jay Z, at best, needs his eyes checked. The real stinger is the last bit: “the wrong way to go about it.” Only minutes before, while discussing the “travesty” of sports players and their financial woes, Jay Z spoke about his rap elders like Rakim: “You have to respect the person that opened the door and laid some groundwork for you.” If anybody laid the groundwork for entertainers of color in America, it was Harry Belafonte. Calling him “Mr. Day-O” and faulting his tactics is deeply questionable, and it makes me wonder what the hell Jay Z thinks “respect” means.
Jay Z himself brings up respect on “Picasso Baby”: “No sympathy for the king, huh?” No, not until we find that American word. It wasn’t long ago when that’s exactly the kind of lexical coup Jay Z would pull off, year after year. The closest thing we have is a sound, something like Kanye’s “Black Skinhead,” which is still too confident, almost triumphant in its agitation. This word isn’t victorious in any way. We use it when nobody wins and nobody celebrates and nobody sleeps.
Photograph by Joseph Okpako/Getty.