Magna Carta Holy Grail: Jay-Z and the Significance of the New Black Elite

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When Jay-Z released his twelfth studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, I wasn’t in the right mindset to assess it properly; honestly, I don’t think any fan of hip-hop was.  I had just been on a bizarre trip to the land of Yeezus, where I was shouted at, crooned to, and scolded for my white privilege.  Of course, as soon as Magna Carta dropped, the inevitable question of “which album is better” arose.

“They’re different,” was my concrete answer.  Albeit lazy, this was the only response I could muster at the time.  Why do we feel compelled to compare two albums with completely different aspirations? When I started this blog, I didn’t aim to post reviews rating albums as good or bad.  I don’t make top-ten lists of tracks or artists of the year, or God forbid, “best rappers alive.”  MTV can have that role.  I created this blog to make a space for assessing the cultural value of hip-hop music, not to tell the world that I think J. Cole’s Born Sinner scored a 7.

That being said, I understand why Magna Carta scored poorly among critics.  After a couple weeks of spinning the 40-minute explosion that was Yeezus, full of angry critique of modern day racism and consumerism, Magna Carta felt like a repetitive drag of a work.  Aside from a handful of tracks that flaunt vintage Hov–somewhereinamerica and Picasso Baby are clear favorites—there are several songs that I find myself wanting to skip through when I listen through the album. But honestly, I’ve felt the same about Blueprint 3, American Gangster, and even Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life. 

Jay-Z has never set out to make a concept album that was meant to be listened to from start to finish.  Rather, Hov’s main goal, from the birth of his rapping career, has been to make money and consequently rap about it.  Lather, rinse, and repeat.  Despite these moments of repetition that appear in every Jay-Z album in recent memory, we can still find value in the  broader implications of Jay-Z’s catalogue, and furthermore, his iconic persona in the American cultural sphere.

The fact that Jay-Z has reached elite status in American society from bragging about selling large amounts of drugs is significant in itself.  His success completely revamps the American dream, tearing down the traditional model of going to college, working a 9-5 salary job, moving through the ranks and so on.  When Jay-Z was a youngster, that dream wasn’t readily available nor attractive to young black men like himself, and we haven’t made much progress in to improve upon that reality for today’s black youth.  In truth, today’s black men are consistently hampered by racial profiling and the war on drugs, suffering through poverty in homes without fathers and schools without adequate funding.  Not much has changed, and therefore, Jay-Z’s success remains a glaringly relevant slap in the face to the worn out, unrealistic, and nearly unattainable “American dream.”

If you can’t understand why a black man who rose from poverty, bragging about how his daughter can lean against a Jean Michel Basquiat painting because it is hanging in his house, is culturally relevant, then you must reassess your awareness of American race relations.

To criticize Jay-Z for rapping about his newfound elite status, as if it were in some way separating himself from his roots, would be ignoring the significance of his upbringing in the first place.  Jay-Z is not responsible for spelling out the significance of his success as a black man in America, although he does just that quite eloquently, with the help of Dream Hampton, in his memoir Decoded (If you haven’t read it, I suggest you add it to your summer reading lists).

As my favorite author Zadie Smith writes in her New York Times profile of Shawn Carter, “The House That Hova Built:”

“Asking why rappers always talk about their stuff is like asking why Milton is forever listing the attributes of heavenly armies.  Because boasting is a formal condition of the epic form.  And those taught that they deserve nothing rightly enjoy it when they succeed in terms the culture understands.”

Aside from making a poignant comparison between Milton and hip-hop, Smith highlights the importance of Jay-Z’s braggadocio throughout his career.  No, he doesn’t scream at white America for modern day racism, or make public outcries about President Bush being racist.  But his ascent to elite status as a black man in white America still carries profound cultural value.  For me, that’s much more important that discussing whether Magna Carta deserves a spot in 2013’s top-five albums list.

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One thought on “Magna Carta Holy Grail: Jay-Z and the Significance of the New Black Elite

  1. Gee Jordan says:

    I’m a huge Jay-Z fan but this album did not do it for me.. Just boring! It’s only gotten 3 full plays

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