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Culture Club: Grown-up For Real
  • July 25, 2013 : 09:07
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It’s impossible (and reductive) to boil hip-hop down to a single style or movement. But if rap has a face man, it would probably be Jay-Z, the genre’s most recognizable, successful and enduring icon. He doesn’t have the glowing artistic cred (or the white-hot divisiveness) that his friend Kanye West enjoys. He doesn’t have the hunger that younger artists such as Kendrick Lamar possess. And he didn’t create (or perfect) a specific sound like Dr. Dre did. But at a time when deserving contender Eminem still garners huge sales but diminishing critical clout, Jay-Z stands alone as rap’s grandest superstar—a living legend who keeps putting out multiplatinum albums that double as major events.

Now 43, Jay-Z has managed to remain a big deal for longer than any other hip-hop artist. His debut, 1996’s Reasonable Doubt, is considered a classic, and he has released a few more classics since then—not to mention put out a string of indelible singles in between. His appeal is so ubiquitous that artists as varied as U2 and Justin Timberlake want to collaborate with him, and he even got name-checked on a Paul Simon record.

His latest, Magna Carta Holy Grail, comes at a significant moment both in his career and in hip-hop’s cultural dominance. Where once rap was considered “dangerous”—a startling, new antiestablishment sound challenging rock and pop on the charts—it has now entered middle age. In fact, today it boasts veteran acts aspiring to the heights of Bob Dylan or Neil Young, artists whose careers stretch decades, inspiring several generations along the way.

It wouldn’t be fair to put Jay-Z in the same league as Dylan or Young—different genres, different eras—but he’s probably the first hip-hop superstar who’s both incredibly popular and in a position to think about his legacy. Rap is still too young to have a Bruce Springsteen or a Rolling Stones—an aging warhorse that reliably packs arenas—but Jay-Z is as close as the music has ever come to one.

But his challenge is still the same: How to grow up without getting old. Which makes me wish that Magna Carta Holy Grail were a little better than it is. Though filled with its share of stellar moments, the album finds Jay-Z struggling to reconcile his youthful braggadocio with his new reality as a married father, former Def Jam label president and owner of a burgeoning sports agency that features Kevin Durant as a client. It’s not the responsibility of Jay-Z, who famously claimed “I’m a grown-up for real” on 2003’s “Dirt off Your Shoulder,” to single-handedly ensure hip-hop’s transition into elder-statesman status. But the course he charts on Magna Carta Holy Grail suggests the difficulties inherent in an artist (and genre) trying to continue to evolve.

Although every form of music has its compelling personalities, hip-hop is unique in that its stars’ backstories become an integral component in their appeal. Fans don’t just listen to the songs for the beats; they also to tune in for the latest chapter in their heroes’ underdog adventures. Among rappers, Jay-Z’s backstory isn’t particularly novel—he spent time as a drug dealer and was raised by a single mother after his drug-addled father left them. What makes it distinct is that he’s now been around long enough that he’s triumphed over his early obstacles. While Eminem’s career has been filled with psychodrama—his most recent album, Recovery, is about bouncing back from drug addiction—and Kanye continues to see the world as a hostile place trying to deny him his props, Jay-Z is married to Beyoncé and said to be worth about $475 million. Not surprisingly then, Magna Carta is an overdog tale, which could potentially be as complacent as dad rock—a genre populated by 30- and 40-something rock artists including Wilco and the National singing about suburban middle-class problems such as aging and the perils of committed relationships.

But the longer Magna Carta simmers, the clearer it becomes that Jay-Z’s world takeover is tempered by serious misgivings—the same “What now?” anxieties that, in their own way, fellow veterans Kanye and Eminem have grappled with in their music. But unlike them, Jay-Z hasn’t created obstacles for himself to overcome—his struggle is entirely internal. “I cut myself today to see if I still bleed,” he sings on the moody, skeletal “Nickels and Dimes.” “Success is so sublime / Gotta do that time to time so I don’t lose my mind.”

That might seem like the typical whine of a self-absorbed rock star pondering his own celebrity, but for Jay-Z it’s a far more complicated affair. Despite his success and power, he never forgets that he’s black—and he never lets his audience forget either. Near the end of “Picasso Baby,” a track that details his material aspirations, including owning artwork by Mark Rothko, Jay-Z proactively chastises listeners for scolding his avarice. “Don’t forget, America, this how you made me,” he taunts, the latest in his string of career criticisms about an American dream that rewards initiative but is stacked against minorities who sometimes have to turn to illegal means to get ahead. Of course, the criminal lifestyle remains a staple in hip-hop lyrics—the subject (and its consequences) pervades Lamar’s superb 2012 release, good kid, m.A.A.d city—but Magna Carta measures what happens when someone comes out the other end, the hustling instinct awkwardly transplanted from the streets to the boardroom.

Jay-Z also sounds like he’s grappling with domesticity. On “Jay-Z Blue,” he expresses his parental anxiety in part by sampling some dialogue from Mommie Dearest. (“No wire hangers ever!”)But he turns the campy family melodrama into something far more unnerving, singing to his daughter Blue Ivy about his fears of duplicating the mistakes he saw in his own broken home. “Father never taught me how to be a father, treat a mother,” he confesses, “I don’t wanna have to just repeat another, leave another.”

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