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Culture Club: Grown-up For Real
  • July 25, 2013 : 09:07
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It’s a more profound rhyme than you might think—and a little more anguished than the typical dad-rock lament. Like rock before it, rap began as an expression of youthful freedom and rebellion, but eventually it must come to accept the realities of adult life in its lyrics. However, as Magna Carta proves, rap’s embrace of marriage and family is far more involved than rock’s, simply because of the class disparity between whites and blacks in America. Plenty of white rock stars came from lower-class, single-parent families—which brings with it its own cultural bigotry—but they’ve never faced the added hardship of racism that further contributes to diminished economic opportunity that can eviscerate black families. “Jay-Z Blue” might be construed as just another song from a famous dad to his daughter, but the racial dimensions within the track heighten the drama, making Jay’s concerns more poignant. “I seen my mom and pop drive each other motherfuckin’ crazy,” he raps, warning, “I got that nigga blood in me / I got his ego and his temper / All is missing is the drugs in me.” If hip-hop has long featured artists toasting their beloved mothers and decrying their absentee fathers, “Jay-Z Blue” turns the page, a new generation trying to correct the errors of the previous one.

Like a lot of rich stars—white or black, rock or rap—Jay-Z spends way too much time on Magna Carta singing about his fame. “Holy Grail,” which includes a cameo from album co-producer Justin Timberlake, kicks off the record and is essentially a tortured love-gone-wrong song sung directly to his fans. (“One day you screaming you love me loud,” Timberlake croons. “The next day you’re so cold.”) And on “Picasso Baby,” Jay-Z recognizes that some supporters are over him—not that he cares: “Even my old fans like, ‘Old man, just stop’ / I could if I would, but I can’t / I’m hot.” That line recalls one that Jay-Z used back in 2001 when he bragged on his Kanye-produced smash “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Can’t leave rap alone / The game needs me.” Despite his arrogance, he was correct then, and he’s correct now—but for a different reason.

Twelve years ago, Jay-Z was setting in motion his bid to be considered one of hip-hop’s greatest artists, taking the torch from slain idols like Biggie and Tupac and carrying it forward, helping to end rap’s gangster era and opening the door to a new decade. Now hip-hop is in the midst of what Kanye famously labeled “luxury rap” on “Otis” from his 2011 collaboration album with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne, which flaunted its creators’ wealth but also their misgivings about the country that fostered their success. Still rolling with the times, Jay-Z has seized on luxury rap as his current principal theme, symptomatic of an era in which hip-hop isn’t just pervasive but also an established, booming industry genre. As it’s expressed on Magna Carta, that theme seems like a fertile one, fraught with social and cultural complexities.

Still, such privileged musings can leave the average listener feeling alienated, whereas the old crime narratives at least had an instantly dramatic component to them. (Not many of us will relate to Jay-Z dissing rival sports agent Scott Boras on “Crown.” It would be akin to soulless corporate entities like Bank of America and Wells Fargo beefing.) But since it would be disingenuous for Jay-Z to pretend he’s still the same street-level hustler he was at the beginning of his career, he has to forge a new path, one that hip-hop’s upper echelon has never faced before.

Magna Carta’s contradiction is the same as the one pulsing in hip-hop itself: How do you reconcile being the champ in an environment where the culture resents you not just because of your success but also because of your skin? These were problems Bob Dylan or Neil Young—or Wilco or Radiohead—never had to face as their style morphed over time. If rock has been about artistic expression and/or the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure, rap has been about striving to find a better life, which creates a life-or-death urgency that most rock artists never experience.

On some level Jay-Z seems to understand this dichotomy: His biting of lyrics from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” on the new album suggests that he’s transcended hip-hop to become a rock star. In a sense, he’s also trying to transcend the narrow cultural expectations of rap artists. As he sings on “Nickels and Dimes,” “When a nigga go, as the old adage go / You die rich or you die disgraced / So just let me grow.”

In the late 1970s, Young famously sang that aging rockers had to choose between burning out or fading away—and then proceeded to construct an enduring career that argued that those two options weren’t the only possibilities. Since Jay-Z is so enamored with rock stars, hopefully he’ll take a page from the best of them, watching how Dylan and Young and others have been willing to examine the different seasons of their life, expanding rock from a young man’s game into an art form that can speak to every age. Despite its stumbles, Magna Carta Holy Grail is Jay-Z’s attempt to prove that graying rappers can think beyond the get-rich-or-die-trying street mentality. If the album is hit or miss, maybe we should cut Jay some slack: He’s always bragged about being the king, but now he’s trying to be a trailblazer into uncharted territory for hip-hop. Growing up sometimes comes with a few growing pains.

Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter.

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