Magna Carta… Holy Grail is ridden by ghosts of Jay-Z’s glorious past. The title itself seems to allude to his Twitter proclamation of “#newrules” for the music industry: Debuting the album via a Samsung application, and negotiating a sale with the technology company for a million free digital downloads to its customers. This isn’t the first time he’s employed unusual promotional gimmicks. One of his best occurred during 2003’s The Black Album when he summarily announced his retirement, and although he obviously had no plans of making it permanent, his fans ate up the conceit, hailing him as the best rapper ever while waiting anxiously for his return. Now, he wants us to place the Magna Carta… Holy Grail experience among his watermarks.
“Wasn’t I a good king?” complains Jay-Z near the conclusion of Watch the Throne, his long-awaited full-length collaboration with Kanye West. Who can blame his haughtiness? The natives are restless. Last year was an embarrassment of riches, as Thank Me Later, Teflon Don and, yes, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy redefined the contours of luxury rap. But 2011 is the comedown, ruined by pretenders like Wiz Khalifa’s Rolling Papers and Big Sean’s Finally Famous, which trumpet the virtues of overnight celebrity with none of the sweat, vigor or hard-won respect.
And so we sink our teeth into Watch the Throne, and find the taste rather funny. When two superstars get together, we expect frizzy blasts of energy that wow us on first listen and slowly dissipate in the morning, like a pleasant dream. We’re looking for impact, not resonance, like B.B. King and Eric Clapton’s Riding with the King. We expect incredible verses (or guitar solos) and catchy songs before we return to the drudgery of our pedestrian lives.
But instead, here we get the specter of 2010’s cash crop, and the distant yet still visible peaks of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s past glories. The critics, bloggers and rap fanatics are waiting, too, ready to write virtual term papers on this pay-per-listen event, and turn WTT into a metaphor for the debt crisis, or the yawning income gap between rich and poor, or whatever. If this bloated hour-plus enterprise fails, albeit admirably, it’s from our two heroes’ attempts to fulfill our contradictory expectation for shameless pop carnality and weighty artistic sustenance.