It’s been just a week since Jay-Z’s 12th solo album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, was released. But there have already been myriad reactions. From indictments of his corporate-sponsored transitional period to reminiscing on his best work, from analysis of the album’s construction to a survey of his newfound social media acumen, there’s been no shortage of present-day Hov obsession. But what about his future? Specifically, 15 years from now? We asked four longtime Jay-Z superfans (and Grantland staffers) to consider Mr. Carter as he eases into Social Security. These are their Picassos, baby.
Alex Pappademas: He’s a writer who’s just discovered Twitter. He’ll never accomplish anything of consequence ever again.
But seriously — he’s finished, right? This kingly iron-throne yawn slash quarterly earnings call is the sound of him being finished. Not suggesting it’s his last album, of course — he’ll continue to let himself be talked into issuing a new Jay-Z-branded data package every couple of years. His brand and his self-image depend on still being able to write “rapper” on his tax forms. That’s my answer to the question of what he’ll do next, I guess. He’ll do this. Again. But he’s done. He’s bored. This is a confession of boredom. Dear summer — it’s not you, it’s me.
You heard people saying similar things starting around Kingdom Come, his first post-retirement record and the first one that indicated he might be fallible, but at least on that record he was engaged, albeit with topics people weren’t super-amped to hear him engage with (maturity, his place in an ever-more-youth-driven hip-hop marketplace, beach accessories). Magna Carta starts in about the same place, with Justin Timberlake singing, “I still don’t know why I love it so much” and Jay pondering whether the enticements of fame are worth the hassle. But I don’t believe for a minute that he’s actually lost any sleep over that question in years, just like I don’t believe he thinks he’s one wrong move away from becoming Tyson or Hammer — I mean, c’mon.
He got knocked for all that thirtysomething handwringing a few years back, but at least there was risk involved in going that route. I don’t hear risk on this record. I hear positional bluster (“Welcome to the magnum opus”) and soft jabs at softer targets (“Mr. Day-O? Major fail”) and preemptive protestation (too many examples to cite, although that “Just let me be great” ad-lib makes the passive-aggression of something like “December 4th” seem reasonable. I mean, go ahead, dude. Who is opposed to Jay-Z being great?). I know it’s bad criticism to compare this one to that other 2013 event record by a guy who rapped on “Otis,” but here goes: Even if you think Yeezus’s ostentatious giving-of-no-fucks sonically and lyrically is a pose, which it certainly more-than-sort-of is, Kanye fully commits to it. I don’t know what Jay’s Yeezus — his Hova — would sound like, only that he’s too obsessed with winning to ever make it.
And while I’m bringing up stuff that we should in fairness leave out of any conversation about this record’s artistic merits, I submit that getting paid up front by Samsung is Jay voting no confidence in his own ability to captivate. The marketing campaign on this one felt like an attempt to show critics who gagged on Watch the Throne’s ostentation what tone deafness actually looks like — namely, a multimillionaire recording artist and a smartphone manufacturer passing off what was basically an antipiracy measure as some kind of victory for art or “the experience” or whatever, with Rick Rubin on the couch in the commercial cosigning the whole shameful deal from the savasana pose. But whatever — on to the next one, which if Jay cares about his cred at all he’ll give away on DatPiff. Or Dischord.
Amos Barshad: Alex — if this is us asking Jay-Z, politely, to stop, I’m with it.
There’s a common wisdom that holds that the ideal trajectory for Jay-Z would have been actually retiring after The Black Album, like he goddamn promised he would. It’s his own perfect, wasted “MJ in ’98” moment, and, especially now, post–Magna Carta … Holy Pirate Boat Full of Treasure at the End of “Goonies,” it’s tantalizing.
To be unsubtle here: It’d have meant Jay walking away at the height of his powers. (Whatever your personal preference is regarding “Best Hov Album,” no one really cares to argue over whether Black is Jay rapping as well as he’s ever rapped. Even better, it’s a perfectly executed concept: The master, taking one last look at all the fucked-up shit he did.) Usually, you gotta die young to make something like that happen, and even that’s not a sure bet. (Please, choose your own “Tupac is in Mexico running burro tours” joke.) It’d have meant sewing up as perfect a legacy as hip-hop might have ever seen. And that’s a lofty, worthy goal.
Counterbalance that with us losing his post–Black Album discography. That means no Magna Carta, no Kingdom Come, no Blueprint 3 — specifically, no “Empire State of Mind,” his most inescapable hit and, therefore I’d argue, because I’m joyless, quite possibly his worst song. Also, no American Gangster: a bummer, to be sure, but that one true legacy was always going to come with some sacrifices.
And then there’s Watch the Throne, the one album we’d probably all agree we’re better off having than not. If you wanna get nitpicky you could argue Kanye might have, eventually, gotten around to making something that big on his own. And strictly on execution, I’d say yeah, sure, why not? But there’s almost no way, without the former Greatest Rapper Alive by his side, that ‘Ye would have had the audacity to swell like that. Is that one perfect legacy worth never hearing “N----- in Paris”? That’s at least a conversation worth having.
To bring it back up top, though: Who the fuck am I to tell Jay-Z when to stop? I know why I want him to stop: Because I’m a fan of clean obsessiveness and clean narratives. I know why he can’t stop: The same delusions that lead you to believe you can be great lead you to believe you can be great forever (even though, to continue all lack of subtlety here, it’s NEVER BEEN DONE). And I know why he shouldn’t: The first three seconds of “Empire” alone have brought more joy to more people than I could if I lived to be 1,000 years old and owned a bubble machine.
To be honest, Magna Carta is a more listenable album than I expected. It is, also, once again, Jay-Z constantly reminding us that he’s totally and completely spent. (Actual lyrics here: “I crash through glass ceilings / I break through closed doors / I’m on the ocean / I’m in heaven / Yachting / Ocean 11.”) It’s not necessarily an age thing: Killer Mike and El-P’s Run the Jewels will, in the best sense of the phrase possible, shoot your poodle in the face, and those dudes are both rounding 40. It’s just accepting that talent is finite. Jay did have a nearly perfect career. It’s the one that could have ended 10 years ago.
But this is also the dude who still says Reasonable Doubt is the best thing he’s ever done. Which means he knows he’s not that dude anymore, and maybe, somewhere, still wishes he was. So my prediction: At some point in the near future, he’ll try to prove he can still rap like that. And he’ll do it by hiring a ghostwriter, and we’ll eventually find out about it. And then we’ll have to explain to our grandchildren — as we drive them to Space Kindergarten in our Space Volvos — why Grandpa’s openly weeping.
Hua Hsu: It was always unlikely that the man who once rapped that “30’s the new 20” would retire into obscurity. Fifteen years from this, the Year of the Samsung Galaxy S4, Jay will be 58. He’ll probably still be rapping and finding interesting new delivery systems for songs, and insofar as a fan’s opinion matters, I don’t really have a problem with that. He’s lucky enough to have a job he actually loves. Retirement as a concept only works if private beaches aren’t part of your job. I look forward to the father-daughter moments on The BluPrint.
That doesn’t mean I’m obliged to keep paying attention. You get older, your patience wanes, you’d rather think about where you came from vs. where you’re at. Jay as a figure of American history becomes more interesting with every passing merger and acquisition: clothes, booze, destroying confidants and rivals for kicks, Def Jam, Live Nation, the Nets, Barclays Center, the sports agency, the screwy data plan. He’s revered for his CEO maneuvers even as our general faith in corporate executives plummets. This aspect of his ascendancy remains fascinating because it’s so unprecedented and unpredictable. Fifteen years ago I was reading multi-thousand-word articles about DMX and Lauryn Hill in magazines printed on paper. It’s still hard to process that we can wonder if, 15 years from now, Jay-Z will run for public office or endow a university or start a museum or do something that affects (or creates the illusion of affecting) some industry that has nothing to do with music.
The only rule in the new new capitalism is to never be boring. You can be ill-mannered, scandalous, a tediously minute-by-minute oversharer, a walking embodiment of poor taste. You can miss the mark with wild aplomb. You can broadcast yourself nonstop and still not reveal anything about what you really think/are. Just never be boring: That’s all pop culture asks of its sacrifices nowadays. Musically speaking? I find Jay pretty boring. It’s the tamed, streamlined version of things when I’d rather hear him just talk at length about his life and times. The music allows the Samsung deal to make Jay the king rather than the pawn. It’s where his farsighted work in sports gets slimmed down to a quick dis of Scott Boras. I find the real-life stuff more interesting.
The battlefields of his albums are already riddled with all his casualties — who’s remotely fucking with Jay? Does he really need to remind any other rapper on earth that they aren’t getting RSVPs for “Obama plus 40”? Who is the straw man crumb to whom his songs are addressed?
Conversely: What other CEO (besides James Dolan!) feels inferior that s/he doesn’t make music on the side? I’d like to think that Jay’s just addicted to making music, that there’s some pathological thing within him that just compels him to think about his past, present, and future through song. Probably not. But that’s the only part of our “Jay in 2028” experiment I can wrap my head around. Fifteen years from now, he’ll still be making music, and it won’t begin to capture the complexity of what went into it.
Rembert Browne: I think I know exactly what Jay will be like in 15 years. But before that
There’s a notion of “playing with house money” that I rarely find applicable to people and their careers, but 100 percent applies to Jay and his decision to continue making the raps. During the ’03-’04 period that gave us not only The Black Album, but also Fade to Black, I’d emotionally prepared myself for the end of Hov. I was sad, but also fully aware that this man, musically, had given me more than I deserved. And I thanked him for that.
Since then, with the hits and misses, I’ve had a hard time complaining about Jay’s rap career, because I didn’t need any more. I wanted it, but there was nothing more Jay had to prove. To me. Four and a half albums later, even with the ability to pick apart every one of his musical and lifestyle choices, I’m still in this mind-set of saying “thanks” at the end of every album. Granted, verbalizing that appreciation was communicated in a calmer, quiet manner post–Kingdom Come. But even with that album, his worst album, I acknowledged the effort as that, an effort. One that was subpar for Jay, but still better than most music that was released.
OK. Jay in 15 years. Actually, one other thing
Everyone else in his field is seemingly trying to prove things to us, the consumer. Jay, in a lane to himself, appears to thrive only off of proving things to himself, most notably (and this isn’t a musical trait): the ability to stay relevant. That, perhaps, is why an album like Magna Carta feels so unrelatable and uninspiring for so many. But, in a twisted, arrogant way, it’s admirable.
Digressions aside, Jay in 15 years? That’s easy. The cool old guy. The hip-hop professor emeritus. Rick Rubin 2.0. But in order to do that, he has to stop making albums, something I’m convinced he’ll soon stop doing.
At some point, being “old” will be the cool move for Jay and at that time he’ll embrace it fully. Somehow, Jay has avoided being the dreaded “old man at the club,” despite his 43-year-old-ness. At a certain point, however, that moment will come. Thankfully, we’ll never see it. It will happen out of view, away from us.
Old Jay will become Wise Jay. Consultant Jay. Institutional Memory Jay. Again, quite Rubin-esque, he’ll be the person who drops into big musical projects, often uninvited, not to rap or produce or do anything technical, but simply to advise. Or, just due to his mere presence, instill confidence. To hear something, drop one piece of knowledge that changes the course of the project, and then take a five-hour nap in the other room because OLD JAY LOVES NAPS.
That’s where Jay-Z is headed. Or, at least, that’s where he should be headed, if he wants to ride this cool thing out into his seventies.