Meet the Neighbor: Race, Class and Magna Carta… Holy Grail
Here are some things we know for sure about Sean Carter, aka Jay-Z: he grew up in some of the toughest projects of one of New York City’s toughest neighborhoods, has been shot multiple times, used to sell crack cocaine, is a high school drop-out, and is now, according to Forbes Magazine, the 32nd most powerful celebrity in the world. There are few people who can relate to the kind of life experience Jay-Z has, and the dichotomy between poverty and international superstardom takes center stage on Magna Carta… Holy Grail.
With pre-orders and some help from Samsung Magna Carta has officially gone platinum on it’s release date. Jay-z is, by virtually every standard imaginable, wildly successful. All record sales aside, he also owns a sports management firm, sold his stake in the Brooklyn Nets for almost 150% profit, has a long-running and successful clothing line, and is married to someone you may have heard of once or twice… What’s her name? Beyonce? Magna Carta… Holy Grail gives us a confessional look inside what it’s like to live in this dichotomy, and what it means to be an African-American celebrity in new millennium America.
The record opens with a beautiful middle finger to celebrity culture, “Holy Grail”. Justin Timberlake- himself a boy from rural Tennessee who has been internationally famous for more years of his life than not- sings the chorus from Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” while Jay-z reminds us that Curt Cobain took his own life rather than confront the pressures of fame and celebrity status. Jay-z rejects that option and instead expresses gratitude for the life he lives, stating “If this is all you had to deal with… this BARNICLE ain’t work, this light work, #s dying back where I was birthed”. This cautious relationship with wealth and success sets the stage to further explore these themes on the rest of the album.
Nowhere is an uneasy relationship with class more apparent than on “Somewhere in America”. Reminiscient of the Jeffersons movin’ on up, Jay-z raps “Knock knock, I’m at your neighbor’s house/ Straight cash, I bought your neighbor out”. Now that Jay-z has aquired the wealth of a small nation, he can live wherever he pleases, but not without garnering disapproval from the “blue bloods” and “old jews”. Where will the “new blacks with new stacks” fit in in modern America? One solution is to create a new place in American culture. Lest we forget just how successful and influential in American culture Jay-z is, he reminds us that even Disney starlet Miley Cyrus loves his music and mocks her privileged white girl enthusiasm for hip-hop culture by commanding, like a dark puppet master, “Twerk, Miley. Miley, twerk”.
What about race in 2013 America? Jay-z tackles that problem by inviting Frank Ocean to croon on “Oceans”, where Ocean sings “I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo before the Basquiat show”. It’s important that he cites Basquiat specifically: partnering with Andy Warhol and finding his street art consumed by mass-produced screen-printed pop art and later reproduced on Reebok sneakers, there is perhaps no better example of appropriation of street culture than Basquiat. The lyrics call out Nina Simone’s haunting memorial to a lynching, “Strange Fruit” and again make mention of Jay-z’s past as a drug dealer. Is it complicated? Sure, but once again Jay-z has managed to “Crash through glass ceilings and break through closed doors” and reminds us that the political climate isn’t entirely bleak with “Shepard Faeiry they finally gave me some hope/ Can’t believe they got a # to vote”, calling out the artist’s iconic Obama campaign poster design.
As the only candidate for a club banger on the album, even “BBC” has a serious tone, reminding us that in today’s culture it’s common for society to assume wealthy black men must all be drug dealers. At first listen this track seemed to be another laundry list of signifiers of wealth, everything from expensive cars to Versache getting a mention, but then Jay-z reminds us that “Your life is illegal/ When your chain can get the RICO/ Real #s all feel the hook”.
Once again, Jay-z reminds us with Magna Carta… Holy Grail that there is more to hip-hop than rapping about baby mommas and expensive things. In the same vein as N.W.A. and WuTang before him, Jay-z has things to say to us about what it means to be a black man in America.