The mood swings are wide and sudden on Magna Carta ... Holy Grail, the 12th solo studio album by Jay-Z. This rapper who has everything — sales, fame, cars, clothes, fine art, corporate clout and an equally famous wife, Beyoncé — has started to wonder what it's all for.
Magna Carta ... Holy Grail arrives on a tsunami of marketing tied to Jay-Z's long-established role as hip-hop's high achiever. His songs keep retelling his success story: the drug dealer from the Brooklyn projects who became a rapper, a star and an entertainment mogul without forgetting the streets.
In Jay-Z lore, bigness and prestige are mandatory. Samsung bought a million copies of Magna Carta ...Holy Grail, at $5 each, to give away on Thursday through a mobile phone app on new models in advance of the official release date, five days later. As a result of a change in Recording Industry Association of America certification rules regarding album downloads, the album will have gone platinum before appearing in stores, and Jay-Z has become a digital standard-bearer.
Maintaining his monumental hubris, Jay-Z unveiled the album cover at Salisbury Cathedral in England, alongside a somewhat more historic document: one of the four extant copies of the original Magna Carta.
In his new songs, Jay-Z boasts his usual boasts; he praises how "special" his flow is, and he compulsively lists acquisitions, destinations and celebrity pals. We get to hear again about his Basquiats, his Maybach, his Lamborghini and his Hublot watch, and he compares himself yet again to Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali.
He also touts the corporate expansion of his Roc Nation into sports management. He now aspires to becoming a billionaire. "I crash through glass ceilings, I break through closed doors," he exults in Oceans.
But on this album, the music often tells a different story: less vainglorious, more ambivalent. Oceans itself - which, true to Jay-Z wordplay, features Frank Ocean on vocals - juxtaposes thoughts of slave ships with Jay-Z's current luxury, cruising on a yacht; its track is a brass-section elegy.
It's typical of an album on which Jay-Z turns away from the anthemic pop of Empire State of Mind, the rock stomp of 99 Problems, or the lavish mélange of electronics, sampled soul music and orchestral buildups that he shared with Kanye West on "Watch the Throne," their brilliant 2011 duo album.
In retrospect, Watch the Throne set new, diverging trajectories for both rappers: West toward a self-righteous, confrontational crudeness and Jay-Z toward reflection, perspective and a little more self-questioning. That album also led them to experiment. This year, they have both gambled that name recognition and pent-up anticipation would get their new albums noticed with or without radio hits.
At 43, Jay-Z has grown-up concerns, particularly parenthood; Blue Ivy Carter was born in January 2012, making Magna Carta ... Holy Grail Jay-Z's first dad-rap album. Its most conflicted and vulnerable song is Jay Z Blue (Daddy Dearest). Its track samples dialogue from Mommie Dearest over an arrangement suffused with spaghetti-western foreboding; the lyrics worry about how his "Father never taught me to be a father," adding, "I'm trying and I'm lying if I said I wasn't scared." Jay-Z also mentions his daughter in the album's opening track, Holy Grail, where he's cornered at a corner store by paparazzi trying to get a baby picture. It's part of a seesawing rap about fame as an enticement, a burden, a problem dwarfed by other people's struggles, something he craves and something that might drive him crazy. He ends up singing along with Justin Timberlake and paraphrasing Kurt Cobain: "We all just entertainers, and we're stupid and contagious."
Often, Jay-Z's boasts are contested by tracks with their own stubborn agendas: minor keys, empty spaces, unyielding arrangements that make his rhymes dodge and weave around them. Another song about success, Crown, with Jay-Z joined by the Texan rapper Travis Scott, moves on somber chords and an oozing Southern hip-hop beat as anxiety - "best friends become ya enemies" - takes over from bragging.
"Tom Ford," which has Jay-Z living it up in Paris - "Spent all my euros on tuxedos and weird clothes" - is a one-chord Timbaland production that starts out hinting at Radiohead's Kid A and turns into a thicket of synthesizers, bubbling and ratcheting all around and making Jay-Z shove his way into the rhythm. The tension improves the song; it's about contention, not just conspicuous consumption. Timbaland produced the majority of the album, and his beats carry Jay-Z even when - as in Picasso Baby, an art inventory - the lyrics revisit familiar ground.
But Jay-Z is still striving on Magna Carta ... Holy Grail. He ponders faith, superstition and free thinking in Heaven, which quotes REM's Losing My Religion, while in Nickels and Dimes, he wonders whether giving people handouts is just his way to assuage "survivor's guilt" over his escape from poverty. The songs aren't cocky or neatly resolved; they're Jay-Z thinking aloud, grappling with complications that can't be resolved with cash.
The closest thing to a pop song on Magna Carta ... Holy Grail is Part II (On the Run). It features Beyoncé, in creamy lead vocals and breathy harmonies, trading verses with Jay-Z about fugitives finding romance. "I hear sirens while we make love," Beyoncé sings, and Timbaland's production sets aside his usual brittle tones to hint at the keyboard confections of 1980s Lionel Richie and Don Henley.
Even with its thoughts of apprehension and death, the song is a cozy refuge from the album's ups and downs, its sometimes awkward mixture of Jay-Z's reflexes and his determination to sidestep them.
Though Timbaland's productions always hold some sly surprises, Magna Carta ... Holy Grail comes across largely as a transitional album, as if Jay-Z has tired of pop but hasn't found a reliable alternative. A million sales are in his pocket; he can keep searching.