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Debating Jay-Z

His new ‘Magna Carta…Holy Grail’ arrives in a blaze of brand-synergized, guest-packed glory, but does it live up to the hype?

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Kyle Anderson The whole marketing of this album seemed like a prelude to a massive cultural event. Instead we got a middling release that feels jumbled and jittery. Jay is 43 years old and a new dad, and he seems more interested in his budding sports agency than what’s happening on the streets. Ray, what do you expect from a Jay-Z album in 2013?

Ray Rahman You know, I had very low expectations, despite the fact that he managed to get the cover art displayed next to the actual Magna Carta in England. First off, we’re still recovering from an excellent statement album from Jay’s friend and longtime collaborator Kanye West. Moreover, like tennis god Roger Federer, Hova has been in decline for a while — and MCHG is proof positive of that. It sounds like a great rapper being good enough.

Anderson But is good enough really good enough? Semantics! My big problem with legacy artists (and 25 years and 12 solo albums in, Jay is totally a legacy artist — don’t let anybody tell you otherwise) is that they are given too much leeway in the media when they trot out new projects. Just as the Rolling Stones’ later work will forever be blessed and cursed by the fact that they made Exile on Main Street, Jay can’t help but be overrated at this point — as the man says, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain. His music has always been about class, and now that he’s the overseer of an empire, he’s rapping from the wrong side of history. It would be one thing if this album were simply musically bankrupt, but the way it has been presented as a capital-I Important piece of art about ”duality” (Jay’s word, not mine), delivered to us via the power of corporate marketing and Samsung-sponsored data mining — I find the whole thing putrid.

Ray Rahman Honestly, for me, MCHG‘s release strategy makes it easier to accept as a sort of throwaway, maybe even a mulligan. If he knew he had something actually Important on his hands, he probably would’ve titled this thing The Blueprint IV instead of something that screams, ”I’m compensating!” I mean, how mad can you be at an album you got for free?

Anderson I like the production on ”BBC,” and ”Part II (On the Run)” continues Jay’s streak of on-point collaborations with his wife. But there’s so much dead weight here. ”Tom Ford” is just embarrassing, and I have a hard time deciding which part of ”Somewhereinamerica” is worse: the line ”Shout-out to old Jews” or the outro that has him repeating, ”Twerk Miley Miley twerk!” Even the better songs have moments that are just cringe-inducing.

Ray Rahman The icy ”Tom Ford” and ”BBC,” with Nas, aren’t innovative at all, but I still like them. And the hypnotic Frank Ocean collaboration ”Oceans” is a standout for me, as is the opener ”Holy Grail,” featuring Justin Timberlake doing his best Adam Levine impression. But I can’t stand ”Picasso Baby,” with its tired art brags. Like others, I see MCHG (perhaps wistfully so) as a sort of stopgap until he releases something great again. Overall, I give it a C+.

Anderson Time will tell whether it’s a stopgap or a stepping-stone, but either way it’s below par. For an artist we know is capable of greatness, it feels lazy, smug, and fundamentally empty. So for me, it’s a D.