DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
The rapper Jay-Z has just released a new album called "Magna Carta Holy Grail." He's now married to singer Beyonce, and this is his first collection since becoming a father. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the album is an uneven, but intriguing collection of songs that tries to navigate a path between parenthood and an obsession with commercial success.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVEN")
JAY-Z: (Rapping) That's me in the corner. Uh. That's me in the spotlight. Uh. Losing my religion. Losing my religion. Getting ghost in the ghost. Can you see me? Can you see me? Have mercy on a Judas, angel wings on a 'ghini. Uh. Secular to the heckler, settle down. Yeah, religion creates division like my Maybach partition. And God is my chauffer. Boy they love Hova. From the south side of Chi to Brooklyn where I growed up.
(rapping) I confess God in the flesh, live among the serpents, turn arenas to churches. Uh. I'm like Michael. Recycle...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Now 43 years old, Jay-Z has become the Jay Gatsby of hip-hop: a man with a checkered background, playing host to endless parties celebrating excellence, the good life and himself. It's no wonder he was asked to oversee the music for director Baz Luhrmann's amusement park ride version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's romantic fantasy.
Jay-Z has been popping champagne corks to his own moneymaking abilities for so long now, with Beyonce by his side as a more attainable Daisy, that we're all reduced to being Nick Carraways, looking at him with a mixture of bafflement and envy. It's a mixture Jay-Z seeks to further on his new album "Magna Carta Holy Grail," a gaudy puzzler that's both triumphant and trivial.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEWHEREINAMERICA")
JAY-Z: (Rapping) Uh. Hey. See what you made me do?
(Rapping) Ow. Hey. Shout out to old Jews and old rules. Uh. New blacks with new stacks. Uh. I already been the king. Uh. Retro act, I'm just bringing it back like Jordan Packs. Uh. New money, they looking down on me. Uh. Blue bloods, they trying to clown on me. Uh. You can turn up your nose, high society. Uh. Never going to turn down a homie. Uh.
(rapping) Knock, knock. I'm at your neighbor house. Uh. Straight cash I bought your neighbor out. Uh. You should come to the house warming. Uh. Come and see what your new neighbor about. Uh.
TUCKER: That's "Somewhereinamerica," on which Jay-Z goes over the familiar ground of the nouveau riche versus old money. Lots of black rappers chafe in their lyrics over the disdain they sense from moneyed white culture, and Jay-Z doesn't add much to this genre of resentment. The best thing about this variation on the theme is the coproduction by the hip-hop artist Hit Boy, which gives a bouncy oomph to the sluggish complaints.
Its trombone-brass sound effect works as a musical criticism, giving a raspberry to Jay-Z's litany. His more amusing rich man's playthings catalogue, a composition called "Picasso Baby," finds him rhyming the Miami festival Art Basel with life colossal. He praises Jeff Koons' balloons and pronounces himself rather more weirdly the new Jean-Michel Basquiat.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'PICASSO BABY')
JAY-Z: (Rapping) Oh, what a feeling. Picasso, baby. Picasso, baby. Picasso, baby. Ca-ca-Picasso. It ain't hard to tell I'm the new Jean-Michel, surrounded by Warhols, my whole team ball. Twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel. I just want to live life colossal. Leonardo da Vinci flow, Riccardo Tisci Givenchy clothes. See me throning at the Met, vogueing on these (beep), champagne on my breath. Yes.
(Rapping) House like the Louvre or the Tate Modern, 'cause I be going ape at the auction. Oh, what a feeling.
TUCKER: Despite guest cameos by Justin Timberlake and Frank Ocean, there's a lassitude to much of "Magna Carta." Can it possibly be ascribed to the banality of real life? Much of this album's rhyming sounds tossed off, distracted. Is this the work of a scattered, tired new dad? That doesn't square with the high-living, self-described billionaire who's difficult to imagine losing sleep walking a squawking baby Blue Ivy around in the middle of the night, or changing a diaper, although he does use Pampers as an unfortunate rhyme word with Hamptons.
On the song "Jay-Z Blue" he samples a bit of Faye Dunaway dialogue from the movie "Mommy Dearest." But not to worry: He's not implying that the mother of his child, Beyonce, is swinging wire hangers around the crib. On other songs, he compares Beyonce to the Mona Lisa, and also builds a hymn to and around her, inviting his wife to join in.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PART II (ON THE RUN)")
BEYONCE: (Singing) I hear sirens while we make love. Loud as hell, but they don't know. They're nowhere near us. I will hold your heart and your gun. I don't care if they come. No. I know it's crazy, but they can take me now that I found the places that you take me. Without you, I've got nothing to lose.
JAY-Z: (Rapping) I'm an outlaw. Got an outlaw chick. Bumping 2Pac on my outlaw (beep). Matching tats, this ink don't come off, even if rings come off, if things ring off. My nails get dirty. My past ain't pretty. My lady is. My Mercedes is.
TUCKER: "Magna Carta Holy Grail" arrives on the heels of Kanye West's album "Yeezus," a far more abrasive production that found Jay-Z's one-time protege proclaiming himself a god and grinding the Billie Holliday classic "Strange Fruit" into a pulp. Jay-Z also compares himself to the deity and invokes "Strange Fruit," but in a shrewder context.
In the song "Oceans," he locates the irony of cruising the high seas in a fancy boat while being haunted by the notion that these may be the same waters that transported slaves to America. No one is asking Jay-Z to become a morose historian, but as he's proved in the past, he's frequently at his best when he's not merely self-aware, but aware of a world that existed before his arrival - beyond money, yachts, jewelry and boasting.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed "Magna Carta Holy Grail," the new album from Jay-Z. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.