There's no other entertainment-related entity that consistently requires as much cognitive dissonance from its fans as rap does. Yes, there are other genres where artists are prone to hyperbole. (Going by her songs, Taylor Swift has broken up with a couple hundred thousand people.) In rap's case, hyperbole isn't just common. It's essential to its foundation. Often, our perceptions of a rapper's talent level is based on how elegantly and convincingly he can exaggerate. Basically, how willing are we to pretend to believe his lies.
Perhaps no other rapper exemplifies this better than Jay-Z. Even before he was worth a half a billion dollars, he rapped and carried himself like someone who already was. Reasonable Doubt never sounded like a debut album as much as a biopic narrated by the subject of the biography. The "been there, done that, bought a t-shirt"-ishness is evident with the first track ("Cant Knock The Hustle") and crescendos on the ridiculously cocky "Aint No Nigga"—songs that combine to help Jay-Z create a persona we'd never actually seen at that point: The gifted rapper who raps because he wants to, not because he needs to.
Each subsequent album—the Blueprints, the Life and Times of Shawn Carters, Kingdom Come, etc—continued to fine tune that image. Sure, every now and then he'd show he might be in need of a hug and create a "Song Cry" or a "This Cant Be Life." But, while those songs worked musically—you even could argue that those types of songs are his best work—they always felt pandering and intentional, like Batman deciding to catch the bus to work. The essence of Jay-Z's music was, is, and will always be that he's better at doing what he does (rapping, selling drugs, setting trends, wearing hats, dating light-skinned women, etc) than anyone else is at anything they do.
It's apropos that our first glimpse of Magna Carta…Holy Grail occurred during halftime of game 5 of the NBA finals. We'd just finished watching a group of (relatively) young men with a combined wealth of a billion dollars when Samsung aired the first (and longest) of the documentary-style promos for Jay-Z's new album. Yet, as Jigga and a group of legendary producers riffed about concepts like "game changing" and "paradigm shifting," one thought kept circling through my head: Jay-Z is rich as fuck.
Richer than everyone we just saw on the court. Richer than each of the super-rich producers in the commercial with him. Rich enough to either buy (or convince Samsung to buy) three minutes of ridiculously expensive ad time.
With a household net worth of a billion dollars, MCHG is the first solo album where Jay-Z is actually the person he's always rapped about being. When he raps "Basquiat in my kitchen corner/Go ahead lean on that shit Blue, you own it" and "Surrounded by Warhols/my whole team ball” on "Picasso Baby", these aren't colorful fabrications from a kid showing how far his imagination can stretch or even the truth-bending claims of a moderately successful rapper insecure he's not bourgie enough. This is a man who can actually afford Basquiat bath mats and Warhol toilet paper.
From a technical standpoint, this is actually one of Jay-Z's better albums. His subject matter and production is as complex and diverse as it's ever been, and his flow hasn't lost any of its signature effortlessness. Aside from his perfunctory forgettable track with his wife, nothing on MCHG is skip-worthy.
Yet, if I had to rank favorite Jay-Z albums, MCHG would finish last. As stated earlier, Jay-Z's main draw has always been how good he was at convincing you he's as rich as he currently is. But now, when the person finally matches up with the persona, the persona ceases to be as compelling, and the music ceases to resonate. The level of cognitive dissonance needed to be a serious rap fan is no longer necessary when listening to an album made by a person who no longer has any need for hyperbole. After at least a dozen listens, there's no doubt Jay-Z is the only rapper who could have made MCHG. Unfortunately, there's also no doubt that MCHG is the only album this Jay-Z—a maven salesman with nothing left to sell—can make. It's not elevator music as much as it's music made by (and for) people with elevators in their homes.
Honestly, I don't know if my feelings about MCHG say more about me or Jay-Z. Maybe I haven't evolved enough to appreciate it fully. Maybe I've listened to so much rap that it takes something like Yeezus—an album unlike anything I've ever heard-—to resonate. Maybe I'm just a hater. (Unlikely since I'm a huge Jay-Z fan. But, anything is possible.)
I do know one thing, though. Listening to someone pretend to be a billionaire is more interesting to me than actually listening to one.