I recall a conversation I had with a friend about the future directions of Kendrick Lamar’s music career about six months after his first studio album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was released. The album was a cohesive, thoughtful exploration of teenage life in Compton, and fans and critics alike received it as a defining album for hip-hop. Where could Kendrick possibly go from here to avoid being cast as a one-trick pony? It was clear Kendrick had the potential for rap greatness, but it was unclear whether this would be the sort of iconic status enjoyed by Jay Z or the niche appeal and recognition enjoyed by Nas.
Jay Z once boasted in a particularly memorable line on Kanye West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix),” “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” Clever wordplay aside, he’s right. Besides being the rapper Jay Z (he recently dropped the hyphen), Shawn Carter is the definitive hip-hop mogul, brandishing a resume teeming with his various ventures and positions: head of record label Roc Nation, co-owner of sports bar chain the 40/40 club, co-creator of the Rocawear clothing line, and spokesperson of D’Usse, Bacardi’s new brandy product, just to name a few. This year, he even founded Roc Nation sports, because apparently that’s what you do when you’re the only rapper with a net worth of over $500 million. The man can sell anything — but even with all these other products, he hasn’t forgotten how to sell music. In a historic pre-album deal, Carter sold a million copies of his new modestly-named album, Magna Carta… Holy Grail, to Samsung for sale through an exclusive app. By doing so, Carter prompted the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to rewrite their rules regarding digital sales, and became the first artist ever to have an album go platinum before it even hits the shelves, making what sounds like an unbacked piece of rap braggadocio into a reality. With such pre-release hype, listeners were expecting a truly great album, one that could sit near the top of Jay Z’s massive discography. However, while Carter did deliver a highly enjoyable hip hop album, Magna Carta struggles to live up to the larger-than-life persona Carter takes on.