There's a significant reason music scribes chose to evaluate Jay Z's much publicized new record "Magna Carta Holy Grail" as a business decision. Scrutinized within just about any appropriate context —his own stellar body of work, contemporary rap at large, major label popular music in 2013, take your pick— it's almost wholly forgettable.
Much like 2006's lackluster "Kingdom Come", "Magna Carta" suffers not from a lack of charisma, skill or intelligence (all of which were enough for Jay to mostly glide through 2011's "Watch the Throne" on), but from a lack of anything that resembles inspiration or effort. You'd think raising a daughter with one of the world's most beautiful, talented women would refuel those tanks but on "JAY Z Blue" (his daughter's name is Blue Ivy) the focus is all Hov. Compared against Nas's recent "Daughters", Jay sounds like he'd rather just ship his child off to etiquette school.
(Before moving along to what I really want to talk about this week, I want to say that "Somewhereinamerica"'s declaration of "Twerk Miley, twerk!", in addition to being a bizarre way to return the favor for Miley Cyrus's shoutout to Jay in "Party in the U.S.A." is the absolute nadir of Jay's storied career. There, that’s done.)
Critics and listeners I've heard from seem to think Jay's age (he's 43 now) is at the root of his lack of effort but that's not the case. The reality is that he just has the talent, skill and Coca-Cola-scale name recognition to put out a ho-hum record that lots of people will buy and probably enjoy, regardless of the lack of effort. It’s just good business.
But good business rarely intersects with interesting and worthwhile art that provokes, asks questions and forces the listener to turn his or her thoughts upon himself or herself and that is where we turn to Kaseem Ryan. Like Jay, Ka grew up in Brooklyn in the ‘70s and ‘80s where he lived through a poverty that would inform his raps, and judging by them he witnessed just about everything that came with low-income living. But Ka sets himself apart from the pack both stylistically and in that he’s concerned with morality and ethical dilemmas. While most rappers would be content with empty boasts, Ka considers the morality of an act itself, often turning to the divine. “Our Father” on his new record is as strong in this regard as UGK’s “One Day”, where Pimp C asks why bad things happen to good people, a question as old as the Bible, at least.
Ka’s style is simultaneously breathy and firm and always subtle. His beats —which are all homemade as far as I can tell— never distract from what he’s saying and tend to rely on darkly toned samples that provide oldschool rap heads with the deep New York noir they’ve missed since the late ‘90s. He often double-tracks his own voice for emphasis on specific phrases, underlining the important stuff. The man is not to be misunderstood.
It all makes for an incredible listen in “The Night’s Gambit”, which he self-released about two weeks after “Magna Carta” hit shelves. “Gambit” doesn’t so much improve on last year’s “Grief Pedigree” as simply add to it. We get a collaboration with Roc Marciano called “Soap Box” that’s built on a shifty, incredible funk riff, something I haven’t heard him rap over. And “Off the Record” listens like a love letter to the ‘90s rap Ka grew up feasting on.
If Ka can sustain himself, his art and otherwise achieve whatever presumably probably modest financial goals he has, his will be a modern indie success story. On his website he writes “You make art because you can’t help it.” If Jay Z operated his own artist site and were honest enough, his would merely say “You make art because you can.”
Matt Carney is NewsOK’s night editor and pop music columnist for LOOKatOKC.