Time was, Jay Z was the undisputed king of rap. Sure, Lil Wayne made a play for the crown, but he disappeared into a cloud of rap-rock and purple drank. But Jay, assisted by Kanye & Alicia Keys, HAM’d and Empire’d his way back to said throne.
But then, Mr. Carter spent 2013 making more mistakes than Rob Ford on vacation in Bogota.
To think, it started with what sounded like the event of the summer. Jay Z dropping a summer party record on the 4th of July for free to a million fans. And it was a surprise! The album was announced with an ad during June 16’s NBA Finals game, only two days before Kanye West’s much anticipated Yeezus was set to release, to the salivation of the faithful. The ad, featuring the biggest names in beats — Rick Rubin, Pharrell, Timbaland, and Swizz Beats, sent a message: Brooklyn’s Finest is not to be overshadowed.
Unfortunately, the album couldn’t cash the checks its ads were writing. Months later, what can you really recall off the top of your head of the album? Samsung and Tom Ford … so, Product Placement Mission Accomplished? Yes, the only real summertime memories created by this album was the frustration felt by anybody trying to use the Samsung Galaxy device exclusive app to get the album for free, and one song with a decent beat that promoted a clothing label.
To get the album for free, you had to download an app (which Run The Jewels rapper Killer Mike blasted on twitter for handing out personal information), and then wait for the midnight release to click download and have nothing happen. Pirated download links were popping up before most Samsung downloads even worked, and Jay Z looked like he didn’t do the due diligence on whether or not Samsung was the right crew to roll with. The “Magna Carta Holy Fail” headlines wrote themselves. And once you got deeper into the album, it didn’t get better.
“Somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerking… twerk Miley Miley Miley twerk…” – MCHG’s “Only In America”
With those words, the twitterverse lit up. Either Jay Z was calling Miley out, or he was endorsing her. Of course, Miley took it as the latter. This moment, though, is possibly the exact moment (scientists will debate it against “Beach Chairs,” which featured Coldplay’s Chris Martin) where Jay-Z became The Dad Rapper. Why is Jay-Z even thinking about Miley twerking? This is the first time he’s mentioned either Ms. Cyrus or Twerking, so its best case is a play to be timely. But the more time passes, the more often an older relative makes some comment about twerking and comes off as out of touch, or lecherous. Not a great way for Jay-Z to be seen as ahead of the game.
The hoopla surrounded Magna Carta Holy Grail was the height of silly, and to some it might have peaked with the loss of some punctuation. Using Billboard Editor Joe Levy as a mouthpiece, it was announced: “Breaking: Jay Z has dropped the hyphen from his name, according to his label,” Levy tweeted, “I am not kidding. (Wish I was.)” It might be the most cosmetic of Jay Z’s changes over the year, and it may have started with the cover decal for Watch The Throne, but the MCHG cover made it offical: Jay and the Hyphen are never, ever getting back together.
And while all of that was going on, Kanye West was out there owning the summer, without Jay, and without any sponsorship. Kanye’s worldwide streets-is-watching projections tour for the “New Slaves” video wasn’t financed on the back of a smartphone and done on the giant scale we’ve come to expect from the self-professed Steve Jobs of Downtown. Sure, Jay made a mint off of the Samsung deal, but it wasn’t like he was strapped for cash in the first place. King Hova just got richer and while this looked like a smart move, it wasn’t creative, nor was it critically appreciated — both categories where Kanye was awarded A+ grades.
Socio-politically, Jay Z was also given failing grades, for failing to react quickly to the clothing store Barney’s racial profiling controversy. He was called out by many for this, because his high profile collaboration with the department store, which continued on without any statement condemning the situation. Several weeks later, he would issue a statement via his blog, and promise to donate all of the profits from his collection to his own Shawn Carter Foundation, a financial scholarship resource for “individual[s] facing socio-economic hardships,” although a recent op-ed from the Washington Post questioned the quality of said charity.
Maybe the year doesn’t end on a particularly angry note, though, if Jay Z hadn’t taken his Yankee fitted cap and stabbed the Big Apple in the back with it. After randomly dropping his infinitesimally small ownership stake in the Brooklyn Nets, Shawn Carter became an even more multi-hyphenate: rapper, record producer, label executive, entrepeneur, and now, by signing the five-time All Star 2nd baseman Robinson Cano away from Scott Boras, Jay is now a licensed sports agent. In December, after a year of Jay Z signing athletes to deals with his Roc Nation Sports agency, something big finally came of it. Jay Z got Cano the $240 million deal he had spent the off season publicly pining for. Unfortunately for Jay’s hometown of New York, it wasn’t The Yankees — the team that brought Cano up through the minor leagues — but with the Seattle Mariners, a team that is not likely to help Cano add another World Series ring. The move stings New Yorkers, who might have trusted Jay Z to keep things homegrown.
Speaking of home grown, one of the last quotables from Jay Z in 2013 is as follows: “or as I prefer to call it, plant-based!!”
Can you believe that? It’s not even from a rhyme, but again, from a blog post, where Hov was announcing that he and Queen Bey (more on her in a moment) were starting a 22-day veganism challenge. While Kanye has always been the cheesier of the two, this phrase marks Jay Z even harder as a Dad Rapper, and one of the lamest vegans. When we have moments where the former Rap King of New York sounds like a yuppie from Orange is the New Black, you know that 2013 was at least good for a chuckle.
And finally, what Jay Z wrap-up would be complete without mentioning how Beyoncé out-surprise-album’d her husband with her eponymous album, announced and released on the same damn day. And while Jay Z gave free copies out through the healthy and safe distance of an app, Queen Bey made a surprise visit to the paupers at a local Wal•Mart, handing out free copies in a savvy move seen by most as a giant golden middle finger to Target, who refuses to sell the album since it was first an iTunes exclusive.
Things could be worse, though. He could have been Big Sean, ethered on his own song by Kendrick Lamar. That sentence was mandatorily included, because you can’t talk about the year in rap without mentioning That Verse.
Henry T. Casey tweets @henrytcasey.
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