Album Review: Jay-Z, ‘Magna Carta…Holy Grail’

nick porcaro looks at one of the most important albums to drop this year …

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Forget Iron Man 3. (Or Man of Steel, or The Lone Ranger, or Star Trek Into Darkness.)

Summer’s most lavish, grandiose popcorn entertainment has arrived courtesy of Jay-Z and his sixty-minute, sixteen-track, outrageously named album Magna Carta…Holy Grail. On a cursory listen the new music does not disappoint: its bangers impossibly heavy, its featured artists unavoidably prominent, its opulence unrivaled in modern-day rap. There are at least five Basquiat references. There are songs named after Pablo Picasso and Tom Ford. There are jaw-dropping beats courtesy of Timbaland, The-Dream, Pharrell, Swizz Beats, Mike WiLL Made It … the list goes on. It’s business as usual for Jay Hova—and business* is a-boomin’ out of speakers across the country this 4th of July weekend.

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But underneath all the unquestionably savvy marketing and luxury name-dropping lies a different story, one of a rap icon with less identity than ever. The only anomaly on Magna Carta…Holy Grail is Jay-Z himself. Our self-proclaimed God MC seems unsure whether to drop lyrical depth in favor of braggadocious boasts — as on early standout “Tom Ford”, with an absurd Timbaland beat, and early disappointment “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt”, with a sleep-inducing Rick Ross feature — or to seize the lofty atmospherics for a more introspective approach. Some of the edgier tracks interpret old-school, Reasonable Doubt-esque boom-bap with modern drum sounds and harder bass, and the result is refreshing. It’s here where Hov seems to have fun experimenting with his flow: “Tom Ford” sees the rapper drag behind the beat maniacally in a manner reminiscent of Danny Brown, while the absolutely bonkers, unfortunately brief interlude “Beach is Better” returns to the fast-paced lyrical bounce of Jay’s earlier work.

On the flipside, “Part II (On the Run”) continues where 2003’s “’03 Bonnie and Clyde” left off with sumptuous guest vocals from Beyoncé and swimming pool production from Timbaland. The track is pure fantasy but it’s pleasant enough. “Oceans” builds on the major-minor chord drone of The Blueprint III’s “What We Talkin’ About” with menacing majesty, but there’s a problem when your album’s weightiest lyrical conceit comes courtesy of Frank Ocean:

”Because this water drown my family, this water mixed my blood
This water tells my story, this water knows it all
Go ahead and spill some champagne in the water”

For all its sonic and dynamic range the end result sort of drags on like an album-length shoulder shrug, more of an admission of complacency than a claim at continued rap-game dominance. Only album opener “Holy Grail” is ballsy enough to pair the introspective, soul-bearing side of things — represented here by an essential Justin Timberlake vocal — with the hard-hitting brag raps that Hov still spits effortlessly. Justin sings of unconditional love and the hardships that accompany it, while Jay-Z pens a stunning love/hate letter to fame:

“This fame hurt but this chain works, I think back you asked the same person
‘If this is all you had to deal with?’ Nigga deal with it, this shit ain’t work
This light work, camera snapping, my eyes hurt
Niggas dying back where I was birthed
Fuck your IRIS and IRS, get the hell up off of your high horse
You got the shit that niggas die for, dry yours
Why you mad? Take the good with the bad
Don’t throw that baby out with the bath water”

It’s got that something else, something the album is generally lacking: a clever concept that encompasses the entirety of a song. One would hope an album titled Magna Carta…Holy Grail could make a general statement beyond “I’m absurdly rich, impossibly business-savvy and fatherhood scares the shit out of me,” but that is just not the case. (Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if the title was picked for the sole purpose of revealing its artwork next to the finest surviving copy of the Magna Carta, on display in Salisbury Cathedral.)

It’s here where Magna Carta begs for comparison with Kanye West’s recent release, Yeezus. The rappers last teamed on 2011’s Watch the Throne, a lightweight victory lap of a record with far more in common to Magna Carta than Yeezus. Kanye’s 2012’s Cruel Summer compilation saw him rap “Aw man, you sold your soul,” but this year it’s Jay-Z with little conscience to spare. When we find him at his most vulnerable, on “Jay-Z Blue,” his heartfelt confessions of paternal insecurities are juxtaposed with kitschy sound bites from the camp classic film Mommie Dearest. It’s clear Hov took the bad film seriously, but its satirical place in pop culture history undermines the track and throws the listener out of the mood just as Jay’s lyrics invite us in.

Kanye, on the other hand, never reaches so desperately on Yeezus. His status as perpetual enfant terrible of hip-hop speaks for itself; the blasts of noise and profane raps are an exorcising of the demons that fame and wealth bring. Expertly reduced by Rick Rubin and rushed to completion just weeks before release, the end result frees Kanye to shit on your notions of PC good taste, bemoan corporate and social racism, plunge the depths of his celebrity, hit the club with an outrageous banger or two and revisit the soul sounds that made him famous, all in just 40 lean minutes. That’s less time than any Jay-Z album to date. In contrast, Magna Carta…Holy Grail could do with a whole load of editing. In a revealing bit of news, the track list was actually extended from 13 to 16 tracks just before release. It’s all too telling that Magna Carta lacks a Kanye feature or production credit; seems like ‘Ye’s got a thing or two to teach his Big Brother about brevity.

Magna Carta…Holy Grail is impeccably produced, star-studded background music for millennials to bump without thinking too hard about it. Its distinctly American undercurrent of ambition, martyrdom and egomania makes it perfect 4th of July barbecue music. The timing couldn’t be better, but Hov’s latest won’t have anyone talking ten years from now.

3/5 stars

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* Speaking of business, Jay-Z somehow managed to redefine corporation-musician synergy by teaming with Samsung to offer this album for free. The catch? You have to own a Samsung Galaxy S3, S4 or Note II phone; you have to download a Samsung-sponsored app and interact with sponsored content before downloading the album; and you have to be one of the first million users to get it, which means Hov basically went Platinum before the album was even available for purchase to the general public.

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