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

Magna Carta Holy Grail

Jay-Z is one of pop music’s greatest mythmakers, and his most jealously guarded myth is the notion that what he does is effortless. You see this in his insistence on composing rhymes without pen and paper, his omnipresent yet offhand allusions to his own sales history, and his boasts of intentionally dumbing-down his raps to appeal to wider audiences.

For the release of this week’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” he’s added yet another audacious note to the myth. Thanks to a multimillion-dollar promotional deal with Samsung and a change in RIAA rules, the album will be certified platinum on the very day it hits record stores and iTunes. In other words, Jay-Z can now move a million copies of an album before he’s even released it.

Yet for the last few years, there has been a growing sense of desperation bubbling beneath the braggadocio. After the lukewarm embrace of 2006’s “Kingdom Come,” Jay quickly retreated to his most well-worn and seemingly exhausted subject, the drug trade, for the awkward film tie-in “American Gangster.” Follow-up “The Blueprint 3” betrayed hints of flop sweat as Jay endeavored to co-opt all the newest trends from a rap world that seemed ominously capable of getting along without him. And on 2011’s smash collaboration “Watch the Throne,” he leaned heavily on his onetime protege Kanye West, a rapper who, for all his many faults, has always displayed a willingness to test the boundaries of his art and the patience of his audience in ways Jay has rarely dared.

The best that can be said of “Magna Carta” is that much of this strain seems to have eased. The Jay that emerges on the album is calm, relaxed, imperious, an expert curator with no shortage of nice things to display. Appropriately, the album’s guest appearances are all drawn from the A-list, with Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and Rick Ross showing up throughout. Timbaland has production credits on 11 of the album’s 16 tracks (with the likes of Pharrell Williams and Hit-Boy handling the others) and there are at least five sinuous beats here that will still be heard thundering out of slow-moving Jeeps a year or so hence.

Yet the record is ultimately less than the sum of its parts, and despite a few poignant glimpses of Jay struggling to deal with his recent fatherhood, too much of the album is stymied by Jay’s unwillingness to evolve.

By casting his life story as an updated Horatio Alger tale — and his self-made success as a subversion of the music industry’s shameful exploitation of black artists — Jay has always managed to turn his own rapacious wealth accumulation into a cause worth rooting for. This a difficult trick to pull off, however, and it’s one that’s becoming increasingly unsupportable. No longer content with name-checking fine wines and designer clothes, Jay spends an entire song here bragging about his fine art collection, though his only interest in great paintings appears to be the fact that he can afford them. “Somewhere in America” starts off with promise to be an incisive critique of upper-class hostility toward new money (especially when that money is wielded by people of color), yet by the end Jay mostly just seems frustrated with his local homeowners association.

Of course, Jay is too intellectually restless to give us an album without some surprising twists. He quotes Nirvana, R.E.M. and Billie Holiday, and takes potshots at Miley Cyrus, Scott Boras and Harry Belafonte. The album’s samples draw from such left-field sources as Gonjasufi’s “Nickels and Dimes” and Faye Dunaway’s “wire hangers” monologue from “Mommie Dearest.” Jean-Michel Basquiat receives no fewer than four shout-outs.

Yet these eccentricities are mostly just window-dressing, and even when he does venture into deeper territory, Jay is frustratingly eager to let himself off the hook. “Oceans” opens with a lovely melody from Frank Ocean, who ponders sitting on a yacht docked off the Ivory Coast, spilling champagne into the same waters that once bore the slave ships carrying his imprisoned ancestors. Jay follows suit at first, but by the second verse he’s become sufficiently distracted to remind us that his memoir “Decoded” recently topped the bestseller list. The Wu-Tang-infused “Heaven” seems poised to pose some intriguing eschatological questions, but once he’s asked them, Jay simply shrugs them off, rapping: “Question religion, question it all/Question existence until them questions is solved.” Well, it’s nice to have that matter settled.

But perhaps the problem isn’t so much the failure of Jay’s imagination as it is his inability to match these heavier topics with an elevated lyrical approach. Indeed, the most obvious issue with “Magna Carta,” as with Jay’s last few albums, is that he simply isn’t the rapper he once was.

While he was never hip-hop’s most accomplished wordsmith, Jay-Z’s ability to ease the slantest of rhymes and most jagged of sentence fragments into a buttery, casually musical flow was once second-to-none. In his late-’90s heyday, he could rhyme “R.I.C.O.,” “repo,” “vehicle” and “week ago” in the span of a single line and make it sound as natural as breathing. When he attempts similar tricks here, most egregiously in the opening lines of “Picasso Baby,” all that registers is the difficulty of forcing round words into square rhyme schemes.

“Magna Carta’s” lyrical nadir comes courtesy of song fragment “Versus,” in which Jay targets a strawman lesser rapper and mockingly compares “the truth in my verses, versus your metaphors about what your net worth is.” It’s a strange point to raise. No rapper in history has managed to rhyme about his stock portfolio as inventively and entertainingly as Jay-Z, yet so many of his most worthy peers stopped trying long ago. One of them even appears on the record as a reminder.

Midway through “Magna Carta,” Queens rapper Nas turns up to deliver a quick guest verse on the celebratory “BBC.” There’s always a frisson of excitement when these two appear on the same track, a pair of former rivals who still carry a torch for hip-hop’s ’90s golden age. Yet while Jay has tirelessly worked to maintain his hegemony in the decade since, Nas took a more difficult path, perpetually testing himself and experimenting, even at the risk of falling on his face. Full of hard-bitten wisdom, Nas’ “Life Is Good” was one of 2012‘s standout releases, tackling such topics as divorce, financial trouble, parenthood and the specter of cultural obsolescence with arresting honesty, and proving it’s perfectly possible for graying rappers to act their age and still produce exciting music.

There’s no reason to think Jay isn’t capable of aging just as gracefully, but to do so will require a dose of self-reflection, vulnerability and a willingness to fail. If “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is any indication, Jay-Z still has a lot of growing up to do.

Album Review: Jay-Z, 'Magna Carta Holy Grail'

Production

(Roc-A-Fella, Roc Nation, Universal) Producers: Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz, The-Dream, Travis Scott, Hit-Boy, Boi-1da, Mike Dean, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, WondaGurl, Kyambo Joshua, Vinylz. Featuring: Jay-Z, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Nas, Rick Ross, Frank Ocean. Release date: July 9, 2013.

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    1. Crusingalong says:

      Jay Z is well aware that this album is not his best. He tweeted it came in 4th in his collection BUT he continuously promoted it as platinum. This perception lessens the professionalism and honesty of Jay Z. Very disappointing and is a thread of the downfall of Jay Z.

    2. jeffort23 says:

      Regrettably, Magna Carta is Sean Carter at his least substantial.

      http://ludditestereo.com/2013/08/05/magna-carta-holy-grail-jay-z-album-review/

    3. Brent dixon says:

      I was a hip hop writer for years…this is a amazing album…the writer has no idea what he is talking about. Where has he heard hip hop like this before. It sad Because there are so much better writer and reviewers that should have his job. If you like hip hop cop this…the is caviar hip hop.

    4. Hotspit says:

      I am well over 40 and im here to tell you this is a really good release. I am hiphop all day and I love this joint. I know most people my age are only talking about the golden age of hiphop and keep saying things like “I remember when lyrics meant something”. That is not me. I realize that everyone has their own lane. Yes Jayz still talks about himseld and his riches etc…but admit it. No one has ever done that type of rapping better. I find it funny that hiphop is the only genre of music held to the “evolve” standard. Can you imagine what it would sound like if Bon Jovi made an album trying to sound like Timberlake? EXACTLY. let Bon Jovi be Bon Jovi and let Jay Z be Jay Z. He is very good at it.

      • actually, the biggest problem with this album is that jay z isn’t being jay z. he actually sounds like he’s trying to be one of the newer artists (which is what you said would sound stupid if bon jovi tried to sound like timberlake).

        also, i think biggie rapped about himself and his riches better. and so did slick rick. so you’re also wrong on that note as well.

    5. Jordy says:

      I’ve noticed for some time now that Jay has been without substance. Jay hasn’t made you think deeply in a very long time. I think he’d benefit by turning off the radio so that he could stop sounding like, let alone thinking like, a 20 year old and spit something that EVERYONE can relate to… Like growing old, getting fat, raising a family etc…

    6. Mark Castley says:

      Eric, I agree with you, and I’m in my early 30s.

    7. Smooth Love says:

      I agree with Eric.Though I have heard a few good raps,most of them are just wrong,offensive,bad,slop,insulting,good vibe killers,etc.…what tha

      • this is jay at his best and its alot better than what other artist are putting out and if you cant get it it so sad that you cant sit back and enjoy the ride this album takes you on

        • Smooth Love says:

          Edgar,since my last post I’ve heard one song from the album,I enjoyed it,Like it(twas via radio, would’ve been on repeat otherwise)Thanks for ur kind and eloquent post.I think the ride will be enjoyable~so far it is!:)

        • Jordy says:

          So how long have you been a Roc Nation employee?

    8. Kenmandu says:

      Self-aggrandizing grandiosity signifying “not so much”… like many of today’s artists, he can’t sell out fast enough and produces soul-less and heartless stuff to fool a public with a generally low threshold of entertainment.

    9. woody says:

      U have to keep it gangstar yea yeah

    10. Nestor Mercado says:

      It’s one of his best CD ever to come out. Can’t wait for the next one.

      • The Chef says:

        You cant be serious. You must have just been introduced to Jay Z’s music, because this is arguably his worst album ever.

        • Crusingalong says:

          Jay Z even tweeted this album came in 4th, in all his albums – he knows it is not good. MONEY

    11. tone says:

      This is an interesting take

    12. Eric says:

      I’ll try not to use abusive language, but does ANYBODY aged 40 and up think that there has EVER been a rap “song” that’s even been remotely good? Or do you feel, as I do, that it has been without comparison the most negative influence on music and a whole culture than anything in history? To even review it is embarrassing. African American music used to be brilliant – from Miles Davis to Motown to Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, and Michael Jackson, and on and on. WTF happened?

      • victor says:

        Black thought, common, slug, eminem, Chino XL(39), Ghostface Killah, Ill Bill, MF DOOM… list goes on. im sorry if you dont know your rappers.

      • Max says:

        I wonder who died and made you a music expert??? times have changed if its not your type of music close your ears and don’t listen, how hard is that?

    13. Velvet says:

      Andrew, Hova’s gonna be gunning for you now. You have no idea what you’ve done. Sleep fast.

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