Jay-Z "Magna Carta... Holy Grail" Album Review
Jay-Z is no longer a rapper. As he once famously said, he is a business. Having experienced the epitome of an illustrious career, he has multi-platinum albums and Grammys, a cult following, has people thinking he's following cults (to his advantage), and every artist he gets involved with experiences a lucrative surge of hype. Based on that, mobile phone giant Samsung approached Jay with one of the most unheard-of gambles in recent music business history: hand over $5 million to a rapper to advertise their phone through his album before it even hits stores. As a result, we were given Jay-Z's twelfth studio album, Magna Carta... Holy Grail. Will the deal prove successful? That has yet to be determined, but as far as the music is concerned, how does the long-in-the-toothed Sean Carter put his money where his mouth is?
Having virtually no hints to an upcoming Jay-Z album, the world recently found out about it during a long and expensive commercial during the NBA finals. The commercial featured what many would consider a holy grail of producers such as the legendary Rick Rubin (who literally did not contribute anything to this album besides a few head nods of approval and making the Twitterverse expose it's lack of historical hip hop knowledge), Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, and Swizz Beatz, who all provided lightheartedness with their head nods and producer hands while Jay-Z (equipped with rapper hands) explains the themes and business approach of Magna Carta. A tad silly, but seeing all those individuals together felt like witnessing the Justice League reunite to take on a new foe, the foe being a dwindling music industry. What followed the commercial was weeks of revealing song lyrics and song titles through scavenger hunts and eventually, the reveal of a rather lackluster album cover at Salisbury Cathedral, which holds one of the four surviving pieces of the real Magna Carta. While each move was grand and something only a rap artist with the money like Jay-Z can do, this campaign caused the entire hip hop scene (and all of the music industry in general) to rethink moves and spark discussion.
As a songwriter, Jay-Z hasn't progressed nor regressed and stays within his current "Niggaz In Paris" zone of catchy penmanship. Classic Jay-Z styles: the signature pauses in between lines, the conversational no-nonsense flow, it's all here on this album. No new tricks and techniques were used, just the same ones, over and over again. When a guest vocalist isn't present to add diversity, Jay reverts to repeating the song title several times as a hook (see: "Picasso Baby", "Tom Ford", "F.U.T.W", etc.). The raps feel more impulsively written rather than calculated, resulting in more memorable vibes than iconic punch lines and anthemic poetry. That being said, the recruitment of Justin Timberlake, Frank Ocean, Beyonce, Nas, Rick Ross, Travis $cott and a sampled Gonjasufi (bonus points for reaching out to the left-field Los Angeles underground) are welcome additions to an otherwise pedestrian collection of Jay-Z verses. One of the biggest disappointments was the decision to make the tracks "Versus" and "Beach Is Better" one verse each. Those two could have been more effective and possible standouts had they been complete songs, whereas lackluster tracks "Heaven" and "La Familia" would've been either left out entirely or given the one verse treatment.
The album plays like a loud celebration/examination of Jay-Z's career that goes from extra to introverted at the end when he questions religion, his parenthood and what it took for him to get to this point. By the end, listeners can feel the drama
While the audience was under the impression that Jay-Z recruited the ultimate super-producer team, it was later revealed that the recently revitalized hitmaker Timbaland commanded the entire album. Along with some help from co-producer J-Roc (Team Justin Timberlake), Pharrell, Swizz Beatz, Boi-1da, Hit Boy, Travis $cott and more, Timbaland gave Jay-Z a canvas that only Jay-Z money can buy. The sound-scape of Magna Carta reaches a high level of what one can do under the boundaries of traditional hip hop production formats. As with most hip hop tracks, all it takes is a simple loop such as the beat for the track "Picasso Baby", which is just a section from acclaimed film score composer Adrian Younge's "Sirens" that brings a very robust energy out. Sample clearance is not a problem with the Carter estate, so most of the tracks contained other really effective samples paired with crisp and grand drum programming, combining NY street soul with Timbaland's signature bounce and stadium status sonics. Not sure if Kurt Cobain would appreciate the most lucrative mainstream rapper alive sampling the chorus of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on "Holy Grail" just for the sake of reinforcing a weak metaphor about being famous though. As a whole, Magna Carta's production eclipses the lyricism almost to a point where Jay-Z is able to say anything on the track to great results.
Straight from the get-go, the musicality of Magna Carta reaches apex all the way until the end of the 7th track "Somewhere In America". Justin Timberlake's vocals (written by The Dream) set the tone for the heroic entrance that unfolds in "Holy Grail" which is followed by different flavors of high energy Jay-Z tracks. Once the album reaches track 8, "Crown", things are hit or miss. An especially dire miss features Mrs. Carter on the randomly placed and awkward sounding love song "Part II (On The Run)". The album plays like a loud celebration/examination of Jay-Z's career that goes from extra to introverted at the end when he questions religion, his parenthood and what it took for him to get to this point. By the end, listeners can feel the drama, but in too typical of a manner.
In the Magna Carta commercial, Jay describes the concept of the album being a navigation of success and failures and the struggle to remain yourself aka the concept of every Jay-Z album ever. On a serious note, decadent art pieces, extravagant vacations, ridiculous amounts of money, an enormous ego with street sensibilities and the struggles of a celebrity father are the components that make up Magna Carta. Some of these components are used more than others (materialism), but Jay tries to fit everything in a way that illustrates where he is in life. As always, more introspective songs from a man who has clearly seen more than the average person would make for a much more interesting album. The most interesting concepts tackled are on tracks such as "Oceans" where Jay addresses the historical irony of having yacht parties on the same waters that brought his ancestors to America as slaves. Speaking of America, one of the few memorable lines are on "Somewhere in America", where Jay states that "Feds still lurking, they see I'm still putting work in, cause somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is twerking", illustrating that America still stereotypically views his influence as a negative one.
Jay-Z performs completely comfortable raps as if he recorded them laying on the couch like Rick Rubin did in the commercial. It's this type of delivery that gives his raps character and has allowed him to stand out among his peers over the years. There are songs that could evoke more energy out of him such as "Jay-Z Blue", a portrait of his paranoia of being a fatherless father, but nope, he is in the same zone throughout the entire album. Whenever that zone is appropriate for a song, the result is a success. For example, on "BBC", Jay sounded like he went back to his Blueprint days to outdo an easy-going Nas. Other than his new experiences as a father and the continuation of his quest to keep being richer than Lil Wayne and Cash Money Billionaires, it looks as if we won't be receiving anything new from Jay-Z, that is, until his next effort to push the boundaries of the new music industry.