Jay-Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail (Album Review)
Before we start, lets remove the obvious from the equation: Jay-Z does not have to continue making music. He’s an icon in his own right and has pushed the constantly changing world of hip-hop further as a genre. Moving on…
After establishing yourself as one of the greats, the risk of ruining your stature is always present. With decades invested in music, a level of respect most will never earn and a discography behind him that needs no defense, Jay-Z has remained cautious about any and all action, always choosing to remain quiet and calculated in order to preserve his legend. That said, any further effort after is a greater risk to the prestigious and respected name he’s constructed. Still, we have Shawn Carter presenting another product to us, one that due to his exceedingly reliable business instinct and credibility, was purchased and presented through Samsung in a business deal the likes of which we’ve never seen. Unfortunately, business savvy doesn’t guarantee quality.
As Carter approaches his 12th studio album, the stakes only continue to build. He stands with different company, and tests himself to only achieve greater things, but does his music suffer in the process? Has Shawn Carter gotten stale and reached a point where he can no longer connect with his fans? Is it time for Jay-Z to refrain from music and focus on other aspects of his life?
“Got damnit I like it, bright lights is enticing…”
The opener for Carter’s twelfth studio album is a perspective cut in which he grapples with fame and what it can do to someone’s livelihood. Relatively simple in terms of the instrumental, the track itself is sold by Jay-Z’s feature, Justin Timberlake. The lengthy yet glorious hook glows and pushes this track to a quality that matches some of Timberlake’s best efforts.
“Oh what a feeling… aw, fuck it I want a trillion!”
“Picasso Baby” is Hip Hop in its essence, with an aggressive beat to compliment Jay’s desires and nonchalant braggadocio. Grand pictures and extravagant concepts are explored in a manner that only Hip Hop’s most accomplished artist can portray, with shades of Timbaland’s latest blatantly showing itself in the switch towards the end. Side B of the track remains as aggressive, and even with an average (at best) hook, “Picasso Baby” remains enjoyable.
“Numbers don’t lie, check the scoreboard… “
One of the more soulless tracks on the project is the simpleminded “Tom Ford”, held to the standard of the majority of this project due to Timbo’s infectious instrumental. The track itself is short and understandably sweet, with Hov delivering an ordinary effort to the track, with background vocals from his wife failing to bring the track off the ground.
“All Hail, Caesar’s home, n*ggas…”
The likely single in the future, “F*ckwithmeyouknowigotit” starts off with a grand verse from the commander of Maybach Music Group Rick Ross. The beat hits hard with an adept attempt from both lyrical contributors, Ross delivering a bit more than Carter. The Boi-1da produced beat comes complete with a mention of Reebok sneakers courtesy of Ross, inadvertently revealing that his verse was completed before his falling out with the brand. Regardless, that doesn’t hinder the track from being catchy; despite it’s cluttered and long title. The lyrics aren’t much to be praised here, but the beat and star power will push this forward.
“Welcome to the magnum opus, the Magna Carta, the bestselling author decoded…”
“Oceans” is undoubtedly one of the best tracks on the entire project, if not the best. This is solely thanks to the expertly smooth hook that comes from Mr. Ocean himself. Melody is emphasized throughout as he croons on the track, with Jay-Z’s verses being unfortunately downplayed. Nonetheless, the cohesive effort between the two is marvelous and producer Pharrell’s canvas is a great space in which the two shine.
“Feeling like a stranger in my own land, got me feeling like Brody in Homeland…”
A glimpse of vintage Hov is noticeable on the standout “F.U.T.W.” Jay-Z all by his lonesome with a continued streak of standard hooks is welcome here, as Jay sounds lively and determined throughout his three verses. All three attempts feel fresh and inspired, the charisma fueling the lyricism.
“Twerk, Miley Miley Miley, Twerk…”
Combine the extremely talented Hit-Boy (in terms of producing, JUST producing) with Jay-Z’s almighty presence, complete with bars worth giving some thought and you’ll arrive at the vaguely introspective “Somewhereinamerica.” Beguiling from lines involving Miley Cyrus to his symbolism with buying your neighbor out and moving next door, Jay-Z lets one long verse pour out without interruption. It glows, and as a result it steps ahead of others in terms of likability.
“See my name come across on CNN, bout’ 6 minutes you gon’ see it again.”
At the halfway mark Travis Scott and 16 year old newcomer to the spotlight Wondagurl create a gritty instrumental we know to be “Crown.” The content here is smooth blend of overcoming adversity and boastful claims in a lane that only Hov can fill, but it feels routine. Given Jay-Z’s success, it’s proven that he knows how to create a project and this, although arguably necessary, feels as if he’s going through the motions, complete with “facebook raps” (those in which the masses will quote endlessly) and vague thought provoking lyricism.
“Arm, leg, leg, arm, head, this is God body…”
Prowling along next is “Heaven” containing musical samples of Adrian Younge’s “Reverie” and lyrical samples of “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. The track is aggressive as Carter chops away at the instrumental with various forms of delivery. The hook comes with assistance by Justin Timberlake. The track contains an idea that probably won’t be given much thought by the typical listener, but Hov nonetheless blesses the track with a fair balance of content that will have some label him a braggart and some, a philosopher. Overall, it comes together to be a listenable piece.
“The truth about my verses versus, your metaphors about what your net worth is…”
Less than a minute’s worth of Hov here is more than a tracks worth of confidence and boastful claims from anyone else. “Versus” serves as a fun interlude before the fascinating combined effort from Mr. & Mrs. Carter.
“Who wants that perfect love story anyway…”
Beyonce’s work is usually complimented by Jay-Z’s assistance but when it’s vice versa, it’s arguable. “Part II (On The Run)” is a song in which Beyonce takes up just as much space as Jay himself, and overall it feels intriguing. The once timeless charm that came with collaborations between the two feels a bit less effective here (possibly because of the level of vulnerability, or even possibly that it’s just been done enough) but it doesn’t hinder the track from feeling smooth and a welcome change in tone.
“I brought sand to the beach because my Beach is Better…”
An interlude right after a track that just followed an interlude is partially awkward, but Mike WiLL Made It’s contribution to MCHG is just too enjoyable to complain about. Designed in a way that’s similar to “Versus”, it feels like a taste of sorts and in that case, it’s something to be savored.
“Let me make sure y’all can hear my mother f**kin’ jewelry…”
“BBC” is a bit of a cluster. It’s fun, and by no means is it bad, but with all that’s going on in such a short amount of time, it’s destined to come off crowded. Jay-Z’s verse is enjoyable & Nas’ set of bars that open the track aren’t anything to truly ponder about, as it seems they just want the listener to enjoy without studying it. Swizz adlibs, Beyoncé throwing expletives in the intro, Timbo’s hook… there’s so much going on here simultaneously but it still comes off developed and for the most part, conveys a vintage fun sound.
“Father never taught me how to be a father, treated mother I don’t wanna have to just repeat another, leave another…”
Perhaps the most dangerously vulnerable track on the project is the powerful “Jay-Z Blue.” Laid out in Jay-Z’s most professional tone to escape the weight of his contemplative honesty, he pours out his thoughts and fears, from never being prepped to be the best father, to dealing with the thought of not being around her should things ever reach a point of no return with his current wife. It’s great at the very least, and feels complete as it prevails above the majority of the project as a standout.
“N*ggas wanna kidnap wifey, good luck with that Bruh…”
“La Familia” will be notable for his quite late response to Lil Wayne’s subliminal shot of disrespect in “I’m Good.” Besides that, it feels forgettable. Fortunately, Jay-Z is more than a veteran in this industry and due to his experience and ability; even his boring tracks come across as decent, and just teeter on mediocrity.
“Success is so sublime, gotta do that time to time so I don’t lose my mind…”
The last piece of the album is brooding but unnecessary. Carter’s thoughts involving enabling those he tries to assist is expanded on in “Nickels & Dimes”, backed to some degree by his high level of “stunt” bars.
Experience is an irreplaceable form of knowledge that Jay-Z has utilized in his recent albums. Even his risks remain calculated. So much so that in releasing this album, he sold a million instantly, regardless of the reception. Whether or not this project deserves that type of treatment is subjective, but the argument can be made that this would mean less effort would be made to create a strong project.
Within Magna Carta… Holy Grail is an unstable blend of ignorance and intelligence and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. A level of life that most do not understand, meeting the thoughts of an insecure father. Built around a systematized form of thought, Jay-Z remains susceptible to a degree and crafts another firm album for the crowds to appreciate. Is he past his prime? Yes, but the decline isn’t steep here.
Timeless Tracks: Somewhereinamerica, Jay-Z Blue, Beach is Better
PROS: A strong 12th album from Jay-Z, Hip Hop fans… why not?
CONS: Could’ve ended at Jay-Z Blue, Justin Timberlake collaborations feel forced