Jay-Z, arguably the most accomplished MC of our time,
sits in a recording studio surrounded by the top producers in the world. He mimes the banging of keys with his hands as a haunting, sparse piano hook reverberates through the room’s speakers. He tells the world that his album — the one that hasn’t been previously announced — is coming out in three weeks’ time, on July 4. And he informs us of his master plan with one simple phrase …
“We need to write the new rules.”
It’s OK to admit you had chills watching Jay-Z’s Samsung NBA Finals spot. We all did – especially the folks with Samsung Galaxy smart phones, who unlocked the album days ahead of the general public, thanks to an innovative deal between the hip-hop mogul and the booming business.
Samsung’s purchase of 1 million copies of Magna Carta Holy Grail – the most brazenly titled record you’re likely to hear this year, if nothing else – forced the RIAA to change its sales standards, meaning the album went platinum the second it dropped on smart phones.
The concept of the “event release” is nothing new for the man who’s released three studio albums since his supposed “
retirement” a decade ago.
But there’s one major problem with Jay’s “new rules.”
Remove the pre-release bells and whistles, take the music in a vacuum and you’ll discover the following – despite a promising start, Magna Carta Holy Grail may just be the most uninspiring, plodding album of Jay-Z’s career.
This is pure icon rap from Jay-Z, whose usual gallery of name-checked suspects is at play here (Warhols, MOMA, Tom Ford, Maybachs) along with some grossly misplaced pop-culture references (“got me feeling like Brody from ‘Homeland'”). Jay fancies himself to be so much of an icon, in fact, that the pre-release hype wasn’t enough of a wait for us. It takes us 80 seconds of a Justin Timberlake hook on title track “Holy Grail” to actually get to the man on his own album. And what breathtaking line waits for us after four years without a solo record from Mr. Carter?
Seriously. This is the first Jay-Z line on a Jay-Z record.
It gets weirder in “Holy Grail,” the intro track that actually serves as one of the highlights, (thanks to a simmering, sexy JT hook) when Jay paraphrases a few bars of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a practice he borrows in “Heaven” with a few bars of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” Does it make sense? No – but it’s purely the same as the name-dropping of Leonardo da Vinci on “Picasso Baby.” Jay-Z fancies himself a cultural icon and feels the need to justify his status through comparisons to other icons (“Picasso Baby” alone name-drops Rothko, Basquiat, Givenchy and the MoMA, among others), however jarringly awkward they may be.
It’s not all negative, though, as Magna Carta Holy Grail‘s first six tracks start the album with a bang, thanks to a collection of diverse and upbeat sounds that grow lyrically more and more clever with each passing listen.
“Picasso Baby” blows the roof off the speakers with a shimmering, bouncy backbeat and Jay at his lighthearted best (Jeff Koons balloons, I just wanna blow up/Condos in my condos). “Oceans” soars on a Frank Ocean guest spot and wordplay stacked on wordplay (I’m anti-Santa Maria/only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace/I don’t even like Washingtons in my pocket), and “Tom Ford” survives some lackluster rips with a whale of a Timbaland meat-grinder beat.
The standouts continue for the most minute and 40 seconds of the brilliantly brass-driven “Somewhere in America.” And then we hit a 48-second outro in which Jay continually implores Miley Cyrus to twerk, and it’s all downhill from there. Way, way downhill.
As we discover through the final 10 tracks, Magna Carta Holy Grail‘s an odd beast – it’s both thoroughly audacious and not nearly audacious enough. The tracks on here are oddly subdued. There’s not much resembling a radio hit, with the arena-ready hits of days gone by giving way to quieter, more introspective songs. But Jay-Z still stuffs Holy Grail full of 16 tracks, and that ends up being the album’s truest weakness. Cut the record to 10 songs (see: West, Kanye) and we’d be looking at Holy Grail in a whole new light.
So what’s worth keeping from the twerk-a-thon on?
The Pharrell-produced “BBC,” with a not-quite-good-enough-for-“Blurred Lines“-backbeat, and … really, not much else. “Jay-Z Blue,” the inevitable new-fatherhood song, and “La Familia” are particular lowlights – the former done in by its awkward sampling of “Mommie Dearest,” the latter destroyed by its stunted flow. By the time we hit album closer “Nickels and Dimes,” we’re beyond the point where we need to hear Jay-Z name-check Johnny Cash – we’re just numb to 16 tracks worth of the same practice.
In the last four years, it’s not as if Jay-Z’s been underground. He began to represent some of sports’ biggest names, became the face of the Nets’ move to Brooklyn, supervised The Great Gatsby soundtrack, and blew out the ultimate buddy album (and subsequent summer tour) with Kanye West and Watch The Throne.
Jay’s got nothing left to prove here – and his overall rapping on Magna Carta Holy Grail suggests that. It’s often clever, but the consistency and overall bite of The Black Album is long gone. This is Jay-Z never at his best and occasionally at his worst, with an overall spirit of “good enough” permeating through an album that could be so much more.
And then there’s the Kanye thing.
It’s not entirely fair to compare the two MCs, who are at vastly different stages of their respective careers – but that comparison gets invited when two previously top-secret albums drop within weeks of each other.
On Yeezus, Kanye tears through 10 tracks with near-reckless abandon, opening up his musical sounds in ways we mere mortals could never even imagine. It’s evolution of the highest order — and it’s what Kanye needs to progress as an artist.
Magna Carta Holy Grail reeks of a lack of progression and an air of complacency. Its best parts don’t add up to a satisfying whole. Its lasting impact won’t be musical — it’ll be commercial. Jay-Z may have written the new rules on how to promote and present an album. You just wish his music would have followed the same standard.
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