Jay-Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail: Album Review

July 11, 2013 § 3 Comments

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After the game-changer that was Watch The Throne, no one was expecting another Jay-Z album for a while. But the ever-unpredictable rapper made a major announcement of his twelfth studio album Magna Carta Holy Grail. The way the album was advertised (thanks Samsung) says a lot about how Shawn Carter has grown from drug dealer to business man to record label founder to label flop back to CEO and now a new father. It deals with a variety of old (money, art, politics) and new (fear, fame, fatherhood) subjects, which all make for a well-rounded (and borderline insanely produced – Yeezus holds the insane title) project.

The most captivating track on the album is the opener: “Holy Grail.” It begins with Justin Timberlake crooning over a haunting piano-driven melody, which is definitely one of the best vocal performances of his career. The song talks about the perils of fame, where these celebrities are walking a fine line between hope and destruction. The sample of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is madly genius yet unsurprisingly fitting – Kurt Cobain was famously anti-fame. “Holy Grail” is a truly beautiful song, an adjective that’s rarely used in relation to the rapper. It sets the tone for the grandeur of the album.

“Picasso Baby” seems to be Jay-Z’s current favorite off the album, as he recently performed it for six hours as a performance art display. It has typical crazed Hova tongue-twisting wordplay albeit it’s more sloppy than exciting: “I just want a Picasso, in my casa / No, my castle / I’m a hassa, no I’m a asshole”. He spits numerous art references on the track – something to be expected from the avid art collector. Timbaland’s influence is all over this record, especially in “Tom Ford.” The lofty percussion mixed with untamed synths instantly makes you want to bop – it’s just nasty. And what makes it better is the little taste of Beyonce a la “I Been On” towards the end.

“Oceans” (featuring Frank Ocean) is one of the standout tracks off MCHG. Ocean’s voice is always welcome, this time his velvety voice has an interesting reggae/southern tinge to it. The song picks up where Watch The Throne left off, with its important message of us Blacks taking back our culture (“The only Christopher I acknowlege is Wallace”).

There are a few sonic slip-ups on the album, like the forgettable “F.U.T.W.” But hen the album quickly makes up for it with gems like the menacing “Crown” and “Heaven.” The latter track is classic Hova. His compact rap flow is much welcomed, an improvement from some of the previous tracks where he let the production do all of the work to fill in sonic spaces where he literally says nothing.

What’s a Jay-Z album with a danceable song? “BBC” (which has a mega-lineup including Nas, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell and Timbaland) is so rich, both literally and figuratively. It’s bouncy, Pharrell-assisted production pleasantly breaks up the cloudiness of the album.

“Jay-Z Blue”, one of the more unexpected song, is completely self-deprecating. It’s nice to get an insight of what the new father is thinking whenever he looks at Blue Ivy. The Mommie Dearest movie sample drives the song over the edge in the realest way possible. Yes, Jay-Z is a well-know swagger-bragger (and quite good at it too). But his true talent is displayed in revealing moments like “Jay-Z Blue” and “Nickels and Dimes.”

Magna Carta Holy Grail is an album Jay-Z honestly did not have to do, given his stature in the music industry. But the rapper still has a lot more to say, and gladly so. There were a few complaints about over-production on the album. Well, of course it’s over-produced. One cannot hire Timbaland and expect nothing less than that. His beats and rhythms (along with Hit-Boy, Travis Scott, Pharrell and Mike Will Made It) are top notch, but strip them away and what are you left with? Mediocre lyrics with a few “aha!” moments here and there.

Part of me thinks Jay-Z and Kanye West are legends who don’t necessarily have to make lyrical statements (“Niggas want my old shit – buy my old albums”). Yet the other part thinks these two rappers are legends; they should be setting the standard for every other rapper below them. So Magna Carta Holy Grail, just like Yeezus, draws a fine line between innovation and quite frankly, failure.

Overall Rating: 3.8/5

Songs On Repeat

“Holy Grail”
“Oceans”
“Beach Is Better”
“Nickels and Dimes”

Songs To Skip

“FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt”
“F.U.T.W.”

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