With the release of the latest Jay-Z album Magna Carta Holy Grail, Mr. Carter returns to solo stardom for the first time in 4 years. His last studio album, Blueprint 3, came out in 2009 and his last collaboration was with Kanye West on Watch the Throne. Initially released digitally through a huge and innovate Samsung deal, MCHG was highly anticipated. Magna Carta is about an hours worth of music neatly packed into sixteen tracks and with some big name features it has a lot to offer even the casual rap admirer and of course it wouldn’t be a Jay-Z album without excessive wordplay and a little allegory.
The album starts out with the track, “Holy Grail” and it immediately sets the theme for the entire album. The songs feature comes from Justin Timberlake, and sounds like an progressive evolution of “Suit and Tie”. Jay hearkens back to 90’s grunge rock with the line, “Kurt Cobain, I did it to myself” and J.T. picks up the bridge immediately after singing,”and we all just entertainers and we’re stupid and contagious and we all just entertainers” referencing the Nirvana hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. “Picasso Baby” & “Tom Ford” follow as tracks two and three. A continuing theme maintaining an appreciation of art and high fashion that Jay continues to exude in his proclamation of wealth and taste. When asked about the shout-out, Tom Ford was ecstatic saying, “Who would not be flattered to have an entire Jay-Z track named after them?” Unfortunately Picasso could not be reached for comment.
Track 4, “F***WithMeYouKnowIGotIt”, features Rick Ross constantly repeating the title’s phrase for about two minutes until Jay picks it up. A slow departure but a nice takeoff once it gets going. The next song, “Oceans” begins with the ever smooth Frank Ocean singing the hook. With strong racial tones of color the song isn’t as black and white as it initially seems. Jay-Z does a kind of reflective comparison between his own growth and America’s growth through slavery. The song makes many allusions and could be deciphered a number of ways. “F.U.T.W” stands for “f*** up the world” and those words drive the chorus. The song has a roller coaster pace, with the verses coming at you hard and fast while that repetitious hook builds up the anticipation before the drop.
“SomewhereinAmerica” is the second song who’s title comes off sounding like a tweet. It’s one of the shorter tracks on the album, but it doesn’t go unnoticed with a fun combination of instruments playing in the background. Sounds more like a refined freestyle and it seems Jay has fun with it. The next track is “Crown” and it comes off as boastful. With the first line coming from HOV’s mouth, “You in the presence of a king scratch that, you in the presence of a God”. This is followed up by “Heaven”, where we see J.T show up for the second time with an electronic hook. Jay references yet another early 90’s jam, “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M., with the lyrics, “That’s me in the corner that’s me in the spotlight losing my religion”. Interesting back and forth as he goes from on top of the world to this wanderer looking for some semblance of peace in life. “Versus” is the 10th track and is an interlude that lasts about a minute and has a real funky sound to it.
“Part II (On the Run)” features the lovely Mrs. Carter aka Beyonce. “Part II” is named such because it is a continuation of “’03 Bonnie and Clyde”. In this song, the high profile couple basically come out to tell you that this isn’t that cute love story we see in the movies. They embrace each other and “don’t care” as long as they’re together. This is followed up by another interlude, “Beach is Better”, where Jay raps,”You better look like Halle Berry…Beyonce”. His sense of humor and timing can’t help but bring a smile to your face. And then comes “BBC” a song that immediately comes at you with a sound that is all over the place. “BBC” stands for Billionaire Boys Club and is spoken at the beginning of the track in Japense by Nigo, who co-founded the Billionaire Boys Club clothing line along with Pharrell (who also appears on this track). The track also features Swizz Beats, Timbaland, Beyonce and Nas. A star studded lineup to be sure and what would make for an even cooler concert. This is the fourth time the former enemies have come together on a song. It has a unique feel and flow, with a hint of each artist, as would be expected with so many big names.
“Jay-Z Blue” is a song for the baby Carter, Ivy. Jay references and samples the film Mommie Dearest throughout and alludes himself to be Daddy Dearest. In fact when it was released on the app it was called “Jay Z Blue (Daddy Dearest)”. He compares his childhood to that of his child and how all the hard times he’s went through will never happen to his daughter if he has anything to say about it. He shouts out to the Notorious B.I.G. in the second verse and samples his voice in using a comparison of how they had a similar upbringing because both their parents split. “La Familia” continues the love your family and protect them at all costs theme on this the fifteenth track. Unusual for the Jay-Z of late is his aggressiveness towards another rapper in this case Lil’ Wayne, with the opening lines, “N***** wanna kidnap wifey good luck with that bruh you must gonna hide your whole family what you think we wearing black for ready for that war”. He makes it clear he will not stand for anything happening to his family, because he is the ever protective head of the household. The final track on Holy Grail is “Nickels and Dimes”. It has a hazy musical backdrop with a forgetful chorus, in that it will shape your mind and have you forget what you were doing. It has strong verses and is a fair ending to the entire package. Overall Magna Carta Holy Grail is a quality album and is definitely worth a listen, it might not be his best work but it is still sixteen fresh tracks from a veteran artist with masterful lyricisim.
Steve’s Album Review
There’s a reason that Diddy doesn’t rap any more. Aside from his (lack of) talent, there is simply nothing left to say. Diddy is a CEO, his empire is built on rap, but when’s the last time your boss came and did your job? CEO’s rarely do the everyday work that got them there, but when they do pop in, like a Diddy guest verse, it’s a welcome surprise and pretty fun.
Jay Z may need to look at the Diddy approach of being an aging rap star. Magna Carta is a confused album. Jay doesn’t sound bored, and he isn’t phoning it in, he just doesn’t sound like he knows where he’s going with this one. Jay has been the smartest guy in the room for quite sometime now. In the past few years Hova has moved into the sports world, becoming an agent, and pulled off an album with a protege that made other rappers jealous. Even the marketing for Magna Carta was unique (and troubled). So what’s my problem with this album? Flash back to 2003, Jay’s The Black Album was a home run so to speak, a walk off into retirement. No more solo albums. Jay gave us it all, and the song “What More Can I Say” perfectly summed up his career, nothing left to say.
Except there was more to say, like a boxer coming back, Jay reinvented himself into a CEO (because he actually was a CEO) and scored more success and more fortune. Magna Carta reflects that and more. Jay talks about his wealth, impending wealth, new rivals and his own family. The problem with this is that everyone knows that Jay is one of the all time greats and “Money, Cash,
Hoes Beyonce” doesn’t sound the same in your 40’s as it did in your 20’s. If he sounds bored, it’s because we’re bored. We know his greatness, there’s nothing to prove to us anymore. As much as Jay claims to be the bad guy, he hasn’t been for some time now, he’s the opposite and may be having a difficult time adjusting.
Magna Carta isn’t a terrible album though, it’s rather unique. The beats, seemingly all Timbaland influenced unless it’s from Pharrell, are what really stand out on the album. Jay enlisted a ton of producers (minus Rick Rubin, the commercial led us on) and they all follow the new “minimalist” trend that seems to be taking over (see: West, Kanye Yeezus). Jay is one of the rappers that has the potential to make this sound work, but Magna Carta feels like batting practice. Part of the reason Yeezus works is because it’s such a radical departure from West’s previous sound. And it’s compact, 30 odd minutes or so. Magna Carta features the best rapper of a generation taking his hand at a new sound, but not gambling on a new style and is too long for it to resonate like Yeezus does. It requires repeated listening, but fans will be able to find nice tracks throughout (Holy Grail and Oceans for starters).
Diddy had the benefit of not being a rapper. He was influential in the rise of one Christopher Wallace, but Big did all the heavy lyrical lifting. Jay is different, rapper first, businessman second, so it’s harder for him to pack it up and call it a day. I hope Jay (and Kanye for that matter) continues to explore this minimalist sound because it really can get better. Finding a way to incorporate this new sound into radio friendly songs is the next step in this process, and while Magna Carta isn’t Jay’s best album, he is the man to take it take this sound into pop culture.