Jay Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail
It’s been four years since (the newly un-hyphenated) Jay Z’s last record—his longest ever gap between albums—but it feels like he never went away. Mostly because he hasn’t. For one, he’s a celebrity in his own right, half of the nation’s foremost power couple, the “business, man” with an empire beyond hip-hop. And then, it also feels like there hasn’t been a single major rap release in the last half-decade without at least one track he’s guested on, never mind Watch The Throne, his collaborative record with Kanye West, which spawned one of the most popular singles of 2012. In one sense, the five years between records (and the birth of his daughter, Blue Ivy) should have given Jay a lot to mull over, perhaps pressing him to try something new, either lyrically or musically. On the other hand, Hov really, really likes to rap about how rich he is, and when something like that becomes second nature, it can be hard to get unstuck from that rut.
So, he attempts to split the difference with Magna Carta…Holy Grail, a record frustratingly at odds with what it wants to be. Surely, as the album’s title and artwork imply, Jay uses high art as his muse here, and while its too conventional an album to suggest that Jay was trying to come up with a gallery piece himself, he certainly meant this to be some sort of departure, an event record that warranted his live performance at the MoMA. He’ll namecheck Mark Rothko and the Tate Modern, and interpolate Nirvana and R.E.M. lyrics as hooks, mixing and mashing popular and fine art in a way that seems like he’s commenting on the state of pop culture, but it really just provides a backdrop to his usual boasts. And that’s one of the major problems with Magna Carta: For all its posturing as some sort of statement record, this is really just Hov treading water. Not that this is always a bad thing. Jay Z is still a clever writer and a versatile MC, so even if he’s a bit set in his ways, his experience in the rags-to-riches-on-riches field means he can string together effortless material like “Picasso Baby” and “Tom Ford,” tracks that are distinctive enough to keep the album chugging along, yet not strong enough to gun for the career highlight reel. Unsurprisingly, the moments where Jay and his producers Timbaland and J-Roc push themselves tend to be the best tracks, or at least the most interesting ones. “Holy Grail” features a wonderful turn by Justin Timberlake against an cool, easygoing beat; “Jay Z Blue” finds the new father anxiously adjusting to a different lifestyle; he’s plainspoken about shunning religion on the uneasy “Heaven,” and the loose, fun “BBC” feels like a live group freestyle what with the overlapping vocals and asides.
But if “BBC” is a standout, it’s not just because of its quality, it’s because most of Magna Carta…Holy Grail suffers from Jay Z’s performance. If he was really trying something new with this record, it would follow that he’d sound passionate and revitalized, but Jay has rarely sounded less compelling or involved on record. He still has the flow but the energy is all but drained, and it hangs the already-thin material out to dry. At 59 minutes, it’s already a shorter album than many contemporary mainstream rap records, but at times, the sluggish pace can make it feel considerably longer. Prior to its release, Jay Z made a deal with Samsung to pre-release this record exclusively for Samsung phone users, spawning a massive ad campaign of online ads and guerrilla marketing. That’s sort of fitting: For all its artistic aspirations and inspirations, Magna Carta…Holy Grail feels much more ephemeral and disposable than anything worthy of museum preservation.