Magna Carta… Holy Grail
, July 10th, 2013 10:15
If Jay-Z didn't want his new album to be compared to Kanye West's, then he should have picked a less attention-seeking release date. The grandly titled Magna Carta… Holy Grail suffers from the comparison, but would have felt stale and unlovable regardless of when it hit shelves. In fact, it arrives first as a Samsung app that wants access to your phone calls, and the commercial tie-in means this thing was set to go platinum before anyone heard a note. It's sad if Jay thinks this corporate investment somehow legitimises the album, because as release formats go it's pretty damn alienating.
Jay-Z wants so desperately to be thought of as hip hop's king - and he is that alright, sitting up high in his castle alongside pop's queen Bee, as rap music continues to excite and evolve in the slums below. While Kanye drives himself mad with this idea of progression in rap, Jay is more concerned with preservation, and is currently floundering to keep up. Just as Kanye saw a young, angry Chief Keef and offered him a platform to shout from, Jay-Z saw the success of Kendrick Lamar and rode his coattails on the remix of 'Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe'. Jay also appeared on 'Three Kings' alongside Rick Ross and Dr Dre, a flatulent yawn of a song that sought to canonise three men in various stages of past their prime. Watch The Throne, of course, was a further royal reminder, and this year's Legends Of Summer tour with Justin Timberlake leans on yet another star for validation.
It's not that this record doesn't try to sound contemporary, but its attempts feel akin to a politician making a clunky pop culture reference. 'Tom Ford', for instance, takes Timbaland's rattling trap drum pattern and fills the space with corny social media punchlines. "I don't pop molly, I rock Tom Ford," brags the chorus, but the song has none of the urgency of the music scenes he's lifting from. That shouldn't be surprising; Jay-Z doesn't need to sell drugs anymore to know what wealth feels like, but his attempts to balance his past and present situations amount to vague, throwaway lyrics at best. “After that government cheese, we eating steak / after the projects, now we on estates,” he raps on 'FUTW' – he tells us where he is and where he came from, but he never quite manages to take us to either.
This is a trend that follows throughout Magna Carta…, which offers only a few vivid images but even fewer full songs. The album's relentless spewing of wealth will be enough to repel some listeners, but that's not exactly the problem here, it's that his brags are often unimaginative and humourless. His best ideas are actually some of his most opulent – pissing Bordeaux and Burgundies, letting his daughter lean on his Basquiat painting – but for the most part it feels like watching a middle-aged man counting his riches, sometimes even literally as he recalls the "One million, two million, three million" motif from The Blueprint's 'U Don't Know'. 'Somewhereinamerica' at least takes a more interesting angle on his bank account, hitting out at high society's disapproval of new money – yet it's barely explored and later buried under a twerking Miley Cyrus reference that we could all do without. The pop culture references don't stop there either; they're crowbarred into every spare nook and cranny, as he likens himself to artists and icons to fill the void his own personality.
He swipes lyrics from Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on the opening track and later uses the refrain from REM's 'Losing My Religion'. He also mentions Kubrick, De Niro, Rothko, Koons, Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash and many more – as if their perceived greatness will somehow rub off on him by mere proximity. It's an approach that recalls the film 500 Days of Summer in its outright laziness, filling the script with giant neon signifiers rather than taking the care to build interesting characters or narrative. Even his own relationship sounds like it has been coldly observed from elsewhere, revisiting the story of Bonnie and Clyde for the passionless husband and wife song 'Part II (On the Run)'.
'Oceans' is one of few songs in which an interesting concept is seen through to the end, tracing the lines between lavish yachts and slave ships over a marching drumbeat and oppressive horns. “The water tells my story,” croons literal-thinking guest singer Frank Ocean, and it's perhaps the album's most poignant moment. At least here Jay-Z's favourite rags to riches story is framed with a bit of context, returning to the racial politics that graced the better parts of Watch The Throne.
Magna Carta... will likely come under criticism for not matching the brain-bending sonics of Yeezus. Indeed, even Rick Rubin seemed to agree on this point in the album's own promotional interview. However, to be fair to Timbaland, whose name dominates the production credits, the beats are the reliable scaffolds stopping this record from collapsing entirely. The likes of 'Picasso Baby', 'Crown' and the Rick Ross-featuring 'FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt' all crackle and pop in the right places, but the content ranges from vapid to excruciating. The album's best beat – Mike Will Made It's typically emphatic 'Beach Is Better' – is cut off after just 56 seconds, and even then it'd be better suited to somebody like 2 Chainz; at least Tity Boi still knows how to write a punchline.
A fairer and more worthwhile comparison than Yeezus would be last year's Life Is Good by old rival Nas – who also features here on the star-loaded but forgettable 'BBC'. Nas is a few years younger than Jay, but you wouldn't know from these two releases – one is a shining example of how a rapper can age and mature gracefully, and the other is Magna Carta... Holy Grail. Compare the trite father/daughter song 'Jay-Z Blue' with Nas' nuanced and affecting 'Daughters', or Beyoncé duet 'Part II (On the Run)' with Kelis farewell 'Bye Baby'; this might as well be 'Ether' all over again.
Nas writing rings around Jay-Z shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, but the best-in-class production and killer soundbites that elevate Jay's best albums are woefully absent here. In fact, the most memorable lines are the most cringeworthy, and Timbaland already produced a better album this year for Justin Timberlake. The problem with Jay-Z spending so long at the top is that he hasn't the self-awareness to realise that we can grow bored of hearing about it - listening to Magna Carta… is like watching a film without any conflict. Unless he finds something other than his own success to write about, he'd be better off retiring (again) while his legacy is still intact.