The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Magna Carta… Holy Grail Kyle Ellison , July 10th, 2013 10:15

Add your comment »

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.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.

Jul 10, 2013 3:14pm

great review.

Reply to this Admin

Jul 10, 2013 10:49pm

Yeah, wow, you left a smoking hole in this one. One of those rare reviews that completely relieves me of any curiosity I had felt about the album. Too bad, though, I was hoping this would be great and make everyone shut up about Kanye...

Reply to this Admin

Jul 11, 2013 2:32am

Review is better than the album deserves; embarrassing dogshit that's irredeemable by critics or reheated nonsense about 'black aspiration' by retards who have never read a single word of WEB DuBois or Frederick Douglass.

Yeezus is still trash too, mind, but thankfully contemporary black music does not end with either of these deeply unlikable assholes.

Reply to this Admin

Jul 11, 2013 10:31am

In reply to :

I agree with your sentiment but I'm not sure I agree every African-American artist alive today should read Frederick Douglass in order to 'aspire' properly. That's like saying no white guy is authentic unless he's well-versed in Goethe. Feels like you're being a little racially prescriptive...
Although saying that, I still have no idea why the Magna Carta is referenced in this album title, and it bloody annoys me.

Reply to this Admin

Jul 11, 2013 11:23am

In reply to aaron,:

jay-z's name is corey carter

Reply to this Admin

Kyle Ellison
Jul 11, 2013 1:32pm

Hi Nyasha, thanks for your thoughtful response.

I agree that the race/wealth conversation you mention is there to be had, which is partly why I find this album so disheartening. As you rightly mention, 'Oceans' is a great example of where Jay tackles it directly and has a good deal of success – I think I said as much in my review. But aside from a few fleeting lyric ideas, there just isn't enough of that going on here for an artist of his skill.

Jay's rise is remarkable and inspiring – but as an artist that so many people around the world look up to, is it unfair to expect him to add a little more depth to the discussion? You say this album is a more subtle depiction of what happens after the come-up, but I don't see it like that at all. It perpetuates the idea that success like his is there to be simply grasped if you're talented or dedicated enough, rather than attacking the systems that have caused racial divide to begin with. At least Kanye's record challenges perceptions of wealth and race head-on, forcing his way inside of popular culture and confronting us with his rage.

Sure, there are certainly lines and ideas in this record that are scratching at the surface of this discussion, but if we want to have a proper conversation then I'm afraid this album isn't going to get us there. If not Jay-Z – a man who has transcended the bullshit race boundaries in our society more than anyone - then who is going to bring attention to the issue?

Reply to this Admin

Jul 11, 2013 3:06pm

Come on, Kyle-- stop being so 'reasonable.' Jay-Z is a banal hollow man; read any Ishmael Reed novel for starters and find the dozens of ways this simp is lacking intellectually, morally and-- dare I say-- 'spiritually.' Scratching at the surface like jock itch, maybe...

Reply to this Admin

Jul 11, 2013 3:42pm

In reply to Kyle Ellison:


Thanks for your generous response. I love The Quietus and how much time you guys spend of analyzing records. I do really think there are some real weakness to Magna Carta (which if there was time I would love to enumerate), however, let me simply say this:

Jay Z has faced similar criticism his whole career, that he simply isn't in-depth enough. Like I said earlier, I think that part of the problem is that counter-culture to this point has been defined by rock and roll, while I might add, concealing and rationalizing its own capitalistic and hedonistic interests. What if that model of counter-culture isn't sufficient? I would argue that Jay Z verbally articulating what wealth is and what it is not is in fact part of his lyrical and cultural depth. The lower to upper-middle in our society are mired in a lot misconceptions about wealth. Rock and roll rarely gives us that insight without resorting, self-loathing, self-deprecation or simply writing off wealth. Frankly, rock and roll is more comfortable with expressions of hedonism than expressions of wealth. For a counter-culture to pay little to its own economic interests (and the economic framework and prospects it sets in place for its audience) is very unsettling.

I think your last sentence really exemplifies what I think reviewers overlooked. You say, "Jay-Z – a man who has transcended the bullshit race boundaries in our society more than anyone". Has Jay-Z really transcended the radicalized boundaries in our society? On Magna Carta he seems to be giving an emphatic no to that question. It important to notice that Jay Z is making distinctions between fame and wealth. Hence while as a celebrity he appears to have transcended race (depending on what blog or TV channel you are on,) as a black man he is aware he truly hasn't:

New money, they looking down on me
Blue bloods they trying to clown on me...
Straight cash I bought ya neighbor out
You should come to the housewarming
Come and see what your new neighbor 'bout.

Reply to this Admin

Jul 11, 2013 6:16pm

In reply to j_hindsight:

So it's just an empty pun on his name? Damn my pesky habit of seeking a real meaning behind references...

Reply to this Admin

Jul 11, 2013 6:19pm

In reply to :

Has this unnamed commenter just took a course in the Harlem Renaissance, or something? You seem extremely keen to compare Jay-Z to a bunch of literary writers of a very different era and disposition. Jay-Z is not a writer.

Reply to this Admin

Jul 12, 2013 11:51pm

People focus far too much on Mr Zed's race and whatever they think comes along with it. At this point in his life he's nothing more than another vacant, greedy, materialistic egomaniac with no conception of what it is to live like a normal person. I can't hold that against him because he's been stupendously wealthy for a long time and that does things to a person, but I think that he (and hip hop artists in general) should be held to the same standard as other artists in terms of their lyrical content. Suppose that Bono spent entire albums singing about how rich he is, or how he wanted to fuck his wife like she's a whore, or prattled on about iconic he is, or called U2's next tour "The Legends of Summer."

The ideal that Zed portrays is appalling, and far worse that the maligned hair metal of the 80s, yet that music is considered to be a joke.

Reply to this Admin

Jul 14, 2013 4:53pm

Dear Jay-Z,
What happened to you? I get that you’re rich and “Blue Bloods” are hating on you, but what about the lyrical and musical content of your music. That’s what put you on the map. I love ya Hove, but your new album is wack and pretentious. With all the talent that helped you produce this album; I can’t believe this is the end result. Maybe you should spend a year in the Marcy Projects and rediscover you roots.

Reply to this Admin

Mark Eglinton
Jul 14, 2013 9:59pm

Off topic a little but I have never understood anonymous posters on here or any other site. If you have an opinion, why not own it?

Reply to this Admin