Jay-Z’s Magna Carta… Holy Grail Review

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There’s certain expectations when you name an album Magna Carta… Holy Grail. The idea of this being Jay’s holy grail, lends the album a weight that seems overambitious given how powerful and how complete Watch the Throne was. But the words Magna Carta, add a layer of confusion to the issue. Historically, the Magna Carta scaled back the king’s power, and made him more beholden to his nobles… is this Jay telling us he’s ceding power in his kingdom now?

From the first track, you’re hit with the scope that Jay is hoping for. Justin Timberlake’s hook promises a devastating track in the Blueprint soul-sample tradition, but massively underdelivers in the end. The same problems recur through the whole album, with ultimately forgettable tracks, littered with confused production, and repetitive lyricism that seems derivative of Jay’s earlier work. It’s unfortunate because we hear moments when the lyricism is on point, but meshed with haphazard production. When we hear stone cold beats, we’re let down by underwhelming lyrics.

There are moments of brilliance, but punctuated by stilted production and a sense that the album hopes to achieve far more than it’s capable of. F.U.T.W.’s production is addicting, and the lyricism Jay shows here is what we hope for. Beach is Better is something that deserved to be four minutes long – not 55 seconds.

Other highlights include Frank Ocean’s guest spot, and Part II featuring Beyonce – a powerful, soulful track. But it’s Mrs. Carter doing the heavy lifting here. Her hook almost steals the spotlight away from Hov, and it’s stunning that you can consider it a good thing at this point. Also worth your attention is the end of the album – just like all the great players, Jay leaves his best stuff in the tank for the fourth quarter. BBC is Pharrell’s sublime production behind the snappy lyrics we want, while Nickels and Dimes show all the ability Jay still has.

Here’s the brutal, painful, terrible thing to admit. It’s not a bad album. It’s certainly better than what a lot of other people could put out. But it’s not a very good album either. And for a guy who used to drop truth on us at least every other year, that’s just not very good. For all the hype, the social media campaigns, the giveaways, it’s just not as good as Yeezus. Or even CZARFACE.

If Kanye West is LeBron – widely hated and loved in almost equal measure, and filled with unbelievable talent – then Jay-Z must be MJ. And the reality of that analogy is that we’re now in the Washington Wizards stage of his career. Blueprint 3 was passable, but simply didn’t measure up to the high standard Jay set for himself earlier on in his career. Rather than giving us an unvarnished version of his truth of life, like we heard in American Gangster, in Reasonable Doubt, in Blueprint, we get a high gloss, ultraproduced version of life. All we want is courtside tickets, but what we’re getting here is executive box tickets. The catering is nice. The seats are plush. You can even see the court really well from way up here. But we’re all the way up here – behind the glass. All we really want is to be where we can hear the squeak of sneakers on hardwood up close.

 

Magna Carta… Holy Grail is available through Samsung’s Magna Carta… Holy Grail app now, and will be out as a CD, and through iTunes on July 9th.

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