Jay-Z - Magna Carta Holy Grail

We know that Jay-Z doesn’t have to make records anymore, but does he even want to?

Label: Virgin EMI

Rating: 6

The PR campaign for Jay-Z’s twelfth album, ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’, was steeped in contradiction. Projecting his album art next to the 798-year-old document the album was named partially after, Jay-Z tangentially legitimised his greatness by an appeal to traditional authority. In the same breath, he relied on the modern authority of Samsung to ensure that his album would go platinum by default. The point of the original document was to put a check on autocratic powers, but in this instance it’s been exploited. Receiving a platinum status by default is fraudulent, isn’t it? Would ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ live up to the platinum status that it never worked for?

It starts off shaky. ‘Holy Grail’ is a dragging ballad that features poetically excessive lyrics from Justin Timberlake. This parody-like production is topped off with the caricatured infusion of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ lyrics, where both Jay-Z and Timberlake do their worst (or best, depending on your level of intoxication) Steven Tyler impressions.

Luckily, it picks up from this. The good tracks are testament to the fact that Jay-Z is most damning when he avoids the grey existential areas and basks in the black-and-white. He’s rich, and reminds us of this in the stomping Timbaland production on ‘Picasso, Baby’ (‘I just want a Picasso / in my casa / no, my castle’) and on ‘Oceans’ with help from… Frank Ocean.

This braggadocio isn’t completely acceptable. Lyrics like ‘I don’t pop molly / I rock Tom Ford’, might be socially relevant to the current state of the underground hip hop community, but it also just reminds us all how our alternative to expensive drugs is high street shopping and sale rails. Don’t call it jealousy; it’s just a response to having something shamelessly rubbed in your face at a more-than-necessary frequency. Still, despite similar themes, ‘Somewhereinamerica’ is a highlight because of its interesting perspective. From receiving side-eyes from high society’s old moneyed, eagle-eyed feds and working hard while Miley Cyrus twerks at Juicy J concerts, the track is backed by solid lyrics that interact perfectly with the jazz-infected Hit-Boy production.

Keeping on the topic of production, ‘GOOD Music’ producer Hudson Mohawke tweeted that had ‘Magna Carta…’ been released ten years ago it would have been to little applause - he’s half wrong here. The harder tracks on the record would have caused a minor tremor, punctuating the ‘made by The Neptunes’ smooth pop-cum-hip-hop production that dominated the charts at that time. But today, these tracks sound like an aging rapper’s attempt to stay relevant to Chief Keef and Waka Flocka Flame’s audiences. Tracks like ‘Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit’ are relegated to the position of pseudo-trap, and the Rick Ross co-sign just isn’t enough.

Despite highlights along the way, the album closes at about five tracks too long on the Gonjasufi sampling ‘Nickels And Dimes’, an exploration of the guilt that manifests in his success. It’s a noble but a well-worn path; we are all left feeling and looking a bit like Rick Rubin in the ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ sessions: dejected. Jay-Z’s latest does little to prove that he can come up with anything that isn’t entirely predictable. We know that he doesn’t have to make records anymore, but it does leave us wondering - does he even want to?