Jay-Z - Magna Carta… Holy Grail

A dozen up for Jigga, but he's sounding complacent...
Magna Carta Holy Grail

There’s balling hard, and then there’s going so big you’re instantly platinum.

Fairly incredibly, Jay-Z’s 12th studio album will qualify for a million ‘sales’ courtesy of its free distribution across Samsung mobile phones. The Recording Industry Association of America has altered its eligibility rules to allow ‘Magna Carta… Holy Grail’ to reach this landmark before the LP is available through traditional distribution channels.

As Kanye West’s recent number-one album ‘Yeezus’ proved, seeing a new release run wild and free across the ‘net ahead of its commercial release proper doesn’t necessarily spell disaster. And although ‘Magna Carta…’ has, predictably, leaked in full, few would bet against it topping charts in numerous territories.

That’s the power Jay-Z has today. The greatest rapper alive, he’s certainly not. He’s long since been something else, something more monstrous. Something removed from the artist who brought us ‘The Blueprint’ and ‘The Black Album’.

Jay-Z’s ascent to untouchable celebrity played out years ago; but ‘Magna Carta…’ finds him consolidating his position as the sole MC at the zenith of the rap game’s unforgiving pyramid scheme. Having climbed to the top, and seen off the competition by aligning himself with the freshest new voices and could-be contenders, he no longer needs to deliver statement collections. He simply needs to exist, and be heard. It’s enough to keep the pretenders from the throne.

And enough is what ‘Magna Carta…’ is. Its maker, who carries most tracks without guest vocalists, repeatedly reminds listeners that he’s a very successful musician with a very attractive, and equally successful, wife. And that he has a kid, and he loves her, even though it’s, y’know, hard work being a daddy. It is. He’s right.

And it’s right, too, that artists focus on what they know for inspiration. But, running to an hour long, ‘Magna Carta…’ becomes exhausting, bumping familiar motifs with such frequency that, as the album nears its close, the senses feel entirely numbed. There are only so many times one can refer to huge record sales without losing some connection with an audience probably not in the market for actually buying any.

Here’s a song named after a film-directing fashion designer, because Jigga doesn’t “pop Molly” – he rocks ‘Tom Ford’. Now, the vast majority of his audience probably isn’t addicted to MDMA; but chances are that they’re not clad in boutique threads, either. To bastardise an old Saul Williams lyric: Jay-Z has travelled so far from the source that he is now emitting a lesser signal.

Said track’s got an appealing bounce to it, though, courtesy of popping production from Timbaland and J-Roc. The same can’t be said of a smattering of mid-set slumps: ‘Heaven’ borrows the “That’s me in the corner” lyricism of R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion’ but does nothing with its rich imagery.

The 52 seconds of ‘Beach Is Better’ barely register despite the track’s spiked Mike Will Made It production; and ‘F.U.T.W.’ (“let’s f*ck up the world”) finds Hit-Boy turning in a slumbering beat that has the listener wondering if this is the same guy who charged ‘N****s In Paris’ with such electricity.

Where ‘Yeezus’ tore out of the blocks – and it’s impossible to hear this record without thoughts turning to Kanye’s still-fresh collection, given the artists’ table-topping status – ‘Magna Carta…’ introduces itself gently. ‘Holy Grail’ doesn’t even reveal itself as a Jay-Z track at all until over a minute it, Justin Timberlake taking the spotlight. Everything’s unremarkably slick, the track a sloppily nudge-wink R&B slurry, until some lyrics from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ are shoehorned into proceedings. It’s the first alarm bell of the album.

Another is the ripping of the vocal cadence of M.I.A.’s ‘Bad Girls’ during ‘Tom Ford’ – but such is the number’s irresistible clapping and trapping that such a lift just slots into place. And the arrival of Rick Ross on ‘F*ckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt’, just doing what Rick Ross does – that strange half-bark, half-croak that usually has something to do with getting some ass – spins the warning signs into a frenzy. “Reeboks on / I just do it n***a,” says the not-actually-a-drug-dealer. See what he did there? Slow clap, gents.

And yet, and yet. For all of the above, which reads like a damning indictment of this album’s resistance to flee its comfort zone, ‘Magna Carta…’ does register several positives. No artist gets to this stage of their career without knowing their craft, and Jay-Z’s flexible flow gets woven around beats delivered with real menace on ‘Crown’ and the rather breezier arrangement of ‘Somewhere In America’.

A real standout is ‘Oceans’, a Pharrell Williams-produced affair with a generous guest spot for R&B’s finest Odd Future-er, Frank Ocean. The juxtaposition of Jay’s non-sequiturs – “I’m on the ocean / I’m in heaven / Yacht / Ocean’s 11” – with Ocean’s more detailed and tortured verses comprises a potent, affecting brew.

The set doesn’t really need the daddy rap of ‘Jay-Z Blue’, however sweet the sentiments. And the Beyoncé-starring ‘Part II (On The Run)’ is an incongruously positioned, piano-dominated R&B cut sandwiched between a pair of what are, essentially, interludes. It’s like the track had no natural home, so the rapper constructed a standalone spot for it, isolated by design, so as not to disappoint the wife. Hell, all of us husbands can relate, right?

And it’s not like Jigga needed to worry about making a few dollars off the back of this set. He had all of them to start with, and guaranteed sales figures, too. If this is going HAM, it’s with a limiter fixed tight. But enough, for now, is just about enough.

6/10

Words: Mike Diver

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Check out seven of the best track's from Jay-Z's back catalogue here.

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