Review: Jay-Z – Magna Carta… Holy Grail
Published on July 17th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
Quite what made Jay-Z so eminent in the world of hip-hop has long been a mystery to Rocksucker, and his latest album Magna Carta… Holy Grail does little to clear it up for us.
His flow measures up okay and there’s the odd flash of lyrical ingenuity, but there’s never been much in the way of character about his voice.
While that’s not necessarily his fault, it’s much harder to forgive a round of self-indulgent ‘blingery’ (it’s a word now) when it’s not delivered in a voice shot through with some kind of eccentricity about it.
Perhaps the most consistent strength of Jay-Z’s output over the years has been the production, handled here by ‘go to’ guys Timbaland and J-Roc.
Conversely, one wonders how much input Jay-Z has had into that side of things, and whether or not it’s at his behest that some tracks are just flat-out rips; set-closer “Nickels and Dimes”, for example, is basically a copy/pasted number from Gonjasufi’s MU.ZZ.LE album of last year.
At a time when the likes of Lamar, West and those delightful Odd Future chaps are releasing such groundbreaking music, Jay-Z’s tried-and-tested formula feels not just redundant but also like a stick with which to beat hip-hop: you know, take someone else’s song and talk over a bit, that sort of thing.
The guest spots are achingly predictable: Justin Timberlake, Rick Ross, Frank Ocean (whose chorus to “Oceans” is to be fair one of the album’s highlights), Pharrell, Beyonce…
Nas’s appearance on “BBC” is intriguing but only because of the ‘beef’ that’s existed between he and Jay-Z in the past, while his presence also draws a direct comparison between his Life is Good LP of last year and Magna Carta… Holy Grail.
Life is Good wins hands down: it featured its fair share of bragging yet somehow presented it in a rueful light, whereas Magna Carta… Holy Grail seems all too keen to impress its lavish gestation upon you (“Picasso Baby”, “Tom Ford”, “Crown”).
Perhaps the insertion into “Holy Grail” of the chorus from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a deliberate move to excuse itself – “here we are now, entertain us” and all of that – but if it was then it’s somewhat missing the point.
As well as being one of the least musically vacuous tracks here, what with its cinematically foreboding backdrop, the aforementioned “Oceans” does plenty of redeeming with Ocean’s chorus of:
I see elephant tusk on the bow of a sailing lady
Docked on the Ivory Coast
Mercedes in a row winding down the road
I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo
Before the Basquiat show and if so
Well fuck it, fuck it
Because this water drown my family
This water mixed my blood
This water tells my story
This water knows it all
Go ahead and spill some champagne in the water
Go ahead and watch the sun blaze
On the waves of the ocean
It’s a damn sight more immersive than “You ain’t really ready / Girl, why you never ready? / For as long as you took, you better look like Halle Berry / Or Beyonce” (“Beach is Better”), but then perhaps that’s the point: the pointed rubbing shoulders with the frivolous, which you might argue to be in some way analoguous to Jay-Z’s social ascent.
To be fair, the following from “FUTW” (“Fuck Up the World”, in case you were wondering) might very well back you up on this count:
Martin had a dream, Hov got a team
My chain already heavy, don’t let me get a ring
Parades down Flatbush, Confetti on my fur
Turn right in Red Hook, niggas heavy on the curb
See most my niggas died early twenties or late teens
I’m just trying to come from under the thumb of this regime
1% of a billion more than niggas even seen
Still they wanna act like it’s an everyday thing, clean
A pensively twinkling groove packing throbbing rubs of bass, “FUTW” represents the good side of Magna Carta… Holy Grail: see also the colourful production of “La Familia” and perverse darkness of “Heaven”, the latter of which blots its copybook a tad by rather arbitrarily quoting “Lose My Religion”.
Magna Carta Holy Grail fails to convincingly challenge Rocksucker’s notion of Jay-Z as being somewhat overrated amongst the pantheon of hip-hop greats, but it’s not without its good bits.
Magna Carta… Holy Grail is out now on Carter Enterprises.
Rocksucker says: Two and a Half Quails out of Five!