Jay-Z - Magna Carta Holy Grail

Posted July 10, 2013

Jay-Z has officially unveiled his highly-anticipated 12th studio album. Magna Carta... Holy Grail will be Hov's first solo full-length since '09's The Blueprint 3. Following in the footsteps of Kanye West with Yeezus, the rap mogul did not release any singles off the 16-track project, but pseudo title track Holy Grail is the official lead song selection.

The LP features appearances from a formidable lineup of heavyweight guests, among them Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Justin Timberlake, Nas and Rick Ross, and boasts beats by the likes of Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland and more.

The first one million copies of Magna Carta Holy Grail were (haphazardly) distributed for free to owners of Samsung smart phones on Thursday, July 4, but the entire LP is now available for digital purchase via iTunes.

Magna Carta... Holy Grail Album Review

Hip-hop has always been a youth-driven culture. As each new generation of rapper emerged, they would in turn kill off their rap parents in some sort of reverse-musical-infanticide. Assuming a rapper wasn’t literally killed or imprisoned first (Biggie, Tupac, etc.), to survive in hip-hop after your first grey hairs meant moving behind the scenes as a label boss and brand spokesman (Dr. Dre, Diddy, etc.), or being relegated to the nostalgia circuit, performing for crowds interested in you primarily as a symbol of hip-hop’s past (Rakim, KRS-ONE, etc.).

It wasn’t until very recently that rappers even had to figure out what to do when they blew out the candles on their 40th birthday cake and were still truly relevant. How could they keep their core fan base, a fan base that had now literally been with them for decades, loyal while simultaneously earning new fans and ducking proverbial bullets from the young guns? How could they stay hungry when every award to be won was on their shelf and every milestone to be reached was already fading in their rearview? How do they craft interesting raps about their real lives when their real lives are less about late night parties and more about retirement accounts? Snoop Lion’s answer has been wholesale re-invention, Ice Cube and Common have sought refuge in acting, and Nas and Eminem have yet to actually put out an album in their ‘40s (although Nas certainly set the stage for a middle-aged rap career with Life Is Good). There were essentially no role models to look up to, no rap life after 40 blueprint (pun intended) to follow. Enter Jay-Z.

It should come as no surprise that Jay, a rapper who once described himself as more business than man, is boldly going where no aging rapper has ever gone before, and succeeding . Before a single note of his supremely narcissistically-titled album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, hit our ear drums, Hova had already won. In an internet age where platinum albums are exponentially rarer than actual platinum, a Samsung partnership had already guaranteed financial success, and was truly the first new model for releasing music on a large scale that we’ve seen since iTunes established its digital dominance. (Although his #NewRules ended up looking a lot like the #OldRules when the album leaked minutes after it hit the “exclusive” Samsung app). So yes, Hova proved that when it came to business experience still beat the beyeezus out of youth, and that he could still get the world talking, but it’s crucial to remember that even the almighty Jay-Z would be nothing without the music. Music is the foundation, the bedrock he built his empire on, and the music is ultimately what will determine MCHG’s place in rap history, not an app. So….how’s the music?

One listen to MCHG and you can tell it was clearly made by a man with nothing left to prove, a man who’s more interested in positioning himself on hip-hop’s chessboard, than truly creating a new game. Unlike Kanye, whose possessed with the kind of self-destructive streak that makes him alternately brilliant and infuriating, Jay-Z has always been about cautious innovation. Semi-title track Holy Grail is the epitome of a groundbreaking Jay-Z song that, after a closer listen, isn’t all that groundbreaking. The extended R&B intro and outro from his new BFF Justin Timberlake (another aging pop star creating a middle-age lane for himself) and beat switches would have been remarkable five years ago, but after Yeezus, GKMC and their ilk, it barely warrants a double take. But sonically Holy Grail is a rap Picasso painting compared to the more minimal, banger beats that fill a solid portion of the album. Tom Ford, Fu*kWithMeYouKnowIGotIt, Crown, Beach is Better, they’re all from the booming bass and stuttering high-hats school we know so well, and disappointingly, lyrically Jay brings back many of the same topics and themes we already heard on Watch the Throne. If Hublot ever makes a Basquait-inspired watch, it’ll apparently be the only thing he raps about until he dies.

But here’s the thing – while intellectually I can dissect Magna Carta Holy Grail, emotionally I feel it. As relatively shallow as it may be, Fu*kWithMeYouKnowIGotIt got added to my Music To Rob A Bank To playlist the second I heard it. As much as my brain wants to say Jay’s raps on Picasso Baby sound like a he just took an undergrad modern art course, my heart jumps when he says, “Fu*k it, I want a trillion.” And crucially, Magna Carta Holy Grail does have some indisputably “Only Jay could have made this” moments. Thanks in part to an excellent hook from Frank Ocean, Oceans demands repeat listens before it can be appreciated, Heaven is worthy of a serious decoded session, if you don’t love the Biggie samples on Jay-Z Blue you don’t love hip-hop, and while it may not be as deep as the last three tracks I named, Part II (On the Run) is about as good as R&B-rap collaborations get. Whether it’s making babies or making music, it seems like Jay and Beyonce just can’t miss when they’re together. I could pick this album apart, and to some extent I already have, but as much fun as it can be to dig into every detail of a Jay-Z album, ultimately Dead Prez said it best: “If I feel it I feel it, if I don’t I don’t.” In that case, I feel Magna Carta Holy Grail.

Has Jay-Z made another classic? Only time will truly tell, but my gut says MCHG will ultimately fall just short of classic status. Where does it rank among his now 15 albums? I’ve got it somewhere in the top third. But the fact that we’re even able to ask these questions, that we’re still serious having these debates, seventeen years after his debut album is perhaps the best testament to his greatness we’ve seen yet. If MCHG is any indication, Jay-Z may still be in the “best rapper alive” discussion when he turns 50, and more than the Grammys, more than million dollar deals, more than the Basquiat and Rothko paintings hanging in his living room, that will truly be his most impressive accomplishment.

DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins

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Posted July 10, 2013
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