Jay-Z: Magna Carta... Holy Grail (take one)

Jay-Z's flow returns to a late '90s rapid fire stop-and-start while Timbaland returns from the grave with everything great about his own late '90s empire integrated into what's popping today. So why doesn't it work?


Magna Carta... Holy Grail

Label: ROC Nation
US Release Date: 2013-07-04
UK Release Date: 2013-07-04

Magna Carta... Holy Grail isn't going to stop being divisive any time soon. That much I think we can say with certainty. Opinions on just about every moment on this record appear up for grabs, in part thanks to a engagingly distracting marketing plan involving Samsung and #newrules. One of the #newrules #TeamHov seemed to overlook in this increasingly bizarre release strategy is that, by cutting a majority of one's rabid fanbase out of the zeitgeist moment, you invite a torrenting typhoon. Torrent Freak reported record-breaking transfer rates for the album, which Jay-Z's team may have been able to spin positively if not for the fact pirating out of a phone app led to all kinds of audio artifacting and general lossy files misbehavior.

For many, this album will probably always be defined by that sepia-toned version of the record, which is a shame because in its full splendor Magna Carta... Holy Grail actually serves quite a few of the masters folks have been complaining Jay's been uninterested in since the release of Blueprint 3. He makes some very odd choices subject matter-wise, and it's undeniable that there are verses on here (that we'll get to a little later) that just... end. Jay's newly-energetic bounce (reminiscent of his Volume 2 / Volume 3 period) dramatically peters out long before the bridge or chorus comes around and the artiste embarrassingly self-satisfied with mediocre language. But there are other moments where Jay is so candid and honest about the way he feels about the dichotomous way his present relates to his past...

For example, the final verse on "Picasso Baby" is a little wandering and doesn't even feel all that true in terms of how police officers respond to Jay's presence, but his paranoia over the way anonymous citizens disparage his daughter is very real, as is his disappointment in the ways people keep telling him to hang up his headphones just because he's on the wrong end of 40. One could also point to the way Jay-Z closes "Crown", another paranoia-ridden track about his trepidation towards success, and see Jay mining similar territory as the conscious-vs-material arguments scattered throughout 2004's The Black Album.

The problem is that, much like Yeezus, a finely captivating performance and some of the cleanest, more interesting production of the year is marred by some of the most vain vocals a hip-hop listener can expect to hear. Jay will stumble upon lovely little moments of language ("Boat dock in front of Hermes picking cotton", "See me in shit you never saw / If it wasn't for these pictures you wouldn't see me at all" in "Oceans") but against the entirety of a verse with useless cocaine references and glanced-at allusions to the Middle Passage and juxtaposing Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" against July 4th, the Samsung phone release date of the album, they are just moments of coincidence. At every turn you can hear hints of Jay-Z's slight discomfort over having become a brand, a consumable for the public to chew up and spit out. It's just, Lamborghinis and Basquiats keep getting in the way, and who is any modern human being to blame another for succumbing to distraction, he asks.

There's really no shame in Jay-Z rapping about the life he's been describing ever since "comeback" record Kingdom Come. I don't particularly care that I can't relate to "going ape at the auction" or "blue bloods... trying to clown on me". The issue with Magna Carta...Holy Grail lies in a lack of subtlety best exemplified by the opening track, the Justin Timberlake dominated "Holy Grail". Tucked into the middle of the song is an exceptionally engaging Jay-Z moment complete with a super funky breakdown near the end, which Jay wastes on stringing a series of "niggas" together as rhyme like his protegé, J. Cole. But for most of it's five and a half minutes, we've got Justin Timberlake wandering around, warbling about some woman neither of these men are dealing with (unless we're to believe Jessica Biel and Beyoncé are some kind of succubi) in the dark.

What makes coming to a conclusion about Magna Carta... Holy Grail distressing is that despite all of these complaints, for 58 minutes I'm finding it hard to argue there are much more entertaining albums out there this year. Jay-Z's on his C-game a lot of the time here as far as the words, but in terms of presence and performance it's hard to find a more engaged Jay-Z at any point in the post-Young Chris era. Hearing him awkwardly repurpose early '90s indie rock in an effort to prove he's not just talking shit in interviews is goofy, but I've got to enjoy that about this Jay-Z, a 43-year old half-a-billionaire singing Nirvana lyrics earnestly on an album only money could buy. His attempts to mine memes out of his subjects, such as "Somewhere in America's" "twerk Miley, Miley twerk" coda, are almost always clumsy but his conviction in them is always admirable.

In the end, Magna Carta... Holy Grail has to be a disappointment if only because Timbaland (with Jerome Harmon's helping hand) handling most of the music here and that not resulting in a chasm of god-awful pop-tart garbage is tantamount to any number of small miracles, and yet Jay-Z rewards that effort with his least-concentrated set of lyrics maybe ever. But the album doesn't seem as though it will be able to exist on those terms; it's instead being measured by the amount of times we can refer to Jay-Z's many corporate sponsorships and 1%er business opportunities, in all the ways we can find to praise what Jay-Z represents to the pop world while belittling all that he does with that power. Magna Carta... Holy Grail lacks the year-defining singles that made Blueprint 3 evade "flop" status, but it's undeniably the most cohesive thing Jay's been a part of since the original Blueprint.

At 43 years old, Jay-Z's made an exceptionally contemporary hip-hop album that succeeds on every leg but the one Jay's always most readily admitted he struggles standing on for long periods of time. As a fun, interesting summer solstice I believe the guy's done his job, and honest to God Jay-Z fans shouldn't have much to be worried about with this release. It's the folks that hide behind Samsung as an excuse to dislike #MCHG, rather than blame Jay-Z directly as a rapper, that fear this album and vice versa. It's fun to throw unironic quotes around his infamous, "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man" one-liner and wax poetic about what that means for his art, but let's not forget there's actually an album here that Jay-Z clearly had a concrete vision and excitement for, or that hip-hop royalty in 2013 encompasses a fair amount more than on-paper lyricism.

The fact of the matter is, Jay-Z probably just can't carry an entire album anymore if you're a lyrics head. But Jay was always custom built for a world where beats take precedence over rhymes -- one could argue he's the most influential artist in birthing that formula -- and Magna Carta is that quite explicitly. I'm willing to be fine with that.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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