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 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.