Jay-Z: Magna Carta…Holy Grail (take two)

Magna Carta... Holy Grail
Universal Music

If Jay-Z likes to think of himself as hip-hop’s Michael Jordan — and he does — then Magna Carta… Holy Grail is Hov’s decision to join the Washington Wizards. The set is everything Mike’s return to the hard court was in 2001: Heavy on gimmicks, low on consequence and just good enough to pass as a reasonable effort from a guy who can’t do much at this point to tarnish his legacy.

Odd, for someone who has spent so long perfecting a craft he once proclaimed chose him (and not vice versa) on 2003’s The Black Album. To present himself as an advocate of change rather than a wordsmith this time around is counterintuitive to the mission he’s been working on for years now. Even he should know that the most lasting innovations are built by working from the inside out, yet here, his ploy to shock and reinvent a fractured industry has been overshadowed by an obsession with “changing the rules,” as he so eloquently continues to put it.

Such is why Magna Carta actually needs to be examined from two perspectives: 1) How much this approach to putting out a record might truly change the way musicians release their art, from here on out. And 2) How these songs truly stack up against the tracks that appear on all 11 of his other solo albums, some of which have been universally recognized as the best the medium has ever seen.

We’ll begin with the former. Jay-Z, for all his brilliance and influence, has to try awfully hard to look cheap, both figuratively and literally (proof of as much can be found in the high-priced rhymes that paint everything from “Picasso Baby” to “Tom Ford” to “Oceans”). Yet despite tales of yacht-based reflection and high fashion hangouts, the most visceral takeaway from this offering is an overwhelming sense that he cheated both himself (he used an interesting public relations idea and chose not to properly see it through before moving on with this project) and his admirers (even though a good Jay-Z song could be labeled great if it came from anyone else, a higher bar means higher expectations, and too many times throughout these 16 tracks, those expectations are not met).

Thus, it needs to be said: With Magna Carta… Holy Grail, Mr. Carter mistakenly refuses to see the trees through the forest. Trying his damnedest to create hype around a record, Jay-Z wasn’t content with simply being a legendary hip-hop artist anymore; rather, this entire exercise has been a clear and (gasp!) embarrassing attempt at achieving legendary status as a business, man. Truth is, it’s going to take more than an unorthodox press campaign to be a trailblazer in today’s fickle and uninterested popular culture. That reality is ultimately what makes this collection feel flatter than it probably is.

As for those overlooked trees standing in the forest, some deserve praise for their natural beauty, some could have benefited from a trim, and a select group of others probably would have been better served if the seed had never even been planted. The lazy Rick Ross collaboration, “F*Ckwithmeyouknowigotit”, for instance, is the most dehydrated moment of them all, its repetition becoming more and more obnoxious as the predictably braggadocio track wears itself thin. Ditto for “Picasso Baby”, which essentially serves as a spoken-word resumé for the type of businessman Jay has already established he so badly hopes to one day be.

Part of that desire to stay sharp on current-day trends runs parallel with the rapper’s forward-thinking mantra here, and the attention he pays to it makes for some classic Jay-Z spots. “F.U.T.W.” allows Hov to let his listeners in on some of his television habits as he asserts, “Feelin’ like a stranger in my own land / Got me feeling like Brody in Homeland.” Note to rapper: Mandy Patinkin is a hell of a tenor. He then doubles down on “Somewhereinamerica” as he unforgivingly references Miley Cyrus’ twerking habits, taking a not-so-subtle shot at the singer who infamously admitted she sooooooooo didn’t mean it when she said “the Jay-Z song was on” back in 2009. It all falls in line with Mr. Carter’s desire to stay ahead of the curve. Want to take a shot at truly revolutionizing the record-making business all the while proving you are hip enough to make it happen? Name a song after Tom Ford.

Actually, Jay does just that, and the result is one of Magna Carta‘s highlights. Timbaland’s production is the key here, his trademark bounce fueling the engine of this swift, far-out ride. Adding to the trip is Hov’s ability to change his flow on a dime, reminding everyone of how easy he can make the hardest things appear.

“Part II (On the Run)” and “BBC” share honors as the best moments, the former a collaboration with his wife; the latter, somewhat ironically, a duet with his former nemesis, Nasty Nas. Both are easily the most accessible of the set, and both prove the value of teamwork in the hip-hop world. Bey’s track comes fully equipped with a steamy, retro groove that creates an acute level of moody texture unrivaled elsewhere. Better is Jay’s slight nod to Juvenile’s 1999 hit “Back That Azz Up” whenever he switches his vocal pattern to recall how inescapable that hook truly was a decade and a half ago. Switching gears, “BBC” is some of the most fun Mr. Carter has ever had on record. Backed by Pharrell’s genius blend of funk and pop that doesn’t not sound like his recent Robin Thicke collab “Blurred Lines”, the thing bleeds blood cells that were born to party.

And then, of course, there are the shout-outs to some of yesterday’s alt-rock heroes. “Heaven” awkwardly tips the hat to R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” by reciting the song’s chorus not once, but twice. Poignant? No. Cheesy? Sorry to say. “Holy Grail”, meanwhile, does little more than again ask this question: Why doesn’t the Justin Timberlake/Jay-Z tag team work like it should? That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work at all. It just means that it’s never the home run it could be. This time is no different as JT’s heartfelt very, very extended chorus feels more whiny than it does tender. Add in a Nirvana refrain and what you have is a mess of a song you want to be great.

Which takes us right back to where we started from. With all the hoopla surrounding it, Magna Carta… Holy Grail is, in essence, one of the great anomalies popular music has seen in years: While clearly wanting to be a legendary piece of extravagant and influential work, it suffers the most from its inherent apathy, a type of intangible element that makes it come off as equal parts careless and desperate. That’s a bad combination for any artist, let alone one who has established himself as the leader of an increasingly crowded hip-hop pack, and here, the ironic fate is that for once, Jay-Z’s ambitions ultimately got in the way of his artistic ability. It’s not the grand statement everyone wanted to be, but it’s a statement, nonetheless.

“Numbers don’t lie,” Hov notes during the bleepy, futuristic “Tom Ford”. “Check the scoreboard.”

Well, if nothing else, Magna Carta… Holy Grail serves as a reminder to never underestimate the value of getting out to a lead early in the game. And despite an off-day at the gym, at least Jay-Z knows that his team is still winning, even if he’s been relegated to the bench, plotting what his next move may be.

RATING 6 / 10