Okay, lets get this out of the wayJay-Z is clearly a genius. The release strategy for his twelfth studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, is one for the history books: An unprecedented deal with Samsung that guaranteed the album sold one million copies before its official release. Jays move was so bold and brazen that Billboard and the RIAA will begin changing the way they report album sales and certifications. Never has Jays signature quoteIm not a businessman, Im a business, manrung so true.
But uncanny marketing savvy aside, the question still remains. After all the hype, the hoopla, the anticipation, does Magna Carta Holy Grail live up to the lofty expectations? Is the album actually any good? For the most part, yes, it is.
The albums theme is centered on duality, namely that of being the embodiment of both the American Dream and the American Nightmare. Jigga plays the two roles well: He is living proof that anyone can succeed in this great country of ours, but, at the same time, the successes hes achieved werent meant for him. He talks about this on the horn-and-piano accented Somewhereinamerica, wherein he deftly and humorously reminds us that hes the reason Miley Cyrus is still twerkin. And a Jay-Z song was on, indeed.
He expresses his desire for greatness on F.U.T.W., and encourages listeners to desire the same. After all, the spoils are for the taking: Dont be good, my nigga, be great/After that government cheese, we eatin steak/After them projects, now we on estates. And while songs with titles such as Picasso Baby and Tom Ford initially seem like materialistic epistles from a braggart from the hood made good, theyre actually quite revelatory. Jigga equates himself not with Buffett and Rockefeller, but with Basquiat, di Vinci, and Riccardo Tisci. Hes yearning to align himself with a certain level of artistry, luxury, and magnificence.
One thing that Jigga rarely gets credit for, and something he does well, is his knack for introspection and self-reflection. For instance, listen to the somber, Mommie Dearest-and-Biggie Smalls sampling Jay-Z Blue, which, over mournful strings and urgent drums, includes the refrain, Apologies in order/To Blue Ivy, my daughter. Another example is the album closer, Nickels and Dimes, in which he addresses his critics. My flow is a gift, he tells us. Philanthropist.
Guest stars shine bright like diamonds. Rick Ross acquits himself nicely on the futuristic trap anthem Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit, despite attributing his former sponsor with a competitors slogan: Reeboks on/I just do it, nigga. Frank Oceans melancholy vocals add pathos to the deep, reflective cut Oceans. And Nas, Pharrell, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Swizz Beatz, and Beyoncé Knowles turn the studio session into a party on the infectious BBC.
Blue-eye soul man Timberlake tries his best to save the Nirvana-sampling album opener Holy Grail, but its an unfortunate mess. Thats not the only misstep. La Familia is uninspired and awkward, and while Part II (On the Run), featuring wifey Beyoncé, may heat up radio and the clubs, it sounds extremely forced and contrived, and completely takes Hov out of his wheelhouse.
Sonically, the album isnt as adventurous as Kanye Wests Yeezus, but, thankfully, it doesnt adhere to traditionalism so closely that it becomes a bore, like J. Coles Born Sinner. Timbaland handled the bulk of the production, and its shocking to learn this, as most of the songs do not have that signature Timbo sound (which was even recognizable on this years excellent, ebullient The 20/20 Experience). Other contributors behind the board include Pharrell, Swizz Beatz, Boi-1da, Mike Dean, Mike Will Made It, Hit Boy, and WondaGurl, a 16-year-old Canadian beat prodigy who laid the foundation for the superb, Sizzla-sampling Crown.
At one point on Magna Carta …, Jay-Z says, Old man, just stop/I could if I would but I cant/Im hot. Its hard to argue with him. Though hes grown long in the tooth by hip-hop standards, Shawn Carter has still managed to maintain his relevance, change the game, and, most importantly, continue to make solid music. Magna Carta … may not be his magnum opus, but it certainly earns a check in the Win column.
Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit (featuring Rick Ross)
BBC (featuring Nas, Pharrell, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Swizz Beatz, and Beyoncé Knowles)