Album: Magna Carta…Holy Grail
Released: July 4, 2013
If Jay-Z’s albums were people at a party, his twelfth studio Magna Carta…Holy Grail would be the quiet kid chilling in the corner, taking his time to really look at the interactions between the others. He wouldn’t be the outcast, (that dubious honor would probably go to In My Lifetime.Vol1) but rather he would be the kid who was a little too old to party as hard as the others and was instead smoking it up with his crew in their own little world. Still, for an album named after one of the most sought after religious artifacts in human history, Magna Carta leaves much to be desired. It is an unusual album, certainly a departure from Jay-Z’s pop/mainstream background, in that it has a strange duality to it, sometimes embracing the trappings of money and fame while at other times rejecting these things in favor of rather ham-fisted attempts at social commentary. What redeems this album in many ways is its production – subtly evocative of past eras of music, its style brings refreshing change to mainstream hip-hop. Yet, for all of that it is hard not to be disappointed by the lack of signature verses from Hov, or any truly outstanding tracks on the album; for a Jay-Z album Magna Carta is strangely subdued, giving the whole album an introspective vibe that would make it an excellent accompaniment to a bowl of green.
The more I think about it, what keeps me from wholeheartedly accepting the album is how unenthusiastic Jay-Z sounds throughout it. His flow has always been famously laidback and supremely confident but there has always been an edge to his lyrics, to his tone or perhaps just to his presence on the track that gave the whole song an energy that is altogether missing in most of this album. I don’t think Jay-Z has lost it; there are still occasional flashes of what he has in tracks like ‘Oceans’, ‘Heaven’ and ‘SomewhereInAmerica’. But there are other tracks where he sounds so boring (‘Picasso Baby’), so bored (‘Tom Ford’) and generally off form (‘Jay-Z Blue’) that it’s hard to remember that this is the man who once excited his listeners so much that he sold out Madison Square Garden faster than any other artist active at the time. Though, I suppose that’s hardly a valid statistic to defend him with – he was knocked off that pedestal by none other than Beiber himself.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the true stars of the album are the guest stars, with industry heavyweights like Nas, Frank Ocean and Beyonce making important contributions to the album’s sound. My favorite guest though, funnily enough, was Justin Timberlake, simply because of the way he carried the album’s opening track and gave it a new dimension. On the other hand, there is Rick Ross. I can’t quite decide if I liked his contribution to the album, but that’s probably because I can’t decide if I like him in the first place. His presence in ‘FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt’ (a track that made a slight whoosh at flew over my head) made the track decidedly average to me. I was surprised to see Nas appear on ‘BBC’ and while he didn’t exactly kill the track like he tends to, his inclusion was enough to make me sit up and take note. Now, Frank Ocean on the other hand, is an artist I have no reservations in whole heartedly supporting – I’ve been an absolute Ocean fan boy since Channel Orange (who hasn’t though). His hooks on ‘Oceans’, one of the more successful attempts at social commentary in the album, are wonderful though lyrically they feel a little lacklustre.
The same cannot be said of this album’s production. Wonderfully contemplative and expressive, there are moments of it that (oddly enough) remind of the sounds of artists like Animal Collective, Gonjasufi and even Foster the Kids. The trouble here though is that the productions has some strange interactions with Jay-Z’s flow – while Jay is versatile enough to shine on a reasonably wide variety of sounds, his connection with this album’s sound seems to be rather hit and miss, with unfortunately more of the latter than the former. There are songs where he seems completely out of sync with the music and there are others where he fits the song like a glove. It’s a real shame that the effort put into making some of these sounds is offhandedly squandered by Jay-Z’s forced name-dropping or misdirected attempt to share his understanding of society. More than anything, I enjoyed the diversity that the production brought to the album; from the somber in ‘F.U.T.W’ to the light-hearted in ‘SomewhereInAmerica’.
Ultimately though, no matter how many times I listen to this album, I can’t help but feel like Hov phoned this one in. It doesn’t feel that he has left a piece of himself within this effort and that, to me, is one of the biggest sins an artist can commit. The album’s production redeems it somewhat, but its wavelength clashes with Jay-Z prevent the listener from really feeling the album’s introspective vibe. Jay-Z himself has the odd moment of brilliance, but he is far from the artist that made him the man he is today and that is perhaps the album’s biggest disappointment.
|Part II (On The Run)||Timbaland||
|Jay Z Blue||Timbaland & Justin Timberlake||
|Nickels and Dimes||Timbaland||4.50|
Overall lyrical rating: 7.63/10
Overall production rating: 8.32/10
Enjoyment factor: 3.0/5