Magna Carta Holy Grail. Jay, Shawn Carter, Z’s 12th solo L.P. What a title it has to live up to: collectively, collaborators Kanye West and Jay-Z are Yeezus and the greatest rapper alive. Within the last couple of years we’ve watched the throne and now we’ve been treated to MCHG. Despite hitting the big 4-0, it seems there’s no sign of Mr. Carter loosening his grip on the rap game just yet. ‘Top of the totem pole’ indeed Shawn.
Before listening to, or evaluating, Magna Carta it’s interesting to note the hype created around this album. Come the fourth of July, MCHG was available to download for the first million Samsung users, netting Jay an estimated $5million for this deal. But hell ‘Fuck hashtags and retweets’ right? But it’s not just the stacks on stacks on stacks that is noteworthy, it’s the way in which Jay has potentially changed the game in marketing terms. While these downloads won’t count towards the album’s placement in the chart, it guaranteed a huge number of downloads before official release. It seems that releasing the Holy Grail on the 4th July was far from coincidence – it appears that Jay wants to be remembered and solidify his standing further through the paradigm of: historic music, historic day.
As for the album itself, it starts incredibly strongly. Timberlake’s vocals on the eponymous opening track seem to transcend reasonable pitch and beauty for a man’s voice and it’s evident that Justin’s N.Sync poster-boy days, and potentially even his early career, are things of the past now and that the Legends of the Summer Tour will truly be what it promises to. However, it is in the first track that we are, in my opinion, also introduced to the sometimes shaky mishits that run throughout Magna Carta. This is clear in the awkward vamped up, and frankly throwaway, cut to Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, it just doesn’t work: it’s out of place and genre and it breaks up the track awfully. These samples (among others is REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’) also help to date the forty year old Jay-Z somewhat. But this is largely a positive attribute to Jay’s style and content: he is at a stage where it’s no longer fitting to rap about merely fast cars and loose women, so throughout MCHG, Jay blends masterfully the worlds of Picasso, Basquiat and champagne with his grass roots influences focusing on balling. Rags to riches.
But it is also in the tracks that undermine these shout outs to wealth that Jay shows us a more meaningful view of fame and a crack in the veneer of the Lucky Lucianos and Caesars of wealth that Shawn aligns himself with. Namely, ‘Nickels and Dimes’ shows us these pitfalls of fame along with tracks such as ‘Jay-Z Blue’ dealing with the worries of parenthood, highlight that Magna Carta does indeed have a wide content, themes perhaps formerly un-thought of when considering Jay’s works. Thus, it may well be ‘Nickels and Dimes’ or ‘Holy Grail’ that you’ll be hearing on the radio soon.
In contrast, some tracks such as ‘Crown’ and a couple of the other shorter tracks pass by uninspiringly, but what can you expect on such a weighty 17 track LP? Of the features, I would have to say my favourite and maybe the best one is Frank Ocean’s drawling Caribbean vocals on, again, his eponymous track. In opposition to this, it’s almost sad to listen to the largely weak ‘Part II’. Here, the initial draw of Timbaland’s production on the earlier tracks is unfelt as the filter on Beyonce’s vocals makes them sound somewhat muted and far from her full potential. Also, its similarity to a love song almost makes it awkward: it’s too slow and lovey dovey to have earned its place on this album and it hardly rivals the chemistry of earlier collaborations such as ‘Lift Off’ or ‘Bonnie and Clyde’.
To round off the general feel of this record, Rick Rubin, who did not actually feature on the MCHG production team, states that in contrast to Yeezus “Jay’s record is a more traditional hip-hop record”. It seems then that this is where Jay’s true talent, as we have always known, lies. Thus, on almost space-age hip hop tracks such as ‘Tom Ford’, which smack more of the Watch The Throne or even On To The Next One vibe, Shawn doesn’t exactly thrive and even sounds whiny at times, undermining his self-proclaimed ‘best flow’. Again, features such as Rick Ross are boring, repetitive and even annoying, although it could be argued that this merely sets Jay in a better light to kill such tracks whereas BBC is a fun feature to notice high profilers such as Nas on. Moreover, the Biggie overlapping on ‘Blue’ is an awesome throwback and works really well. This leads onto tracks such as ‘Somewhereinamerica’ which even sound more like D.O.A, What You Need or the old school solid Jay tracks that’d get your head nodding in seconds.
It’s just the awkwardness that runs throughout Magna Carta that, at times, lets it down. For example, in the 2Chainz-esque ‘scrr scrr’ which is totally out of place and modern phrases like ‘twerking’, which, while forcing a momentary laugh, seem a bit pathetic and grasping, considering you’re meant to be listening to the greatest rapper alive, potentially to ever have lived and who is, at the end of the day, old enough to be your dad.
A largely solid album that falls somewhat short of the greatness it sets itself up for with some sloppy features and out of place cutaways. But nevertheless, it is packed with some decent songs that we’ll be hearing for a while. I hardly think it’s the last we’ll see of the Carter, but how to top the title.
…Harry has been listening to Joey Bada$$ – Summer Knights…