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Album Review: Magna Carta… Holy Grail, by Jay-Z

July 8, 2013
By

A1mu1XiS5eL._SL1500_Jay-Z needs people, and he doesn’t. As a rapper of unparalleled financial success and name recognition, he doesn’t need collaborations to drum up interest in an album like most MCs. But he’s also not a producer, and has a limited facility for coming up with choruses, so invariably he needs some help with the actual recording. His last major project, Watch The Throne, was as a duo with protégé-turned-peer Kanye West. On the new Magna Carta… Holy Grail, Jay-Z once again has solo billing, but the headlines are all about the corporate alliance with Samsung Galaxy that initially launched the album’s release; essentially, this time it’s Watch The Phone.

The primetime TV ads that unexpectedly announced Magna Carta’s existence less than a month ago featured Jay-Z palling around in the studio with four iconic hip-hop producers who he’s worked with for a decade or more: Tim “Timbaland” Mosley, Pharrell Williams, Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, and Rick Rubin. As it happens, the footage was staged after recording was completed, and Rubin had nothing to do with the making of the album, and Williams and Swizz Beats only have minor roles. Instead, Magna Carta… Holy Grail is a Timbaland showcase, with credits on 12 tracks out of 16. There are plenty of superstar cameos, but at its core this is the closest a Jay-Z album has come to being the product of one MC and one DJ.

This is significant, or should be, because Jay-Z and Timbaland are a monumental rapper-producer tandem at their best. The majority of Jay-Z’s albums have featured at least one track from the Virginia beatmaker, but never more than four (on 1999’s Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter, a killer quartet that includes the blockbuster “Big Pimpin’”). The two have been hugely influential on each others’ musical paths – the eccentric R&B beatmaker behind Aaliyah and Ginuwine uniting with the street-savvy New York rapper for cutting edge pop rap that was as sonically ambitious as it was lyrically impeccable. Unfortunately, both have coasted for a long, long time. The last time they joined forces, on 2009’s Blueprint 3, Timbaland’s three productions were glaringly mediocre even in the context of Jay-Z’s worst album.

More recently, Timbaland reunited with another superstar client, Justin Timberlake, for the highest selling album of 2013 so far, The 20/20 Experience, which featured all the aesthetic signifiers of Timbaland’s fluid, funky signature sound, drained of all the life and excitement they used to possess. His work on Magna Carta… Holy Grail is better than that, but not by a huge margin. “Picasso Baby” has two different beats, each with its own lurching funk groove and guttural keyboard riffs, but it’s not up to the snuff of their previous experiment in tempo changes, Vol. 3’s “Come And Get Me.” “Tom Ford” plays with the jittery rhythms and pockets of empty space that typified Timbaland’s groundbreaking early work, and “Part II (On The Run)” is a shimmering sea of gorgeous synths, but for the most part the production on the album is merely pleasant and impressive, nowhere near Timbo’s awe-inspiring best.

Some younger producers turn up on Magna Carta, most notably Mike WiLL Made It, the young Atlanta producer who has dominated urban radio over the past year with a run of hits almost worthy of Timbaland himself. But instead of invigorating the album with the sound of 2013, Jay-Z pointlessly gives the producer just the 55-second snippet “Beach Is Better.” Another recent hitmaker, Boi-1da, helms the Rick Ross collaboration “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” but that song feels like a Ross track dropped in the middle of a Jay-Z album as a concession to younger listeners, much like Blueprint 3’s Young Jeezy-dominated “Real As It Gets.”

If TImbaland is just a little off his game, Jay-Z is a little further from operating at peak capacity. As a vocalist, and as a technician, Jay-Z has been on the decline for a long time, with a weaker, whinier delivery and less precise rhythms. Sometimes he even seems to fall off the beat at the unfortunate moment that he’s bragging about his masterful flow, as he does on “Tom Ford” and as he did a few years ago on the remix of Young Jeezy’s “Put On.”

The saving grace of Jay-Z’s later output has been his ability to use his outrageous success and the scrutiny he’s under to his advantage with increasingly dense, referential lyrics. He’s experiencing things that no rapper, and few people in general, have experienced, and he knows that his words will be dissected by an army of fans. At his best, that means being able to speak about what it means to be black and successful in America from a rarefied vantage point, as he often did alongside Kanye West on Watch The Throne. On West’s recent Yeezus, that approach curdled into a series of puns about rough sex and civil rights, but Jay-Z’s command of allegory and metaphor has always been more deft, and he keeps more perspective on Magna Carta. Still, while “Oceans” is able to pull some deep thoughts out of a carefree day sailing on the same waters that carried slave ships from Africa, Jay-Z can’t help sounding like a dorky old rich guy, concluding the song with “I’m in heaven, yachting.”

Comparing Magna Carta… Holy Grail to Yeezus, released less than a month ago with a somewhat similar short notice promotional blitz that included no radio single, is inevitable. But Jay-Z feels like he’s in a different universe from that anxious, confrontational album, except for on “Crown,” a track co-produced by West associates Travis $cott and Mike Dean that features Yeezus-style distorted bass and dancehall vocal loops. And the main takeaway from that track is that Jay-Z is better off avoiding that sound, which fits his voice and personality poorly.

Age and wealth have been the two frontiers in hip-hop that Jay-Z has long lead the way on; he was rap’s first superstar to stay successful past the age of 35, and then past 40, and it seems like just a matter of time until he becomes rap’s first billionaire. As the age gap and achievement gap widen between him and nearly every other MC in the world, his music has focused more on highlighting those differences, often with a smug condescension. He avoided that problem on 2007’s American Gangster by contriving a way to flash back to his days as a street hustler, but it was a hollow victory, and he has no such device to lean on now.

As a freshly minted pop star in the late ‘90s, he seemed to determined not to let money change him, claiming on “So Ghetto” to ditch a snobby date who told him, “you’re rich, take the doo rag off.” By the time he returned from temporary retirement in 2006, he was tossing out his old throwback jerseys and imploring others to join him in wearing button-up shirts.

On Magna Carta, Jay-Z continues to contrast his lifestyle with that of hip-hop’s ever-changing youth culture, but with results that are neither coherent nor catchy. On “Tom Ford,” he defiantly repeats the chorus “I don’t pop molly, I rock Tom Ford” over and over, as if there’s any connection between hip-hop’s latest wave of infatuation with ecstasy and his newfound love of designer suits. Elsewhere, he manages a funny tangent about Miley Cyrus twerking, compares himself to “Brody in Homeland,” and mostly attempts to keep up with the 2013 zeitgeist by shoehorning in awkward references to Tumblr, Instagram, and internet catchphrases like “major fail” and “ain’t nobody got time for that.” Worse, sometimes his pop culture references are stale as well as clunky, such as on the howler, “Taking food out my little monster’s mouth/ that’ll drive me Gaga.”

Throughout Magna Carta, Jay-Z also references people like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kurt Cobain, artists who flamed out at such a young age that their finite body of work is cherished as a woefully small glimpse of their genius. Those men died at 27; Jay-Z didn’t release his first album until he was 26, and is now 43, living a life more like another artist namechecked his new songs, Pablo Picasso. Picasso died at 91, having lived most of his long life famous for his early work, often struggling to overcome its shadow. And so now, a decade into an extremely lucrative fallow period, we have possibly decades more underwhelming Jay-Z albums to look forward to, and not a blue period in sight.

  • nitpicker

    Excellent review, except you’re so wrong about the garbage Timbaland has here being even a little better than “20/20″

  • Al Shipley

    I dunno, 20/20 just put me to sleep like this doesn’t. you are aptly named, though!

  • DGrogans

    Man, I really appreciate the look you took at this album. It wasn’t overly critical or biased based on his previous work… I agree 100% this album has my vote as Jay’s worst album ever. The sad part is the beats were all solid but instead of spitting some good quality lyrics over them he lays down a bunch of spoken word style bullshit that either doesn’t make sense, is out of context or just plain hypocritical at times I only listen to the whole album 1 time through and I’m glad I didn’t buy it. I swore I was done with Jay after BP3 but gave him 1 more chance on WTT and he fucked me again… so this time I’m done.

  • DGrogans

    Oh and also the best beat on the whole album is the mike Will made this “beach is better” where Jay goes in, drop’n some witty shit and right when I start feelin it thinkin to myself ” yo, this is a cut!” It ends after 8 bars!!! So disappointing!