Album Review: Magna Carta… Holy Grail, by Jay-Z
Jay-Z needs people, and he doesn‚Äôt. As a rapper of unparalleled financial success and name recognition, he doesn‚Äôt need collaborations to drum up interest in an album like most MCs. But he‚Äôs 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 prot√©g√©-turned-peer Kanye West. On the new Magna Carta‚Ä¶ 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‚Äôs release; essentially, this time it‚Äôs Watch The Phone.
The primetime TV ads that unexpectedly announced Magna Carta‚Äôs existence less than a month ago featured Jay-Z palling around in the studio with four iconic hip-hop producers who he‚Äôs worked with for a decade or more: Tim ‚ÄúTimbaland‚ÄĚ Mosley, Pharrell Williams, Kasseem ‚ÄúSwizz Beatz‚ÄĚ 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‚Ä¶ 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‚Äôs albums have featured at least one track from the Virginia beatmaker, but never more than four (on 1999‚Äôs Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter, a killer quartet that includes the blockbuster ‚ÄúBig Pimpin‚Äô‚ÄĚ). The two have been hugely influential on each others‚Äô musical paths ‚Äď 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‚Äôs Blueprint 3, Timbaland‚Äôs three productions were glaringly mediocre even in the context of Jay-Z‚Äôs 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‚Äôs fluid, funky signature sound, drained of all the life and excitement they used to possess. His work on Magna Carta‚Ä¶ Holy Grail is better than that, but not by a huge margin. ‚ÄúPicasso Baby‚ÄĚ has two different beats, each with its own lurching funk groove and guttural keyboard riffs, but it‚Äôs not up to the snuff of their previous experiment in tempo changes, Vol. 3‚Äôs ‚ÄúCome And Get Me.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúTom Ford‚ÄĚ plays with the jittery rhythms and pockets of empty space that typified Timbaland‚Äôs groundbreaking early work, and ‚ÄúPart II (On The Run)‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄúBeach Is Better.‚ÄĚ Another recent hitmaker, Boi-1da, helms the Rick Ross collaboration ‚ÄúFuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs Young Jeezy-dominated ‚ÄúReal As It Gets.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs bragging about his masterful flow, as he does on ‚ÄúTom Ford‚ÄĚ and as he did a few years ago on the remix of Young Jeezy‚Äôs ‚ÄúPut On.‚ÄĚ
The saving grace of Jay-Z‚Äôs later output has been his ability to use his outrageous success and the scrutiny he‚Äôs under to his advantage with increasingly dense, referential lyrics. He‚Äôs 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‚Äôs recent Yeezus, that approach curdled into a series of puns about rough sex and civil rights, but Jay-Z‚Äôs command of allegory and metaphor has always been more deft, and he keeps more perspective on Magna Carta. Still, while ‚ÄúOceans‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôt help sounding like a dorky old rich guy, concluding the song with ‚ÄúI‚Äôm in heaven, yachting.‚ÄĚ
Comparing Magna Carta‚Ä¶ 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‚Äôs in a different universe from that anxious, confrontational album, except for on ‚ÄúCrown,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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 ‚Äė90s, he seemed to determined not to let money change him, claiming on ‚ÄúSo Ghetto‚ÄĚ to ditch a snobby date who told him, ‚Äúyou‚Äôre rich, take the doo rag off.‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs ever-changing youth culture, but with results that are neither coherent nor catchy. On ‚ÄúTom Ford,‚ÄĚ he defiantly repeats the chorus ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt pop molly, I rock Tom Ford‚ÄĚ over and over, as if there‚Äôs any connection between hip-hop‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄúBrody in Homeland,‚ÄĚ and mostly attempts to keep up with the 2013 zeitgeist by shoehorning in awkward references to Tumblr, Instagram, and internet catchphrases like ‚Äúmajor fail‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúain‚Äôt nobody got time for that.‚ÄĚ Worse, sometimes his pop culture references are stale as well as clunky, such as on the howler, ‚ÄúTaking food out my little monster‚Äôs mouth/ that‚Äôll drive me Gaga.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôt 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.