If you’ve grown up with Jay-Z as a consistent presence in your life, it’s difficult to be critical of him. That might have to do with his fairly remarkable record – although he’s only released a handful of stone-cold classics (Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint unimpeachably, and I’d argue for The Black Album too), he’s released plenty of good albums, with few (if any) clunkers in the bunch. I mean, sure, Kingdom Come and American Gangster weren’t really what anyone wanted them to be, but whatever; at the end of the day, it’s still new Jay-Z, and new Jay-Z is better than no Jay-Z.
To a degree, that holds true for his latest, Magna Carta Holy Grail. It’s a grab-bag record, though – it’s got highs and lows, with many of the tracks loitering comfortably in the middle. Whether or not you’ll like it pretty much depends on your tolerance for Jay-Z’s style; he’s still rapping about how rich and awesome at rapping he is, with a lot of references to how hot his wife is. New wrinkles this time around include a fetish for rich-dude things like fine art and caviar, and, of course, numerous references to his adorable new daughter. Credit Jay for not turning into too much of a softie – he’s embraced the fact that his hood days are behind him and now he’s Cuban cigar, private yacht, stately mahogany conference room rich, and he’s gaga over his kid without being cloying about it.
Problem is, Magna Carta rarely pops, like really and truly pops. Opener “Holy Grail” features Justin Timberlake and a goofy re-working of the “here we are now, entertain us” portion of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; JT’s on his extra-dramatic “Dead & Gone” steez here, but overemotes like a poor man’s Bruno Mars. “Fuckwithmeyoukowigotit” features Rick Ross, and is somehow even worse than that sounds; it goes without saying that Ross is outclassed by Jay, but the whole enterprise is stupefying and boring. “Crown”, about how Jay-Z is Jay-Z and you are not features a nice fast flow from Jay, but that molasses-slow beat sounds cheap. “Part II (On the Run)” features Jay’s famous wifey; alas, Lady B kinda phones it in, and the chemistry that so fueled up-tempo romps like “Crazy in Love” and “Deja Vu” doesn’t quite sizzle here.
And yet, the record is gill-stuffed with stellar beats. “Picasso Baby” is a goofy, funky classic, with a wonderfully rubbery bassline and chiming organs. The lovely “Oceans” is big and expansive, and features Frank Ocean showing Justin Timberlake just how a melodramatic hook is done. “F.U.T.W.” is a jazzy piece of throwback-rap, with plenty of swelling horns and dramatic pianos and fingers-to-the-world bluster. “BBC” isn’t getting a lot of critical love, but I’m quite fond of it; the martial beat and layered chants make it sound like the sort of thing that could’ve fit in on the latest Coup album, and there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it Nas verse in there just for shits. “Jay-Z Blue” finds Hov waxing rhapsodically about fatherhood, and holy balls is that a “Mommie Dearest” sample? Nice.
All told, there are a lot of interesting and fun sounds on Magna Carta Holy Grail; Jay’s flow always sounds nice, but he doesn’t squeeze off many quotables. It could be Jay-Z’s worst album, but I’m grading on quite the curve there; new Jay-Z is still better than no Jay-Z, and even if his work doesn’t measure up to his own high standards, it sounds nice through the speakers. There are worse ways to age than to keep a few heads nodding.
(For more Magna Carta Holy Grail, check out our very own John Hill’s fascinating piece on the album’s unorthodox release method, “The Magna Carta… Holy Grail Experience”.)