To understand the shopworn ostentatiousness of Jay-Z’s 12th studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, and the divergent paths of the two biggest rappers around, Mr. Carter and Mr. West, one must go back about a decade ago to the moment where the former cemented his status as the P.T. Barnum of hip-hop.
It was November 2003. On the heels of the release of his alleged eighth and final album, The Black Album, Jay-Z held what he called a “retirement party” at Madison Square Garden. The mega-concert—with all proceeds going to charity—featured a bevy of A-list cameos, including (then-rumored) girlfriend Beyoncé Knowles, Mary J. Blige, Common, Ghostface Killah, R. Kelly, and even Violetta Wallace and Afeni Shakur, the mothers of the late Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. The Roots served as his backing band. Jay-Z’s big goodbye was captured in a documentary, Fade to Black, which was released the following year.
The film intercut scenes of The Black Album’s recording with footage from the MSG show. There’s Jay-Z working with Rick Rubin on the track “99 Problems,” with the legendary producer marveling at Hov’s preternatural gift of gab—listening to beats, crafting verses in his head, and laying them down from memory. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” utters Rubin to Beastie Boy Mike D. “He doesn’t write anything down.” Later on, Hov is in the studio with an up-and-coming producer by the name of Kanye West, who is sporting a ridiculous tangerine Polo shirt and bright orange baseball cap, tilted ever-so-slightly to the side (“Kill self,” West would probably say now of the ensemble). “One of the joys for me in the music business is watching a new artist develop into their own,” Jay-Z says of West. “Right now, this ni--a, he’s just deliverin’, and the passion he’s got towards music, I don’t’ think it’s gonna stop.”
Of course, Jay-Z’s “retirement” was pure calculation—an attempt to ape Michael Jordan, hanging up his mic at the top of his game only to return and win three more championships. “It was the worst retirement in history,” Jay-Z later told Entertainment Weekly. After collaboration albums with R. Kelly and Linkin Park, he was back in the studio three years later working on his ninth solo album, Kingdom Come. Thanks to his retired/unretired shtick, it opened at No. 1, selling 680,000 copies its first week—the most ever for Jay-Z. But the album was an uninspired mess. It sounded complacent (see: “Beach Chair”). And it eventually lost the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album to Kanye West’s third studio LP, Graduation. It was a changing of the guard.
Unlike Jordan, Jay-Z didn’t return and win three more championships. In fact, with the notable exceptions of Watch the Throne, his 2011 collaboration with West, and the concept LP American Gangster, Jay-Z hasn’t released a decent album since The Black Album. And the much-hyped Magna Carta Holy Grail marks three out of four lackluster solo efforts (see: Kingdom Come, The Blueprint 3) since that fateful “retirement party.”
Magna Carta Holy Grail comes with it’s own marketing ploy. Jay-Z partnered with Samsung mobile, with the latter agreeing to purchase 1 million copies of the album at $5 apiece prior to its release to give to Samsung Galaxy users via a free app on July 4, three days before the album’s official release date. This led the Record Industry Association of America to change their certification stance, counting digital album sales immediately instead of waiting 30 days after an album’s release, ensuring that Magna Carta will be platinum before it even hits shelves. If being a digital standard bearer wasn’t enough, Jay-Z also unveiled the album’s cover at England’s Salisbury Cathedral, next to an original copy of the Magna Carta.
The album opens with “Holy Grail,” a song that yo-yo’s between the impressive, R&B crooning of Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z rapping about, you guessed it, the trappings of fame—using M.C. Hammer and Mike Tyson as case studies. Midway through the tune, Jay-Z and Timberlake chant in unison: “And we all just entertainers / And we’re stupid, and contagious”—a bizarre spin on the anti-corporate Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from arguably the two most corporate performers around.
“Picasso Baby’s” grinding beat is reminiscent of old school, “In My Lifetime”–era Jay-Z, but the lyrics are flat-out absurd: “It ain’t hard to tell / I’m the new Jean Michel / Surrounded by Warhols / My whole team ball / Twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel / I just wanna live colossal.” It’s empty bragging, and there’s more of it on the next track, “Tom Ford,” which sees Jay-Z rapping about “Concorde’s” and “Tom Ford” men’s wear over a lame, Nintendo-y beat that sounds like a Crystal Castles demo. Plus, more nonsensical rhymes, this time about tech: “Fuck hashtags and retweets, ni--a / 140 characters in these streets, ni--a.”
There are some very strange parallels drawn between slave ships and yachting like “Ocean’s 11” on the track “Oceans,” which features R&B singer Frank Ocean crooning “I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo / Before the Basquiat show and if so / Well fuck it, fuck it”; “Crown” sees Hov moaning about his new sports agency, rapping, “Scott Boras, you over baby / Robinson Cano, you coming with me.” And the absolute worst song on the album is “Somewhereinamerica.” Yes, the trombone loop is splendid, but then Jay-Z opens his mouth, rapping about his millions, before saying, “They see I’m still putting work in / Cause somewhere in America / Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’.” Huh? And if you think that’s bad, peep the chorus: “Twerk, twerk, twerk, twerk / Twerk, Miley, Miley, twerk.” I guess Jay-Z really likes that Miley Cyrus unicorn video? Either way, this ain’t hip-hop.
Magna Carta isn’t all stinkers. “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” contains a fun vocal interplay between Jay-Z and Rick Ross reminiscent of the Reasonable Doubt days. “BBC” is an absolute party, featuring a rowdy guest spot by onetime rival Nas, and “F.U.T.W.” sees Jay-Z’s best writing on display, including the killer verse: “America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes / Wait, tell them rumble young man rumble / Try to dim your lights tell you be humble.”
But the song “Jay-Z Blue,” about being a father to daughter Blue Ivy, is a prime example of everything that’s wrong with the album. What should have been a poignant tune about the rapper trying to be a better dad than his own father, rapping, “Father never taught me how to be a father / Treated mother I don’t wanna have to just repeat another leave another,” devolves into an overproduced smorgasbord filled with nursery-rhyme jingles and samples from the horror film Mommie Dearest. In fact, the bulk of Magna Carta, which was mainly produced by Timbaland, feels overproduced. Timbaland’s beats—and they are very catchy beats—have been so strident and transformable that they’ve overwhelmed Jay-Z’s lyricism in the past, as on Obama fav “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” off The Black Album. Here, the 43-year-old rapper really struggles to keep up.
Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between Magna Carta Holy Grail and Kanye West’s Yeezus, released just a few weeks prior. There are, after all, a few would-be references to West’s LP on here, including Jay-Z calling himself a “god” several times on the track “Crown” (see: Kanye West’s “I Am a God”), and a lyrical nod to the Nina Simone tune “Strange Fruit” on “Oceans,” which West sampled for the Yeezus track “Blood on the Leaves.” But the two albums couldn’t be bigger foils. Whereas Magna Carta sounds like a collection of tired jet-set raps over random beats strung together, Yeezus sounds like a unified whole—a minimalist treasure dripping with anti-corporate vitriol. That Yeezus came together thanks to the eleventh-hour intervention of Rick Rubin is ironic, to say the least.