Once again, Jay-Z sets a new bar (not lyrically, but maybe sonically or financially: platinum before the album dropped, never done before) with his latest offering Magna Carta Holy Grail. Don’t believe me, pay attention to the black bar through his name and on the artistically statuesque cover, no coincidence. Additionally, the title of the album proclaims a new set of rules will be established, a la Magna Carta, while people search for their Holy grail (cue Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code).
But before I review the album, here’s the real issue with this new collection of songs: It’s not his old material. Jay-Z stans want to hear the kind of lyrical hunger and flow exhibited on past albums that made many crown him the Greatest of All Time. It’s not happening. Jay-Z seems past his prime and not interested in delivering an ode to past albums a la Nas’ Life is Good. In fact, Jay-Z already told the public what to do: “…want my old shit, buy my old albums.” With that as my guiding principle, I listened to MCHG and had to actively fight against the urge to compare it immediately to his classics. While one will find beats that sonically cause tremors (read: head nods) at the start of nearly every track, Jay-Z sounds effortless, and in some songs such ease seems uninterested. He shows flashes of brilliance, like the last minute of “Picasso Baby,” in which he acknowledges with political vigor, “Don’t forget America, this how you made me.” However, those real gritty personal moments are sprinkled throughout lyrics that flaunt his high fashion, high art lifestyle, which he seemingly enjoys and detests at the same time.
Thus, it is no surprise that the standout tracks on the album find a more introspective Jay. On “Jay-Z Blue,” which is an actual trademarked color with platinum flakes, the audience hears the inner ponderings of a new father, wondering, with an air of determination, how he will be a better father than his absent dad, questioning how to make his marriage work better than his (and his spouse’s) divorced parents, wishing that he had a father figure that he could imitate when his situation undoubtedly becomes tough. Any new parent has similar questions, and quickly the connection forged easily makes this song potent.
Likewise, “Heaven” finds a witty Jay Z pose religiously based questions over a rugged RZA-esque beat, with a “Losing My Religion” sample. Here, the audience hears Jay laughingly play with the rumors of his involvement in the illuminati, “…dwell on the devil shit, I’m in a Diablo,” escalating to the potent line, “y’all religion create division like my Maybach partition.” Once again, it is in these moments that the audience gets as close to Jay as he will allow.
In “F.U.TW.,” Jay provides any crew of individuals with a motivational anthem, with the tagline, “don’t be good…be great.” He takes his “Started from the Bottom” moment and later dresses his bragging inspiration in opulence with the head knocking, party starting “BBC” and the fun “Picasso Baby,” in which he argues that he’s a modern day Picasso (quick question: his favorite Picasso period has to be Blue or nah?). He struggles with his relationship with fame on the Justin Timberlake stolen assisted track, “Holy Grail.” Like Kanye, he laments the issues that come with enormous success and references Hammer, Tyson, and Cobain in the opening lines to set his attitude toward his unwelcomed companion. He also acknowledges that there is “no sympathy for a king.” He further voices his frustration with his new money status on “Somewhereinamerica.” As he continually climbs the social ladder, he struggles to find acceptance from his new neighbors, who look down on him for various reasons. At the end of this short song, he acknowledges white girls, with their leader Miley Cryus, twerking as an example of the new rules in America. And then he laughs. Fitting!
“Tom Ford,” and a few others see Jay provide short verses or air filled lyrics, which feel like wasted time, almost like place holders, which detract from the overall feel of the album. “The only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace” is easily the dopest line on the album, but drowns in the Frank Ocean featured, “Oceans.” A sixteen year female producer, Wondagurl, provides the 808s driven Reggae tinged sample for “Crowns,” which finds Jay boosting, not surprisingly, about his new venture as a sports agent. Once again, Jay only gives a short changed two verses, which leaves the audience wanting more. Hey, maybe these are the new rules.
Overall, the album is solid. There are lines in there that show that Jay at any given time could “light up the scoreboard.” Likewise there are moments in there in which he resembles Jordan on the Wizards, same guy with a slower, yet explosive first step and a different hunger and purpose. Like good art, the album will definitely polarize the public, with leisurely fans and stans running to opposite sides of the love and hate dichotomy. This reviewer will instead chill near the middle, more on the love side because Jay Z will make more music because he didn’t attain the Holy Grail with this one.
-@charliexmango on IG