Thursday, July 11, 2013

Jay-Z – Magna Carta… Holy Grail (2013) – Review

Review: Magna Carta… Holy Grail is Jay-Z’s twelfth solo release and his first album since 2011’s collaboration with Kanye West Watch the Throne.

There is a lot to like about the record. Musically, it is lush and interesting – filled with first-class beats from the industry’s top producers (Timbaland and his partner Jroc handle most of the production on the album, but Pharrell, Mike Dean, Swizz Beatz, Mike Will Made It, Travi$ Scott, Hit-Boy, and Boi-1da among others also contribute). Lyrically, Shawn Carter seems somewhat engaged and still has a gifted flow. He mostly focuses on his wealth and the things it affords him (thus disconnecting him from most of his fans), but there are some more reflective moments as well (like the best track on the album Nickels and Dimes or Jay-Z Blue). Also, there are not a ton of features overpowering the album. Rick Ross is the only rapper to be given a proper guest verse, and the other featured artists all bring something to the record. All in all, it is very much a typical Jay-Z album. Not his best work, but a solid outing.

Magna Carta Holy Grail is also significant due to its unusual release. Jay-Z made an exclusive deal with Samsung who bought one million copies to give to their customers for free seventy-two hours before the album’s official release to the public. And, like West’s Yeezus, Carter did not really engage in the typical music industry marketing plan for the release. There were not any prerelease singles (though Holy Grail did sort of serve one) and there was not much build up other than one Samsung commercial and internet buzz. But, in today’s world when you are as big as West or Carter that is all you really need.

However, getting back to the music, upon further inspection Magna Carta Holy Grail is also kind of disappointing. West, hit or miss, is constantly trying to change and progress music (and specifically hip hop). He is not afraid to create raw music and bare his soul. Meanwhile, Jay-Z has basically just turned in a lazy dose of sameness. Plus, Jay-Z has ascended to such a place personally that what is important to him and what he talks about primarily on the album is superficial and meaningless to most of his audience. Essentially this is yuppie music. It is no longer hip hop for the streets (and probably has not been for a long time now), which is fine – it is just that it seems to now lack heart, ambition, and urgency.

The songs themselves also feel lacking. Personally, I like seven of the tracks. But of those, I still find issues: Holy Grail is basically great thanks in most part to Justin Timberlake (and he also adds a lot to Heaven); Tom Ford succeeds thanks to Timbaland’s fantastic beat; Crown sounds like a track left off Yeezus but is nowhere near as engaging; Beach is Better is great but its playtime is not even a minute, and thus feels incomplete and frustrating – for example. Then there are tracks like La Familia which add nothing other than to give the album as overlong bloated feel.

Overall, I like Magna Carta Holy Grail, but it just sort of feels like Jay-Z phoned it in when other artists are still trying to make amazing music (for better or worse), which leaves me let down. 3/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Nickels and Dimes – Produced by Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua
2)      Holy Grail – Produced by The Dream, Timbaland and Jroc, featuring Justin Timberlake
3)      Crown – Produced by Travi$ Scott and Mike Dean

Available on: Digital Download

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