‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ Music Review: Jay-Z Reigns Over Hip-Hop
Shawn Carter, otherwise known as Jay-Z, has come a long way from obscure crack cocaine dealer to securing a spot as hip-hop royalty, marrying the most important pop artist of the 21st Century (Beyoncé) and having a daughter (Blue Ivy). With his first solo album since 2009’s The Blueprint 3, Magna Carta Holy Grail—one of the most anticipated albums of this year—illustrates to listeners just how successful Hov has become, bringing new meaning to his famous saying, “I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man.”
After 17 years in the music business and the release of his 12th solo album, Jay-Z has reached an unprecedented level of fame, which expands beyond his music career and into numerous business endeavors including co-owning the 40/40 Club, serving as the co-brand director for Budweiser Selects, and being part owner of the Brooklyn Nets before selling his share to launch his own sports agency Roc Nation Sports. With an impressive resume that never ceases to stop, Jay-Z has earned himself the title of one of the most—if not the most—successful hip-hop artists and entrepreneurs in America.
The reason that Jay-Z’s business ventures, net worth and impeccable networking skills are so important is that he repeatedly throws his unfathomable fortune and fame in our faces with every verse on Magna Carta Holy Grail. Clearly having mixed feelings about his relationship with fame, Jay goes back and forth between boasting about his famous family, showcasing his envious art collection and rounding out his feelings by being annoyed by his fame…all to perk up at the realization that he’s unbelievably wealthy and we all should be jealous. On “Tom Ford,” for example, Jay-Z raps about how he has the best flow and that he doesn’t pop a certain popular drug of today’s college scene, and instead rocks the stylish Tom Ford. “Spent All My Euros On Tux’s And Weird Clothes/ I Partied With Windows/ Yeah Hov/ Yeah Hov.” Probably one of his most familiar tracks on the record in terms of his rapping style and flow over the infectious Timbaland beat, “Tom Ford”–though catchy and sure to be a radio hit—lacks depth and refuses to introduce enticing word play as Jay-Z repeats "Tom Ford" over and over again as if it’s going to turn into an essential hook.
Jay-Z brings out the best in the business with his collaborations on this album. Justin Timberlake lends his soulful voice to the single “Holy Grail,” which shows the duo sampling Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and is definitely my favorite song on the album. The song chronicles Jay-Z’s issues with fame and how it destroys people in the industry—namely MC Hammer and Mike Tyson. “Caught Up In All These Lights And Cameras/ Look what that s— did to Hammer/God— I like it/ Bright lights is enticing/ But look what it did to Tyson.”
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The album is produced collectively by Timbaland, Pharrell, and Swizz Beatz, as seen in the TV ad, which shows the famous artists in the studio trying to piece together an album that portrays the struggle of trying to navigate through the spotlight while remaining true to yourself. I would argue the album celebrates and brags about fame more than giving insight on the struggle through it, but it seems that having such an affliction is what makes this album a must-hear. Take “Picasso Baby,” for instance, a track that celebrates the perks of superstardom from which Jay-Z has accumulated an admirable collection of artwork. “It ain’t hard to tell/ I’m the new Jean-Michel/Surrounded by Warhol’s/ My whole team ball/ Twin Bugatti’s outside the Art Basel/ I just wanna live life colossal.”
Beyoncé is noticeably singing and talking in the background of a number of songs on the album in addition to her one credited feature on “Part II (On The Run),” a slow track where Jay-Z really shows his vulnerability. “Who wants that perfect love story anyway/ Anyway/ Cliché/ Cliché/ Cliché/ Cliché.” This record emphasizes both the couple’s musical compatibility and how enamored Jay-Z is of his wife’s talent as she virtually takes over the track on his own album.
The 17-track album is also graced by the likes of Teflon Don himself (Rick Ross) on “F*ckwithmeyouknowigotit” and Frank Ocean on “Oceans,” which is one of the best on the album, mostly due to Ocean’s poetic lyrics that seemingly resemble “Pyramids” from Channel Orange.
All in all, this album doesn’t feature big hit songs such as “Empire State of Mind” or “Otis,” but despite his luxurious repetitive name-drops, Jay-Z has evolved right before our eyes, and Magna Carta Holy Grail makes this as known as ever. Now a husband and father, Jay-Z can be found mentioning his wife and his daughter at least once on every song, who prove to be his inspiration behind “Jay Z Blue” in which he talks about his personal issues with his father.
Jay-Z is not as angered as his protégée Kanye West is on Yeezus or as story-driven as Drake, J. Cole or Ocean, but rather something completely different. Jay-Z has been in the industry longer than the four mentioned above combined, so it makes sense that his sound is more “been there done that, got the t-shirt”, but it lacks the spark that made him the king of hip-hop in the first place. Whether that’s a good or bad thing I don’t know, but I do know that with this album Jay-Z will gain a bigger following and loads of others who were toddlers when he first started his career. It’s been a long road from the Marcy Projects and a “Hard-Knock Life” to owning Picassos and Bugattis, and it’s evident in his music. Where his fellow hip-hop artist are rapping still as “have-nots,” Jay-Z is rapping from the “haves” corner and although a bit vain, it’s good music that will cause all of us listeners to daydream of making love to the world’s most beautiful women, driving exclusive luxury cars and having unlimited amounts of money at our disposal.
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