‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ (Roc Nation / Universal)
“I’m not a businessman – I’m a business, man,” a famous Jay-Z line once aptly proclaimed. Apt, because the Jay-Z brand really is a separate entity to Shawn Carter the man; one that buys into newly created NBA franchises, co-founds clothing lines, peers out from Time magazine covers and endorses vodka. And yet the two are inextricably linked, demonstrated once again as Jay-Z joins forces with Samsung, collaborating with the communications giant on the release of an album that draws heavily on the experiences of a now 43-year-old Shawn Carter.
But for many, ‘Magna Carta… Holy Grail’ grated before a single note had been heard. Rumours of Nirvana and REM lyric interpolations caused much wincing, while a YouTube ad offensive was launched showing Jay discussing the tracks in a studio, the Samsung logo a heavy presence. The company’s involvement turned out to be an offer of early access to the release for the first million users to download their app, alienating those put off by such flagrant brand associations. “A million sold before the album dropped,” Jay proclaims on album track ‘Somewhereinamerica’, referencing the fact that, due to the unique nature of its sales and distribution method, the album would go platinum the second of its release.
Contemporary as it may be, the strategy had an air of experimental-yet-carefully-manicured PR about it, and ‘Magna Carta… Holy Grail’ itself could probably have benefitted from less of a talking up. Once Justin Timberlake’s Maroon 5 cast-off impression on ‘Holy Grail’ is over, the album makes for fairly decent listening; one complete with strong production and Jay putting in a shift that many other late-career rappers would do well to take note of.
Timbaland is on hand to contribute some of his best beats in years, producing one of the album’s highlights in ‘F.U.T.W’, while the influence of wife and daughter on newfound family man Carter are clear, both in allusion (‘Jay-Z Blue’) and physical presence (Beyoncé’s appearance on the throwaway ‘Part II (On the Run)’) .
‘Crown’ and ‘Beach Is Better’ echo ‘Yeezus’ in their dark menace, while the up-tempo workout of ‘BBC’ resembles an “all in together” posse cut, with former adversary Nas among those to take a verse in a rowdy crowd of features. The album’s guest spots are hardly inconspicuous, but nor are they particularly surprising – Rick Ross’s lethargic turn on ‘Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit’ finds the larger-than-life rapper in a restrained mood, while Frank Ocean returns for his customary show-stealing appearance on ‘Oceans’.
One of Jay’s greatest strengths has always been his ability to assert himself as a commanding figure in the rap world, while simultaneously crediting its past and present as contributors to his success. ‘Versus (Interlude)’ throws in a Tribe Called Quest hook, while both ‘Picasso Baby’ and ‘Heaven’ steal wholesale in their production from contemporary omnipresent beat maker Adrian Younge. ‘Nickels And Dimes’ doesn’t even go as far as changing the title of the Gonjasufi track it redrafts, although the addition of some of Jay’s best verses on the album elevate the original to new heights.
‘Magna Carta… Holy Grail’ is a solid example of a decent modern rap album and nothing more. It has none of the Marmite-like, brash and ballsy swagger of ‘Yeezus’; none of the hungry inventiveness of up-and-comers like Chance The Rapper. What it does do, however, is allow its creator to ruminate on his standing in the hip-hop world, as well as his responsibilities as both a cultural figurehead and a family man. While some of the observations may fall short of being entirely original, and many more of them fail to avoid clichéd platitudes, there is merit to be found throughout – usually in the album’s less serious corners.