Which is probably why Jay-Z runs a record label while Kanye West gets to be an "artist", but I digress.
Although Magna Carta... Holy Grail is the first Jay-Z solo album since 2000's The Dynasty: Roc La Familia to not include any Kanye West production, 'Ye's influence is all over this project, from the way there appear to be a minimum of seventeen producers working on each track to how Hova himself sounds very much Watch The Throne-refreshed, although still boastful to a massive degree, which is understandable. The guest list is kept to a minimum: aside from Rick Ross, Justin Timberlake, Frank Ocean (possibly one of maybe two dudes who happened to work on both this album and Yeezus), an uncredited Nas, and Hova's wifey Beyonce Knowles, Jay handles things mostly by himself, with ad-libs coming courtesy of his producers (mostly Timbaland, who apparently recorded most of Magna Carta... Holy Grail in secret, just as he did Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience), but some from Pharrell Williams and Swizz Beatz, among others) and the guests that refused to leave the studio sessions (Timberlake and Beyonce appear on more than one occasion in this capacity).
At this point, Jay-Z has earned the cache where he can do whatever the fuck he wants, up to and including releasing an album with no singles promoting it, and he'll still make millions off of this shit. All we can hope is that it at least sounds decent enough to wash away the lingering awful memories of The Blueprint 3.
1. HOLY GRAIL (FEAT. JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE)
The first voice on Magna Carta... Holy Grail is not that of Jay-Z, but of guest star Justin Timberlake, no doubt paying our host back a favor for his cameo on "Suit & Tie". It takes a while to get started, and Timberlake's vocals throw the listener into thinking that "Holy Grail" is going to be some sort of love song, but once Hova starts (finally) rhyming, The-Dream and Timbaland's instrumental shifts to something infinitely catchier. The blatant swipe from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" notwithstanding (was that really even necessary?), this wasn't terrible, but it seems like Jay-Z barely factors into his own song. Also, on the original tracklisting, "Holy Grail" was marked as one of two bonus tracks (the other being the previously-released "Open Letter", which will now appear as a bonus track on vinyl versions of this album, but whatever), but now it's become the opening song on here? That makes me thing that the rest of the project won't sound very cohesive at all.
2. PICASSO BABY
So Jay-Z is rich, but he doesn't feel rich: in order to properly flaunt his wealth, he feels that owning an original Picasso is so necessary. Timbaland's beat is actually dope as fuck, which isn't surprising when you learn that it samples a decent chunk of "Sirens" from, of all people, Adrian Younge. Can you imagine how a Jay-Z project could sound if you let the mastermind behind Ghostface Killah's Twelve Reasons To Die run wild? Not that it would ever fucking happen, but still. Jay, unsurprisingly, talks his multimillionaire-type shit, and "Picasso Baby" manages to drop more names than you would if you happened to let a phone book slip out of your hands. Timbo changes the beat halfway through, and Hova adopts a more antagonistic stance, even bringing up how he didn't sleep with Foxy Brown way back in the day when they worked together more often, as though anybody gives a shit about Inga today. (I imagine someone will now interview Foxy about hearing (no pun intended; my understanding is that now her hearing is actually okay) her rap name dropped on a new Jay-Z song in 2013, if they haven't already done so by the time you read this sentence.) Both halves of this track are ultimately very enjoyable, thanks mostly to Tim Mosely.
3. TOM FORD
Obviously, given that title, "Tom Ford" is going to be a discussion about what Jay-Z is able to afford due to his massive wealth, up to and including what fashion designers he supports as a symbol of his financial status. Unlike most rappers, Hova can actually back up his boasts with actual bank statements (if he so chose), so his shit-talking is genuine. He uses the demented this-is-what-producer-Timbaland-thinks-Crystal-Castles-sounds-like-after-listening-to-about-a-quarter-of-one-song beat to also label himself as a grown-ass man who doesn't "pop molly", so this turns into a cross between The Black Album's "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and Kingdom Come's "30 Something", although he's obviously older now. Hearing an uncredited Beyonce pop up at the end to parrot her hubby's proclamations of her being a "bad bitch" was a bit weird: don't you two have a kid to take care of? But whatever. I didn't really like the beat all that much, but the song itself was pretty much what I expected otherwise.
4. FUCKWITHMEYOUKNOWIGOTIT (FEAT. RICK ROSS)
Weirdly, given the guest feature, this was the first song I actually listened to on Magna Carta... Holy Grail. Producer Boi-1da doesn't disappoint: his work behind the boards is flat-out great on here. I do wish that the song didn't focus solely on Officer Ricky for the first half, though: I had almost forgotten that this was supposed to be a Jay-Z song until he (finally) popped up to rip shit the fuck up. Ross sounds like he can barely comprehend the mere thought of keeping up with this beat, but it's worth sitting through his contribution just for our host's arrival: given Jay's early days speed-rapping alongside Big Jaz and Sauce Money (and that, folks, is how you bring Sauce Money's name into a Jay-Z album review in 2013), he fits over the instrumental like a goddamn glove. That beat will also sound awesome in your car, too, admit it.
5. OCEANS (FEAT. FRANK OCEAN)
Apparently this track was recorded more than two years ago, possibly around the time Watch The Throne was being put together. Crooner Frank Ocean, who also appeared on that Jay/'Ye project, is one of only a few connecting threads between Yeezus and Magna Carta... Holy Grail, but Hova gives him much more to do on “Oceans”, a Pharrell Williams production which may or may not have been named after him. The instrumental attempts to sound like a sweeping epic as large as an actual, well, body of water, but both Hova and Frankie Ocean sound kind of apathetic to the cause, with Jay-Z especially running on autopilot. I'll probably never find a reason to listen to “Oceans” ever again, so...
Timbo's instrumental is downright hypnotic when Jay is actually spitting his verses, working overtime to help our host's lines sound better than they actually are, although, to be fair, Jay-Z sounds really good on “F.U.T.W.” (which stands for either “fuck up this world” or “fuck up the world”, depending on which interpretation you accept). That beat is actually pretty fucking nice, which seems to be one of the running themes of Magna Carta... Holy Grail; Jay-Z is wealthy, and he can afford the best possible beats to deliver his message upon. Thankfully, he can still rhyme with the best of them, but the star of this track was, again, Timbo.
The ubiquitous Hit-Boy (alongside Mike Dean) produces “Somewhereinamerica”, unleashing a beat that is every bit as catchy as his previous work with Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, and A$AP Rocky. Although Jay gets in some good lines about his hustling past, the track itself comes across as a half-finished thought: why else would our host devote so much time to the image of Miley Cyrus twerking? Still, I found this decent enough, and its short length certainly helped in that regard. I fully expect someone else to swipe the beat for a mixtape freestyle in order to properly do it justice, though.
G.O.O.D. Music protege Travi$ Scott has yet to impress me with either his rapping or his production, but every day is another chance to turn it all around. Except for today. A late addition to the project, “Crown” pretty much sounds like the type of rap song that every goddamn artist records these days, aiming for radio airplay while still pretending that it's “edgy” enough to push boundaries when it sounds exactly the fucking same as everyone else's shit, and Jay-Z doesn't need to sound like anyone else: everyone else is still trying to sound like him, for fuck's sake. Since I don't give a shit about “Crown”, I'm sure at least one person will claim it as their favorite song in the comments below. Bleh.
That callback to R.E.M.'s “Losing My Religion” was cheesy as fuck: I was actually embarrassed for Hova at that point. However, I actually really liked “Heaven” otherwise: Jay-Z uses the Timbo beat (which also utilizes another Adrian Younge sample - what can I say, dude is hot right now) to discuss religion and the nature of free will, making sure to never outright dismiss religion because why would he want to alienate fans?, but while making it somewhat clear where he falls on the belief spectrum. Which makes this song all about the Illuminati, obviously. This was unexpected, but the nice kind of unexpected.
A one-verse wonder where Shawn unloads a half-thought (and an interesting shout-out to A Tribe Called Quest – I thought Q-Tip was allegedly supposed to have worked on this album, too?) over a Timbaland / Swizz Beatz contribution that gets utterly wasted, given how uninterested Hova sounds on here. Anyway...
11. PART II (ON THE RUN) (FEAT. BEYONCE)
Jay-Z used to frequently write sequels to his more popular songs (“Dead Presidents II”, “Who You Wit II”, “Friend Or For '98”, the recently-leaked “Dead Presidents 3”), but the track he decides to revisit when going back to that particular well is... "'03 Bonnie & Clyde"? The fuck? Why not just go with “I Still Know What Girls Like”? While it's cute to hear the married parents of Blue Ivy sing each other's praises and claim to ride for one another (like any couple should), I never actually gave a shit about “'03 Bonnie & Clyde”, as I found it too cheesy (and to be too much of a 2Pac rip-off), so you can imagine all of the fucks I give about this slickly-produced retread.
12. BEACH IS BETTER
Mike Will Made It made this, which should have been the highlight of his career at this point, landing a beat on a Jay-Z project, but “Beach Is Better” is another ill-advised one-verse wonder like “Versus”, one that also doesn't go anywhere because Hova isn't interested enough to allow that to happen. Weird.
13. BBC (FEAT. NAS (UNCREDITED))
Sounds like the missing link between Robin Thicke's potentially sexist, rapist-friendly “Blurred Lines” (depending on who you ask) and The Roots' “In Love With The Mic”, and is just as contagious as both of those aforementioned tracks. Hell, guest star Nas seems to be enjoying himself for the first time since...well, I'm sure Kelis made him happy for a little while, anyway. Jay has gone on record as stating that “BBC” (which is not about a channel in the UK that produces Doctor Who and Orphan Black) was the most fun song on Magna Carta... Holy Grail to record, and it shows. Pharrell's instrumental bounces along and practically smiles at the audience, while everyone involved has a good enough time, even the A-list names who contribute ad-libs and such (Timbo, Skateboard P, Swizz Beatz, Justin Timberlake, and Beyonce). I'm still not sure why Nas didn't receive a proper album credit for appearing on here, but I still dug this one.
14. JAY-Z BLUE
The song, which is not meant to be confused with Jay-Z's actual ode to his daughter, “Glory”, works in a sound bite from Mommie Dearest, an interesting choice for a rap song that could have easily veered into disturbing territory. Far more serious and darker than “Glory” ever could be: on here, Hova plays the role of a terrified father who wants so badly to be a good dad, but just can't bring himself to shed his selfish impulses. Kind of interesting, especially as it pretty much turns into Jay-Z's version of The Notorious B.I.G.'s “My Downfall” (Hova even reuses some of Biggie's vocals, in another callback, albeit an annoying one, to his own past work), but the execution falters a bit, as the audience is left questioning just how one is supposed to feel about Shawn after this trip through his mindstate. Kudos for going dark, though: 'Ye does it all the goddamn time, but Jay tends to stick to the rivers and lakes that he's used to.
15. LA FAMILIA
In a past life, this song probably would have featured cameos from Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel, and maybe even Rell, and Amil might have rapped a bit on the hook or some shit, depending on if she got off from her shift at Target in time. However, Jay-Z drops friends and coworkers almost as often as he picks up athlete's contracts for sports management purposes (unless said friends happens to be successful in his own right, which is probably why he's still cool with Kanye at this point), so Hova uses “La Familia” in a more general sense when talking about his generic “friends” and “family”, which is weird, as he may as well be rapping about the photos of his money that he keeps on his phone (which, let's be honest, is probably not a Samsung). This was boring as shit, and kind of useless, since he basically already wrote about this same subject for his verse on Big Sean's “Clique”. Speaking of Bleek, to paraphrase a tweet Hannibal Buress sent out during Hova's Twitter Q&A, do you two think that Hova still runs with Memphis Bleek and still financially supports him, or do you think that ship has sailed? Discuss.
16. NICKELS & DIMES
Kyambo Joshua's instrumental, which samples Gonjasufi's "Nikels and Dimes", is actually pretty fucking interesting, and Jay uses it to his advantage, running through some different variations on what the title could stand for, turning in a serious track about doing whatever it takes to take care of his family and friends. For Jay, this is as easy as whipping out his checkbook, but he still manages to make it sound engaging enough. He also manages to drop a quick reference to Lady Gaga, which was the only bit of levity provided. A pretty good way to end things.
THE LAST WORD: Yes, Shawn is beyond rich at this point, and yes, his rhymes should run the risk of completely alienating the audience he's attempting to court, because his life experiences in no way reflect those of the average listener. However, the reason why Jay-Z is still around today is because the audience has been able to track his progress since Reasonable Doubt: Shawn Corey Carter is the living embodiment of the American dream, and the hip hop heads who have followed his career through its various incarnations have witnessed his ascension firsthand, which gives them an added bit of emotional investment in his success. We feel that, if it happened to Jay, it can truly happen to anyone. This is how he can get away with pulling stunts such as announcing an album out of the blue and dropping it less than one month later without any singles promoting it. As for the actual album itself, after sitting with this one for a few days, I feel that Magna Carta... Holy Grail will actually have more staying power than Jay-Z's last solo album, The Blueprint 3. It's the anti-Yeezus, in that Jay eschews any attempt at deviation in favor of creating a more traditional rap album, but he does so with style. The beats, mostly provided and/or honed by Timbaland, hit harder and take more risks than we're used to hearing on a Jay-Z project, and Hov's conversational flow remains as slick as it ever had been. Obviously, not every song works: there are some on here that I won't ever punish myself by sitting through again. But it's to our host's credit that there are more hits than misses. Not a perfect album by any means, and it could have benefited from some actual experimentation and one hundred percent less Rick Ross, but it was a hell of a lot more enjoyable than his last album, even if it comes nowhere close to the heights of his storied career. Let me know how you feel about it below.