Magna Carta Holy Grail is the twelfth studio album by American rapper Jay-Z. It was made available for free digital download for Samsung customers by the Jay-Z Magna Carta app on July 4, 2013, and released for retail sale on July 8, 2013. I’ve been meaning to do this review ever since the album came out. I’ve been spurring my first impression of the album here and there on social media but a proper review would do the album more justice.
So let’s get to it! The album features 16 songs. Accompanied by a major league consisting of Pharrell Williams, Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, Frank Ocean, Nas, Swizz Beatz, Beyonce and Rick Ross, Jay-Z presents us an album, much like its predecessor “Watch The Throne”, about revolution, race and class. But did Magna Carta Holy Grail deliver?
Holy Grail (ft. Justin Timberlake)
Magna Carta Holy Grail opens with “Holy Grail”, a smooth and mellow intro to Jay’s highly anticipated magnum opus album. Jay brings up the price of fame. ”But look what that shit did to Hammer” / “Goddammit I like it” / “Bright lights is enticing but look what it did to Tyson“. There is a downside to fame, but it is addictive and he wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. “You’d take the clothes off my back and I’d let you” / “ You’d steal the food right out my mouth and I’d watch you eat it” / “I still don’t know why, why I love you so much“. The lyrics are loosely based on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It’s a song that rocks and one that lingers in your head all day. Justin Timberlake’s vocals take you away, as well as Timbaland’s familiar beats and instrumentals. It’s an opening track that fits the grandness of the album as Jay hails it to be. The song definitely sets the tone for the rest of the album. But I can’t help hearing the sexual innuendo in “Sippin from your cup ’til it runneth over“, which almost makes me think this line was meant for a different song but was only put into this song as it fits the theme.
Picasso Baby (ft. Timbaland)
From “Holy Grail” we slip into the heavy bass of “Picasso Baby”. The metallic synth brings out a dark side of Jay. The song juxtaposes poverty (“In a dirty hotel with the fan on the ceiling” / “All for the love of drug dealing” / “Marble floors, gold ceilings“) with glamour and fame (“It ain’t hard to tell, I’m the new Jean Michel / Surrounded by Warhols, my whole team ball“). Jay drops high-art names of Picasso, Rothko, Koons and Da Vinci, not only because he wants or owns them. But because he too wants to have the immortalized status of the great masters. “Oh, what a feeling – Picasso baby” / “What’s it gonna take … for y’all to see/ I’m the modern day Pablo Picasso, baby?“. On “Watch the Throne” Jay already touched on the subject of the often-told American dream tale to bigger dreams, linking gaudy materialism of “luxury rap” to broader issues of class and race. If anything, Picasso Baby repeats that theme of a jet-set lifestyle but here Jay tries to ‘up the ante’ with his new-found obsession for art (I don’t recall him rapping about it on his past albums).
As part of an art project inspired by the work of performance artist Marina Abramović and in particular by her 2010 installation “The Artist Is Present”, “Picasso Baby” was shot at the Pace Gallery in New York City on July 10, 2013. The shoot was attended by director Judd Apatow, rapper Wale and actors Alan Cumming and Taraji P. Henson among others. I wish I could have been there. The energy there must have been off the hook.
From two catchy songs that fit Jay’s repertoire, comes a song with bottle blows, Nintendo themes and machine gun sprays. The song is about Hov’s grandness. “I don’t pop molly, I rock Tom Ford” / “International bring back the Concorde” / “Numbers don’t lie, check the scoreboard“. It reminds me of MIA’s “Bad Girls” but in a bad way. There is something lacking in this song. A beat, a melody in the hook, lyrical magnificence perhaps. The lyrics are bland and have no purpose other than filling the silence. Because the song is empty as hell. With all the tech sounds, I would have expected something more like “Ayo Technology”. And for Timbaland, a producer who has always strived to raise the bar for other producers and who has succeeded in it many times, this is quite a failure.
And we’re back again with a rather enjoyable song. The song is supposedly based on a Pimp C speech. The song has a catchy intro beat. Rick Ross delivers by adding a relaxed sound to the track. After a two-and-a-half-minute intro, Jay enters. We hear prowling basses, sirens (definitely the best addition on this track) and stuttering beats. It’s a simple song without many words, but it works. The song remains a vague menace but it’s badass.
From FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt we step into the world of Frank Ocean. This is another great song of the album, possibly the best, which just demonstrates the extreme ups and lows this album has. There’s no other way to put this: this is Frank Ocean’s song. The song draws a full circle between slavery boats and luxury yachts “Elephant tusk on the boar of a sailing lady, docked on the Ivory Coast“. With powerful lyrics like “I hope my black skin don’t dirt this tuxedo” and “Because this water drown my family, this water mixed my blood” / “This water tells my story, this water knows it all“, Frank swishes forth like a red carpet rolling out on this song. Jay also delivers lyrically “Can’t believe they got a nigga to vote” / “Democrat? Nope, I sold dope” / “In trouble waters I had to learn how to float“, but it is Frank who carries this song with his low-key singing voice set against a passionate falsetto in the last hook. Of all the songs on the album, this song is the sonic highlight.
And we’re back on a low again. Timbaland shows his rippling xylophone presets again, nothing we haven’t heard before. Jay tries to show (off) his wealth for the umpteenth time on the album (“Just let me be great, let me be great” / “I feel like mothafuckin’ Cassius Clay right now, Genius!“) and it’s getting repetitive. This track isn’t bad but it leaves you little impressed.
I can’t repeat this enough but the album has a lot of highs and lows. This is a high. The track has a great upbeat sound that quickly diminishes the blandness of the previous song. Great piano chords that take you back to a jazz joint in the 20s. Lyrically-wise, it’s good. “New money, they looking down on me” / “Blue bloods they trying to clown on me” / “You can turn up your nose high society” / “Never gone turn down the homie” until reference is being made to Miley Cyrus (“Twerk, Miley, twerk!”). One can only assume that this is merely a proud statement that rap has become so mainstream that even Disney girls do hip hop. Was it necessary? No. A reference to Miley is an acknowledgement of the existence of Miley. Which should not be on any hip hop album, the least on Jay’s magnum opus. Other than that, I love this song.
It’s as if Jay likes to switch his best songs with his worst songs. This is another track presenting Hov’s greatness. “You in the presence of a king” / “Scratch that, you in the presence of a God“. It could have worked as an interlude, but serves no purpose as a track that drags on for 4:34 minutes.
This is a deep and introspective song about religion. Jay fights back illuminati allegations in this song and questions everything without coming with a discernible conclusion. “Question religion, question it all / Question existence until them questions are solved.” Reference is made to R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”. While many find this a depressing song, I think this track is great. Most of that is contributed by the hauntingly beautiful sample “Reverie” of Adrian Younge and Delfonics, which provides the base for the song. Do I care about Jay’s two cents on religion? No. To me, this is a song about life and how you should question everything in it. The world Jay portrays is grim, as it sometimes is. The song is philosophical, it’s about finding answers and on that point alone, it delivers.
Just bland. With “Hey sucka ni–a, where ever you are”, Jay dismisses any rapper who thinks he’s on his level. “Your last shit ain’t better than my first shit“. Both lyrically and musically, this track did not need to be on this album.
Part II (On the Run) (feat. Beyonce)
Any collaboration between “Hov” and “Queen B” will sell, whether it’s good or bad. While their first collaboration was an upbeat song that featured vocals of his now-wife, then only rumored-love-interest, Beyonce mainly on the background, this song puts Beyonce’s lush voice in the center of the song. We don’t often hear Beyonce employ this hush sound. The song features no belting, instead we hear the superstar sing in her lower registers, allowing Jay to still take the center of the stage in his minimal presence on the track. The lyrics suggest a continuation of “Bonnie & Clyde” with “I hear sirens while we make love” / “Loud as hell, but they don’t know” and “They’re nowhere near us” / “I will hold your heart and your gun” / “I don’t care if they come“. All in all, it’s an R&B song that could have come straight from the 90s. It’s a subtle track that does not scream for attention. But this also makes it forgettable.
Beach Is Better
While “Crown” could have worked better as an interlude, this interlude should have been a full track! It has the right beat, sirens, elevated sound at 0:24. The song brings a lot of energy to the album. “I brought sand to the beach / Cause my beach is better / You can keep ya beach / Cause that beach whatever.” Everything is perfect, and then it’s snatched away from you. A missed chance.
Ah Pharrell. It’s a relief to hear a different sound on this album. You instantly hear Pharrell’s trademark handclaps and piano. This is probably one of the few songs on the album that sounds rather ‘new’. It’s a great upbeat song. With a track like this, it’s hard not to imagine a house party with all of Jay’s musician friends dancing around in the room, jamming along to Pharrell’s piano chords. While Pharrell’s fingers worked magic on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, it is somewhat subdued here due to Jay’s status. But it works nonetheless. The track gives the album a freshness. It’s casual and that makes it likable. But wait, is that Korean on the track?
JAY Z Blue
Naturally, there was bound to be a track about fatherhood on the album. The track shows a mature Jay and shows his journey through fatherhood. Jay drops brutal and honest lines on the track with “Father never taught me how to be a father” / “I seen my mom and pop drive each other mothafuckin’ crazy” / “And I got that nigga blood in me” / “I got his ego and his temper, all is missing is the drugs in me“. It’s about self-loathing and dealing with a midlife crisis. That said, there is something missing. The theme remains superficial and massively cliched where rapping about how fatherhood has changed him could have brought his rapping / his ‘game’ to a whole other level.
Did not like this. There was barely a beat. Like “Crown”, this would have worked better as an interlude.
Nickles and Dimes
Finally, we come to the conclusion of the album. The intro almost sounds like Nelly Furtado’s intro in “All Good Things Come To An End”. We then shift into a drifting mode. The song references Stanley Kubrick in “Pardon my hubris, Stanley Kubrick” / “With eyes wide shut, I could cook up two bricks“. But through the journey of “Picasso Baby”, “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt”, “Oceans” and “SomewhereInAmerica”, we come back to the subject of his first song “Holy Grail” again, which is his love and addiction for fame. “Success is so sublime” / “Gotta do that time to time so I don’t lose my mind” / “Something ’bout the struggle so divine” / “This sort of love is hard to define“.
As Jay’s highly-anticipated magnum opus, this was supposed to be a revolutionary album. So did he deliver? Not in my opinion. Fans even dub the album Magna Carta Holy Fail, which it does on a good half of the album. Overall, the album sounds alright. There are some good tracks on here, there’s no denying that. But the album was an unstable blend of highs (“Picasso Baby”, “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt”, “Oceans” and “SomewhereInAmerica”, “Heaven”, “BBC” and “Nickles and Dimes”) and lows (the rest). Another inconsistency is found in the lyrics. Jay’s lyrics vary between great and clever to redundant and forgettable. Part of that is maybe caused by the lack of vision of the rapper on this album. We know he has come from far. From a Tony Montana-like life to a well-established artist running a business, an emporium. While on previous albums Jay has shown his soulful versatility, on Magna Carta Holy Grail he merely reflects on a massively cliched life. It’s repetitive and unnecessary for a rapper of his stature. For a man who has witnessed both the drug underworld as the business world, he could have come with an album exceeding all expectations. Because if not he, who else is there to redefine hip hop?