When Jay Z opened his headlining set at Glastonbury in 2007 – guitar and American flag in tow – with a cheeky cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” it made for an instantly memorable Hip-Hop moment. It was enough to put a relatively significant accomplishment (Jay Z was the first rap artist to receive top billing at the festival) over the top, and offered a clever “f*ck you” to detractors like Noel Gallagher. Magna Carta…Holy Grail is its own kind of breaking down the door moment, and not just in its much ballyhooed and think-pieced marketing campaign. On his twelfth solo album, Jay Z is attempting to re-imagine his success in a context much wider than Hip-Hop. Read closely, it’s meant as the ultimate hyper-capitalist tale of inspiration. The difference from that Glastonbury triumph lies in the details – the varying degrees of vision, execution, and timeliness.
There is enough on the album to half-convince you not to simply write off Jay Z as a badly-aging superstar. He remains a deft boaster when inspiration strikes, kicking Mafioso-inspired rhymes alongside Rick Ross on the pulsating “F*ckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” and bragging (truthfully) about his penchant for turning “arenas into churches” on “Heaven.” When he busts out a turn-of-the-millennium-era flow on the goofy but still kind-of-fun posse cut “BBC,” it sounds for a minute like he’s hardly lost a step.
But Magna Carta… has a way of harshly yanking you out of these moments, whether it’s with awkward old man references to hashtags and retweets, poorly telegraphed wordplay (Little Monsters/Gaga, Kubrick/Eyes Wide Shut), or full-on missteps like the glitchy, NES-styled “Tom Ford” or the flabby-and-sick war call “La Familia.” When he tries to get deep on “Heaven,” Jay Z begins to veer into the pseudo-philosophical (“Question religion / Question it all / Question existence / Until them questions are solved”). He remains more savvy with style than content: on the very same track, he fares far better playing with the sound of his rhymes (“Meanwhile this heretic / I be out in Marrakesh / Morocco smoking hashish / With my fellowship”) and experimenting with cadence and inflection.
It stands to reason that Jay Z would fight to keep “Oceans” for himself. It’s a heart-and-soul anchor of a track, a shrewd bit of anti-history set to a tense, cinematic backdrop and featuring a picturesque, deeply felt chorus from Frank Ocean. It’s packed with clever cultural allusions and imagery; at its core it’s a tale of “crash[ing] through glass ceilings” and “break[ing] through closed doors.” It plays like Jay Z’s profound “sit back and reflect” moment – considering his ascension not just in musical terms but in historical ones. Over the course of the album, Jay Z invokes Ali, Malcolm, and Martin Luther King as he tries to carve his spot within the pantheon of Black excellence. But he’s arguably always been more Michael than Mohammad, and though he continues to grapple with his own rarefied air, it remains a skeleton with which to riff rather than something he’s prepared to follow to its fully fleshed-out end.
If the body of the album is somewhat compromised, the shiny exterior that is the production is nothing to scoff at. Timbaland – in his first real extended work with Jay Z – makes off particularly well, at the helm for the swaggering “Picasso Baby” and the introspective rattlesnake Western “Jay Z Blue.” Slightly indulgent in its running time, the album makes up for it somewhat through its musical scope. From the piano-dripping opulence of “Somewhere in America” to the menacing synth march of “Crown” and the death knell soul of “Heaven,” Magna Carta… isn’t lacking for event caliber musicality.
On the perfect-for-dramatic-montage opener “Holy Grail,” Jay Z references another iconic ’90s song – interpolating a few lines from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This time, there’s no knowing wink, no sly smile. It’s a clunker of a moment on a song about #onepercenterproblems. Such is the thin line between a good idea and a poor one. A dozen albums in, and even for Jay Z, it’s never quite a given that he’ll always be able to distinguish between the two.
Label Roc-A-Fella, Roc Nation, Universal | Producers: Jay Z (exec.), Boi-1da, Darhyl “Hey DJ” Camper, Hit-Boy, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua, Marz, Mike Dean, Mike Will Made It, No ID, Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz, The-Dream, Timbaland, Travis Scott, Vinylz, WondaGurl