Magna Carta… Holy Grail began its life as a mere bill of goods, marketed and sold to us by the Don Draper of the rap game, Jay-Z. He of the icy corporate cool and hustler’s pedigree wrought by a former, and increasingly distant, life in the crack game. (Call those his “Dick Whitman years”.) The lead-up to Magna Carta’s release was accompanied by a spotless sales pitch: we were allowed a behind the scenes look at Jay surveying his own lyrical genius in front of a set of veritable hip hop control room legends — Timbaland, Pharrell, Swizz Beatz, even the god Rick Rubin — through a series of micro-documentary shorts available for the price of a few finger swipes on our Samsung Galaxy phones. Even though a million of us received the free, advanced “download” of Magna Carta last week on the 4th of July, the experience of receiving it privately and directly into the palm of my hand created a sensation of exclusivity.
Here we had the power of the hype machine superseding even the incorporeal abundance of artistic intention; the act of commerce seeking to replace its manifested good. Was this a Warholian subversion of consumerist pop culture, or just a cheap shill tactic? Jay found an ingenious way to go platinum before anyone had even heard the album and even managed to sneak a few self-referential lyrics in in the process: “A million sold before the album dropped… Might crash your internet/ And I ain’t even into that”. (It did, by the way.)
But this really means fuck-all for the majority of us who were just hoping for a decent listen. The early critical returns have not been favorable, though it’s hard to measure how much of that can be attributed to the immense whoosh of the marketing scheme stripping veneer from the album’s expensive paint job. When the biggest explosions are revealed in the previews, what is there left to stand in awe of?
Thankfully Magna Carta does contain a few well-placed set pieces. Most of its production money was spent on Timbaland whose name appears in the credits on all but five of the album’s 16 tracks. Much of Timothy’s contribution is boisterous, a continuity of form that started earlier this year with Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience. “Tom Ford” is a coterie of the producer’s best traits — futuristic snaps, double-time drums, snaking robotic synth — suspended in thin air inside the pristine confines of a virtual wind tunnel. “I don’t pop Molly I rock Tom Ford” states a casual Jay, inferring that his club days are in the past tense, his preferred pastime now an agreeable meal at a sensible hour laced in the finest wares by the song’s eponymous designer.
“Picasso Baby” is likewise luxury rap, albeit over a Timbo beat that channels Tunnel Banger-era producers like Large Professor. Jay runs through a litany of famous artists whose collections are accessible only by the uber-wealthy: “Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner/ Go ahead lean on that shit Blue/ You own it”. Charges of one percent-ism in the rapper’s lyrics have come in abundance since the indulgent Watch The Throne. But throwing stones at lyrics that feature hyperbolic feats of monetary climb feels like a birdbrained dismissal of the hubris involved at hip hop’s most elementary level. The genre has always been by (and for) those striving to obtain shit, so we shouldn’t be surprised.
But when the mountain has been scaled, what then is left to make of a sermon? Jay has worn every watch, driven every car, fucked every broad. He’s already sold us crack, hip hop music and the American dream. What now for an encore? Magna Carta is bookended by a song about the dangers of being addicted to the glamor life (the album opener and Timberlake featuring “Holy Grail”) and one about the dilemmas of trying to exercise charity in a responsible way (“Nickels and Dimes”). In between we have a luxurious mid-tempo R&B jam, “Part II (On the Run)” featuring Mrs. Shawn Carter, and “Jay Z Blue” a captivating exposition on fatherhood. These songs are prime examples of Jay aging out of a young man’s game and seeking to find a new lane in territory where commercial rap has never been before. Can a monogamous, anti-drug, pro-woman, model father figure flourish in the turbulent mainstream?
Sure Magna Carta also features its share of disposable goods. There’s the immensely unsatisfying club joint, “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt”, where a barely rapping Rick Ross uses his substantial girth to draft a sleepwalking Jay up the side of a massive Boi-1da beat. Worse than that is the album’s grip of unfinished thoughts like “La Familia”, which is basically just a collection of half-baked ad-libs, and “F.U.T.W.” which has its heart in the right place but fails to find a spark. It’s curious why Jay didn’t swap any of these tracks out for an extended version of “Somewhere in America”, a Hit-Boy helmed interlude with the cleanest boom-bap and lush piano licks this side of a DJ Premier joint. This track deserved to find an identity past its two and a half minute running time instead of devolving oddly into a Miley Cyrus shout-out (or is it a dis?), something none of us ever need to hear again on a Jay-Z record. Ever.
It’s understandable that at this point in his career Jay needs to be many things to many different people in order to stay relevant. Staying true to himself in the late ‘90s still meant rapping about hustling, whereas in 2013 he’s in a position to “drink from a gold chalice” while dressed in a Tom Ford tuxedo. It’s when he’s left to fill in the blanks of old expectations that his newer material suffers and ends up pandering to the lowest common rap denominator. There’s a powerful identity here that anyone with a passing understanding of Jay-Z can grasp, but the middling runs of cheap gratification on Magna Carta confuse the narrative.
The expansive “Oceans” (featuring Frank Ocean, of course) is where Jay seems to settle most comfortably. This track is a spiritual cousin to The Throne’s “Made in America”, a victory lap wrapped in the guise of Black America’s beautiful and tragic history. Jay raps, “Only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace/ I don’t even like Washingtons in my pocket” and, “On the holiday playing ‘Strange Fruit’/ If I’ma make it to a billi I can’t take the same route”. Ocean sings, “Because this water drowned my family/ This water mixed my blood/ This water tells my story/ This water knows it all”, alluding to the ships that first transported his ancestors to this country. Part of reaching maturity is coming face to face with the reality of how the outside world perceives you. This is especially true in the context of being anybody but a white male in America. There are fleeting moments on Yeezus when Kanye West convinced us he can deal with being Black, rich and famous in this country without going postal, but with Jay there is no doubt. “Oceans” is Magna Carta’s only grand, balling masterpiece of a track because its self revelatory qualities are as big as its aspirations.
Magna Carta… Holy Grail makes sure that the Jay-Z apparatus roles on. For those seeking some fussy criticism, I’ll offer this: it satisfies on a level somewhere below Blueprint 3 but above Kingdom Come. Do with that assessment what you will. The last three Jay-Z records have been shiny artifacts held up to a consuming public that has proven it loves shiny things. We trust in Jay-Z to entertain us because he’s allowed himself to absorb our own projections of success and manufacture them into an impeccable capitalist’s fantasy. What we see reflected in Magna Carta’s surface is the untarnished dream. I remain convinced, however, that it’s more interesting when Jay is crashing our internet and breaking things that many of us thought were unbreakable.