Magna Carta… Holy Grail
Released July 4, 2013
Jay Z once boasted in a particularly memorable line on Kanye West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix),” “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” Clever wordplay aside, he’s right. Besides being the rapper Jay Z (he recently dropped the hyphen), Shawn Carter is the definitive hip-hop mogul, brandishing a resume teeming with his various ventures and positions: head of record label Roc Nation, co-owner of sports bar chain the 40/40 club, co-creator of the Rocawear clothing line, and spokesperson of D’Usse, Bacardi’s new brandy product, just to name a few. This year, he even founded Roc Nation sports, because apparently that’s what you do when you’re the only rapper with a net worth of over $500 million. The man can sell anything — but even with all these other products, he hasn’t forgotten how to sell music. In a historic pre-album deal, Carter sold a million copies of his new modestly-named album, Magna Carta… Holy Grail, to Samsung for sale through an exclusive app. By doing so, Carter prompted the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to rewrite their rules regarding digital sales, and became the first artist ever to have an album go platinum before it even hits the shelves, making what sounds like an unbacked piece of rap braggadocio into a reality. With such pre-release hype, listeners were expecting a truly great album, one that could sit near the top of Jay Z’s massive discography. However, while Carter did deliver a highly enjoyable hip hop album, Magna Carta struggles to live up to the larger-than-life persona Carter takes on.
Thematically, Magna Carta is entirely predictable. The album repeatedly bounces between Jay Z bragging about how insanely rich and famous he is, to expounding on the difficulties of being insanely rich and famous. Such lyrical contrast seems insincere, but he handles the complexity of the issue pretty well. On album opener “Holy Grail,” which has my vote for catchiest song of the summer, he laments “Photo shoots with paparazzi / Can’t even take my daughter for a walk / See them by the corner store / I feel like I’m cornered off,” but then uses his media presence as a boast a couple tracks later on “Crown”: “I ball so hard on ESPN / See my name come across on CNN / ‘Bout 6 minutes, you gon’ see it again.” These themes are far from new to Carter, who has long let us know that being famous is both awesome and hard.
Magna Carta is Carter’s twelfth solo studio album, and I fear he’s simply running out of things to rap about. After all, he’s covered a lot of ground between bursting onto the scene relating stories of hustling on the streets of Brooklyn just to make a decent living on his classic debut album Reasonable Doubt, and exploring fame’s dark underbelly for the black elite on Watch the Throne, his 2011 collaborative album with Kanye West. However, even if the album lyrics aren’t anything new, it’s still a lot of fun to hear him say it. “I don’t pop molly I rock Tom Ford,” Jay Z repeats on album standout “Tom Ford,” a line that perfectly summarizes his classy attitude and approach to business, music, or otherwise. “Feds still lurking / They see I’m still putting work in / ‘Cause somewhere in America / Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’,” he lets out with a laugh on the jazzy “Somewhereinamerica,” employing a clever double entendre that relies on the common practice of rappers referring to cocaine using the names of famous white female celebrities.
Of course, there is more to the album than money, drugs, and women, although the results are mixed when he ventures out of hip hop’s comfort zone. “Picasso Baby” falls a little flat, with shallow lines like “It ain’t hard to tell I’m the new Jean-Michel / Surrounded by Warhols my whole team ball.” His interest in art sounds manufactured, as if he’s filling his house with famous paintings out of boredom. Indeed, the failed gloat “Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner / Go head lean on that shit Blue / You own it, huh” shows that preserving and respecting the art in his home is not high on his list of priorities.
On “Oceans,” an ambitious track with a Frank Ocean feature, Jay Z explores the duality of important ships in his life: the yacht he owns and parties on, and the slave ship that brought his ancestors over on the exact same waters. “I’m anti-Santa Maria / Only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace” he snarls, followed by Frank crooning “This water drowned my family / This water mixed my blood / This water tells my story / This water knows it all” on the hook. It’s a cool concept, and it largely works, although you get the feeling that it didn’t come out as deep as he intended.
Fatherhood is the focus of “Jay Z Blue,” where he chronicles all of his worries for his daughter, like “Father never taught me how to be a father, treat a mother / I don’t want to have to repeat another leave another.” The track is appealing because he breaks his calculated, protected facade, spilling out his various fears, fame-related or not, to the listener. It’s a rare glimpse at not Jay Z the superstar, but Shawn Carter the man. I only wish the album had more moments like these.
Carter turns 44 later this year, an age where most rappers have either retired or descended deep into the depths of irrelevancy. However, somehow Magna Carta still sounds fresh and modern. The beats are varied — some lavish, some simple, all excellent, and most in the typical style of veteran producer Timbaland, who has credits on eleven out of the album’s sixteen tracks. Carter shows he’s keeping up with the times through the lyrics, too. He references Instagram as well as the Internet meme “Ain’t nobody got time for that”, although neither top “I’m planking on a million” from Watch the Throne. Additionally, his flows sound young and playful, and the features for the most part work. He may be getting old, but he hasn’t forgot the mechanics of putting together an album.
Magna Carta is a good album, but the grandiose marketing campaign, the pre-album deal with Samsung, and the simple fact of being a Jay Z album all challenge it to be something more. Still, despite its weak points, the album manages to entertain listen after listen, and is perfect to throw on at pretty much any occasion. However, when Jay coaches “Don’t be good, my n***a, be great” on “F.U.T.W,” it’s tempting to wish he’d taken his own advice.