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Ears & Fingers 7/18/13

Jay-Z—Magna Carta Holy Grail
by Jason Leger

Just under 6 minutes long, “Holy Grail,” the opening track on Jay-Z’s highly anticipated 12th studio album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” is moody and winding and seems to unravel further with every listen. Let alone the fact that within just this song—less than ten minutes into the album—there are references to Kurt Cobain, Hammer, Mike Tyson, Vanilla Wafers, and “Thriller,” the song plays out like a rant against the woes of fame, including paparazzi, crazed fans, and “bleeding” on a world platform. These are the worries on the mind of a multi-millionaire rapper, business mogul, and, now, father. While “Holy Grail” is a very heavy and possibly unexpected introduction to Jay-Z’s first album since becoming a patriarch, it’s not a fair gauge for what to expect from the rest of the LP. “Hova” brings along plenty of whimsical tracks, complete with his signature laugh in the background, as well as tracks discussing what he relishes about being in the center of the world’s attention. In fact, “Picasso Baby,” the album’s second track is written in a drastically different tone than its predecessor, including lines about making love on a million, having champagne on his breath at the Met, and driving twin Bugattis, all while being next to a modern day Mona Lisa with better features (he put a ring on it).
This album is receiving an enormous amount of animosity, and I’m really torn over whether or not it’s due. Agreed, Jay-Z is trying to maintain an image of being counter-culture and ”come from under the thumb of this regime,” all the while releasing this album as a huge publicity stunt and in partnership with a cell phone company who used his art as a means to collect user data. I see the irony. There are low-points, and even some songs feel phoned in. There is also the aforementioned agony of being famous running parallel with his love for the extravagant and the expensive. And there is SO MUCH NAME DROPPING! That’s to be expected from a hip-hop (let alone Jay-Z) album, though.

On the other hand, there is a greater sense of introspection than on most of Jay-Z’s previous efforts. He blasts the celebrity end of his career, while still celebrating the things he finds good in his life. Thankfully, he does not ignore his wife or the daughter they share. In “Hova” he fully recognizes and enjoys the role of family man, which has now been added to his already impressive résumé, by making several references to his appreciation of Beyoncé, and dedicating a song to his little girl, Blue Ivy. Jay-Z has also never had any qualms about who he is: “I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man.” He is a juggernaut in the rap world and takes full advantage of his success, so should it really be surprising that he uses overtly capitalistic means to release his new album? I don’t really think so. I see all of the circumstances surrounding this album as archetypal Jay-Z maneuvers.

Musically, “MCHG” is on par with any other Jay-Z release, and includes tracks produced by Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz, J-Roc, and, of course, Timbaland, and features cameos from Mrs. Carter, Justin Timberlake, Rick Ross, Nas, and Frank Ocean. There are two tracks which stand much further out to me than the rest. “Oceans” and “Heaven” both caught my full attention on the very first spin. Both tracks have gravity to them, as “Oceans” is a retracing of the water his ancestors crossed when leaving Africa, and “Heaven” is full of skepticism toward religion. The heavy themes and catchy hooks on both songs are enough to guarantee I will have them on repeat for the next several months. All in all, I don’t consider this album mediocre, but even a mediocre Jay-Z album is better than a good portion of the hip-hop being produced today. I know how gutsy that statement is, but stand by it. After all, it’s your boy, America, you made him this way. “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is out now via Roc-A-Fella/Universal Records.