After Kanye West and Jay Z’s 2011 collaboration Watch the Throne, I was very excited to see what was next for Kanye and Jay Z, as Watch the Throne was the best thing Jay Z had done since The Black Album. About a month ago, Kanye released Yeezus (I covered some of the album’s religious elements on my blog: Part 1 and Part 2) to critical acclaim, and right around that time Jay Z announced his newest album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. Since its release, Magna Carta Holy Grail has received some mixed reviews, which I suspect has something to do with it being released right after Yeezus. While neither of the albums quite live up to the lofty aspirations of their titles, Kanye does Savior better than Jay Z does relic. That being said, Magna Carta Holy Grail is still an enjoyable and interesting album that does not entirely lack substance, as some may have suggested.
On the production front, MCHG shines, playing with song structure and packing each song full of crystal clear instrumentation, making it an album that is meant to be played loud. MCHG opens with the one-two punch of “Holy Grail” and “Picasso Baby,” two of the least conventional and most exciting tracks on the album. My favorite song on MCHG, “Holy Grail” features Justin Timberlake and borrows some of the pop adventurousness that animated his recent 20/20 album. Most of the excitement on “Holy Grail” comes from Timberlake’s sublime hook, but little flourishes like the dancing high-hat, the strange Nirvana sample, the random structural changes, make the song even more vibrant. Meanwhile, “Picasso Baby” relies on a humongous bass line that slinks beneath Jay’s tales of art auctions before evolving into a sleek, guitar-driven coda where Hova declares he is “the modern day Picasso.” A bold claim, yet one that could potentially be reinforced by MCHG’s angular, eclectic music and Jay-Z’s sparse, surrealistic lyrics. Even club banger “Tom Ford” has its booming bass and simple hook derailed by a moody, down-tempo ending. Musically, it seems as if Jay Z is trying to say something about hip-hop, but lyrics that make any kind of coherent statement are few and far between on MCHG.
The majority of the album is filled with typical rap braggadocio, as Jay Z brags about his money, fame, good looks, and so on, but there are a few moments where the talk gets shelved for some authentic conversation. “Heaven,” another collaboration with Timberlake, finds Jay musing on religion and eternity over a beat driven by a sparse guitar sample, lending the whole song a measure of paranoia. Paranoia is an appropriate emotion here, considering the uncertainty that marks the lyrics on “Heaven”: in one breath, Jay asserts that he is a “prophet,” while in the next he arrives at “the pearly gates” with “baggage,” unsure if he will be granted entrance. This vulnerability helps balance out the album’s themes, and adds a much needed touch of humanity to MCHG. On “Jay Z Blue,” a song devoted to his daughter, the rapper reflects on his upbringing and candidly expresses some of his fears about being a father: “Father never taught me how to be a father, treat a mother, I don’t want to have to just repeat another, leave another baby with no daddy, want no mama drama.” All of this is delivered in a stream-of-consciousness final minute of the song, where galloping high-hats and hand-claps provide a fitting backdrop for Jay’s rapid-fire lyrics, a counter to his measured, affected delivery on the rest of the album.
When the open and honest moments on MCHG appear, they reflect a tension between the life of Maybachs and million dollar paintings and the life of insecurities and normal everyday problems. Ironically, the Jay Z that shows up in these vulnerable instances seems more confident and authentic than the Jay Z that spends entire tracks trying to impress with his possession and status. One of the best songs on the album, “On the Run (Part II)” features Beyonce and the energy between husband and wife gives the song a sincerity missing from some of the other tracks on MCHG: “They ain’t see potential in me girl, but you see it. If it’s me and you against the world, so be it.” Similarly, the album closer, “Nickels and Dimes,” reveals another side of Jay Z, as he raps about poverty and success, reflecting on these issues with a surprising honesty. With the echoes of a spacious drum beat and the ambience of moody synths in the background, the second verse of “Nickels and Dimes” offers a rare glimpse into Jay’s mindset: “Sometimes I feel survivor’s guilt, I gave some money to this guy, he got as high as hell. Now I’m part of the problem as far as I could tell, did I do it for him or do it for myself?” All of us can relate to these emotions and questions, and the authenticity that Jay displays in the tension between celebrity and human makes MCHG a more compelling listen.
All things considered, I expect that part of the negative critical reaction to MCHG is due to the fact that it is not Yeezus. But Jay Z is not Kanye West, and should be judged on his own merits. As a Jay Z album, MCHG works. Much like The Blueprint 3, Magna Carta Holy Grail is an album you blast in your car or listen to while working out, filled with great production and driving beats. Songs like “BBC” and “Somewhereinamerica” are simply fun to listen to, and their largely superficial lyrics do nothing to dampen that enjoyment. Yet, Jay balances the bragging with enough humanity to make some of these tracks worth listening to after the summer months wind down. Equal parts ambitious and comfortable, Magna Carta Holy Grail may not quite live up to its lofty title, but it marks another strong entry in Jay Z’s long career. Jay has clearly found some contentment in his family and fatherhood, but MCHG shows us that he still faces internal and external pressures to live up to the expectations of others. In the space created by this realization, the Jay Z of rap superstardom disappears, and we come face to face with another human being, making his way in the world just like us.