Album Review: Magna Carta…Holy Grail

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Shawn “Jay Z” Carter is the epitome of the new American Dream. Born to nothing, hustling for money, paying his dues and ultimately becoming one of the most wealthy and influential people in the world (according to TIME Magazine). He is immersed in all the things I love: music, sports, movies, fashion, and travel…and…Beyoncé (hey man….girls really do love Beyoncé).

Jay Z’s rap career is what earned him his wealth, power and respect. He has sold approximately 50 million albums worldwide, while receiving seventeen Grammy Awards for his musical work, and numerous additional nominations. He’s also consistently ranked as one of the greatest rappers of all-time. While his earlier albums dealt with money, cash, hoe’s….”He’s from the hood stupid, what kinds of facts are those”… his musical style and lyricism has evolved to a more accessible and commercially successful medium.  He’s headed record labels (Rocafella and Def Jam) and has nurtured up and coming artists like Kanye West and Rihanna into superstardom.  He’s a talented song writer, producer and lyricist, and has access to the world’s greatest talent. He’s released some of the most successful hip-hop/rap albums of the past two decades, survived in a changing music industry, come back from retirement, worked with some of the most talented musicians in the industry, and he still knows how to put on a mean show. He’s a music industry juggernaut, and carries the gravitas of someone who owns the industry. Let’s face it, he’s got 99 problems, but success ain’t one.

Magna Carta…Holy Grail (MCHG) is Jay Z’s 12th studio album. It has achieved platinum status before it was even released (via an innovative Samsung promotion). Despite its EPIC title, the album is nothing new. It’s a safe and well produced album, exactly what you expect from HOV… but it’s so familiar that it’s a little disappointing.  It may be the curse of career longevity, but MCHG is more of the same – collaborations with the biggest and best, catchy tunes, and quotable lyrics – it just doesn’t stand out against a remarkable career.  I really like parts of the album, but it won’t be remembered or hailed as his greatest.  It’s a little unfortunate, considering that the promos for this album boasted the return of Rick Ruben, and production by Pharrell, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland.  I was definitely excited for MCHG, but divided on the results.

The whole album feels like the diary of the “man who has everything” – which Jay Z literally does.  There’s a lot of showing off going on here, and that’s fine. I usually love bragging rights – Kanye West is a personal favourite, and I loved the boastful  Watch the Throne.  It’s hard to relate to the man who has everything – it’s not new.

It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Kanye West’s recent release of Yeezus (http://wp.me/p3pq8p-2P) – a different and fresh take from an established artist. I give credit to Kanye for trying something new, whereas Jay Z has played it so safe, it’s hard to be excited really about MCHG.  The production on MCHG is top notch. The beats are great and serve as an amazing backdrop to some really great tracks. Some of the lyrics feel recycled and there’s almost a sense of boredom on the album.  Jay Z seems a little unmotivated, there’s a “been there, done that” attitude on the album, which is ironic for a man who once said “N****s make the same s***, me I make the Blueprint”. But hey, he’s Jay Z, he’s gonna get that dirt off his shoulder.”

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1. Holy Grail (Ft. Justin Timberlake)

A really catchy song that seems to be a set up for the Legends of Summer Tour. The song covers the highs and lows of fame, the complaints seem unnecessary when Jigga starts bragging about all the awesome stuff he owns. Justin Timberlake really steals the show with his beautiful vocals. It’s a mismatch – and I really hate how they throw in Nirvana’s classic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – it’s completely unnecessary. It almost seems as if this song should have been Justin Timberlake featuring Jay Z.

2. Picasso Baby

I love this track. Such an awesome, lazy and cool beat. It fits Jay’s flow and throws some art history education at the listener (I’m secretly an art history connoisseur). Timbaland’s classic production skills are all over this track, and it’s earned instant replay status on my iPod. It sounds classic on first listen. I LOVE it.

 3. Tom Ford

Another cool beat from Timbaland – hard with a super low bumping bass-beat. This sounds like an M.I.A. track – in the best possible way. Jay’s delivery is a little messy here – a lot of bragging with no real hook. I like the song, its cool and effortless – but it lacks emotion, heart or humour. It’s really just Jay listing off things he owns and people he knows. FYI… Jay Z knows Tom Ford, and he owns a lot of Tom Ford.

 4. FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt (Ft. Rick Ross)

I’m not a fan of Rick Ross. I think his lyricism is lazy and his videos are disgusting. The beat is slick (thanks to phenomenal production), but again, this track almost feels as if Jay is featured on a Rick Ross song – instead of the other way around.

 5. Oceans (ft. Frank Ocean)

I love that Frank Ocean is featured on this song. His voice is perfect, and melds with Jay Z’s so well. The message of the song is melancholy and beautiful – as they talk about celebrating with champagne on yachts, on the same water that originally brought African slaves to America. One of the best songs on the album.  It feels like a stadium song, operatic and huge. Thanks for waking up Jay Z.

6. F.U.T.W.

This song seems as if its supposed to be inspiring – and its trying really hard for that to be true. It feels like an early 90’s Jay Z song – and is missing the smooth production and heavy beats of the other songs on MCHG. A little out of place, but passable.

 7. SomewhereInAmerica

Jay Z’s recent work on the Great Gatsby (http://wp.me/p3pq8p-1j) really bleeds through on this track. It’s short, fun, and I really love it. Great flow, although the references to Miley Cyrus “twerkin” probably won’t make much sense a few years from now – but it works.

 8. Crown

A cool electronic experiment that seems like it should’ve been an extra track on Watch the Throne or Yeezus. It features a hypnotic backbeat that plays out beautifully. I think it might’ve benefited from a guest lyricist – but it’s still a great, smooth song that brings something new to Jay Z’s definitive style.

9. Heaven (ft. Justin Timberlake)

Finesse. It’s a good jam. Justin Timberlake sings the hook that Timbaland has woven in to the instrumental track. We get references to religion and even a little bit of R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion”. I miss this Jay Z – unrepentant and thoughtful. Good track – but it gets lost in the mess of the rest of the album.

10. Versus (Interlude)

It’s boring, repetitive and an absolute skip over. It’s also a little hypocritical – in that Jay takes shots at rappers bragging about wealth and status – when really, that’s what MCHG is all about.

 11. Part II (On the Run) (ft. Beyoncé)

The follow up to ’03 Bonnie & Clyde is more of a ballad than its predecessor. It’s a nice song – romantic, forgettable, and most likely not a radio hit. I don’t understand what this song is doing on this album.

 12. Beach is Better (Interlude)

Sounds like old school Jay Z. The pace is killer – but it cuts out as soon as it gets interesting.

13. BBC (ft. Nas)

An awesome collaboration of amazing talents. After years of diss tracks and rivalry, it seems that Jay Z and Nas are finally friends – and I love it. Lyrically takes Jay back to his past. It’s a great track and you hear every collaborator’s influence on this fast, fun and totally cool song. From Timbaland’s beat, Pharrell’s gasping percussion, Swizz Beat’s synth, and even some additions from Beyoncé. I wish the energy of this song was captured on the entire album.  On repeat!

14. Jay Z Blue

It’s a little off-putting to begin a song dedicated to your daughter with excerpts from “Mommy Dearest”. I really like this song – it’s a personal and really vulnerable track bringing forward all of Shawn Carter’s insecurities on fatherhood.  Still….calling himself “Daddy Dearest” really left a bad impression.

 15. La Familia

Ugh. I hated this. I don’t know what happened here. The flow is completely off. How did anyone think that this was a good idea?! Jay Z’s voice doesn’t match the music. The beat is quiet enough that you hear every flaw and every word – which is worse when Jay Z isn’t really saying anything in this song. NEXT!

 16. Nickels and Dimes

Another electro-vibe song. A weird outro that doesn’t fit the tone of the album. It’s a cool beat, but again, forgettable and not at all what I expected.

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Jay Z’s trademark has always been to rap about his accomplishments. He should be proud – he’s come from nothing and has everything. His celebrity status is undeniable, and he’s the King of New York. I’m a huge fan of Jay Z, but its hard to connect with his use of status symbols and corporate takeovers. It’s a little out of touch for us, “the customer”. MCHG is a polished and incredibly well produced album, but it lacks the fire that Jay Z’s previous work embodies. There’s no anthem like “Empire State of Mind”, or controversy. MCHG is a passable piece of work that I wish was better. Parts of this album are so great! There’s a level of carelessness in the lyrics – where I’m used to sensational.  The whole album comes off as a little self-satisfied….maybe Jay Z’s too caught up in being a business, man!

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Side note….

Will work for… Jay Z…

I’m a full grown adult, finished post-secondary education, and have a full-time job…. I’ve got 99 problems, but a job ain’t one. For quite some time, I’ve had a unique response to the question “what do you want to do with your life?”…Answer: I’d like to be Jay Z’s assistant.

While I am a fan of Jay Z’s music, my motivations for this career path are less about hanging out with Jay Z, and more about the fact that he’s not a businessman; he’s a BUSINESS, MAN! He runs this town….literally. He’s in every industry, and has succeeded at almost every endeavor he’s taken on. I’m taking notes Mr. Cater!

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