Jay Z ‘Magna Carter…Holy Grail’ – Review

28 Jul

You in the presence of a king/ Scratch that, you in the presence of a God.” That’s Jay Z on the song ‘Crown’ from his new album ‘Magna Carter…Holy Grail.’ Remind you of anything? It was only the other week I reviewed the equally blasphemous Kanye West declaring ‘I am God.’ It’s therefore unsurprising that almost every review of this new record has been framed as a comparison between the two Hip Hop greats. However, this strikes me as being unfair when the two artists have such clearly different goals at this point in their careers. Kanye aimed to make an innovative, modernist masterpiece, but Jay Z hasn’t, so if you judge it by those standards then obviously it’s not going to hold up in many respects. ‘Magna Carter…Holy Grail’, is a relatively modest release, despite the bombastic title, the capital A artistic cover and Its tendency for hyperbole and grandiosity. This is an album that needs to be considered in a wider context but ultimately must be judged on its own terms.

One thing is almost immediately striking; we are not in the presence of a king, let alone God. Jay doesn’t even wear the messiah complex with anywhere near the same conviction as Kanye. He’s groping for divine greatness and it ultimately feels a bit forced and feeble. In musical terms though Jay is an undisputed legend and there are flashes of his old greatness here.  The rumours were that he wasn’t going to swear anymore, out of respect to his new born Blu.  The first line we hear from him on the album is a declarative ‘Blu told me remind you niggas / fuck that shit you talking about, I’m the nigga.’ Subtlty has never been Jay’s strong point but it’s almost as thrilling as it is perplexing to hear him make such a swaggering entrance after such a long time away.

For the first thirty minutes or so, the album cruises along nicely with hooks falling like dominos and memorable soundbites coming thick and fast. Justin Timberlake delivers a fine melody on the title track as Jay establishes the album’s prominent theme: his own success. ‘I don’t pop Molly, I rock Tom Ford’ he informs us on ‘Tom Ford. ‘I’ve already been the king’ he reminds us on ‘somewhereinamerica.’ ‘I’m in my Easter clothes, feeling like Jesus’ he says on ‘Heaven.’ For a short while this is palatable, but as the beats become more regressive and you start to realise that the tunes don’t match the bravado, it becomes tiresome fairly quickly.

The feeling you’re left with is one of inadequacy. This guy goes to auctions at the ‘Lourve or tate modern’, he’s married to Beyonce (‘the real Mona Lisa’), he’s bezzies with Justin and Tom Ford, he forges exclusive partnerships with the likes of Samsung.  Jay Z is on a completely different planet and if the only worth you find in music is in the ability to relate to an artist, then you’re not going to find any good in ‘Magna Carter…Holy Grail.’ Now, I’m fine with this as I’m fascinated by this kind of mega-stardom – I’ve spent a life-time obsessing over Michael Jackson’s otherworldly egotism. The difference is that Michael Jackson was inherently fascinating; twisted, contradictory, problematic, humble yet egotistical at the same time and therefore deeply troubled (which is why I see Kanye as his natural heir). Jay Z is content, comfortable, rich, powerful and deeply boring. There’s no real contradictions worth exploring, no anxieties, just a lot of empty boasts. You’ll feel like a homeless kid, watching TV through a display model in a shop window. There’s momentary pleasure to be had at gawping at this mega-star, but you’ll walk away feeling deflated.

That’s the first of two major problems with this record. The second is that very little of what’s good about it has anything to do with Jay Z at all. Jigga skirts responsibility on too many tracks here; His own verses are nearly as unmemorable as they are boastful and borderline offensive. He’s quite content to let Justin Timberlake, Frank Ocean, The Dream, Timbaland, Rick Ross or whoever else steal the show. This isn’t a new problem – ‘Kingdom Come’ and ‘Blueprint 3’ were actually worse in this respect – but that just makes it all the more frustrating that he’s repeating the same mistakes. Whether he’s taking Kanye and Justin on tour, borrowing lyrics from R.E.M and Nirvana, or leaning on  Timbaland in the studio, Jay Z just doesn’t seem to have the confidence (as in real confidence, not just the smack-talk that litters the record) to truly go it alone these days.

‘Magna Carter…Holy Grail’ isn’t the first underwhelming Jay Z release but it feels especially redundant in the current Hip Hop climate where innovative and thoughtful records are dropping almost every month. Jigga just seems completely out of touch and out of focus. The servicable beats and so/so raps just don’t cut it on an album by a so called king. His own wife proved on her last album ‘4’ that it’s possible to successfully communicate personal happiness and success in an artistically meaningful way.  Jay Z has well and truly failed in communicating such an interesting vision.  That makes a song like ‘Crown’ all the more meaningless. So whether you’re comparing ‘Magna Carter…Holy Grail’ to ‘Yeezus’ or judging it on its own terms, you’re bound to come to a negative conclusion.

4/10

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