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Jay-Z has compared himself to a lot of people in his decades-long career: Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson on “Niggas In Paris,” before that “Biggie in his prime” on the disturbingly prescient “The City Is Mine.” But on Magna Carta Holy Grail, he knights himself the Jean-Michel Basquiat of hip-hop and oddly also self-anoints as the Rap Game Joan Crawford. It’s a curious parallel, but it works. Near the end of the album, on “Jay-Z Blue,” an ominous sample of Faye Dunaway playing Crawford in the 1981 biopic Mommie Dearest crawls across a static background. “I worked and worked till I’m half-dead. And I hear people saying, ’She’s getting old.’ And what do I get?” The bass kicks in and Dunaway continues, “A daughter, who cares as much about the beautiful dresses I gave her as she cares about me!” The public has been complaining about Jay’s age since he rebuked his retirement with the lackluster, adult-contemporary rap of Kingdom Come, and it seemed that with the birth of his daughter, Blue Ivy, with still-steadily performing wife Beyoncé, his music career might finally be put on hold. Invoking an actress whose daughter Christina wrote a disturbing memoir about how fame-obsessed and abusive her mother was during her wilting career would be odd, but Jay flips it. Instead of using the famous “No wire hangers!” scene to talk about how disrespected by the public and by his child he feels, he uses it to symbolize his own fear of becoming that, especially growing up without a good example of proper paternal behavior.

But this is barely an album about being a father, despite two very distinct songs about Blue Ivy. On the other, a crunchy-bass’d thumper called “Picasso Baby,” Jay flexes his moderate knowledge of fine artists and makes the aforementioned Basquiat comparison. In all walks of life, owning art is a mark of wealth — it’s expensive and requires some semblance of taste or, if you don’t have it, even more money to hire someone who does to buy it for you. There’s no dearth of look at what I have-prattle in Hov’s music — although, the bottles, the penthouse, and the Paris parties are often used as symbols of liberation at this point in his career — but when he raps, “Go ’head and lean on it, Blue/ you own it,” it’s one of the most opulent statements he’s ever made: Not only is there a Picasso in his house, but he doesn’t even care if his greasy toddler touches it. And he wants you to react to a lyric like this. When he’s flaunting, he’s taunting.

Elsewhere on the album, he references that jealousy as he ruminates on slavery and jewelry on “Oceans.” The warbler that features, weirdly, Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean is home to the third set of lyrics Jay-Z released during the short, albeit obnoxiously lofty promotional roll-out for Magna Carta. I suppose the fact that as this is published, the album is technically still only available via Samsung Galaxy app, is a white elephant looming over the review. A lot has been written about what the corporate partnership means — and you can read our take on his #NewRules here — but it was with “Oceans” that I caught a new view on why Jay was doing so much rappersplaining before anyone got a chance to hear the music. In the commercial about the song he explains to Timbaland, Rick Rubin, and Pharrell that when he raps, “silk and fleeces/ lay on my Jesus/ oh my god/ I hope you don’t get seasick,” he’s equating the ocean’s waves to the way his chain (“Jesus”) swings, and turns seasick into a double entendre — physically seasick from the movement and, as he explains in the promo, when you see it, you get sick with envy.

We know Jay to be keen with his quips, so why did he have to Rap Genius himself before the goons of RG could get their fingers on the tracks? He wants us to know that he’s still adept at lyrical tricks, not just espousing laundry lists of his riches or boasts about his amazing wife and the dream-life they live together. Those views into the studio, with a superstar cast of producers and a lounging Rick Rubin, must have been an attempt to silence anyone who doesn’t think he’s still got it. In the year that he started Roc Nation Sports and sold his one-third-of-his-pinkie stake in the Brooklyn Nets so he could legally rep clients in the NBA, he still wants his biggest news story to be that he made a great album.

But that doesn’t mean he lets his new job go unaddressed. With “Crown,” he raps about signing Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, whose superstar status gurgles just under the fray of the likes of LeBron and Kobe. It’s an expected moment, especially in that it sounds like a Yeezus reject and there had to be one. What distinguishes it, though, from a Kanye copycat is that it was produced by Wondagurl, a 16-year-old upstart from Ontario, whose only other production credit is for her track “Uptown” on Travi$ Scott’s proto-Yeezus mixtape Owl Pharaoh. Other trends pop up throughout the album, as well, like the heavily trap-informed “Tom Ford.” But when Jay indulges in new-jack behavior, there’s usually a sly sense that he’s poking fun and we get that when he declares, “I don’t pop molly/ I rock Tom Ford” on the hook.

He lays in just as heavy on youth culture on head-knocker “Somewhereinamerica.” It brims with Jay’s trademark subtlety, as he raps, “Ask Bun B about me/ this ain’t no snapback/ a nigga been trill” in reference to the Tumblr-famous #Been #Trill collective and their #NY# hats — although, whether Tumblr-rap or the odd use of the Yankees logo hurts him more is up in the air. More obtusely, he pokes fun at social media while reminding us of his past as drug dealer: “When I was talking ’insta-gram’/ last thing you wanted was your picture snapped.” But his most pointed target is Miley Cyrus and her new image. Back in 2009, on the heels of the explosive success of Cyrus’s song “Party In The U.S.A.,” the pop star admitted that she had never heard a song by Hov before, even though her hit referenced the soothing familiarity of listening to him. He never chose to respond, but with her rap culture-appropriating cut “We Can’t Stop” featuring Make Will on production, accolades from Juicy J, and her newfound propensity for booty-popping, it’s a wonder whether she would have just been a target anyway. Still, four years later he acknowledges her with a hearty chuckle and the lyrics, “Feds is still lurkin’/ they see I’m still puttin’ work in/ cuz somewhere in America /Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’/ HA,” and follows-up with a sarcastic refrain of “twerk, twerk, twerk.” That’s the Jay we’ve known since he was spitting lines on his debut Reasonable Doubt like, “life ills poison my body/ I used to say, ’fuck mic skills’/ I never prayed to God/ I prayed to Gotti.”

Which is all to say, Jay-Z is still as lyrically rich of a rapper whose songs require close attention as he’s always been. Many of Magna Carta’s tracks are lacking interesting production — especially when we’re all still fresh off Yeezus and Run The Jewels — save the unbelievably ebullient “BBC,” a verse-trade-off with former adversary Nas that has Timbaland, Beyoncé, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell, and Justin Timberlake doing gang vocals(!!!!) on the hook. But what we expect and, frankly, want from Hov is for him to write couplets that we apply to our own lives. We want to have buttons that play, “We don’t believe you/ you need more people” at those who talk a big game with no back-up. We’re all “making short term goals/ when the weather folds.” We’ve been letting Jay dictate that since he rapped, “you held it down long enough/ let me get those reins/ and just like your spirit/ the Commission [1] remains” on 1997 tribute to the Notorious B.I.G. “The City Is Mine.” He’s maintained that promise, after inducting himself to take over where Biggie left off, and has preserved the memory while taking his place as Brooklyn’s most beloved (living) son. The nods are especially large here, with full vocal samples of Biggie’s signature “unhh” ad-lib in a few songs, and full lyric clips from Life After Death cut “My Downfall.” Those appear on “Jay-Z Blue,” co-mingling with a clip of Dunaway, again, screaming, “Don’t fuck with me, fellas. This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.” That scene takes place at a Pepsico board meeting, where Crawford served as a director, a position she inherited after her husband, Pepsi Chairman Alfred Steele, passed away. It’s yet another strange layer that works to connect Hov and Crawford. No doubt, he is fully aware of the corollary — it’s just not a connection one makes with ease and it’s a tight knot that makes Magna Carta Holy Grail as much of a thinkpiece as the material Old Man Carter has given us so many times.

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[1] The Commission was a Jay-Z and Biggie-led supergroup. Members also included producer and labelhead Lance “Un” Rivera, producer and head of labels Undeas (Lil’ Kim’s debut Hard Core) and Untertainment (Cam’ron’s debut Confessions Of Fire), Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Lil’ Cease, and Biggie’s girlfriend and Untertainment signee Charli Baltimore.

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Comments (58)
  1. “Many of Magna Carta‘s tracks are lacking interesting production”

    Interesting. I’d say this is one of the better produced rap albums of the year so far, if anything Jay is lacking lyrically.

    • The fact that we’re all trying to pinpoint what is “lacking” is a bad sign? I gave it a spin and has similar thoughts – It seems like there’s something lacking, but I can’t quite figure out what it is. It’s a fine, enjoyable listen, but nothing really jumps out and blows you away.

      • I’m all for gifs here, but I don’t get the relevance of these particular gifs to the comments above… do you both agree? Both disagree? Are you split? Is this real life?

      • Maybe Corky got bored

        • Speak of the devil and he shall appear. I havn’t posted on these boards since our last convo. Been enjoying being the stereogum avatar reinvention of being a non troll. As always KidChair, most of your posts are the ones I like and agree with most. We’ve talked on these boards many times without me wearing the Corky mask. We both like me better that way :) Cheers.

  2. “oddly also self-anoints as the Rap Game Joan Crawford. It’s a curious parallel, but it works”

  3. About a month ago I was wandering around and I came across a garage sale with a bunch of CDs for .50 ea. I actually bought a copy of “Kingdom Come”, which I had never listened to before, and I’ve gotta say I really like it. There has been a good amount written about Jay-Z recently on this site and is seems like there is always a reference to how much “Kingdom Come” sucks. Am I the only person who likes that album?

    I’m starting to think I’m much less critical than most when it comes to rap lyrics. I liked that Joey Bada$$ MT which Tom said was pretty cliche filled. And I thought the lyrics in Yeezus that everyone was bitching about were great(cue kidchair rant). Overall I think I just put a lot less thought into why I do or don’t like music than most commenters. Either you got it or you ain’t.

    • i totally agree with this. although i’d say that when comes to rap in particular it’s not so much that i put less thought into it, rather I don’t really know how to approach the genre. i only recently got into hip hop within the past several years so i’m still learning what makes a rap album great. personally, most of the time i have a problem with rap lyrics because it feels like although there may be some important ideas the artist is trying to express, so many words and sentences are included only for the sake of rhyming without having any real basis otherwise. it sort of cheapens the experience for me. that’s why i enjoy kanye’s lyrics, it feels like most of the time they’re just pure absurdity

    • Haha I’ll refrain : )

    • nah, i thought Kingdom Come was good too

      the tracks that Dr. Dre co-produced were all great, Lost Ones was emotional without being maudlin

      really the only huge missteps were the Chris Martin track and the one with Beyonce

    • Aaron Cunningham  |   Posted on Jul 8th, 2013 0

      Late to the party, plb102, but I can vouch for this. The one interesting thread I’ve seen repeated again and again re: #Yeezus (other than people foolishly equating sexual aggression with misogyny) is how wrong his appropriation of sacred civil rights cow “Strange Fruit” is… And it still leaves me scratching my head. The number of people who will hear “Strange Fruit” for the first time because of “Blood on the Leaves” makes that production choice so much more important in a positive way than in a negative way. Similarly, other than generic complaints about Kingdom Come, the only frequently repeated specific complaints were that it sounded “lazy” or “effortless” and pissing on having the first single linked to a Budweiser commercial. I’m still not sure how that’s supposed to diminish how awesome “Dig A Hole” is or the excellent, deranged, insistent Rick James sample… But I guess if Jay isn’t spitting it in triple time, he’s not trying hard enough for some peopel.

  4. I actually enjoyed the production (BBC!!) on most of these tracks even though it wasnt all that original. The thing that really turned me off with this album was how boring Jay-Z’s lyrics became, I felt that they were extremely emotionally flat, with the exception of Jay Z Blue which comes across pretty heartfelt.

  5. I have an iPhone so…whatevs

    • I’ve noticed (as I’m sure many have) that your gif posts are always random and meaningless. Some sort of statement about the usage of gif’s on this blog? I dunno.

      But this particular gif had me laughing. Even if you didn’t mean it to. Thanks.

      • I think he is ripping you for insinuating that an iphone is better than Samsung. This was actually the only one that made sense to me. I’m glad piedicomio is having such a good time though.

        • Haha maybe. That’s why I thought it was funny (intentional or not.)

          I wasn’t insinuating iPhone was better though. Just like I don’t think Samsung is better for handing out free rap albums. Just pointing out I haven’t heard the thing yet due to my Samsung-less situation. I don’t give a rats ass about phones, really.

  6. Does the fact that I’m still waiting to get the physical copy of this make me less hip?

    • Waiting to buy the physical copy of the album that went platinum via Samsung…

      It’s great that you’re one of the few who still buy music (lord knows we need a bigger army), but you may be putting your money behind the wrong cause. If you wanna wait to listen to the physical copy of a rap album, put your order in on Run The Jewels.

  7. Jay on cruise control. Some of the production is cool but he’ll get a pass because he’s Jay. Anybody else releases this album and we’d call it what it is, BORING!

  8. Jay-Z really phoned this one in.

  9. I like “Oceans” (Basically a Frank Ocean song)
    I like “BBC” (Basically a Nas song)
    I love “Nickels and Dimes” (Samples one of my favorite Gonjasufi songs incredibly well)

    There were others that popped, but what a slog of an album. Some of the tracks it sounds like Jay barely fills the bars with lyrics. This is especially glaring after listening to El-P & Killer Mike drop three songs worth of lyrics into one track.

    It definitely sounds like the producers and featured musicians are trying harder than Jay.

    • Not saying you are wrong and not even saying you for sure didn’t give it a fair listen, but you have definately been ready to hate it.

      IDK, I haven’t heard it yet but your analysis is about what I was expecting from MCHG. I’ll still hold out hope that for me it’s at least on par with Michael Jordan on the Wizards as opposed to say Michael Jordan playing baseball.

      • You’re correct. I was ready to hate it, so it exceeded my expectations. There are some good songs on there for sure, but it’s bloated. Most every guest that is featured on a song steals the spotlight away from Jay.

        The opener is too long and awkward as fuck. The first voice you hear is Timberlake’s, so it recalls “Suit & Tie” except Justin’s forced to sing some horrid lyrics. It’s also not fun. Then Jay comes in and you’re reminded of when he came in on “Suit & Tie” and already we’re off to a bad start.

        “Picasso Baby” is neat, a few lines where (and this was a common theme throughout my entire MCHG listening) I would cock my head to the side and go “Huh?” or “What?” or “Really?” Not in a good way.

        “Tom Ford” is admittedly pretty good. He takes on current trap music fairly successfully and knowingly. This was the point on the album where I realized, “Hey, maybe there are some pretty good songs on here!”

        Then Rick Ross & Frank Ocean show up and they’re a welcome addition. The latter being significantly better than the former. Jay’s verses on “Oceans” are great.

        “Somewhereinamerica” is a Hit Boy jam. Of course you gotta sit through Jay-Z bragging about how he sold a million copies of his album before it was released, reminding us all of the elephant in the room.

        More songs…

        “BBC” is terrific, a great change of pace. Always a head turner when Nas appears on a track with Jay-Z. Nas kills it.

        “Jay Z Blue” is great, “La Familia” not so much, but then he closes down with a surprising Gonjasufi sample. A welcome surprise. Overall, I’d say it’s good. But at this point we have better albums to listen to.

      • I came in really wanting to love it and I actually agree with Raptor for the most part. The tracks he names are also my favorites for the same reasons, although I really like “Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit” because Jay actually puts some oomph behind it and shows off some of his best flow on the album.
        I also have to give him props for doing a decent take on trap/drill in “Tom Ford”, and the hook is catchy, but lyrically it’s weak. After I read along with a lot of the lyrics I realized that the whole album is basically hit-or-miss but the hits lyrically kinda fall flat in the style/flow departement. One of the biggest issues to me was that, like raptor said, the guests often outshine Jay, but also that in most of the songs Jay really can’t get out in front of the production, despite the fact that I can tell that Timberland took it back a little in some songs just to accommodate Jay. This album has some tracks that I will for sure have in my best of hip hop 2013 mix, but as an album it falls short for me.

      • Your MJ on the Wiz (whoa, I just realized both MJs were on/in The Wiz) is pretty spot on. This album is far from bad or horrible but it’s also far from great. Both instances have guys that basically achieved anything and everything yet are staying on just to stay on. They both still have ample skill and aren’t making a fool of themselves yet are shadows of their former greatness.

  10. Maybe I’m being hasty, but this album seems quite pedestrian compared to everything that led up to it. The marketing (and the title!) made it sound like this would be groundbreaking, but it feels very run-of-the-mill to me. And Jay’s lyrics aren’t very fresh here. Disappointing. Kanye put out something truly alive and exciting to hear (whether or not you hate the lyrics). Jay did not quite reach the throne with this.

  11. Depressingly middle of the road and uninteresting, doesn’t even feel like Jay is trying anymore.

  12. Does anyone else feel like it’s so mediocre it’s bad? Like, it’s not a great album, but it’s not terrible. If it was awful, it’d at least be memorable. But instead it’s just so forgettable.

  13. Eh. I feel like we should be allowed to expect a better Jay-Z album in 2013.

  14. I don’t know, I guess maybe I’m hearing something different than a lot of other people. Maybe it has something to do with what you’re judging it against. Judging it against the current state of most “rap music”, it’s still miles ahead. I mean, really, it’s not even in the same universe as most other of the moment rap/hip-hop. But maybe that’s a problem for some people. Judging it against the rest of Jay’s catalog I’ll admit it’s not at the top, but it fits nicely in with the rest of his stellar career. Judging it against Yeezus, well shit, it ain’t Yeezus. It’s a Jay-Z hip-hop record and I don’t think it’s as middle-of-the-road mediocre as some people are making it out to be. Does it redefine the genre? No, of course not. But it is a good album.

    • Maybe this is a good analogy. Al Pacino in The Godfather was Michael Corleone. Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III was Al Pacino.

      It’s pure evolution and the flip side to being so high profile now. The albums will be great, the performances will be grand, but that “something’s missing” thats littered in the comments are him not rapping from Brooklyn, its him rapping from French Riviera on a 600K yacht now. The dude owns a basketball team now, people. Kudos to him and I bless his success, but we aint gettin The Blueprint again. Ever. To be entirely honest, other than Black Album, that was probably the last good album he put out anyway.

      He should pull a Rocky Balboa from IV and get back to his roots, train in a cabin in Russia, get rid of all that rich before recording his next album…then we’d hear some dope shite again. Music that would be seared onto your ear drums like he did once upon a time.

      • He never owned a basketball team, that was just hype to make the Nets seem more cool than they were. He was a minority owner, and his stake was VERY small. Regardless, I believe he had to sell it to start doing the sports agent thing he’s got going on.

    • “Judging it against the current state of most “rap music”, it’s still miles ahead.”

      After listening to Yeezus and Run The Jewels in the last couple weeks, this actually seems miles behind. Jay-Z is turning into raps Eric Clapton, he used to be great but now he’s just boring.

    • Aaron Cunningham  |   Posted on Jul 8th, 2013 +3

      A few years back, a review of a new Rolling Stones album mentioned that, because of who they are, their releases are always graded on a legacy curve rather a contemporary curve. The reviewer basically admitted that if the album could be given the “Pepsi Challenge” or if we were capable of hearing it as a new album from a new band, the cultural consensus would lead to totally different reviews than having every song stacked up against “Satisfaction”. I thought that was a pretty compelling take.

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  17. After listening to it, it’s not the groundbreaking album I was thinking it was going to be (my fault for thinking it was going to be). But it’s still a good record imo. Nowhere near as fine as his 1st Blueprint record or The Black Album, but I do like it a little more than Blueprint3….idk, after a few more listens may i’ll feel different.

    • I would agree. The album has actually grown on me substantially since I first listened to it on Thursday (to note: I was listening while nursing a brutal hangover and playing Animal Crossing, so it had less than my full attention).

      It actually reminds me to some degree of Reasonable Doubt. It’s nowhere near RD quality, quite obviously, but it shuffles along at an unhurried gait, content in its own being, in a way that Jay-Z of the Def Jam and beyond era was never really comfortable with. Outside of that insta-skip Beyonce duet, nothing on the album feels particularly “single”-y. Even “Holy Grail” is too long and too awkwardly structured to really fit comfortably into the “hook – verse – hook – verse – hook” structure of rap radio. “La Familia” is probably the breeziest, least hurried Jay-Z song since “Feelin’ It” or “Cashmere Thoughts”.

      And I was ready, EAGER to hate this album. I’m infatuated with Yeezus, and I was EAGER to hoist up MCHG as comparatively bankrupt, artistically, musically, intellectually. But I can’t. It’s not an album that asks much of anything from me, or that thrills me, or that’s home to many if any songs that will find their way to the career-spanning greatest hits retrospective, but it’s an expensive sounding, beautifully mastered album that knocks incredibly hard when it wants to, helmed by a guy who’s past his prime but still one hell of a rapper. Look past the gross Samsung affiliation and it’s hard to hate if you genuinely enjoy meat and potatoes hip-hop music.

      Also, as a side note, it really bothers me that so many critics are having bitch fits about his commodification of the “high art” world. As somebody with a dusty studio art BFA sitting on his proverbial shelf, I feel at least moderately qualified to say that vacuos image and shameless commodification have long been a part of the modern art scene. Jay-Z cheapens the art world in the same way that NWA created the word “nigger”, or how Snoop Doggy Dog was the inventor of referring to women as “bitches”.

      The lesson to be learned by the backlash to MCHG is that you can spend 16 years bragging about selling drugs to your community and be a critical darling, but start appropriating fine art imagery and OH MY GOD THAT MONSTER NEEDS TO BE STOPPED!!! Priorities, people, priorities.

  18. Jay-Z = Brett Favre

  19. I tried to ignore all the negative stuff said about this album and bought it anyway.
    Played once and will take $1 for this weak ass waste of time album! I love kingdom Come by the way and people shit on that, but this album is straight up cheap feeling! Jay z should just stop putting out albums just like Metallica should have done when they started to get weak in creativity! Both Jay Z and Metallica still are amazing don’t get me wrong! But after a certain amount of money lets you become lazy and sheltered, the fire becomes ash from lacking motivation.

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