I often like to think of one-word summaries for the albums I review, and in the case of Magna Carta… Holy Grail, I had a hard time choosing between “silly” and “average.” From the pretty much meaningless sampling of the chorus from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as a reflection on, um… fame, the reference defeated throughout the album by Jay-Z’s definition of himself through wealth, to the lyrics about changing diapers, this is silly in way that makes those of us paying attention laugh at Jay-Z, rather than with him. It’s silly because it’s serious but offers no substance, which brings me to the other word I used to describe the album. This album is a very average effort – not bad, but not very impressive. Perhaps it’s because Jay-Z has worked so hard to approach so much of what he does as a businessman that this seems more like a business venture than it does a work of art. It’s everything that his customers –er, fans, have expected from him, but it does not challenge, surprise, or excite to any degree beyond “this is a Jay-Z album.”
The sonic vibe of this album seems pretty exhausting to the listener, really. It’s a negative use of the wall of sound, like on “Somwhereinamerica,” where there’s so much going on, and all of it is overheated. The production isn’t a total flop, and in many places it’s quite good (it would be unfair to slight the entire album when there are sonically impressive tracks like “Picasso Baby” or “Part II (On The Run),” and the positively groovy track “BBC” is hard even for me to deny), but it doesn’t save the album, and like everything else about it, the music doesn’t really challenge the listener. Ultimately it’s all just backdrop, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, all things considered it just adds to the lack of creativity one can sense from this album.
The collaborators on this album do little to help this album other than to demonstrate Jay-Z’s power. That he can collaborate with the likes of Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, Timbaland, et. al. is enough, but none of them do much more than inspire one to go “Oh, look, it’s Justin Timberlake. Neat.”
And of course, there’s the lyrics themselves. Oh, where to begin. Again, nothing you wouldn’t expect from Jay-Z is here. On “Crown” he says “you’re in the presence of a king/ scratch that, you’re in the presence of a god,” which, when compared to Kanye’s “I Am A God” seems more like someone really wishing he was a god, in contrast to Kanye’s assumption of god-status and his commentary on where that places him in the context of the music industry and the fame-spectacle at large. On “Jay-Z Blue,” which sees Jay-Z attempt to expose his sensitive side, I sense no real depth. The song can be summed up by saying “I dad didn’t have a relationship with me, but I hope I can have a relationship with my daughter,” and not much else. We kind of understand that already, so him talking just about that doesn’t really do anything for anyone, it just kind of says, “well, I have to rap about this I guess.” “Oceans” seems like a pretty confused and very surface-level commentary on race that’s more tedious than insightful. “Heaven” is at least interesting, commenting on spirituality (the record having been touted as displaying a more spiritual side of Jay-Z), with his appropriation of “Losing My Religion” being acutely clever rather than embarrassing. Elsewhere, though, the cultural references are pretty laughable, particularly the “Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’… only in America” which makes me feel more uncomfortable than it makes me think Jay-Z has anything worth saying about current events. Album closer “Nickels and Dimes” is the high point, with the most serious rumination about what he’s doing, the best flow, and what makes this track great is the relative absence of what made the rest of the album – the pointless cultural references, the bored collaborations, the overdone production, etc.
Ultimately, this is a difficult kind of album to review, because it’s not that great but it’s not awful. I can’t trash this album, but I can’t praise it. On “Watch The Throne,” we saw Jay-Z and his collaborator Kanye West test the waters for future musical directions, and where Kanye took the message of the album to heart and amplified his agent provocateur status with Yeezus, Jay-Z felt comfortable enough to simply sit on that throne and reign, without much thought to what it means to be king. So in effect, what we have is the sum total of American media in musical form, brought to us by one of our most revered musical figureheads. More effective at displaying the laziness of consumer culture than anything Kanye West or punk rock could do, as Shawn Carter delivers another flashy display of his power, we are left to wonder if it really means anything at all.
Recommended Tracks: Picasso Baby, Tom Ford, Nickels and Dimes