It just doesn’t get any bigger than Jay-Z. Who else could take his demigod wife to Cuba for their fifth wedding anniversary and cause political controversy with a response from the POTUS himself? The proponent and pal of the Obamas is not only known for attending swanky, presidential parties, but is also husband to supernova Beyonce. The often debated G.O.A.T. and first time father to Blue Ivy has ruthlessly continued to expand his brand.
With his music label’s roster boasting J. Cole and Jay Electronica, the 43-year-old MC kicked off the opening of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center with eight sold out shows last summer. His most recent endeavor as a sports agent has allowed him to sign NBA and MLB athletes as the founder of his new Roc Nation Sports imprint, so it’s no surprise his latest offering and twelfth solo album also wrangles up impressive all-star players. Heavy hitters Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz and Rick Rubin (who only provided verbal feedback) all appeared to be contributing to a magnum opus during the Magna Carta…Holy Grail commercial that debuted during the NBA Finals.
The antithesis of Kanye West’s infinitesimal marketing campaign, it played out like the type of blockbuster trailer that leaves moviegoers excitedly whispering, “I’ve got to see that!” to their friend in the adjacent seat. Introducing the Samsung phone app that would distribute the first million albums for free, the ad enticed devotees to download it in exchange for previews and plenty of lyrics as incentive. Available July 4 at midnight, many Samsung users simultaneously struggled to download the new album and grumbled about app errors via Twitter.
In due time, fans were able to revel in the continuation of opulence and decadence derived from Jay and Ye’s collaborative effort, Watch the Throne. The album opens with Justin Timberlake solemnly harmonizing about his love/hate relationship with fame and interpolates Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the bridge. Jay follows suit bemoaning the price of stardom and the culpability he endures as a successful entrepreneur. He addresses survivor’s guilt on “Nickles and Dimes” with lyrics like, “I gave some money to this guy, he got high as hell/Now I’m part of the problem far as I could tell/Did I do it for him or do it for myself,” but the majority of the album lacks progression and is filled with superfluous and all too familiar Basquiat and Lambo references. (We get it Jay-Z. You’re rich).
“Picasso Baby” displays his apparent admiration for viewing and collecting art as Jay name-drops Da Vinci, Andy Warhol, The MoMa and The Louvre as the sleek Prolyfic record slows down into a beat channeling his production on Lupe Fiasco and Hov’s “Pressure.” He toasts the good life with Bordeauxs and Burgundies and spends all his “euros on tuxes and weird clothes” on the uniquely catchy 8-bit sounding track produced by J-Roc and Timbaland named after high-end designer “Tom Ford.” Rick Ross stunts along with Hov over a surreal head boppin’ beat that could be easily placed in a heavenly dream sequence on “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” and Jay reminisces about coke dealing on “Somewhereinamerica.” “When I was talking Instagram/Last thing you wanted was your picture snapped,” he cleverly remarks on the Hit-Boy track.
“Part II (On the Run)” serves as the sequel to his first collaboration with Beyonce off of The Blueprint 2. Rumors swirled about the two dating when they released “’03 Bonnie and Clyde,” but the two remained mum about their relationship. Ten years later, the married duo glorifies gangsta love with “you and me against the world” Tupac nods on the romantic, piano-laced song. Queen Bey also makes an appearance on the star-studded “BBC” featuring Nas, Pharrell, JT, Swizz and Timbo, but, unfortunately, the club banger looks a lot more appealing on paper than it sounds.
“Jay-Z Blue” proves to be his most personal and endearing song as dialogue from Mommie Dearest is interspersed throughout. Anxieties about fatherhood and concerns about keeping his family intact finally exhibit his vulnerability. “Taught her how to take her first steps/Cut the cord watch her take her first breath/And I’m trying and I’m lying if I said I wasn’t scared,” he divulges on the track laced with Biggie’s vocals and quotes from his classic “My Downfall.”
Jay’s best moments arise when he steps away from the blasé bravado and gets insightful by reminding his audience that he is indeed actually human. On “Oceans,” he reflects on his ancestry as Frank Ocean sings about the unfathomable and burdensome path his predecessors endured upon slave ships along the Ivory Coast. “This water drown my family/This water mixed my blood/This water tells my story,” he emotes passionately over a somber, horn-filled Pharrell beat fit for a movie score. He vilifies American forefathers Christopher Columbus stating he’s “anti-Santa Maria” and “don’t even like Washingtons in his pockets.”
Kanye’s influence can be heard on the work with allusions to “Strange Fruit” and Givenchy, but unlike Ye, Hov plays it safe sticking to carefully calculated and trite luxury rap. As Rick Rubin stated, the album is a much “more traditional Hip Hop record than Yeezus.” He jet-sets to Paris, Rome, Venice and Marrakesh throughout the album and denounces molly while his Sweet Brown quote and comments about Miley Cyrus’ passion for twerking are amusing, but they almost sound like a contrived attempt at appealing to youthful listeners.
For someone who proudly boasts so much about having such a lucrative net worth and a wealth of unlimited resources, one might expect Magna Carta…Holy Grail to be the crowning jewel of Jay’s career. The album’s production is noteworthy, however, it definitely doesn’t wow. His refusal to connect with commoners and hesitancy to switch up his sound choosing to continue painting his lavish image instead of venturing into a radical form of artistic expression like Kanye West make his medium appear a bit stale. If you’re looking for depth or timeless masterpieces like “Dead Presidents,” “Song Cry” or “December 4th” on this project, make sure you’ve got enough pocket money saved to to buy his old albums.