Jay-Z - Magna Carta Holy Grail
Is Jay-Z currently on top of his game? Running RocNation, headlining festivals worldwide, trying to keep his top-grossing signing Rihanna out of trouble, all while being being one half of the most powerful super-couple in the music industry - it's a convincing argument. Understandably, there's a lot of hype for Magna Carta... Holy Grail. Expectations are high, and Samsung even pre-ordered a million copies of the album in advance for their customers. So will this album solidify Jay’s reputation as one of hip-hop's greats - or has he already peaked?
Oddly, it's the nasal tones of Justin Timberlake which open album number 13. Far from being inspiring, it just ticks every cliché box for a high-profile rap album. There's even a wildly inappropriate nod to Nirvana in the form of a couplet from '...Teen Spirit'. Where Kurt Cobain lyricised the pettiness of fame, Jay-Z and his entourage seem to bask in it through brand name dropping. Claiming "I don't pop molly / I rock Tom Ford" in an ode named after the designer simply suggests this is a hollow replica of the snarling rapper who originally made his name narrating his own rags-to-riches story.
The image being sold definitely detracts from the music. The confusion is added to during 'Somewhereinamerica': Jay's laughter during an outro of "Twerk, Miley, Twerk" (a reference to the ex-Disney star's faux pas earlier in the year) seems to be there to make sure his audience know he isn't being serious. Without it, he's in very real danger of being taken seriously. We hope the same mocking tone is being employed for the line "You in the presence of a king / Scratch that you're in the presence of a god", in 'Crown'. Either that or he's been spending too much time in the presence of Kanye West and his latest (superior) effort Yeezus.
Jay's flow is still as sterling as it ever was, and his ability to fill the gaps between the percussion make for cohesive listening. Timbaland has taken the helm for the majority of the producing; it's incredibly slick and glossy as a result. No doubt a few singles will be spawned here. TMF's money is on the star-lined collaboration 'BBC', which reads like a who's-who in the iTunes top 10 this year: Beyoncé, Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Nas and Swizz Beatz explain that BBC actually stands for "Billionaire Boys Club". Modestly, of course. 'BBC' sounds like a carbon copy of Robin Thicke's recent hit 'Blurred Lines' - no doubt thanks to the input from golden boy Pharrell.
Beyoncé features again later on in the duet 'Part II (On the Run)' which, whilst not topping their hits, is sincere and has a mellower vibe compared to anything else the couple have done before. Man of the moment Frank Ocean features on the, uh, inventively titled 'Ocean', in what sounds like a nephew doing his uncle a favour because his mum will bollock him if he doesn't. Ocean's vocals are as smooth as ever, but he sounds out of place and awkward, not surprising as his feature lacks the sort of big hook that he is so accustomed to nailing. 'Jay Z Blue' chronicles the birth of daughter Blue Ivy and it's obvious that this is Jay-Z at his most organic. He toys with the idea of Bey leaving him and having to split custody, before taking it right back to the faultlines in his own parental relations. It's probably the rawest track on the album, and definitely the most believable.
It might not be groundbreaking in terms of a Jay-Z album, and it's easy to pick apart the lyrics rather than consider that maybe this is an album which could contend with most pop albums in terms of production and melody. On surface level, Magna Carta Holy Grail will tickle many with its insight into the life of one half of the world's arguably most powerful couples. Dig a little deeper and it's not the legacy album it could have been - but it's still probably worth a slot on your CD rack (even if it does gather dust behind The Blueprint and The Black Album).