The real question is did any of you expect anything better from a man whose most poignant line in the past 5 years (maybe even more) was “Ball so hard?”
I suppose much has been made of Jay-Z’s recent life changes (can we be honest here? Blue Ivy Carter is just as ridiculous as North West without the punny quality) and what impact it would have on his music. The answer? Not a damn thing. Jay-Z could stop using his Costco box of Louis Vuitton condoms and turn his wife from full-time beauty into full-time baby-making machine and unlike the rest of us, this would have zero impact on his life. He has that much money. Do you know how I know? Because like vegans, he never fails to tell us every chance he gets. “My beach is better / You can keep ya beach / Cause that beach whatever,” so he says on “Beach Is Better.” I don’t even own a beach, you cunt.
I’m a realist; I don’t expect Jay-Z to do another Reasonable Doubt because he hasn’t shown any interest in making Reasonable Doubt in almost two decades (2007’s American Gangster was inspired by the long-and-not-great blockbuster with the same name in the same way that this review I’m writing right now was inspired by Inception). What I do expect from Jay-Z, like any action film with Jason Statham’s name on it, is entertainment. That’s the reason why I think The Blueprint 3 was the best mainstream (important modifier) hip-hop release of 2009 and that’s the reason why I wish I was there to see Kanye West and Jay-Z perform “Niggas in Paris” eleven consecutive times while in Paris.
Is Magna Carta… Holy Grail entertaining? Well, yes, but the truth is, for every minute it’s entertaining, there’s two where it’s downright embarrassing; the grating laugh that ends the “Versus” skit or the way he burps out “BEYONCEEEEEE” on “Beach Is Better.” And in following Yeezus‘s footsteps, Jay-Z tries his hand at a meme-worthy line, the “Somewhere in America / Miley Cyrus is still twerkin,’” but the track suggests that Jay-Z thought of the line and then built a two-minute song around it instead of working it into a proper song (though those horns are cool). And it would’ve been fine(ish) had Jay-Z just ended the song right then and there, but follows it up with a thirty second outro where he commands Miley Cyrus to twerk (“Twerk, twerk, twerk, twerk / Twerk, Miley, Miley, twerk”). Oh my fucking God, I think my ear canals just produced a chunk of ear wax to unhear it.
Elsewhere, he tries for poignancy on a line like “I know nobody to blame / Kurt Cobain, I did it to myself” but that would only mean something if Jay-Z decided to shoot himself, but seeing as how I know as much as he does that he won’t, it makes no sense. And Kanye West would actually compare himself to Michael Jackson; all that Jay-Z does is a namedrop that doesn’t even make sense when you’re reading it: “In a villa, illest nigga alive / Michael Jackson’s Thriller.” But neither example of Jay-Z’s regressed lyricism comes close to as downright fucking terrible as an interpolation of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on “Holy Grail.” Likewise, the only way the “Losing My Religion” bit on “Heaven” would be worse if he chose “Everybody Hurts” instead. I’m honestly surprised he didn’t.
But The Blueprint 3 had just as many embarrassing moments, lest we forget “Venus vs. Mars.” What it did have, however, to make up for it, was great production and some great hooks offered by Rihanna and Alicia Keys. Both Justin Timberlake and Frank Ocean hand in good-if-too-verbose hooks that elevate “Holy Grail” and “Oceans” from mediocrity, and it’s hard to really fault either of them (though I could do without Justin Timberlake’s opening verse). Meanwhile, Beyonce decides to leave all semblance of melody behind her for “Part II (On the Run),” the sequel that no one asked for of 2003’s “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” (and I even liked that one). Meanwhile, Jay-Z tries his hand at Drake (as in carrying a tune) on “La Familia.” It’s as good as that sounds on paper.
But we need to go deeper (I told you this review was Inception-inspired). The production in Magna Carta… Holy Grail ranges from passable to bad. For example, the video game-esque beat of “Tom Ford” is worth keeping, at least until Timbaland stupidly continues his train of thought that beat changes are apparently a necessity on everything, and the codas of both back-to-back “Picasso Baby” and “Tom Ford” are minutes of my life that I’ll never see again (though the one that pops up halfway through the second verse of “Holy Grail” is sort of cool). That being said, I really wish “Heaven” changed at all. Elsewhere, everyone is talking about “BBC” because it features more people than anyone could’ve bothered typing out on the tracklist (Nas! Swizz Beatz! Pharrell! Timbaland! Justin Timberlake! Third World Trill!), but Pharrell’s typically hypnotically rhythmic production ends up detracting such that it may as well have been an instrumental. Meanwhile, I think “Crown”’s selling point is that it was produced by a 16-year old girl.
The smartest thing about Magna Carta… Holy Grail was that it was released through a Samsung Galaxy app. Though I’m personally more of an iPhone kind of guy.