Jay-Z's 'Magna Carta Holy Grail': Track-by-Track Review
Jay-Z lives in such a rarified world that it’s nearly impossible for anyone to relate to what he’s rapping about on “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” whether it’s Art Basel, his Lamborghini, sleeping with Beyonce, on and on and on so there’s an immediate distance from performer and listener on his new set. Or at least it seems that way. However, as one digs deeper, on many of these songs, Jay-Z is contemplating issues that dog all of us, regardless of stature: spirituality, parenthood, and doubt.
The raft of guests and samples (h/t to Rap Genius for helping me ID some of them) is only outnumbered by the endless onslaught of products mentioned in the songs: you could stock a car dealership with the references to Maybachs, Lexuses, Bugattis, Lamborghinis, and more here. And that’s just the start: then there’s the designers, the watches, the liquor...etc., etc., etc. Jay-Z is the ultimate consumer. Forget about the $5 million Jay-Z got paid from Samsung for the privilege to release the album to Samsung users on July 4, several days before the official July 9 street date: If he got money for every plug, he’d be a billionaire.
And a little bit about the Samsung experience: to download the album you had to agree to be data-mined eight ways ‘til Sunday. Then, the actual experience was extremely frustrating. Often, a song wouldn’t play for no apparent reason. I would have to turn off my phone and turn it back on for the download to work. Not a user friendly experience in the least. Having said that, even coming from my Samsung Galaxy Note, the sonics sounded superior, so I imagine on a great sound system, the album sounds stellar.
Below is a track-by-track rating of the album. My overall grade is a very solid B.
“Holy Grail” (produced by J-Roc, The-Dream & Timbaland): Justin Timberlake takes the lead on this stirring, dramatic tale of the fickleness of fame. “I’m the ni**a, caught up in all these lights and cameras/but look what that shit did to Hammer/Goddammit, I like it/The bright lights is enticing,” Jay-Z raps before breaking into an interpolation of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: “We’re all just entertainers/and we’re stupid, and contagious.” While it may strike some as biting the hand that feeds, it is one of “MCHG’s” most enticing tracks, in large part due to Timberlake’s ringing falsetto (and the end that recreates the same sonics as Timberlake/Timbaland’s “Mirrors.”) GRADE: B+
“Picasso Baby” (produced by Adrian Younge, J-Roc & Timbaland): A driving track—with a sample of Adrian Younge’s “Sirens”— that will be remembered for comparing Beyonce to the Mona Lisa, if nothing else, and for the sheer number of painters’ names that Jay-Z drops in the song that shows he has more in common with an Upper East Side society matron than many street rappers. A wicked electric guitar comes in about halfway through to add some meat to the boasts. GRADE: B-
“Tom Ford” (produced by J-Roc & Timbaland): The most interesting part of this song, named after the fashion designer, is the way Jay-Z builds the song around M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls,” but other than that, and learning that instead of “rocking Molly,” Hova’s drug of choice is Tom Ford, there’s not a lot here other than lots of bragging. GRADE: C
“F*ckwithmeyouknowigotit” (produced by Boi-1da, Timbaland & Vinylz): Featuring Pimp C and Rick Ross, this cascading track moves the locale from New York to Italy, where world citizen Jay-Z rules with his “Black mob” and their Lamborghini Countach. Pimp C’s intro that ties in his African ancestry where “we originated from kings” with “youngsters” wanting “shiny things” seems a bit of a stretch. Ross’s hook also seems a bit out of place as well on this track that seems like a cut-and-paste job even more so than some rap tracks. GRADE: C
“Oceans” (produced by Pharrell Williams & Timbaland): Frank Ocean’s line, “I hope my black skin don’t dirty this white tuxedo before the Basquiat show and if so, well f*ck it,” sums up the album: “MCHG” deals with social issues and what it’s like to be a black man in this world, but it’s through the filter of such an elite view that it’s nearly impossible to relate to. Having said that, with Pharrell and Timbaland at the helm, “Oceans” is a stunning track, with Ocean’s smooth voice playing perfect counterpoint to Jay-Z’s gruffness. Even when Jay-Z is patting himself for crashing through glass ceilings, he’s still aware that all is not well in terms of racial barriers: “Only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace,” he raps, in a nod to Notorious B.I.G., adding “I don’t even like Washingtons in my pocket.” And then he gets on his yacht... GRADE: A
“FUTW” (produced by J-Roc & Timbaland): This track is all Jay-Z and it’s one of the most socially conscious tracks on the album as he exhorts his African-American brothers to “f*ck up this world,” but in a good way. “America tried to emasculate the greats/Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes/Wait, tell them rumble young man rumble/try to dim your lights/tell you to be humble/you know I’m gon shine like a trillion watts...” later adding, “it’s our time now.” If only he measured that success in more than money and Maybachs... GRADE: B-
“Somewhere In America” (produced by Hit-Boy & Mike Dean): A bouncy track, via a sample of Jimmy Norman’s “Gangster of Love (Part 1), which, itself, comes from Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Gangster of Love.” While most notable for Jay-Z’s call for Miley Cyrus to keep “twerking,” the horns and piano and the message about infiltrating neighborhoods previously closed to him dominates. (Jay-Z: it’s called nouveau riche and you’re not the first one). GRADE: B
“Crown” (produced by Mike Dean, Travis Scott & WondaGurl): One of “MCHG’s” most atmospheric tracks, built around a sample of Sizzla’s “Solid As A Rock,” Jay-Z takes on mega-sports agent Scott Boras here, declaring he’s “over, baby,” while bragging about snagging New York Yankee Robinson Cano as one of the first clients for Hova’s new sports agency. (Really? Is taking on fellow sports agents going to be your new beef?). Travis Scott delivers the hook, which is all about “ni**as” trying to keep him down. So by this point, halfway through the album, Jay-Z has complained about how everyone is trying to knock him to his knees, but like a phoenix, he keeps rising...again and again. “See my name come across on CNN/‘Bout 6 minutes, you gonna see it again.” GRADE: B-
“Heaven” (produced by J-Roc, The-Dream & Timbaland): Lyrically, one of “MCHG’s”strongest tracks as Jay-Z questions all kinds of authority, whether it be power, religion, or other people. He even quotes R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” Musically, the track’s high point is a sweet, angelic voice (uncredited, but believed to be Justin Timberlake) singing a hook “Have You Ever Been To Heaven?” over and over, juxtaposed against his questioning. GRADE: B
“Versus” (produced by Timbaland): A brief palate cleanser in the middle of the album built around a kicky, retro sample and another chance for Jay-Z to boast that he’s all that and you are not. GRADE: C
“Part II (On The Run)” (produce by J-Roc and Timbaland): A sequel of sorts to “’03 Bonnie & Clyde,” “On The Run” is a dreamy embellished story of their love and all that matters is that they are with each other. “I will hold your heart and your gun,” Beyonce declares as she vows fealty to her man. Jay-Z compares her prettiness to that of his Mercedes and promises that their matching tatts will never come off, even if the rings do. In a world that often celebrates being a playa, it’s a sweet song about their love and devotion to each other with a stellar, soulful performance by Bey. GRADE: B
“Beach Is Better” (produced by Mike Will Made It): Another interlude dogging on a woman for taking so long to get ready —and that she better look as good as Halle Berry or Beyonce —as well as some riffing on spending mad money. Totally non-essential, but Jay-Z sounds great. GRADE: C
“BBC” (produced by Pharrell Williams & Timbaland): An intricate track and one of the album’s most infectious, due to a repetitive pop keyboard loop, and the energy that comes from having Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and former frenemy Nas all blending together in a mish-mash of sonics. The lyrics, some of them in Japanese, and all the name-dropping are totally irrelevant, even the “Britney, bitch” line. This is all about the groove and feel. And it feels great. There will be some fantastic remixes from this one. GRADE: A
“Jay Z Blue” (produced by J-Roc & Timbaland): Faye Dunaway’s rant from “Mommie Dearest” opens this, and the song even drops in the infamous “No wire hangers ever!” line in this track that shows Jay-Z featuring his doubts about his ability to be a good father, especially given that “my father never taught me how to be a father,” and that, by his own admission, his flight instinct still kicks in sometimes. At the same time, he is clearly so smitten with Blue Ivy. “Nothing could prepare us/for the beauty that you be Blue be.” The song samples Notorious B.I.G.’s “My Downfall.” GRADE: B+
“La Familia” (produced by J-Roc & Timbaland): Uneven track with an interesting off-kilter delivery from Jay-Z that, ostensibly, celebrates family, in all its forms, but ultimately goes nowhere. GRADE: C
“Nickels And Dimes” (produced by Mike Dean): Built around a sample of Gonjasufi’s “Nikels and Dimes,” the closing track is a woozy, autobiographical exploration inside Jay-Z’s mind that references Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” filtered through Johnny Cash. Jay Z’s in a contemplative mood as he once again questions fame (bringing the album full circle) and what it means to come from poverty and make it to millionaire. He has “survivor’s guilt,” and wonders if giving to some who is only going to use the money to get high makes him part of the problem instead of the solution. It’s a reflective, deep way to end this chapter of his life (plus, check out the Lady Gaga veiled reference and the dig at Harry Belafonte). GRADE: A