Jay-Z and Kanye West will forever be intertwined in their musical careers, from Kanye getting his big break producing on The Blueprint to their mammoth collaboration album Watch the Throne. Ye even used the last track of 2007’s Graduation to detail the relationship he has with his “Big Brother.” And despite their tight-knit association, their most recent releases showcase the immense differences in how they operate. Where Kanye went with an aggressive, minimalist sound, Jay went with a catchy, grandiose sound. Where Kanye scorned corporations and their capitalistic ways, Jay embraced the idea and introduced a new way to release albums. And where Kanye released one of the darkest, strangest, most polarizingly beautiful albums of the year, Jay released a bland, disappointing album that takes no risks and ends up being a run-of-the-mill mainstream rap record.
But this isn’t a Kanye album review (you can check that out here), so let’s get back on topic. With his 12th album, Magna Carta…Holy Grail, Jay created a whirlwind of buzz by the unorthodox method of release. The aura of mysteriousness surrounding the record only heightened the anticipation, which in turn heightens the disappointment in what it delivers.
The track “Holy Grail” starts the record off on a generally positive note, but it suffers from one problem that I never thought I’d ever say: too much Justin Timberlake. JT delivers a very strong performance, but it overpowers the rest of the song. It’s a strange choice to have the first minute and a half and the last two minutes be Timberlake singing, and it puts Jay’s verses on the backburner, to the point where you honestly forget exactly whose song it is. The record runs into this problem again later with “Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit,” by far one of the lowest points of Magna Carta. After two and a half minutes of Rick Ross grunting and bragging about being a tourist while rhyming the same word over and over, Jay finally shows up and phones in a lackluster verse. The repetitiveness on the track is ridiculous, and it’s not even catchy in its repetitiveness. It’s an embarrassingly weak showing.
That leads me to one of my main problems with Magna Carta: the lyricism is pretty appalling. I’m aware that lyrical messages aren’t really the main point of mainstream rap, but I expect a little bit of something with substance. Jay spends what seems like the majority of the album simply naming luxury brands that I’ve never heard of (I had to look up what Tom Ford was to figure out why Jay rocked it instead of popping molly). Even when he does venture into message-driven lyrics on the phenomenal “Oceans,” he breaks the illusion by ending his verses with “I’m the ocean/I’m in heaven/ Yachting/ Ocean 11.” The record is just overall severely lacking in any kind of meaningful lyrics, something that really hurts it in the long run.
Despite its many flaws, Magna Carta shines in certain areas. “Tom Ford” finds Jay trying to create a party song in the vein of “On to the Next One,” and although it falls somewhat flat, the beat is incredible and one of the most enjoyable I have heard this year; it saves the track from being completely awful. The production on the record is top notch, with Timbaland, J-Roc, and Pharrell providing some extraordinary beats. The jazz-influenced “Picasso Baby” is another standout, with Jay allowing his flow to take over the track without the assistance of any real hooks or choruses. It is probably Jay’s strongest performance on the record, and the shift in the music halfway through gives it a dynamic that Magna Carta as a whole lacks. And then there’s “BBC,” a fun, high energy song that doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. It has a catchy beat and takes the listener on an enjoyable ride before the forgettable final three tracks that end the record on a dull note.
This album is at its best when it takes its foot off the gas and uses a more simplistic approach. The swelling horns on “F.U.T.W.” and the fuzzed out bass of “Crown” give the tracks a bigger, more atmospheric sound that lets Jay’s rhymes really shine. “Heaven,” with its hauntingly eerie refrain of “Have you ever been to heaven,” is beautiful in its simplicity and is as effective as anything else on this record. The standout on the album, however, is “Oceans.” The dark, brooding track features Frank Ocean’s always angelic voice on a captivating hook and shows a glimmer of creativity in an otherwise run-of-the-mill record. The sinister-sounding beat creates a suspenseful atmosphere that makes “Oceans” the most interesting and engaging sound here, and proves that Jay can still create a meaningful song if he really wants to.
Magna Carta is a severely flawed record in a multitude of areas, but more disappointingly, it shows flashes of brilliance throughout that tease what could have been something special. In the end, it is a bland, mainstream rap record that fails to live up to the massive hype that it created for itself.