At 12:01 a.m. on the Fourth of July, Samsung Galaxy owners nationwide honored America by furtively attempting to download the new Jay-Z album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. Something similar (and even more American) happened on the Internet. But is this thing any good? Here, five SPIN editors offer their hasty and completely impulsive opinions.
Most of the lead-up to this album has been a business story, which makes sense, given the businesses (man and multinational, respectively) that brought this particular, peculiar product to market. #Newrules, right? So Jay-Z takes ringtone rap to the next level. Or maybe we should be calling it app rap? Because the medium really is the message here. The best and most ridiculous song on MCHG — the stupid, fun, and stupid fun “BBC” — is an homage to the “D boy drug-dealer look,” a before/after portrait that juxtaposes yesterday’s Fila sweats and rope chains with the kind of shit you can only buy once you start slinging cell phones for a multinational like Samsung.
Which, whether he means to or not, kinda begs the difference between drug dealers and telcos, given how they’ve gotten us hooked on gadgets and media gimmicks — just like this one. Doesn’t matter that many, many people will be getting this album from Zippyshare links: The first one’s always free, right? Jay gets paid, Samsung gets its name out there, and Google and Twitter mop up the runoff. But “BBC” is so infectious — its perky, percolating sing-along funk makes a natural companion piece to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” — that it’s hard to stay mad at the audacity of the whole scheme.
“Tom Ford” is another winner. The beat sounds like Zomby circa “Strange Fruit,” all neon burble and 8-bit hiccup, and Jay-Z sounds like he’s having the time of his life — just listen to the way he hollers out “This my Wayne Perry flow,” riding the last word like a skateboard, or the way he savors the syllables of “Fuck hashtags and retweets.” “I don’t pop Molly, I rock Tom Ford” is itself a brilliant, hilarious line (and I eagerly await Trinidad James’ response — hopefully, a scathing one). Who knows what’s up with the Miley Cyrus twerking reference. (And how recently did he wrap recording this, anyway?)
But the stacks of cash and Warhols Jay uses to wall off the world can get exhausting. Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, but even in gold-plated New York, Jay starts to sound like one. It’s complicated, of course: Just like he says, “Don’t forget, America, this how you made me.” And “Oceans,” which flits between the Middle Passage and the private yacht, is a stark, uncomfortable look at the way that living well might be the best revenge. (It’s a weird song, too: For all Jay’s usual triumphalism, Frank Ocean delivers an incredibly dejected performance.)
It’s only an hour, but it feels longer. There are plenty of fresh, lively beats (“Picasso Baby,” “Tom Ford,” the Vince Guaraldi stylings of “Somewhereinamerica”), but the second half plods — compared to Yeezus, the production feels flat and monochrome. Jay raps about survivor’s guilt, but Kanye’s suffering is a million times more interesting, both on record and RT. Because while we like our gadgets, what the Media We are truly addicted to is personality, and Jay-Z just doesn’t show that much here. His flow may be a gift, but free albums are a dime a dozen.
Early score: 6/10 Samsung Galaxy S4’s
First things first: If you didn’t do a spit-take across your S4 when Hov advised a certain starlet to “Twerk, Miley / Miley, twerk!” than we kindly advise you to fill your cheeks with water, return to the 1:30 mark on “Somewhereinamerica,” and hit play. (Good job: Now go buy yourself a dry iPhone.) Jay-Z may have retired umpteen times already, but here he whips up a helluva argument for his return: “I’m still putting work in / ‘Cause somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’.”
In the same way, Magna Carta Holy Grail makes its own case. It’s cinematic and grand like a Gatsby reboot, and calm and cool like Kanye could never be, but it’s also critical and contemplative. Oh, and confident. While a wild-eyed West crows for his croissant to arrive quicker, our host Hov dreams of hanging a Picasso in his casa — sorry, his castle. If Yeezus is the sum total of one man’s impossible dreams and unavoidable flaws, then MCHG aims to be the embodiment of man’s collective best intentions: social mobility. Personal betterment. Generational advancement. Familial love. And a healthy amount of faith.
Thus, “Jay-Z Blue” is a stark-naked assessment of the challenges that face a new dad who’s got no blueprint to work from: “Father never taught me how be a father, treat a mother / I don’t wanna have to just repeat another, leave another / Baby with no daddy.” And “Heaven” similarly pulls no punches, as Jay wrestles with what it means to believe in something higher when those on the ground seem to consistently pervert the message. On “Oceans,” Frank Ocean sounds as potent as he ever has as he adds this 24-carat thought-nugget to the hook: “I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo before the Basquiat show.” Later on the same song, Jigga, friend to the President, shows his distaste for our nation’s origins while shouting out Biggie: “I’m anti-Santa Maria / Only Christopher we recognize is Wallace / I don’t even like Washingtons in my pocket.”
A less literally departed MC gets a shout-out on “Holy Grail,” as Jay confronts his own issues with greed: “Caught up in all these lights and cameras / But look what that shit did to Hammer.” Ouch! Not that he’s not showing off here. Forget the Picasso: He’s got Justin Timberlake singing a Nirvana lyric in the middle of his opening track (the album’s foyer, if you will). He also has his very own TNGHT-style 8-bit space-ratchet beats (“Tom Ford”), a decidedly corpulent Rick Ross cameo (skip that one), some backpack-bare platforms for his still-ace rapping ability, and his very own roughed up version of “Blurred Lines” in the Pharrell-assisted “BBC” (also starring JT, and Timbaland, and Swizz Beats, and Nas [!]), which isn’t half as meaty as solo-dolo closer “Nickels and Dimes.” Hell, that track does ‘Ye one better, exposing the entire damned world to the voice (sampled) of Los Angeles’ best-kept barefoot crooner of incredible crazy, Gonjasufi.
It’s impossible not to compare this album to the latest from Jay’s fellow Throne-dweller, so we’ll do our best to simplify. West is busy blowing his load over frilly blouses: a symbol-rich exercise in ultimate futility. Whereas Jay is planting seeds both literally (hi, Blue Ivy!) and figuratively, merging his legacy with the American Dream. For my money, Yeezus is the better album (I’m with Josh Homme where load-blowing is concerned), but Magna Carta Holy Grail is a fine example of Jay-Z once again near the top of his game.
Early Score: 8/10 Samsung Galaxy S4’s
Christopher R. Weingarten
Forty-is-the-new-30 has paid off well, now he’s bored and old. But so what if Jay-Z wants to kick back and rap like Rick Ross (“See there’s leaders, and there’s followers,” one of his famous friends once said) and turn that “Banksy, bitches, Basquiats” line in “3 Kings” into a 59-minute Cobain-twerking Samsung payday? Even Jay’s slow-motion negative space BAWSE rapping can’t ruin a bunch of Timberland beats. So can he live?
Don’t get caught up on the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” thing. Jigga also does “Strange Fruit,” “My Way,” and “Day-O” on this like he’s collecting iconic 20th-century songs to hang next to his great 20th-century artworks. Jay is a great curator, but he ain’t the new Pablo: Kanye West made 2013’s best cubist rap record and, besides, Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.
Early Score: 7/10 Samsung Galaxy S4’s
Why does this album exist? Is it because Jay-Z wants to make art? Is it because he wants to make money? Is it because he wants the status of a technology conglomerate having written him a check for this album? Spinning through Magna Carta Holy Grail does nothing to illuminate these questions. Instead, it only serves to blind: Jay tosses out the names of painters and fashion labels like smoke bombs and uses the star power of Timbaland, Pharrell, and Justin Timberlake like a mirror.
Maybe it’s that Jay wants us to be impressed by his sheer power. Just look at these guests, this rollout, the glimmer of the beats. His music, after all, has always aimed to make the listener cower in both fear and awe, and Jay always had both the skill and the sneering attitude to make us do just that. He was untouchable, and in the real world he still more or less is. But his music, this album, is disconnected — from what makes rap music great now and what made his music great then. There are moments here — the Watch the Throne throwback “Oceans,” Hit-Boy’s greasy but regal beat on “Somewhere in America,” stray shots at Lil Wayne and Miley Cyrus — but these are just the rustles of a snoring beast.
I suspect Jay feels like he accomplished whatever it is he set out to do here — his bank account and cultural capital surely reflect that. But this is not music for the sake of music, art for the sake of art. He’s a business, man, and that’s all well and good. But I don’t want to hear Michael Bloomberg’s rap album, either.
Early score: 5/10 Samsung Galaxy S4’s
Rough start here, and that’s not even counting the Samsung stuff: Justin Timberlake sounds like Bruno Mars, dead horse MC Hammer comes in for more needless abuse, and Aw Geez Dad Quit Embarrassing Me to the Nirvana thing. This is a reoccurring problem: Rich dad rap is still dad rap, and Jay-Z will never not sound like a bored first-class denizen on his fourth Bloody Mary ordering opulent, au courant, marvelously vapid beats out of a SkyMall catalog. (The buoyant 8-bit scuzz of “Tom Ford” being the $15,000 wrought-iron backyard miniature-golf course of this particular analogy.)
We collectively as a society need to do something about this MOMA thing. A public swear jar, maybe — toss in $500,000 per Basquiat reference. Use the proceeds to buy more beats as casually electrifying as “Somewhereinamerica” and hand them off to hungrier, less-perma-eye-roll-inducing rappers. (Still though, “When I was talking Instagram / Last thing you wanted was your picture snapped” is pretty good.) It feels sacrilegious to revel in the production here (Big Tymers in Little China cartoon menace for “Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit,” more sublime Pharrell macho-whimsy for “BBC”) and find myself hoping Jay doesn’t foul it all up with, like, a beyond-clunky Bill Simmons-style Homeland reference or something, but wincing is as natural a motion as brushing your shoulders off with this guy anymore.
It varies. I find myself drawn to the gorgeous, morose unease of closer “Nickles and Dimes,” a “Beach Chair” you’d actually want to fall asleep in, the “survivor’s guilt” second verse an atypically reflective lyrical highlight, but then, splat, “Mr. Day-O / Major fail.” Beyoncé chimes in: “Cliché / Cliché / Cliché / Cliché.” At least he’s making love on a million now, as opposed to planking on it. As an album this is no worse than Kingdom Come; as an app it’s no Cat Annoy. Please nobody tell this guy about The Clock.
Early score: 5/10 Samsung Galaxy S4’s
AVERAGE SCORE: 6.2 SAMSUNG GALAXY S4’S