A lot has changed for Jay-Z since 2011’s Watch the Throne, which serves as social commentary from the top wrapped in a luxury item inventory. His empire has grown tentacles, his influence growing almost on a daily basis. The Brooklyn Nets opened their home at the Barclays Center. Then, he sold his share of the team so he could represent athletes with Roc Nation. Even Magna Carta Holy Grail is a record that is more business than personal. The marketing scheme surrounding the album was based on an app which only Samsung Galaxy owners could download on Independence Day – all others had to wait until July 9th. This is Jay-Z cementing his brand while increasing his bottom line. But, all is not golden at the top of the world.
There are new enemies at the gates of Jay-Z’s kingdom. All of whom he addresses. He laughs at the super agent, Scott Boras, on “Crown” with the line: “Scott Boras, you over baby/Robinson Cano, you’re coming with me.” Rival art collectors at Christie’s and Sotheby’s are put on blast in “Picasso Baby” as he flaunts his new Basquiat, Warhols and his Mona Lisa. These new antagonists are talked about in the same breath as foes in Jay’s native Bedford-Stuyvesant.
It seems that no matter how much he’s acquired, Hova is not without people who want to take back their piece of the pie. And, as always, Jay reveals that he’s still nervous about the attention of the Federal government on “Somewhere In America” where he spits that the “Feds are still lurkin’/’Cause see I’m still puttin’ work in/Because somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’.” Despite Jay-Z the artist’s best efforts to make himself fully legitimate, he still suffers from Michael Corleone syndrome.
While most of the record features his boastful braggadocio, there are moments reminiscent of Watch the Throne, where it feels like he is on the razor’s edge with paranoia and anxiety. Behind the confidence, there is a person with his arms outstretched, protecting all of his material possessions, and shouting in futility to Alex Jones conspiracy theorists that he’s not in the Illuminati (“Heaven”). On “Jay-Z Blue,” he expresses his nervousness about raising his daughter in the limelight. The circumstances of having to play the part of kingpin and “never giving it up,” as cooed by Beyonce on “Part II (On the Run)”, play into that apprehension of his role as a father.
All of these expressions of angst, frustration, hesitation and anxiousness are amplified by call backs to simpler times when Shawn Carter was just Jay-Z, the rap icon and not Jay-Z, the icon. This is felt on his invocations of Kurt Cobaine (“Holy Grail”), Michael Stipe (“Heaven”), A Tribe Called Quest (“Versus”), Juvenile (“Part II”) and the sampling of his mentor, Notorious B.I.G (“Jay-Z Blue”). Even Nas’ appearance on “BBC” seems like he was asked to channel his persona from the bling era I Am…. It’s a sign of age at which many of Jay Z’s younger fans may scratch their heads. Yet, it’s an appeal to older fans who were down with the man since his days with Jaz O. It’s one way that Jay uses his art to express himself while making sure that he finds supporters for his vision of world domination.
Sonically, the album is anchored by Timbaland, who offers his vintage sound with a modern take. One of the weakest efforts from Timbo is the opening track, “Holy Grail” and it’s due to how he tries to utilize Justin Timberlake alongside Jay-Z. The track seems like it was made solely for JT and Jay’s upcoming tour rather than as part of a larger effort. It’s a track that could very well have been left on the cutting room floor during the FutureSex/LoveSounds sessions. The better produced tracks are the ones that play into Jay’s tuxedo wearing trap star persona like “Tom Ford,” which features rapid-fire snares and distant, clanging bells. When Timbaland teams up with Pharrell on “Oceans,” they both hit their high mark by re-creating a sound that feels like a familiar Neptunes banger filtered through the prism of channel ORANGE.
The sounds shift from luxury trap music to throwback sounds in the same way that Jay’s lyrical content shifts from all mighty to completely unsure of the future. While it may not be his best, it’s still content to tell his detractors that he hasn’t fallen off. He has his insecurities but they do not manage to ruin the whole album. When compared to his younger counterpart’s Yeezus, Magna Carta Holy Grail offers more quantity than quality in an era where the former is sometimes held in higher regard than the latter. But Jay-Z knows more than anybody that if you don’t produce, you fail to stay relevant.