Guest Album Review: Jay-Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail

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Jay-ZMagna Carta Holy Grail
Universal Music
Release Date: July 4th 2013

Guest album review by Sam Filby
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Content warning: contains explicit language

On “The Ruler’s Back,” the opening track to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, he calls himself the “voice of the young people / mouth piece for hustlers.” With the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail – 12 years after his Magnus Opus – one has got to ask: is Jay still the voice of young people? Well, no. It’s been even longer since his near-perfect debut Reasonable Doubt was released, an album that perhaps captures street violence and poverty in the projects better than any other. But on MCHG, the streets and poverty are no more. Rather, Jay is now rapping about owning Picasso’s, wearing Tom Ford suits and Hublot watches. He dedicates songs to the subject of wealth. He has, and surely will continue to be, criticized for rapping about wealth.

If there is one element ever present in his lyrics, it’s Jay’s frustration with critics not being able to understand his music. On “Renegade” from The Blueprint, Jay asks “Motherfuckers say that I’m foolish I only talk about jewels / do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?” Though no track on MCHG is as good has “Renegade” (let’s face it – it’s arguably the best rap ever written), the question raised is still relevant. Wealth is certainly present on MCHG, but it’s the layer that Jay lyrically places on the surface on his best records. Critics not being able to decipher Jay’s songwriting are addressed in “Renegade,” as noted, but it even inspired Jay to write Decoded, a book entirely devoted to contextualizing songs within his life and breaking several down to understand their further meaning. And after his efforts, critics still don’t understand. The first track on MCHG, “Holy Grail,” has Justin Timberlake on the hook singing about love and the music industry as a double entendre: “It’s amazing I’m in this maze with you / I just can’t crack your code one day you screaming you love me loud / the next day you’re so cold.”

Jay’s lyrics are built upon double (and occasionally triple) entendres, layers of meaning, and word play. It’s been 17 years since Reasonable Doubt was released, and within those 17 years listeners still don’t quite get it. Listening to a Jay-Z record is almost an art form, an act that takes time and patience. The issue people will hold with MCHG is the same that has been held with “99 Problems.” Jay is still addressing critics because they still don’t understand, and he’s got to be getting tired of it.
If there’s one thing Jay can be rightly criticized of it’s his lack of real lyrical change, then, not absence of complexity. Jay’s songs are undoubtedly great for fasts drives and parties, but the most fun time you’ll have with one of his albums is sitting down with headphones, listening while reading along with his words, and trying to understand his vast range of references and poetic technique (a technique, I might add, that even Oprah can grasp after reading Decoded).

That said, Jay, now 43, still reveals the incredible flow that has captured fans since his beginnings. On “Crown,” one of the albums better tracks, Jay is basically showing off. His flow starts slow and speeds up with the beat, getting faster and more aggressive as the song gets faster and more aggressive – not just in separate verses, but within the verses themselves. There are moments were he certainly slacks and tracks that could be cut (the 52 second “Venus” obviously shouldn’t be on the record), but on moments like the equally short “Beach is Better,” eclectic “Somewhereinamerica,” and heartfelt “Jay-Z Blue,” Jay shows how vocals in hip-hop become an instrument themselves.

In the commercial for the album, Jay-Z tells how it is “like a duality… how you navigate your way through this whole thing. You know, through success, through failures, through all this, and remain yourself.” By the time the album wraps up with the heartfelt last track, “Nickels and Dimes,” the materialism of the record falls into perspective. Like reading a good novel, finishing the last chapter (and thus the novel itself) allows everything that happens beforehand to make sense. It’s this same phenomenon that occurs at the end of MCHG: the listener is now able to realize that “Picasso Baby” is about the dissatisfaction that material things bring, which is why Jay wants more and more; “Tom Ford” becomes a song entirely about vice.

The album can be appreciated easily for what it is and understood as far as one wants to try and understand it. It has Jay-Z’s complex lyricism, classic flow, and inspired beats. The one thing it lacks, however, is something that Jay hasn’t done before.

You can order the album on Amazon and iTunes. You can also like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

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