Being the esteemed businessman/business… man that he is, you’d think Jay-Z would have mastered the art of the sales pitch — especially when he’s taken such great lengths to convince us that his latest album is the stuff of legend. A brief recap: the famous rapper announced the July 4 release of Magna Carta… Holy Grail during Game 5 of the 2013 NBA Finals, in an unusually long, unashamedly self-congratulatory commercial. Samsung bought a million copies of the album, at around $5 apiece, to release on the holiday via an exclusive Smartphone app (sorry, Apple dorks). Thanks to a conveniently-timed change in RIAA rules, album number 12 had already gone platinum by the eve of its release, when Hov unveiled the album’s luxe artwork in England alongside — what else? — one of the few surviving copies of the Magna Carta.
Pretty epic, right? Of course, like any good infomercial, the brief clip released to promote Magna Carta… Holy Grail only fuels the hype further. Jay-Z has a vision of greatness, right down to the hi-hats and piano keys, and he seems determined to bring that vision to light, even pantomiming the beats that need to be re-tweaked. Timbaland, Pharrell, Swizz Beatz — they’re all there for artistic guidance, and you can practically see their eyes rolling back into their heads from the opulent ecstasy of the songs they’re working on. Rick Rubin, barefoot and sprawled out on the leather sofa, taps his toe to the beat in satisfaction.
It certainly seems pretty amazing. It’s only when Jay-Z starts talking about the album that the luster starts to fade. “Pretty much what the album is about, is, like, this duality,” the rapper stiffly explains to a now-very-much-awake Rubin, “of how you navigate your way through this whole thing… through success, through failure, through all this, and remain yourself.” Ah, the good old stress-of-success yarn. It couldn’t come at a more gripping period in Shawn Corey Carter’s life, as he trudges down the treacherous path trodden upon by all famous first-time fathers, juggling work and family, public and private, Pampers and paparazzi. Some of the most compelling moments on Magna Carta… Holy Grail see the notoriously-guarded Jay-Z tackling this trope with unprecedented intimacy. On “Jay Z Blue,” we actually see our hero, the self-proclaimed American Gangster, fretting: “Now I’m staring at praying that things don’t get ugly/ And I’m stuck in that old cycle like wife leaves hubby/ Fuck Joint Custody/ I need a joint right now/ Just the thought alone fucks with me.”
But what’s Hov without his hubris? Brief bursts of paternal anxiety aside, Magna Carta… Holy Grail isn’t concerned with “this duality,” or “this whole thing,” or even “all this” — it’s just concerned with reminding us of Jay-Z’s unrivaled power and privilege, again and again and again. Here he is on “Picasso Baby,” reassuring his daughter that it’s okay for her to lean on the Basquiat painting he’s got sitting in the kitchen corner. There he goes on “Tom Ford,” pissing straight Bordeaux on a trip to Paris. He’ll appropriate Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” — two of the biggest disenfranchisement anthems ever penned — just so he can half-sing their hooks and sew them into the luxurious, million-dollar-fabric fabric. What’s gilt without a little grunge, after all?
Ostentatious as it is, there’s no denying that Magna Carta… Holy Grail is filled to the brim with satisfying, big-budget production. Thanks to the work of the all-star beatmakers seen in the commercial (with the addition of eyebrow-raisers like Mike Will Made It and Travis Scott, and the exception of Mr. Rubin, whose sole job was to chill on the couch), the Magna Carter can rightfully boast that he has 16 perfect beats at his disposal. From the sulky soul of “Holy Grail” to the Alchemist-style psychedelics of “F.U.T.W.,” drunken horn blasts to black-tie bombast, the production on this album is money very well spent (well, maybe except for those college rock samples).
It’s just a shame that Jay-Z doesn’t rap ‘em for all they’re worth. Granted, he’s not responsible for any Lil Wayne-level howlers; the only time he comes close to struggle-bar territory is on the M.I.A.-cribbing “Tom Ford,” when the rapper delivers the gruel-bland boast, “Hands down got the best flow/ Sound I’m so special.” But even on “Crown,” as he reminds us that “You in the presence of a king/ Scratch that, you in the presence of a god,” Jigga’s presence this time around is more Holy Ghost: intangible, and often not there at all. Just listen to the opening track, plagued with a serious case of the “uhh”s and overly generous in its concessions to musical guest Justin Timberlake; hell, it sounds like a lost track from 20/20 Experience, rather than the triumphant return of a rap god. Tepid closer “Nickels and Dimes” is even worse, with its unsavory combination of wooden flows, Lady Gaga references, and, perhaps most oddly, shots fired at Harry Belafonte (he’s 87, Mr. Carter, come on).
Eight hundred years ago, a bunch of feudal barons changed history when they thrust the Magna Carta upon King John of England. If you can believe it, without that old, ratty document, the King of England would have been able to reign supreme, uncontested, and you and me and everyone you know may very well be tending to potato fields right now, instead of reading album reviews on our shiny computer screens. No matter how many times I listen to Magna Carta… Holy Grail, no matter how many times I watch the commercial in the hopes that I’ll suddenly get it, no matter how many adorable pictures of Blue Ivy Carter I stare at wishing to become hypnotized into understanding the nature of her father’s genius, I just can’t see the same greatness, RIAA record-breaking notwithstanding. Jay-Z’s 12th full-length LP is a fairly solid showing from the most successful rapper of all time, and it’ll undoubtedly sound sweet pouring from your car speakers on a hot summer day. But if you ask me, Hov is the real King John here — well-liked, living the high life, godlike — but out of touch with the rest of us peasants, who just so happen to be the customers. And you know what they say: the customer’s always right.