When an iconic musician like a Jay-Z releases a record in this day and age, there are two assurances; the album will be feverishly discussed, criticized, and picked over, and it will leak. Back in 2011, Jay-Z and Kanye West changed the rules of the game when their collaborative album Watch The Throne was released on iTunes a week ahead of its physical release to brick and mortar outlets, becoming one of the first major acts to avoid the previously inevitable leak altogether. Building upon that success, Jay-Z decided to change the rules once again, striking a deal with Samsung, which was both concurrently astounding (for Jay-Z) and mind-blowingly inept (for Samsung).
Jay-Z and his team at Roc Nation (which has been on a roll lately) struck a deal with Samsung that got the South Korean conglomerate to pay a premium — $5 million — to purchase and distribute one million copies of Jay-Z’s new album, 72 hours before its scheduled release to a group of people who own one of three Samsung phones and download a special app. Included in the deal was a massive promotional push for the album — including a three-minute commercial during the NBA Finals, along with online, print, and even multiple ads in Time Square — that quickly topped the $5 million price tag for the rights to the album, all on Samsung’s tab, saving Jay-Z and Roc Nation millions in promotional costs.
Let’s look at all of that in context: Jay-Z, planning to release a new album, which would require a sizeable promotional budget and undoubtedly leak to the public (even if it was released on iTunes a week ahead of physical retailers), struck a deal with a major corporation to take over the promotion of the album, and pay $5 million for what amounts to a coordinated leak. Jay-Z’s inner hustler still exists.
But what about the actual music?
Magna Carta Holy Grail is Jay-Z’s most heartfelt and emotional album to date. With brilliant production from Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, Boi-1da, and standout features from Rick Ross, Frank Ocean, and Beyoncé, Magna Carta is easily the most star-studded album in Jay-Z’s career (Watch The Throne notwithstanding). The first track off Magna Carta, aptly named “Holy Grail,” commences with Justin Timberlake singing over a piano for a minute and twenty seconds before we even hear Jay-Z come in and speak on the highs and lows of success and fame. “Tom Ford” isn’t lyrically one of Jay’s best songs, but it does feel like it was birthed during a Watch The Throne session, which is a good thing. “Tom Ford” is some of Timbaland’s best work in years, with a cacophony of sounds melded into one of the most creative beats you will hear this year, and will quickly become a staple in all future Jay-Z medleys.
“FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” is a straight banger, an undeniable street hit featuring Rick Ross, who is at his best on the song, not attempting to overpower the masterful beat, but allowing it to breathe on its own. With an intro by the late, great Pimp C, Hova is in full braggadocio mode on the track, even dropping a little italian.
“Oceans” featuring Frank Ocean is the deepest track on the album, and the song that will send the uninitiated straight to Rap Genius. Produced by Pharrell Williams and Timbaland and recorded over two years ago, we find Frank Ocean contrasting the injustice of slave ships with the opulence of a Jean-Michel Basquiat show using the most powerful lyrics you will hear outside of Kanye’s sample of “Strange Fruit” on “Blood On The Leaves”:
I see elephant tusk on the bow of a sailing lady/ Docked on the Ivory Coast/ Mercedes in a row winding down the road/ I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo/ Before the Basquait show/ and if so/ Well fuck it, fuck it/ Because this water drown my family/ This water mixed my blood/ This water tells my story/ This water knows it all/ Go ahead and spill some champagne in the water/ Go ahead and watch the sun blaze/ On the waves/ Of the ocean
Not to be outdone, Jay-Z unleashes his own contradistinctions and double-entendres in his first verse, pushing back against the lore of American history, criticizing events widely considered to be overwhelmingly positive, while simultaneously boasting about shopping without limits:
I’m anti-Santa Maria/ Only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace/ I don’t even like Washingtons in my pocket/ Black card go hard when I’m shopping/ Boat dock in front of Hermes picking cotton/ Silk and fleeces, lay on my Jesus/ Oh my God, I hope y’all don’t get sea sick
The sequel to “’03 Bonnie & Clyde,” “Part II (On The Run)” featuring Beyoncé is another track with amazing production by Magna Carta staple Timbaland. The husband and wife team combine to deliver a guaranteed summer hit, with a piano-laden beat destined for a Billboard Top 10 slot. “Part II (On The Run)” gives us the most honest and public dialogue on Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s relationship to date:
She fell in love with the bad guy/ the bad guy/ What you doing with them rap guys/ Them rap guys/ They ain’t see potential in me girl/ But you see it/ If it’s you and me against the world/ Then so be it
Sadly, the best song on Magna Carta doesn’t even one minute mark. The blissful 56 seconds of “Beach Is Better” is undoubtedly what we expected to hear from Jay-Z throughout this entire album. A pulsating, thumping beat from Boi-1da, and a vigorous flow from Hova coalesces into the best near minute of music on Magna Carta. “Beach Is Better” has you craving more upon its abrupt ending — and that’s a good thing — but the rest of Magna Carta does not have the same effect.
What holds Magna Carta back from being a truly masterful project is the excess of songs, and the lackadaisical manner with which Mr. Carter attacks those surplus tracks. If Magna Carta was three to four songs shorter, it could arguably be a classic Jay-Z album. Instead we get an overextended Jay-Z on tracks like “Heaven” that gives off the perception that he was trying to hit a quota for Magna Carta. There are lulls in the middle and end of Magna Carta, with “La Familia” being the most blatant track that should have been dropped from the final product. “Versus” feels out of place on Magna Carta; a 51-second cut with a beat seemingly pulled from a 70’s Bond film, that upon first glance it seemed like it was included by mistake. These little errors begin to add up, dragging down Magna Carta from the Album of The Year conversation, which a majority of the tracks on the album qualifies it for.
Magna Carta is no Yeezus, but I’m not so sure they should be directly compared. Jay-Z is a rapper in the most classic sense of the word. At this point in his career, Kanye is not. Instead of staying in the lane he began his career in, Kanye West has expanded from a soul-sampling producer and rapper to a hip-hop artist and innovator. Jay-Z, meanwhile, has perfected his skills as a rapper, cementing himself as one of the all-time great lyricists and leader of the art form. Even though they fall under the same category, Jay-Z and Kanye West are no longer direct competitors — one of the main reasons why Watch The Throne worked so flawlessly.
Three weeks ago, Kanye West dramatically expanded the world of hip-hop with an album that shattered the predetermined constraints on what could be considered hip-hop. Jay-Z excels in those constraints. If Magna Carta was released on June 4 instead of July 4, the reception of the album would be dramatically disparate. Instead, the world’s palate has been tainted with the expansive, grandiose, and innovative project that is Yeezus, making Magna Carta — which has flaws, but is still miles ahead of the rest of the hip-hop world — seem inconsequential and lackluster. Magna Carta isn’t inconsequential, it’s extremely enjoyable, but the atmosphere in hip-hop right now, the need for expansion and metamorphosis of the genre perpetuated by the brilliance of Yeezus, in which the album has been released will only be a detriment to the immediate reception of Magna Carta. If you can get past the genre-bending Yeezus, you can enjoy Magna Carta Holy Grail, even with its flaws for what it really is — the best pure rap album of the year.