July 5, 2013


Jay-Z's 'Magna Carta Holy Grail': First Impressions

via Life + Times
via Life + Times

On July 4, 2013, the United States of America celebrated its 237th year of independence. Cue the bombs bursting in air. Oh, also, a Brooklyn rapper named Jay-Z dropped his latest album, called Magna Carta Holy Grail. Freedom, religion, liberty... Jay-Z's 12th studio album. Got it.

The hype machine leading up to its release was relentless (will it or won't it hit No. 1? Depends who you ask...). And when it finally arrived Thursday night via an app available to 1 million Samsung users, problems abound. A leaked copy, reportedly stolen during a hack to Samsung's system, started circulating online, while Samsung users vented over download glitches. 

Whenever (and however) the album finally arrived to fans' ears, they found Hova in a familiar mood: grandstanding on the trappings of mega-success, but also questioning his role as father, rapper, entrepreneur and more. These are the big questions and problems in Jay-Z's world.

"Holy Grail," the opener featuring Justin Timberlake, was released to hold non-Samsung users over til the LP drops in full on Tuesday. Listen here. It's a slick, radio-ready pop hit with Jay spitting about aggressive paparazzi trying to get a baby picture of Blue Ivy. Then there's the much-discussed nod to late Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain: "And we all just entertainers / And we're stupid, and contagious," he raps midway through the track. 

Elsewhere, on the old-school feel of "Picasso Baby," Jay-Z is rich; so rich he has famous paintings in every corner of his mansion, including a Warhol in the kitchen for his daughter to destroy. "It ain't hard to tell / I'm the new Jean Michel / Surrounded by Warhols / My whole team ball / Twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel / I just wanna live colossal."

On "Tom Ford," he's in Paris dropping Euros on designer clothes and lamenting the late Concorde private jets over a Nintendo-style, 8-bit beat and synth sounds. On "Versus" he cuts down any rapper who even thinks they're on his level. Because they're not, okay?

He compares slave ships to luxury yachts on "Oceans," as Frank Ocean croons over layered and ethereal production (Timbaland handles most of the production on the LP). "Somewhereinamerica" has a super-dope trombone loop, but delivers perhaps the LP's most confusing moment: the viral-grab lyrics, "They see I’m still putting work in / Cause somewhere in America / Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’. Twerk, Miley, Miley, twerk."

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a pair of tracks: "Jay Z Blue (Daddy Dearest)" and "Heaven." The former samples dialogue from Mommie Dearest and has lyrics addressing Hova's apprehension with fatherhood: "[My] father never taught me to be a father," he rhymes. "I'm trying and I'm lying if I said I wasn't scared."

On "Heaven," a standout for its hypnotic, twilight-zone-esque production, Hova questions religion and borrows lines from R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." Then on "Part II (On the Run)," a futuristic R&B jam featuring Beyoncé, the two imagine an outlaw love affair, Bonnie and Clyde style. 

All in all, Magna Carta is many different things and shows many different sides of Hova. Much will be said comparing Magna Carta to Kanye West's aggressive, arty, universally-acclaimed LP Yeezus. Kanye did one thing (that minimal, claustrophobic sonic blitzkrieg) and did it extremely well and with a unique style and flair all his own. With Magna Carta, Jay-Z does many things (rap and pop dissecting fatherhood, religion, riches and more) and does it pretty damn well, too, though with less vitriol. After all, he is hip hop's well-mannered renaissance man.