JAY Z: “Magna Carta Holy Grail”

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Image from www.magnacartaholygrail.com

By John Glynn

In a review that eulogizes Jay Z, Jim Farber, New York Daily News music critic, zones in on a lyric where the rapper believes that he is in fact “the Bob Dylan of rap.” Farber then proceeds to evaluate this bold statement, “that may sound like a stretch — especially since not all the music on Magna Carta has the freshness of its verse. But the fact that Jay has allowed more vulnerability and rumination to balance out his continuing wit and fun means he may be well on his way to becoming his genre’s answer to the great bard. “High praise, but is it warranted?

Mr. Carter lives such an exclusive life, a way of living that is so distant from our day to day reality. You would be forgiven for thinking that it may be impossible to relate to the topics covered on “Magna Carta Holy Grail.” From his Lamborghini to sleeping with Beyonce, this is what most men can only dream of.
When the Jigga Man first mentioned Pablo Picasso, he was setting lofty standards for lyricists everywhere. On his excellent debut Reasonable Doubt, Jay rapped; “You draw? Better be Picasso.” Since this track (Friend or Foe), 17 years have passed, Jay-Z’s standards have changed. On his new album, the multi-millionaire discusses the Cuban painter in the same way you might discuss buying a plasma screen. In the aptly named “Picasso Baby,” Jigga raps; “I just want a Picasso, in my casa / no, my castle.” However, supercilious bragging aside, as one digs deeper; we see that Jay-Z is mulling over issues that trouble all of us, regardless of societal standing: religion, parenthood, and distrust.

Steve Jones, a reviewer for USA Today, gave Magna Carta four out of four stars. In a short but concise write-up, the reviewer states; “The breadth of his subject matter … is matched by his lyrical acuity, his perspective is that of someone who has achieved much but hasn’t lost sight of what brought him to this point.” The respected Jones finishes by writing, “He stays on top, because he refuses to do anything less than epic.” And as I listen to this album over and over, I tend to agree, epic is a word that gets thrown around a little too easily, however, it fits Magna Carta rather well.

The Justin Timberlake lead “Holy Grail” opens the album in a stylish manner. The J-Roc, The-Dream & Timbaland produced track is a rousing, melodramatic tale of the fickleness of fame. Hova raps; “I’m the ni**a, caught up in all these lights and cameras/but look what that shit did to Hammer/Goddammit, I like it/The bright lights is enticing,” all before breaking into a unique interpretation of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: “We’re all just entertainers/and we’re stupid, and contagious.” This is undoubtedly one of the album’s most alluring tracks, and this is largely due to Timberlake’s purring falsetto.

After comparing his castle walls to art museums, Jay focuses his attention on everyone else. He assumes the role of the bully, taunting, probing, – like in “La Familia”: “Tell these n****s to pull they skirts down, I can see their ovaries.” Yes, a line like this could take the limelight away from his more humble moments, such as when he recites R.E.M inspired lyrics. The references relate to the questionable payoffs of fame, religion and music in general.

Musically, the album is heavily dependent upon Timbaland’s production prowess, with intermittent assistance from the likes of Pharrell, Swizz Beats and Mike Dean. This reliance is especially true when we are introduced to the brassy trombone beat behind “Somewhere In America”. The impressive “FUTW” sees Jay take liberties characterizing his accomplishments as symbolic of his struggle to become famous, rapping, “America tried to emasculate the greats/Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes”.

“Tom Ford,” produced by J-Roc & Timbaland is a tune of epic proportions. The most attractive quality of this song, named after the fashion designer, is the way Jigga shapes the song around M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls.” Besides an ample serving of not so humble brags, we learn that Hova’s drug of choice is in fact Tom Ford. Fascinating, I’m sure you agree!
Guest appearances are aplenty, with a whole posse of names filling up “BBC.” The topic of discussion here involves outlandish wealth, Hova reveals his generous nature to us all, rapping about the various cars he bought for his crew, but it’s Pharrell who steals the show with the wittiest of brags; “My whole life is leisure/Gangsta lean like the Pisa.”

Beyonce’s beau manages to balance his immodesty with some panache, something that was perhaps missing from his earlier work. Perhaps maturity has helped humble Hova, then again, is that really possible?
One of the more humorous aspects of the album is listening to Rick Ross do the whole jet-set boast thing, and still sound like a hired bouncer. I really “F*ckwithmeyouknowigotit,” however, Ross’s hook seems a bit out of place, somewhat resembling a cut-and-paste job more so than an appropriate guest appearance.

Other guests on Magna include the super-talented Frank Ocean. “Oceans,” produced by Pharrell and Timbaland, is simply stunning, with Frank’s smooth voice perfectly complementing Jigga’s sheer rawness. The album’s real meaning is summed up in a single Ocean delivered line, “I hope my black skin don’t dirty this white tuxedo before the Basquiat show and if so, well f*ck it.” Magna Carta focuses on social problems and what it’s like to try and succeed as a black man in 2013. Jay proves that, even through the lens of such an elite view, it’s still possible to view the picture he paints.

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