Musically listless, lyrically vapid, and unctuously unfurled, Magna Carta…Holy Grail (MCHG) is an artistic failure but a business success, just like Jay-Z in 2013.
The beats on MCHG are serviceable but never challenging. At best, their sleek, bouncy tinkering mildly pleases (Picasso Baby, Tom Ford, F*ckwithmeyouknowigotit, BBC ), but at worst their sedate loops and protracted choruses grate (F.U.T.W., Crown, Heaven, La Familia, Nickels and Dimes).
The lyrics are similarly safe to the point of boredom. They mainly consist of empty boasts, unconvincing threats, and expensive luxury items. The gratuitous brand name dropping is especially irksome because it is done without any discernible purpose or entertaining conviction. For example, consider the refrain, “I don’t pop molly I rock Tom Ford”. This could be an update on Jay-Z’s well-intentioned (if overworked) trope of maturity-through-materialism (“I don’t wear jersey I wear button-ups”; “I don’t buy out the bar, I bought the nightspot”), but its half-remembered structure and uninspired delivery turn it into either strained punch line or inane non sequitur.
The enormity of this lost opportunity is highlighted by the fact that MCHG dropped a mere three weeks after Yeezus. Compared to Kanye West, Jay-Z not once ever says anything meaningful on MCHG, either about his inner emotions or society’s problems. And when he tries, he simply evokes themes and leaves them there, rather than divulging vulnerable details or advocating constructive ideas. On both “Holy Grail”, where he laments the pitfalls of fame, and “Jay-Z Blue”, where he frets over first-rate fatherhood, Jay-Z is too superficial to draw us in. On “Heaven”, he mourns the ghetto’s plight for basic necessities—“food, clothing, shelter”—but instead of proposing a solution he reverts to self-worship, like a non-ironic version of “I Am A God”. And on “Oceans”, Jay-Z paints a poignant (if literal-minded) backdrop contrasting the themes of enslavement and success, but he doesn’t do anything with it. For example, compare the song’s treatment of “Strange Fruit”, the anti-lynching poem by Billie Holiday, with Kanye West’s on “Blood on the Leaves”. While Kanye iconoclastically juxtaposed the poem’s searing portrayal of racial injustice with his own pathetically sordid personal affairs in order to advance the acceptance of black consciousness beyond historical victimization to holistic authenticity, Jay-Z simply raps, “On the holiday playing ‘Strange Fruit’/If I’mma make it to a billi I can’t take the same route”. Cute homophone aside, he is effectively saying, “Racism still exists; Must get richer”, which, granted, may be one route towards a post-racial world, but sounds a lot more like the “New Slave” Kanye was rapping about.
MCHG, as an album, is therefore an artistic failure. Despite having infinite creative freedom, the most technically proficient rapper of all time (next to Nas) has released a lazy, thoughtless, riskless, and ultimately artless collection of songs.
Because MCHG, as business, is an unmitigated success. Its Samsung tie-in not only ensured it would go platinum before its release; the album’s content and promotion are just accessible-yet-subversive enough to be seen as “cool” by the mainstream to keep Jay-Z’s legacy, and his bank account, growing forever.
Sure the lyrics aren’t deep, but Jay-Z has never been a reflective or political rapper. His appeal has always been that he raps about hustling and success, and that he does it very, very well. But on MCHG, Jay-Z really wants you think that he’s anti-establishment. He keeps comparing himself to visionary artists and political revolutionaries—Picasso, Basquiat, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X—even though they, unlike Jay-Z, actually stood for something besides making money. The album’s marketing also portrayed it as subversive when in reality it was anything but. Jay-Z released no music videos or singles before the album dropped, but he incessantly bombarded us with pseudo-candid but obviously scripted television commercials, each one capturing “serious” artists discussing “epic” music. (Jay-Z even trotted out Rick Rubin to bask in his philosophical babble, although the Def Jam legend contributed nothing to the album.) And just look at the album cover itself: we all obviously know it’s a Jay-Z record, but a rebellious bar strikes through his name, obscuring nothing except the fact that Jay-Z cares so much about seeming like he doesn’t.
MCHG thus represents something much more fundamental and insidious—the long-foretold but now complete accession of Jay-Z the businessman to Jay-Z the artist. Once an actual hustler from Marcy Projects, Jay-Z’s naked greed was always tolerated because of his artistic prowess. But on MCHG, the execution is so artless and so calculated, that the King is finally exposed for what he has now completely become—a businessman.
Perhaps the title is a nod to this. The actual Magna Carta of 1215 is the charter that stripped the King of England of his powers. The Holy Grail was the chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper that grants any drinker immortality. So maybe Jay-Z self-consciously made his worst album ever in order to establish eternal revenue. But I doubt he gave it this much thought. After all, Jay-Z has often tauntingly resorted to the lame cop-out of “It’s only entertainment!” And now, I finally agree.