Two weeks ago, Jay-Z announced that he’d be releasing his 12th studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, on July 4 to Samsung Galaxy users through an app, and July 7 to online and physical retailers. It was a surprise announcement, but not totally unexpected given his tour this summer with Justin Timberlake, whose comeback appears to be mainly a result of contractual obligations.
This album — with its hefty, self-important name — is supposed to be a “big deal,” or at least Jay-Z and Samsung would like us to believe it is.
It was the most alive we’d heard Jay in years; the dynamic of those two together will never get old — the producer-rapper relationship that gave way to a sibling/best friendship. But if Kanye wasn’t on the album, it’s unlikely that it would have had the same impact. The beats alone are fantastic, so with all else the same it would’ve likely been a hit regardless, but Ye had a hand in producing most of the tracks. Jay had some great lines, but Kanye by and large ran away with most of the meme-worthy lyrics. I mean, it’s not a question that Jigga is the superior rapper of the two. But while stuff like “What she order? Fish fillet?” might not be the deepest lyrics of our time, they sure were fun.
6. Jay’s last solo album, The Blueprint 3, was basically mediocre.
We couldn’t escape “Empire State of Mind” for the life of us, but just because it sounded big — as did “Run This Town,” featuring Rihanna — didn’t mean it was necessarily saying anything important. They’re songs that are sentimental and defined by bursting choruses, but the verses are kinda fluffy. “Empire” is mostly just a rundown of locations that held significance for Jay, but he hardly explores what that means to him today beyond, like, “Started from the bottom / Now we here.” The album was scattered, and while there were good verses and beats here and there (“On to the Next One” was a legit banger), there just wasn’t anything of note that offered us any real further insight into who or what Jay was about at that point in time. Don’t even get me started on “Young Forever.”
Even American Gangster, which was an ambitious and well-executed concept album, failed to spawn any monstrous singles in the same way his earlier albums did.
7. But Jay (and Samsung) want us to know that this is going to be a historical album — one exploring the “duality” of success and failure, of authenticity.
To promote the album, Samsung rolled out a series of commercials that seem like behind-the-scenes “making-of” footage, but really are just ads with Pharrell, Timbaland, and Swizz Beatz nodding their heads enthusiastically while Jay-Z explains what the album is about. Rick Rubin (who’s revealed that he had nothing to do with the album) lies on the couch and acts like he’s surprised and interested.
9. I want to be excited when Hov talks about all of this, but it mostly makes me feel like this:
I’ll admit it! I got a little choked up when I saw him getting emotional talking about his experience growing up without a father, and the fears and pressures that come along with wanting to be a good parent.
But all in all, it’s hard to imagine that Magna Carta will resonate and capture the attention of pop culture in the same way that Yeezus has and will continue to do.
10. Even Rick Rubin’s not really that pumped about it.
Rubin told XXL:
“I liked what I heard, but it was a little difficult—after just coming from the Kanye sessions—to listen to Jay’s album, because they’re so different. I was in a very alternative and progressive headspace, and Jay’s record is a more traditional hip-hop record.”
If this isn’t the most diplomatic answer from Rick Rubin about what he thought of Jay’s album, then I don’t know what is.
13. There are lines here that are just straight-up clunky.
14. “I arrive at the pearly gates / I had luggage / Meaning I had baggage.”
Well…yeah, duh. C’mon Jay, is that how little you think of us??
Part of the joy and the fun of Jay-Z was to pore over his lyrics and parse out the double, triple meanings; now he’s practically forcing it down our throats, as though his audience is too dim to get that luggage is a metaphor for emotional baggage.
15. Jay also borrows directly from R.E.M. and Nirvana on the album, quoting entire lyrics.
On “Heaven,” he uses the refrain from “Losing My Religion,” and on “Holy Grail,” featuring Justin Timberlake, he borrows from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (Courtney Love gave him her blessing.)
Listen, I respect and like Jay-Z as much as the next person! He’s a talented rapper, has incredible presence and weight on a track, and he’s responsible for some of the most densely packed, thoughtful rhymes in hip-hop history.
But you can only ride your legacy for so long, and Jay-Z has long ceased to be relevant for the same reasons that got him to where is today. He rapped really, really well in order to get to a place where he was so famous that it didn’t matter if he rapped well anymore. This isn’t to say that Jay-Z isn’t relevant at all; he’s relevant to culture, of course. He’s an icon. He’s gonna sell a ton of records no matter what he does at this point. But he’s no longer the same kind of game-changer or tastemaker in rap music that he once was. And…you shouldn’t feel guilty if you don’t feel yourself getting super excited about his new music. We’ve all been watching the throne*, and he’s no longer sitting on it.
*Sorry, I had to.
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