Jay-Z sells records, fills arenas, and lands major endorsement deals – like the one he landed with Samsung to give away a million copies of his new album Magna Carta... Holy Grail through a Galaxy phone app days before its traditional release – because he has created and sustained one of the most compelling personas in all of pop culture. He's the most alpha of all alpha males; the street hustler turned CEO; the "god MC;" the guy so powerful that the only woman for him is his opposite number, the female ultra-alpha Beyoncé. Magna Carta… Holy Grail, his 15th album if you count collaborations with R. Kelly and Kanye West, spends a lot of time reminding the listener of all this, because — well, that's just what Jay-Z albums do. He rhymes about going on a high art shopping spree, he gushes about how much loves wearing Tom Ford suits, brags about what seems to be a fleet of customized sports cars, and teams up with Beyoncé for a slow jam about their perfect marriage that is quite good, but oddly about as sexy as reading someone's erotic fan fic about Claire and Cliff Huxtable. If you relate to any of this at all, you probably are rich and famous enough to know Jay-Z personally.
The odd thing about Magna Carta, and really, all of Jay-Z's material since returning from a brief retirement with Kingdom Come in 2006, is that while he has kept on writing songs celebrating his enormous success, talent, and boundless ambition, he has also been opening up his lyrics to give us a glimpse of his softer side — sentimental, introspective, and prone to anxieties and insecurities at odds with his hyper-confident image. You would think that this would make Jay-Z a more likable character, but no. Pretty much everyone recoils at this maudlin side of him, particularly when he indulges in it while still reminding us of his fabulous lifestyle. Remember "Beach Chair," his duet with Coldplay's Chris Martin about reflecting on his life while relaxing on the beach on a "permanent vacay"? If you do, you're probably trying to forget it, and I'm sorry I brought it up.
In an artistic sense, it's good that Jay-Z is pushing himself to be more vulnerable in his music, and when he ponders his regrets and mortality on "Heaven," or raps about how fatherhood has changed him on "Jay Z Blue," or reflects on his love-hate relationship with fame on "Holy Grail," it all seems very sincere and true to his day to day life. But artistic growth and "keeping it real" doesn't always result in great art, and so we end up with these songs that undermine Jay-Z's basic appeal as an entertainer, but lack the sort of grit and tension that would make playing against type compelling. The stakes on Magna Carta are very, very low, and it's just a lot easier to look to him as an aspirational figure than to connect with the mild melancholy of a guy with a collective household income hovering around a billion dollars.
The problem with Magna Carta is that the aspirational, escapist side of Jay-Z's music seems incredibly rote this time around. Jay-Z's finest moments as a rapper come when his ego and confidence is so extreme and potent that it affects the listener like a contact high — think about how "U Don't Know" from The Blueprint or "Public Service Announcement" from The Black Album can make you feel totally invincible even if you have no hustling skills to speak of. The high points of Magna Carta mainly get by on the familiar sound of Jay-Z's voice — the rhyme schemes and lyrics are pretty basic by his standards, but sound good because it's him. He's good enough at what he does that he's still well above average when on autopilot.
The beats, mainly provided by Timbaland and his parter J-Roc, are on about the same level — perfectly fine, but a shadow of his former greatness, aside from the popping electro minimalism of "Tom Ford." The difference in energy between the music made by Timbaland and fellow longtime Jay-Z collaborator Pharrell Williams on this record, and the handful of tracks produced by hungry up-and-comers Hit-Boy, Mike Will Made It, and WondaGurl, is stark, and suggests that Hov would've been wiser to have only worked with young guns. Hit-Boy is the man behind "N----s In Paris," the best Jay-Z song since the early '00s, and his only contribution to Magna Carta, "Somewhere In America," is the one cut where the rapper sounds fully excited to be in the booth. Maybe he should've been the one to produce the lion's share of the material here.
It's hard not to damn Jay-Z's Magna Carta… Holy Grail with faint praise, but what else can you do? In the context of the rap icon's long career, the record doesn't come anywhere close to his creative peaks — The Blueprint, The Black Album, Reasonable Doubt — but it's also nowhere near as uninspired or outright awful as Kingdom Come or The Blueprint 3. With this album, Jay-Z has attained a level of admirable mediocrity usually expected of aging rock stars — the raw talent and professionalism is there, but the passion is not. He's not completely disengaged, and it's clear that he's doing what he can to make the music feel fresh and relevant to his life, but we all know what Hov sounds like when he's fired up, and there's nothing on Magna Carta even close to that.