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Review: Jay Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail

Jay Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail


The accumulation of wealth is a narrative we can all relate to. As much as we like to think of ourselves as free-spirited, environmentally minded anti-consumerists, in practice that’s just a fantasy. On more levels than we’d like to admit, we need money to be happy. Certain artists shouldn’t be judged for lyrical content that primarily focuses on bettering their lives through wealth. Most of these guys had nothing to begin with, so why shouldn’t they use their talent for reward. Jay Z grew up in Bed-Stuy, he was abandoned by his father, and spent his childhood hustling, selling crack and getting shot at. Through hard-work, tenacity and sheer red-blooded talent, Jay Z is now the most respected living rapper in America, he’s married to Beyonce and he's friends with the president. His rise from the streets is nothing short of heroic and he deserves it all.
So Jay Z can rap about cars, money, watches and his own brand vodka as much as he likes, he earned it, and on some level, we can all relate to it. You getting that promotion to Assistant Manager at Sports Direct, that’s the same. You getting a PS3 that you’ve been pleading with your partner to let you buy, that’s the same.

On Magna Carta Holy Grail when Jay Z starts rapping about his art collection; including million dollar pieces by Basquiat, Bacon and Picasso, that’s when we, as an audience, suddenly start to think “you know what, fuck this guy!” Our sympathy has disappeared and we feel alienated by this extreme version of the 'rags-to-riches' narrative. Jay Z is now so vastly wealthy he’s turned into Charles Foster Kane, sitting in his cavernous Xanadu like mansion, stuffed full of super rare trophies that he’s collected purely because what the hell else is he gonna spend all of this fucking money on!

Jay Z as a recognisable human being is far removed from the production of MCHG. Here he's just signing cheques. Money can buy you a phalanx of production talent and contributors - Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake - but by goodness it doesn’t buy you a sense of identity.

On listening to the remarkably over-stuffed opening track 'Holy Grail', you'll soon realise it’s a Justin Timberlake record featuring a lazy guest rap from Jay Z called in as a favour. The Frank Ocean collaboration 'Oceans' is a gorgeous track but purely for Frank Ocean’s beautiful delivery. Ultimately it’s a histrionically produced effort with an overly literal and mark-missing guest spot from Jay Z. 'Fuckwithmeyouknowyougotit' featuring Rick Ross is as awful as it is bewilderingly dreary. The cringe inducing use of Nirvana and REM lyrics feels more like an insult than a homage. You don’t ever want to hear Timberlake sing 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. It’s something you can’t unhear. Luckily Beyonce is frequently on hand to provide the sympathetic face of the Carter family empire.

By the final track, 'Nickels and Dimes', which is essentially a 5 minute long back-pedal where Jay Z speaks laboriously about his charity work that he apparently ‘doesn’t like to talk about’, patience is worn to its very thinnest, and finally he kicks you in the teeth by saying his own fans aren’t worthy and that we don’t deserve him. It’s an uncharismatic and bitter send-off.

Although it might be unfair to compare MCHG to Kanye West‘s recent Yeezus, for all of it’s failings, at least Kanye’s record was a statement. MCHG is a succession of name-drops, artistic allusions and artifice that says nothing, experiments with little and never really entertains. There’s very little of Jay’s personality here. Nothing introspective, nothing reflective. His peers, many of whom Jay Z has nurtured himself, are making much more thoughtful and innovative albums, that say a lot more than how successful they respectively are.

This has been one the least graceful retirements of recent history.
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