In the absence of any substantial music to listen to, much of the pre-release chatter around Jay-Z’s 12th album has focused on its mode of delivery: a million copies to be available, via app, to owners of Samsung mobile devices on the morning of today, July 4.
Of course, in the end, it leaked on the morning of release, meaning Samsung forked out $5 million to make ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ immediately go platinum, even as they watched the music explode across like the web just like any other enormously hyped and hotly anticipated hip-hop album of the last 10 years. Mind you, Samsung probably won’t mind terribly, having had their brand name plastered across every news site in the known universe in the last couple of weeks. #newrules, indeed.
So it’s here: how does it sound?
Plaintive piano introduces Mr Justin Timberlake, giving it some all tearful and heartfelt: “You curse my name, in spite/To put me to shame/Hang my laundry in the streets, dirty or clean… but I still don’t know why I love it so much…” But ‘Holy Grail’ isn’t a love song; more a rumination on the celebrity’s relationship fame itself. Jay-Z pops up 90 seconds in, “caught up in all these lights and cameras”. He ponders what the spotlight can do to people – Mike Tyson, MC Hammer (no, seriously), and Kurt Cobain, who he toasts with the chorus of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. The message: fame takes a piece of your soul, but he can’t give up the limelight, not yet.
Jay-Z goes a bit Charles Saatchi (no, not like that). Marching drums and groovy jazz bass is a canvas for our host to spit wisdom about fine art: Rothko, Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Da Vinci (rhymed with ‘Givenchy’). Good shout out to the missus (“Sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa/ the modern day version with better features”). Midway through, the beat flips into a head-nodding groove a little reminiscent of ‘The Takeover’. This is the sort of thing he does so well: “What’s it going to take me for me to go/For you see I’m the modern day Pablo?”
A more futuristic sounding Timbaland production and a tip towards the alien bass of ‘Watch The Throne’ that’s all lurking bass and flickering eight-bit sound effects. The titular Ford is the American fashion designer, formerly at Gucci, and Jay-Z rather likes his suits: “I don’t pop molly/I rock Tom Ford”.
A spoken word intro from the late Pimp C of UGK muses on materialism, slavery and the African-American character, much in the same vein as Kanye’s ‘New Slaves’. Then Rick Ross gets on the mic and does quite a bit of swearing which is, y’know, OK. Good Jay-Z wordplay on the subject of Meet The Fockers star Robert DeNiro: “Come money dance with the good fellas/Hov keep gettin' that Dinero, got it/Even if a nigga gotta Robert, get it?”(Dinero is Spanish for ‘money’, by the way – one suspects Jay-Z knows the word for ‘money’ in all the languages of the world).
The first stone-cold killer on ‘Magna Carta…’ Frank Ocean apparently now has a seat at Jay-Z’s top table, portentous horns introducing a particularly lyrical sung opener that imagines “Elephant tusk on the boar of a sailing lady/Docked on the ivory coast”. Loosely, it seems to be about colonialism, slavery and the black experience – it references ‘Strange Fruit’, Billie Holiday’s song about racist lynchings that was recently sampled in rather crass fashion by Kanye – but there is much nuance in its message. Indeed, he seems to take a pop at Obama towards the end, referencing Shepard Fairey – he of the ‘Hope’ posters – before adding: “Democrat?/Nope/I sold dope…”
It stands for ‘Fuck Up This World’. A drum machine march haunted by eerie wind chimes, it references Martin Luther King, Spike Lee and Muhammed Ali (under his “slave name”, Cassius Clay). Best line: “Feel like a stranger in my own land/Got me feeling like Brody on Homeland…”
Things get a bit Gatsby, with shuffling drums, concert piano and a horn break you could probably do the Charleston to. It’s a new money/old money thing, with the implication that the American establishment doesn’t much like its wealthy new African-American neighbours: “Knock knock I'm at your neighbour’s house/Straight cash I bought ya neighbor out/You should come to the housewarming”. Amusing bit about Miley Cyrus twerking at the end.
A troubled end-of-days number introduced by a warped toast by reggae singer Sizzla. Grim, distorted bass booms, distorted synths scream – it’s as close as Jay-Z gets to the raw electronic production of ‘Yeezus’. And Jay-Z tips his hat to Kanye – “you already saw me turn a man to a goat” presumably being a reference to the self-proclaimed Greatest Of All Time.
AKA, the one that nicks a line from REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’. The gist is that Jay-Z, once God-fearing, is now doubting his faith. The Holy Ghosts he sees are Rolls-Royce Ghost Phantoms, the angel wings are the rising doors of a Lamborghini. Maybe God exists, but organised religion has nothing to offer: “I'm secular, tell the hecklers seckle down/Y'all religion creates division…”
Quick interlude for a spot of vintage Jay-Z boasting: “Your last shit ain’t better than my first shit/Your best shit ain’t better than my worst shit…”
Up pops the missus for what could be one of the record’s highlights, a breezy freestyle pop track about the pair’s relationship that’s sweet but never soppy. “Who wants that perfect love story anyway? Cliché, cliché,” sings Beyonce. “My baby momma harder then a lot of you niggas,” offers Jay-Z, before suggesting that if she ends up in heaven and he ends up in hell, she should come visiting with something for him to smoke. Ah, romance.
Another brief interlude, with some more ‘Yeezus’-y synth fuzz. Good schoolyard-style boast: “I brought sand to the beach/Cause my beach is better/You can keep ya beach/Cause that beach whatever”.
One of the record’s oddities, a Pharrell-produced number with more than a little Latin in its step. Former Jay-Z nemesis Nas takes the first verse, and lyrically speaking, it’s a nostalgic number, tackling drug pushing and hip-hop fashion of the ‘80s: unlaced Adidas, Fila sweats, bucket hats, EPMD cassettes. Bit of trivia: Jay-Z’s verse features the album’s third reference to New York graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The pressures of fatherhood, spun out in verse. There is acoustic guitar, but it’s not too gooey, finding Jay-Z pondering the shortfalls of his own deadbeat father, and the difficult of raising a child well when both her parents are jet-setting megastars. He’s upfront about his own failings (“Baby needs Pampers/Daddy needs at least three weeks in the Hamptons”) and almost uncomfortably honest about his relationship with Beyonce: “This relationship shit is complicated/All I know is we ain't speaking everyday…”
But no one, repeat no-one, is stopping the Carters. Over ticking trap snares, Jay-Z makes his nuclear family unit sound more like a Mafioso clan. Not the greatest track here, but there’s a robust response to Lil Wayne, who threatened to kidnap Beyonce in verse back in 2011: “You must gonna hide your whole family/What you think we wearing black for?”
A sample of sometime Flying Lotus associate Gonjasufi spins out, and Jay-Z concludes ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ with a bit of what he’s best at: rapping about how great Jay-Z is. “Y'all not worthy/Sometimes I feel like y'all don't deserve me/My flow unearthly…” Yet it feels like an appropriate cap to an album that finds Jay-Z still at the top of his game, but troubled – mulling sometimes melancholy on race, politics and fatherhood, aware that the only person he can really rely on is himself. Let’s be clear: Yeezus still has competition.