Hova establishes himself as rap’s elder statesman, but can’t match his ‘Watch The Throne’ partner’s swagger
One-upmanship has been part of hip-hop since the first mic got passed to the second hand, but this, surely, is a golden age. Kanye West set the bar high when he named ‘Yeezus’ and, just to show he really didn’t give a fuck, stuck it out in a blank CD case. How do you go about topping that? Oh, I don’t know, thinks Jay-Z, how about an album title referring to the 13th century document that enshrined in law the individual’s right to freedom from despots, multiplied by the cup that collected Jesus’ blood as he was speared on the cross? Packaged in a sleeve apparently created in five minutes by someone with only a rudimentary knowledge of MS Paint? That ought to do it.
There may be something faintly comical about watching the ‘Watch The Throne’ duo in their efforts to outdo one another, but it’s hard to deny that such camaraderie-as-rivalry is keeping them on their toes. Still, ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ does not hit with the lurching shock of the new that ‘Yeezus’ did. The production side is handled by a familiar cadre – Timbaland, Pharrell, The-Dream, Swizz Beatz – and largely falls between the synthesized, futuristic beatscapes of ‘Watch The Throne’ and the spliffy, chopped-up rock jams that have been a feature of Jay-Z’s work as far back as ‘The Blueprint’. Instead, here are 16 tracks in which he can stretch out, philosophise, and remind us he’s the pre-eminent rap megastar of the day.
One can hardly accuse the 43-year-old Shawn Carter of not acting his age. On ‘Picasso Baby’, he shows off his appreciation for art, referencing Rothko, Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat and, um, Beyoncé (“Sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa/The modern day version with better features”). Meanwhile, the occasional references to alternative rock music (the chorus of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ tossed into ‘Holy Grail’, the refrain from REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’ that crops up in ‘Heaven’) suggest he might recently have come across a pile of yellowing NMEs from 1991 while clearing out the shed. On ‘Tom Ford’, he declares: “I don’t pop molly/I rock Tom Ford”. Because who needs to strafe one’s synapses with mind-expanding drugs when you can wear a well-tailored suit?
This, then, is AOR: Adult Orientated Rap. Luckily, though, Jay-Z still turns out work of impressive authority. The Pharrell-produced ‘Oceans’ has a whiff of Kanye to it – a rumination on slavery that, like ‘Yeezus’’ ‘Blood On The Leaves’, makes reference to heart-rending civil rights anthem ‘Strange Fruit’. Frank Ocean sings the hook, a poetic vision of “Elephant tusk on the boar of a sailing lady/Docked on the ivory coast…” The Gatsby-ish ‘Somewhereinamerica’ takes a mischievous dig at blue-blood racists, its swing horns soundtracking not an exuberate Charleston, but a coda that imagines Miley Cyrus twerking. Elsewhere, he’s pulled off the impressive task of writing songs about adoring one’s wife (the Beyoncé-assisted ‘Part II (On The Run)’, a sequel to ‘’03 Bonnie And Clyde’) and caring for one’s daughter (‘Jay-Z Blue’) without ladling on the schmaltz. There is a bit of acoustic guitar on the latter, but it’s less drippy than, say, 2006’s Chris Martin-assisted ‘Beach Chair’.
Sometimes, though, we can see the limitations of Jay-Z’s princely vantage point. The topic of ‘Heaven’ – an interrogation of organised religion – is intriguing, but the best that Jay-Z can do when envisaging his relationship to the creator is to reference a number of luxury cars. The drug-dealer rhymes of ‘BBC’, featuring former nemesis Nas, harks back to the ’80s, all rhymes about Fila sweats and EPMD cassettes. There are acceptable guest spots from Justin Timberlake and Rick Ross, but no iconoclastic presence, no Kanye prepared to place himself in the catapult and fire out of his comfort zone. Shit, sadly, is seldom cray.
If you’re looking for that, Killer Mike and El-P’s ‘Run The Jewels’ or Chance The Rapper’s ‘Acid Rap’ are probably better bets than ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’. But let’s be clear: Jay-Z doesn’t make bad records. At this stage in his career, he more resembles Springsteen or Dylan: a wise old soul, a wordsmith. And that’s fine. But before the next Jay-Z album, how’s about a ‘Watch The Throne 2’?