“In America, you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential.” – Barack Obama
When my boy Mecca and I listened to “American Gangster” in the studio with Jay-Z present in 2007, Jay exuded confidence, excitement and happiness. Beyoncé passed through and oozed the same sentiments. Magna Carta Holy Grail feels eerily similar to that moment. Jay sounds fresh. He sounds free. He also sounds angry at times, as if the weight of the hate burdens him despite all of his accomplishments. But, there is a huge difference since then. Jay’s status and profile has risen like a renegade phoenix, soaring from hell to the highest levels of heaven.
Purgatory: : an intermediate state after death for expiatory purification; specifically : a place or state of punishment wherein according to Roman Catholic doctrine the souls of those who die in God’s grace may make satisfaction for past sins and so become fit for heaven.
So, is Jay-Z in purgatory? Magna Carta Holy Grail seems to make the case. Throughout, it’s evident that Jay — despite being an absolute rags to riches narrative — is still trapped between the opulence of extreme wealth and longing to be loved from those at the bottom. So, what does he do in purgatory? He camps out, builds a mansion and makes it home. It all makes for an intriguing musical excursion.
Lets start from the end with “Nickles and Dimes,” one of the most profound songs on MCHG. “Sometimes I feel survivors guilt / I gave some money to this guy / he got high as hell,” Jay opens up. “Now, I’m part of the problem far as I can tell / Did I do it for him or do it for myself?” The rest of the song, he explains that he’s not giving money anymore, but something far greater – opportunity. He even takes time to respond to legendary actor/singer/activist Harry Belafonte, who criticized Jay and Beyonce for “lacking social responsibility.” “I’m just trying to find common ground, but Mr. Belafonte try to chop a n***a down/ Mr. Da-Oh / Major fail,” Jay spews. Naturally, Jay is conflicted as he rhymes about giving opportunity and that “you don’t know the sh*t I do for the homies.” It would have been nice to see Jay honor the 85-year-old Belafonte rather than feed into divide and conquer. Oh, the conflict.
“Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit” featuring Rick Ross is a welcome delight on Magna Carta. Ruefully ignorant yet magnificently simplistic. Jay and Ross trade bars about bad b***hes and beaches over a booming baseline. Destined to be a hood anthem. The intro in curious where it says, “A little over a year ago I was in bondage. Now, I’m back out here reaping the blessing and getting the benefits that go along with it…everything that’s out here for kings. The reason that we like this – this this jewelry and these diamonds – they don’t understand the sh*t – is we really from Africa. So don’t look down on the youngsters because they want shiny things. its in our genes.”
“Ni***s want my old s**t, buy my old album,” Jay once proclaimed. Magna Carta is largely an experimental album where the Brooklyn native attempts deft feats of creativity – some that work and others that don’t. “Somewhereinamerica” knocks with a heavy piano with a repetitive horn. Jay rhymes about being an insider still rejected, despite the wealth. “New money, they looking down on me / Blue Bloods (royalty), they try to clown on me / you can turn up your nose high society / never gon’ turn down the homey.” Another delightfully dense record is “Crown,” where he proclaim himself to be a god. But, the song is truly a reaction the ubiquitous hater where he says, “These n***as try to s**t on me..they try to write me outta their history.” This reviewer wanted to like “Oceans” with Frank Ocean, but it settles rather listlessly.
Beyoncé sounds quite heavenly on “Part II (On The Run),” where the pair make a case for a duet album. Its these times when Jay sounds the most sincere – when he gets personal. While “Jay-Z Blue” feels awkward with Biggie and Mommie Dearest” samples, you can feel the earnest conflict in the 43-year-old as he toils over repeating the cycle his father set for him. “Piscasso Baby” has Jay examining his art fetish, but also begs the question “when is enough enough?” “Ahhh, f**k it, I want a trillion!” he yelps! Raekwon would have been perfect for “Heaven,” which feels like a RZA beat, but the religious subject matter is too weighty for a first encounter between the two titans. Jay quickly sublimes to death some “sucka n***a” on “Versus” and flaunts the fruits of labor on “Beach Is Better.”
Jay discusses “Heaven” and “Jay-Z Blue”
Lets finish with the album intro, “Holy Grail,” a duet song with Justin Timberlake, where the theme continues. Jay chastises the papz – “Can’t even take my daughter for a walk / see them by the corner store” – but, ultimately admits to loving the glory associated with fame and wealth. The self-proclaimed “illest n***a alive” – that’s Jay-Z in all his hues, contrasts and conflicting sentiments.
“Just let me be great. Let me be great!,” Jay shouts on”F.U.T.W.” “I feel like mother f**kin’ Cassius Clay right now.” But, Jay knows like Ali before him. Greatness is seized and not given. With MCHG, he’s extended his greatness well into the future, well beyond his peers, but probably not past his own ambitions. But, will he make it out of purgatory? The truth is, some listeners will hate this record and others will love it. One thing is clear – all will have a need to adjust their musical pallet to fully comprehend Jay-Z’s new truth.
Furthermore, we’ll have to take a moment and see through Jay-Z’s lens to fully appreciate it, as Jay will need to examine Harry Belafonte to understand his critique of the rap mogul. And therein lies the plight of Mr. Carter, smack dab in the middle of the haves and have-nots. On Magna Carta, he reminds us that he “parties with weirdoes” but also has numerous references to his drug dealing days decades ago. Just a reminder: He’s in a different space, still of the people.
All in all, Magna Carta is another victory for Brooklyn’s royal son. The biggest question might be, how will Shawn Carter top the event known now as Magna Carta Holy Grail?
Album Cohesiveness –7/10
Replay value –8/10
01 Holy Grail (Feat. Justin Timberlake)
02 Picasso Baby
03 Tom Ford
04 Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit (Feat. Rick Ross)
05 Oceans (Feat. Frank Ocean)
11 Part II (On The Run) [Feat. BeyoncÈ]
12 Beach Is Better
14 Jay-Z Blue
15 La Familia
16 Nickles And Dimes