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'Magna Carta Holy Grail' proves Jay-Z still rules
Jay-Z has never been short on ambition.
But on his new album “Magna Carta Holy Grail” (Roc-a-Fella), he raises the stakes to new Hov-ian heights -- tackling everything from race relations and religion to fatherhood and his relationship with wife Beyoncé. If his classic “Blueprint” albums were about achieving success in the music industry, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” which was released to Samsung phone users Thursday and arrives in stores Tuesday, is about becoming successful as a human being, as a grown man.
Spoiler alert: He succeeds.
Jay delivers thought-provoking explanations about race relations in America in a suite of three extraordinary songs. In the melancholy “Oceans,” he raps of taking time out from a yacht party to pay tribute to his ancestors who died in the ocean as slaves shipped from Africa. In the inspirational “—UTW,” he encourages people to excel, regardless of how people try to block your talents. (“We have yet to see a ceiling, we just top what we top,” he rhymes. “Cause the bars don’t struggle and the struggle don’t stop.”) And in the playful “Somewhere in America,” he declares the changing of the guard in high society circles, as hip-hop moguls like himself buy their way into rarefied company, and offers absolute proof of the power of hip-hop -- “Somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’,” referencing the one-time Disney princess’ embrace of the latest hip-hop dance move.
Though “Magna Carta Holy Grail” may not be as musically adventurous as Kanye West’s “Yeezus,” Jay trumps ‘Ye time and time again with his lyrics and his approach. With “Oceans,” which features Frank Ocean, “Holy Grail,” which features Justin Timberlake, and “Part II (On the Run),” which features Beyonce, the album actually creates a new standard for R&B, showing how strong grooves can coexist with strong lyrical concepts.
On “Part II,” Jay and Bey offer a twist to the expected R&B love song, with Beyoncé asking, “Who wants that perfect love story any way, anyway? Cliché, cliché, cliché, cliché.”
Avoiding clichés seems to be one of Jay’s key goals here, using a wide variety of hip-hop approaches and styles to support his ideas. There’s more than a passing nod to M.I.A.’s style in his approach to “Tom Ford” and Timberlake’s pained vocals on “Holy Grail” call to mind a stressed-out counterpoint to Beyoncé's “Halo.” And the party anthem “BBC,” which features Nas, Pharrell, Beyonce, Swizz Beatz, Timbaland and Timberlake having an old-school good time, pays tribute lyrically and musically to Brentwood’s EPMD and Wyandanch’s Eric B. and Rakim.
In the accelerated release for “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” Jay talked about how he was looking to establish new rules for how albums were marketed and distributed. His deal with Samsung guaranteed that the album would be a million-seller even before the public got a chance to buy it, which is quite a coup.
However, the broader success is one Jay references in “La Familia,” saying, “Elvis got his records took, it’s like we got our seventh gear.” “Magna Carta Holy Grail” will, no doubt, extend Jay-Z’s winning streak on the albums chart, giving him his 13th No. 1 album, widening his lead over Elvis Presley, who managed 10 chart-toppers in his legendary career, and puts him another step closer to The Beatles’ record of 19 No. 1 albums.
For years, so much of the music establishment has tried to separate Jay-Z’s accomplishments from those of the more revered rock greats like Presley and The Beatles. The brilliance of “Magna Carta Holy Grail” will make that harder to do, especially since it’s clear Jay is now hitting his artistic stride.