By Kyle Anderson and Ray Rahman
Updated August 29, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Magna Carta Holy Grail

  • Music

Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail has arrived in a blaze of brand-synergized, guest-packed glory. But does it live up to the hype? Two EW music staffers debate.

Kyle Anderson Jay-Z is an innovator. Musically, he’s tended to be a step ahead of any given curve, whether it was elevating the sample game on ”Hard Knock Life,” seeing brilliance in a young producer named Kanye West, or beating everybody back to the old school on The Black Album. So it was inevitable that he would attempt reinvent the way albums are distributed. And the whole marketing of this album — with the initial announcement during the NBA finals, the exclusive Samsung tie-ins, the Brooklyn scavenger hunt for the track list, etc. — seemed like a prelude to a massive cultural event. But what we got is a middling release that feels jumbled and jittery. Jay is 43 years old, a new dad, and he seems more interested in his budding sports agency than what?s happening on the streets. Ray, what do you expect from a Jay-Z album in 2013?

Ray Rahman You know, I had very low expectations, despite the fact that he managed to get the album?s cover art displayed next to the actual Magna Carta in England. First off, we’re still recovering from an excellent statement album from Jay?s friend and longtime collaborator Kanye West (who doesn?t appear here). Moreover, like tennis god Roger Federer, Hova has been in a decline for a while — and Magna Carta Holy Grail is proof positive of that. It sounds like a great rapper being good enough.

Anderson But is good enough really good enough? Semantics! My big problem with legacy artists (and 25 years and 12 albums in, Jay is totally a legacy artist — don?t let anybody tell you otherwise) is that they are given too much leeway in the media when they trot out new projects. Just as the Rolling Stones? later work will forever be blessed and cursed by the fact that they made Exile on Main St., Jay can’t help but be overrated at this point — as the man says, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain. Jay-Z’s music has always been about class, and now that he’s the overseer of an empire, he’s rapping from the wrong side of history. It would be one thing if this album was simply musically bankrupt, but the way it has been presented as a capital-I Important piece of art about ”duality” (Jay’s word, not mine), delivered to us via the power of corporate marketing and Samsung-sponsored data-mining, I find absolutely putrid. But would this be a better album without the rollout, or is the rollout the whole point? It’s hard to divorce yourself from the whole experience.

Rahman Honestly, for me, MCHG‘s release strategy makes it easier to accept as a sort of throwaway, maybe even a mulligan. If he knew he had something actually Important on his hands, he probably would’ve titled this thing The Blueprint IV instead of something that screams ”I’m compensating.” I mean, how mad can you be at an album you got for free? I agree that he is a legacy artist now — rap’s Rolling Stones is not a bad way of putting it — and he, along with Nas, get cut a lot of slack these days. It probably doesn’t help that he’s married to Beyoncé, who’s still very much in her prime (and, as it happens, makes an appearance on this album). Like Michael Jordan, Jay seems incapable of being so close to the game without constantly re-entering it, for better or for worse.

Anderson Sure, but everybody hates the fact that they remember Jordan on the Wizards, because it poisons his best-ever run. I like some moments here: The production on ”BBC” is lively, and ”Part II (On the Run)” continues Jay’s streak of on-point collaborations with his wife. But there’s just so much exhausting dead weight on here. Like, ”Tom Ford” is just embarrassing, and not just because everybody — even Clipse — abandoned trap music years ago. I have a hard time deciding which part of ”Somewhereinamerica” is more cringe-worthy — the opening line ”Shout out to old Jews” or the outro that features him repeating, ”Twerk Miley Miley twerk!” Even the better songs have moments that are just cringe-inducing.

Rahman It’s not mind-blowing or even innovative but I actually like the icy ”Tom Ford” quite a bit, and the Nas-featuring ”BBC,” which sounds very ”Jay-Z produced by Pharrell Williams.” The Frank Ocean collaboration ”Oceans” is a standout for me, as is ”Somewhereinamerica” and ”Holy Grail,” which features Justin Timberlake doing his best Adam Levine impression. But then there are some songs I absolutely can’t stand: ”Picasso Baby,” with its tired art brags, and all 56 seconds of the wholly unnecessary ”Beach Is Better.”

Anderson I like ”Oceans” too, though I really wish I hadn’t watched the preview video for that song on the app, because all I can think about is how lame it is that Jay explained the double-entendre of the ”seasick” line. (In that way, he’s like M. Night Shyamalan giving away his own twists.) Against my better judgment, I also really dig ”Heaven” (and specifically not because of the lyrical reference to R.E.M.’s ”Losing My Religion,” though it’s vaguely thrilling to think that Michael Stipe has a co-writing credit on this joint). But again, it’s tempered by that awful ”I arrive at the pearly gates, I had luggage/ Meaning I had baggage” line, which makes me want to punch Wes Anderson all over again for putting a similar line in The Darjeeling Limited. So what does this album do for Jay-Z’s legacy?

Rahman I rank this album alongside Kingdom Come, which in a way was a transitional album toward the superior Blueprint III. Like others, I see (perhaps wistfully so) MCHG operating as a sort of stopgap until he releases something great, like a Blueprint IV — which would hopefully (though unlikely) be his last album, letting him focus on his new career as the black Arli$$. Overall, I give it a C+.

Anderson Black Arli$$ would be a pretty killer name for an album, honestly. Jay should assemble a crew of rappers who embody pre-Sopranos HBO shows, like The-Dream-On, N’Oz, and MC Not Necessarily the News. I agree, though — time will tell whether or not MCHG is a stopgap or a stepping stone, though either way it’s below par. I have to give it credit for the marketing, though — that’s a masterstroke, and one of the few zero-edged scenarios left in the music business. It’d be different if Jay made an ironic album about the nature of the void, but much like any of Don Draper’s pitches, there’s essentially no there there. The best Jay can hope for is that it represents a necessary part of a greater arc for him. But this feels lazy, smug, and fundamentally empty. So for me, it’s a D. One last question for you: Let’s say this album was released by a new or unknown rapper (let’s call him MC Galaxy), and everything else was the same. Would we still take it seriously, or would we be treating ”SomewhereinAmerica” like the Lonely Island outtake it is?

Rahman Ha! It’s pretty damn hard to separate MCHG from its maker — no other rapper (save for Kanye) could really pull these guests, producers, or lyrics about owning Basquiats. But I do concede that if this quality of album came from a non-Jay-Z entity, we wouldn’t pay it much mind. But for better or for worse, it did come from Jay-Z, and we do have to acknowledge it.

”Oceans” feat. Frank Ocean — A punny, ominous opus
”BBC” — An old-school party jam

Episode Recaps

Magna Carta Holy Grail

  • Music