Jay-Z, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” (Roc Nation/Universal)
Kanye didn’t care about satisfying radio with his latest album.
Neither does Jay-Z.
“Magna Carta Holy Grail,” the rapper’s 12th album, doesn’t have the pop or mainstream appeal his past records have offered. The 16-track set, mostly helmed by Timbaland, is full of robust and moody hip-hop beats that maintain a nice groove, but don’t expect any booming anthems or party jams here. Like Kanye, there isn’t a single or music video ahead of the album’s release, which comes out officially on Sunday though up to 1 million Samsung mobile phone users were able to download the album for free on July Fourth.
With the exception of rapping about fatherhood and infant daughter Blue Ivy, lyrically, “Magna Carta” doesn’t tell us anything new about the superstar. We all know how he rose from selling drugs in the Brooklyn projects to become arguably the most important rapper of all-time, his multiplatinum feats, his awards, and the benefits of having a superstar wife — Beyonce — at his side.
But while Jay-Z continues to make headlines away from music, this album treads familiar ground, which makes the album — dare we say it? — average.
He’ll remind you — a couple times — that Samsung bought 1 million copies of the record and gave it away three days early — on songs like “Somewhere In America.” There’s similar flavor lyrically on “Tom Ford,” with its freaky beats, and the bumping “Picasso Baby,” where Beyonce gets a shout-out: “Sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa, the modern version, with better features.”
It’s when he talks about the other lady in his life, his 1-year-old daughter, where we see a rare side of the typically braggadocio rapper.
“Now I got tattoos on my body, psycho (expletive) in my lobby, I got haters in the paper, photos shoots with paparazzi, can’t even take my daughter for a walk,” he raps on “Holy Grail,” a collaboration with Justin Timberlake. It’s revealing, and especially special coming from the often-unfazed Jay-Z.
While Timberlake works well with Hova, his collaborations with Beyonce and Frank Ocean on “Part II (On the Run)” and “Ocean” rely too much on the R&B singers. There are other big names on the album, like Rick Ross, Pharrell and Nas, but “Magna Carta,” it isn’t designed like albums in the past. There are no catchy hooks to grab you in. The most excitement about the album hasn’t been generated from the music, but it’s promotion plan — Jay-Z announced the album in a commercial during the NBA Finals and launched a series of videos explaining the recording process and songs. He’s continuing to create new blueprints to debut his music. That should be congratulated, but the songs on “Magna Carta” don’t boom like his business plan.
“Knock me to my knees about a million times, uncle said I’ll never sell a million records, I sold a million records like a million times,” he raps on “Crown.”
Yes, you’ve defied the odds, but we want a little more from the king.
Follow Mesfin Fekadu on Twitter: twitter.com/MusicMesfin