Back in 2011, Jay-Z knew that he wanted the song “Holy Grail” to be the centerpiece of his next album. The Brooklyn rapper also thought that The-Dream, who wrote the lyrics to part of the song, likely wasn’t going to appear on the track. “I think Dream wrote it with the intent of someone else singing it,” Jay-Z says during an interview with “The Truth.” “He didn’t write it for himself. He wrote it with the intent of someone else singing it. Being in the studio, we was in Jungle [City Studios] together, working back and forth with Justin [Timberlake], I was like, ‘Yo. Just hop on that.’ I mean, he loved the record, so it makes sense.”
Timberlake ended up appearing on “Holy Grail” the first track on Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, which has been the #1 album in the country for two consecutive weeks and also features Timberlake singing in a style other than his typical falsetto. Timberlake also sings on the LP’s “Heaven,” another instance where he altered his usual vocal style.
Jay-Z says that Timberlake was driven by the music itself to deliver different vocal presentations. “Just by the nature of the songs,” he says. “It just dictated that he step out of his comfort zone. I think he pushed himself on ‘Holy Grail,’ which to me, he’s [got] a million great vocal performances, but in my opinion is his best vocal performance.”
Jay-Z has said that he and Kanye West fought over whether “Holy Grail” would appear on their collaborative album, 2011’s Watch The Throne, or on Hova’s next album. Jay-Z won that battle, but Magna Carta Holy Grail would not arrive for nearly two more years.
Jay-Z says that his album-making process and his recording timeline have changed from the 1990s and the early 2000s, when he released an album every year. “I’m not on a schedule, so it’ll start, then it’ll stop,” he says. “Like for this album, I had ‘Oceans’ recorded, lyrics on it and everything, for over a year. Like when as soon as Watch The Throne was finished. I had the track and the hook to ‘Holy Grail’ way back then, so I can’t say I officially started [Magna Carta Holy Grail] then. I had pieces of music and ideas and then with Timbaland and we caught that vibe, then it was a pretty short period of time. It was over a couple of weeks. It was over maybe two weeks, maybe three. Let’s just say three weeks and it was done.”
The-Dream echoed to Revolt TV the timeframe in which Magna Carta Holy Grail was made. “That was literally about—the body [of Magna Carta Holy Grail]—two weeks of work,” the singer-songwriter-producer says. “The significant part of this album, the body: two weeks.”