Jay-Z finds himself in a strange place artistically in 2013. The signs were there in 2007, when Jay reverted to coke rap on the excellent American Gangster. While doing so was a response to lukewarm reception to 2006’s comeback album Kingdom Come, Jay more reverted to the same territory on 2009’s The Blueprint 3 and 2011’s Watch the Throne. Though Kanye West’s presence on the latter allowed Jay a bit of latitude to work some social commentary, Throne was hardly a departure from the Jay-Z we’ve seen for much the past decade.
So where does that leave Shawn Carter musically in 2013? In pretty damn good shape, it turns out.
The first thing listeners will say to themselves upon clicking play on Magna Carta Holy Grail, the latest in music and technology synergy (or whichever industry buzzword one is wont to use), is, “Wow, Timbaland produced this?” Jay-Z has a list of producers with whom he’s had legendary rapport (Just Blaze, DJ Premier, and Kanye West, for example), but MCHG reminds us to not forget about Timothy Moseley. Unlike Timbaland’s subpar contributions on The Blueprint 3, Timbo completely avoids “Timbaland-isms” that would otherwise make a cut sound like “Jay-Z on a Timbaland track” rather than just a Jay-Z track. Whether it’s the Soul-Rock intro that is “Holy Grail” or “F.U.T.W.,” which sounds like it would be right at home following up “So Ghetto” on Vol. 3, Timbaland hits the right notes time and again on this one.
Hit-Boy’s excellent work on “Somewhere In America” lays the foundation for Jay to reveal that even as he shakes hands with Presidents and headlines Rock festivals, he still doesn’t feel welcome: “New money, they lookin’ down on me / Blue bloods, they tryna clown on me / You can turn up your nose, high society / …You should come to the housewarming / Come and see what your new neighbor ‘bout / Yellow Lambo in the driveway / One-thirty-five, I’m on the highway.” It may just seem like more stock Jay-Z braggadocio, but there’s real bitterness here.
“Jay Z Blue” is the piéce de résistance, however. Shifting from soft keys, guitar strums and lush strings to trademark Timbaland samples, Jay lays all of his fears about fatherhood on the line, informed by his own father’s failures. It’s a treat to hear a notoriously guarded artist speak so candidly.
The two most hyped tracks of the album surprisingly fall short. “BBC,” for one, isn’t as good as its billing. Not that the cut is bad; in fact, Nas, JT, Swizz Beatz and company genuinely sound like they’re having fun. But the track shows that Pharrell can’t quite escape his isms, which is a bit disappointing. “La Familia,” touted as a Lil Wayne diss, is easily the most forgettable MCHG outing, with lazy rhymes over uninspired production.
Magna Carta Holy Grail is where Jay-Z’s emceeing finally meets his “High Rap” ambitions. This is easily the best rhyming Jay’s done since American Gangster. But a sharp Shawn on the mic isn’t a surprise. What is a surprise is that this is the most cohesive project Jay’s put together since The Blueprint. The project is smartly produced, with Timbaland’s aforementioned contributions rewarding Jay’s faith in his old “Big Pimpin’” buddy, with contributions from Adrian Younge (of Twelve Reasons to Die with Ghostface Killah fame) and others adding fine touches to the record.
What really makes this project stand out from the overwhelming majority of major label Rap release in 2013: everything on this project sounds like it was recorded for this project. Beats don’t sound like they were chosen from a producer’s C:/ drive, and Rick Ross’ verse doesn’t have nothing to do with anything (see “Accident Murderers” from Nas’ Life Is Good). Who knows whether Jay-Z knew what he had in mind when he got into the kitchen, but instead of adding every spice available to him, he used only what he needed—and the recipe benefitted because of it.
When the book on Shawn Corey Carter’s music career comes to a close, the narrative about Jay-Z’s inability to evolve will seem silly in retrospect. After all, who else could call Big Daddy Kane, the Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar peers at different points in the same career? Jay-Z has endured, which is the measure of greatness. Magna Carta Holy Grail may not give us a completely new vision or version of Jay-Z, but it does clear up some of the fog that still paradoxically surrounds one of music’s most instantly recognizable personalities.