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No, Magna Carta…Holy Grail is not the title of the next Indiana Jones film; it’s just Jay-Z‘s new album. But the man should be equally penitent to Indy, perhaps even more so.
The album’s production is mostly handled by long-time collaborator Timbaland (I was just as surprised to find out that Kanye West seems to have had little to no involvement), so it’s not the quality of production that the album suffers from – on the contrary, each style is pulled off true to its roots. What it suffers from is an utter indecisiveness of what the hell it wants to be. Observe the following ..
- Trap appropriations riddle Tom Ford, FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt and La Familia;
- F.U.T.W. has virtually lifted an Asianized underground rap-heavy beat from either of Onra‘s Chinoiseries albums (think Dilla meets classic RZA);
- Somewhere In America blends brass to give it a Roaring 20s feel (it would’ve sounded right at home on his soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby);
- Part II (On The Run) draws heavy influence from 80s R&B/funk thanks to the One Way sample;
- Heaven finds an alternative rock influence because of its R.E.M. sample;
- Beach is Better explores deep, dark soundscapes for its mere unfortunate 56-second length;
- BBC has the bounce in a similar pseudo-Got To Give It Up (Marvin Gaye) beat thanks to Pharrell‘s treatment, and;
- Nickels and Dimes digs into sketchy electronica/trip hop influences from its Gonjasufi sample, arguably making it one of the more eccentric (and as a result, interesting) tracks on the album.
Also, Holy Grail did fling me back into a restorative Nirvana binge, since it uses elements of Smells Like Teen Spirit in a surprisingly respectful manner. Props there.
But just because there is so much to comment on in MCHG‘s production, that does not make the album diverse – instead it’s a great big mess, plain and simple. And with such a mess the album fails to land a specific mood sonically, with this motif (or lack thereof) transpiring into Jay‘s lyricism.
Again, it’s not that there are notable low points here – and the man’s flow continues to stun; in fact, Jay-Z has seldom been afflicted with saying so much whilst speaking nothing – there has always been a second, often a third and fourth dimension to his sometimes deceptively simple lyricism. But on MCHG, the beats inform his subject matter, and so it is equally dishevelled. On some tracks, you get Jay-Z the Philosopher (Oceans; Heaven; Nickels and Dimes) whilst on others you get Jay-Z the Egotistical (Tom Ford; FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt; BBC) or Jay-Z the Braggadocious (Picasso Baby; F.U.T.W.; Somewhere in America). It’s admirable that Jay has so much to say across different styles, but that’s what double albums (or concept albums) are for.
A mess can come together beautifully, but MCHG is not one of those beautiful messes like a Jackson Pollock – it’s the musical equivalent of a finger painting, and as equally clueless. The ambition is clearly there, but its presence obstructs the album’s identity…or multiple identities…or the identity it simply does not have, but feigns anyway. And it’s nothing that guest appearances from Frank Ocean, Nas, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce and Rick Ross could remedy either.
Magna Carta…Holy Grail‘s ultimate downfall is in its simple inability to decide what it wants to be; though given Jay-Z‘s age, and his reputation and longevity in the game, one would expect more maturity and class to domineer the album. It’s like hearing Usher turn to teenybopper tunes instead of acknowledging the fact that he’s on the way to 40 and choosing to address the tastes of grown folk alike…those same grown folk that grew up on his earlier works and expect to hear some shit to make babies to. Anyway, back to MCHG – it’s really not the fact that it’s a terrible album, because the tracks can easily be enjoyed individually, however an album has to be taken in holistically and this one is just far too damn fragmented. I almost feel like I should be giving it two scores, but I figure I’ll do what the album failed to do: blend myriad factors but come out with one clean result.