Jay-Z’s ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail': Album Review

By: Christina Lee / July 5, 2013
When Jay-Z first mentioned Pablo Picasso, he was setting high standards for fellow lyricists. “You draw? Better be Picasso,” he rapped in “Friend or Foe,” off his 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt. Since then, Jay-Z’s standards have changed. In his new album Magna Carta Holy Grail (out for retail release on ), the Forbes cover star treats the Cubist painter like a brand name. “I just want a Picasso, in my casa/ no, my castle,” he raps in, yes, “Picasso Baby.”Jay-Z let this exact lyric slip into the album’s first trailer, where he announced his landmark deal with Samsung and sat among producers who helped build Jay-Z, The Brand: Pharrell, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz. As he had emphasized to Rick Rubin, Magna Carta tries to show how a Picasso isn’t enough, not if Hov wants to be happy. Instead, while it delivers confident hits, the album as a whole feels unsubstantial — especially for the author of Decoded.

On Magna Carta, Jay-Z compares his castle walls to art museums, but tends to concern himself with everyone else. He sounds most satisfied when he bullies everyone else on radio right now, like the molly-littered rap landscape in the springy “Tom Ford” and Miley Cyrus in the tooting seventh track “SomewhereinAmerica.” (“Twerk, Miley, twerk,” he wryly instructs, adding, “Only in America.”) The longer he busies himself with everyone else, though, the more he resorts to obnoxious, if not clunky, taunting — like in “La Familia”: “Tell these n—-s to pull they skirts down, I can see their ovaries.”

Lyrics like these tend to overshadow Jay-Z’s humbled moments, such as when he recites Nirvana and R.E.M. lyrics to question the payoffs of fame, religion and his own record-setting career. Hov also draws deft lyrical connections from slave ships to yachts (“Oceans,” assisted by Frank Ocean) and street corner to corner office (“F.U.T.W.”), but he can’t let these songs breathe on Magna Carta. He’s more obsessed with receiving his due — “You take the clothes off my back, and I let you,” Justin Timberlake belts in opener “Holy Grail” — and this lyrical fixation, the telling without showing, turns Magna Carta into a drag.

As Decoded shows — and as Jay-Z seemed to say when he released lyrics to Magna Carta prior to the album’s release — reading along to Hov’s words can help reveal hidden meanings that can slip by during his matter-of-fact performances. What’s disappointing then, especially given the unprecedented nature of its release, is that it doesn’t require closer listens or rewinds. In his attempts to spell out everything (see “I had luggage, meaning I had baggage,” in “Heaven,” for instance) he fails to meet the standards he set long ago: “You draw? Better be Picasso.”

Idolator Score: 3/5

Christina Lee