It's very difficult to focus solely on the music of Magna Carta Holy Grail. There was the three-minute ad during Game 5 of the NBA Finals featuring a barefooted Rick Rubin, even more YouTube ads (vaguely discussing the duality of undercurrents via yachts and slave ships), the marketing genius/money-making ploy of the Samsung early release, the cancelled rooftop performance, the Twitter Q and A, the comparisons to Yeezus and the six-hour art gallery performance of "Picasso Baby", just to name a few pieces of fanfare. Taking all of this into account, the album is a disappointment, but if you ignore the narrative, Magna Carta Holy Grail is an average, listenable rap album. Rappers that don't retire tend to make passable music as they quietly crank out record after record (just ask Busta Rhymes or LL Cool J), which is why Kingdom Come and American Gangster understandably flew more under the radar than MCHG. Jay-Z will always be a legend, the Sinatra of his day, but it is easy to forget that, with the radio hits produced from The Blueprint 3 and the Kanye-collabing Watch the Throne, his last truly great solo record, The Black Album, was released ten years ago. Put simply, Jay-Z is getting old.
The problem with MCHG is that it contains nothing groundbreaking. For example, we see the same recycled references to Jean-Michel Basquiat (who is name-checked four times on MCHG (for once I'd like to see Hova show some love to Rauschenberg or Schnabel)), proof that Jay-Z has fewer new things to say and that the only cutting-edge aspect of the album was its release. I'm completely fine with Jay-Z bragging because no one does it better, but it gets fairly grating when there are so few catchy choruses-repeating the name of a fashion designer does not constitute a chorus. I never thought I'd see Krist Novoselic and Peter Buck credited as writers on a Jay-Z album, and for good reason, as the forced use of lyrics from "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Losing My Religion" do not make a lot of sense.
That being said, there are some positives, mainly in the form of featured verses and production. The first voice heard on MCHG is Justin Timberlake's, and his strong intro on "Holy Grail", as well as a solid guest performance from Frank Ocean on "Oceans" and a great one from Beyonce on "Part II (On the Run)" help make the album pop. The Timbaland-produced beat on "FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt" is wasted on a flat verse from Rick Ross, and the jazzy Mike Dean/Hit-Boy production of "Somewhereinamerica" finds Jay-Z very close to putting together a complete song before his near-perfect flow is ruined by an atrocious Miley Cyrus twerking reference. The bizarre sampling of the Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest works surprisingly well on "Jay-Z Blue", and the danceable "BBC" has a trademark Pharrell beat as well as an excellent verse from Nas.
The best song Jay-Z put out this year, the Obama-referencing "Open Letter", is strangely absent from MCHG. While Mr. Carter has just announced that Jack White's Third Man Records will release the track on vinyl as a literal playable letter, "Open Letter" would have given this record some smart, playful lyrics that it is desperately lacking. Producer The-Dream claimed that most of the album was completed in two weeks, and while this is not excuse, next time Jay-Z should take his time and produce something that we all know should, and can, be better than Magna Carta Holy Grail.