Rework the Angles: Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail

Zilla returns with a re-working of Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail.
By    June 14, 2016

jay z

Zilla Rocca doesn’t need a re-introduction.

Jay-Z is not just a Business Man, or a Business, Maannn. Jay-Z is the Ultimate Hustler, A&R, and Label Head who just happened to write the best drug raps in the history of hip hop. Jay-Z has been lauded for his business acumen, but the secret to his 20 years success has always boiled down to one simple idea: Jay-Z has always done what has made the most sense for him.

In 1990, Jaz-O had a record deal and rapped fast. Shawn Carter becomes “Jay-Z” and raps fast. By 1996 Raekwon, Biggie, and Nas made east coast drug dealing-centric classic albums that sell millions of records. Jay-Z stops rapping double time and makes Reasonable Doubt.

In 1997 The Bad Boy sound dominates rap and pop music. Jay-Z makes a Bad Boy knockoff album In My Lifetime Vol. 1 featuring Lil Kim, Puffy, The Hitmen, Blackstreet, and Kelly Price. Between 1998-1999 The Ruff Ryder sound dominates rap and the pop charts while Biggie’s posthumous release Life After Death goes diamond, proving a New York rapper can embrace styles and sounds from all sides of the US. Jay-Z makes In My Lifetime Vol. 2 and Vol. 3, built off singles produced by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz and works with Too Short, UGK, Mariah Carey, and Juvenile.

By 2001, Nas’ career was on life support, Jay-Z was kicking everyone’s ass and released an all-time classic in The Blueprint, so why not openly diss another superstar rapper and garner a decade’s worth of word of mouth buzz and rap arguments by making “Ether”?

By the time Roc-a-Fella Records fell apart in 2004, Jay-Z ditched Beanie Sigel, Dame Dash, Biggs, Amil, State Property, Freeway etc. but kept a close working relationship with the only artist on the label who ever went platinum: in-demand producer/charming struggle rapper Kanye West. When mashups were a thing, Jay-Z did a full mashup album with Linkin Park.

His Less is More act on the mic paid off when he ran Def Jam—suddenly, his guest appearances kept him hot while boosting records to rarified status (Yeezy’s “Go Crazy Remix”, Saigon’s “Come on Baby”, Kanye’s “Diamonds Remix”). As album sales slowly began sliding, Jay partnered with Budweiser in 2006 for a cross-promotional deal with his single “Show Me What You Got” (and later the Made In America festival). And after the “Ether”/”Takeover” battle reignited Nas’ sales in the years following their beef, Jay-Z signed Nas to Def Jam so that he could now profit off of his former rival’s rejuvenation. By 2007, the industry saw a Coke Rap revival with mixtapes from The Clipse, Gucci Mane, and Lil Wayne, plus full lengths from Ghostface, Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, etc. Boom—Jay-Z drops coke rap banger American Gangster.

In 2009, street rap was dead, Blog Rap/Autotune was in, Kanye owned the charts, so naturally Blueprint 3 featured J. Cole, Kid Cudi, Drake, and Mr. Hudson. “D.O.A.” was the Least Influential Most Talked About Record in Jay’s catalogue. Watch the Throne in 2011 was another blockbuster collabo album (Jay already did 2 full lengths with R. Kelly previously), artsy and extravagant, hated yet successful by every measure. “Otis” created derision upon impact, but “N***** in Paris” still gets burn to this day.

All of these moves Make the Most Sense. And we’re not even counting the union with Beyonce, a heist on the levels of DB Cooper in terms of lifetime residual wealth, fame, and braggadociousness.

So when he smuggled his last album Magna Carta Holy Grail aka The Samsung Album onto millions of Samsung Galaxies for a hefty payday three years ago, people were either a) irritated over privacy issues or b) curious to hear a new Hov album, the first to have no lead single, only several TV spots featuring Rick Rubin, Swizz Beatz, and Timbaland lounging in the studio wigging out to the record.

MCHG is music for luxury boxes at New Yankee Stadium. There’s no danger or grit, no filth nor screwfacing. This album could literally have been made by any rapper on a major in 2013. There’s no risks taken, nothing new learned about Sean Carter sans his ever growing business resume. His new fatherhood is noted when he brags about letting his daughter lean against a million dollar painting. Well into his forties, he never laments his unease with being an elder statesman in a genre obsessed with youth. He sidesteps all humanity by talking about Basquiats and fashion designers. As our Jorden Pederson once correctly said, people want to be Jay-Z, and this album is Hov cosplay for all of the longtime admirers. The album itself is ho-hum, produced beautifully, arranged bizarrely, dropping in sales 76% from its debut to week two of its release. It wasn’t a spectacular failure nor a blazing triumph; it’s better than Kingdom Come aka The Budweiser Album and worse than Watch the Throne.

The album is Michael Bay summer blockbuster about being Michael Bay that runs 20 minutes too long. Turn your brain off, lower your expectations for one of the greatest rappers on the mic, trim the tracklisting down, and you’ve got an enjoyably brief summer/workout album. Oddly, this album Makes Sense.

Adrian Younge and Gonjasufi samples sit next to Hit Boy and Travis Scott. Nas sounds good finally on a Pharrell beat. Rick Ross donated his potential hit single “FuckWitMeYouKnowIGotIt” to the cause. Kanye and the GOOD Music Universe are almost completely absent – instead, Timbaland carries the bulk of production duties. But this isn’t Vol. 3 era Timbo, nor “Dirt Off Your Shoulders” Timothy Mosley; this is post “Suit & Tie” crispy clean Grown and Sexy Timbaland. Justin Timberlake returns his favor on the title track. Hell, “Picasso Baby” still kinda goes. So let’s pare this album down to something useful.

#1 “SomewhereInAmerica” produced by Hit Boy, Dahryl “Hey DJ” Camper, and Mike Dean

Jay has a great playlist of awesome album openers, but “Holy Grail”, which opens the retail version, is not that. I like the sudden funk and warm of “SomewhereInAmerica” to open this album since Jay didn’t bring Just Blaze aboard to get the Cialis-assisted testosterone pumping. Jay is annoyingly brash and cocky about blogs, magazines, and money. Best to get this out of the way early.

#2 “Versus” produced by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz

I’m a big fan of short yet dope tracks on album arranged second. “Versus” is what happens when Jay still gives a crap about having fun on the mic for 51 seconds.

#3 “Picasso Baby” produced by Timbaland and J-Roc

The video is another overcorrection for Jay’s drug dealing past—Allan Cumming cameos won’t make up for losing 92 bricks though. The beat marks the first Adrian Younge sample, the rhymes aren’t as good as Jay thinks they are, but it’s a good headnodder with a dope switchup for the 3rd verse.

#4 “Beach is Better” produced by Mike Will Made It and Marz

Another banger under 1 minute, I’m starting to wish for a Madvillainy album from Jay that’s 25 tracks long, made in the vein of this and “Versus.”

#5 “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” featuring Rick Ross, produced by Boi-1da, Vinylz, Timbaland, J-Roc

The only legit banger worthy of past Jay singles. Ross threw it on his album Mastermind a year later minus Jay’s verse and the song doesn’t miss a beat, not a good sign from the guy who once held his own against Big L on Stretch & Bobbito in 1995.

#6 “Crown” produced by Mike Dean, Travis Scott, and WundaGurl

I wonder who originally made this beat before Travis Scott stole it. Anyway, “Crown” sounds great in the car or at the gym. It features that GOOD Music/Yeezus trademark of a guy screaming like he’s in Rocky Horror Picture Show.

#7 “F.U.T.W’ produced by Timbaland and J-Roc

THIS is the beat that Nas should’ve been called in to flex on. I don’t remember one thing Jay said on here, but the beat knocks.

#8 “Nickels and Dimes” featuring Gonjasufi produced by Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua and Mike Dean

Another song Nas should’ve taken for himself or been featured on, “Nickels and Dimes” would be the only song where Jay-Z shows any kind of humanity…except he goes out of his way to diss Harry Belafonte.

#9 “Heaven” produced by Timbaland and J-Roc

The second Adrian Younge check written, Raekwon and Ghostface were supposed to be featured on this song. There’s a photo of Jay and Raekwon together in the studio. But Ghostface didn’t get around to hopping on the song in time. I’m not making this up. Watch as Ghostface acts nonchalant about doing a show somewhere rather than getting on an album from one of the biggest rappers of all time.

Should’ve brought in Nas for this beat too.

#10 “BBC” featuring Nas, produced by Pharrell Williams

There’s a reason I noted how great Nas would’ve sounded on the last 3 songs. Of all the Jay/Nas collabos, this beats makes the least amount of sense to bring in two guys from Pre-Guiliani New York to talk about Pre-Guiliani New York. But it’s not the worst song, and I need Nas on this version of the album.

#11 “Holy Grail” featuring Justin Timberlake, produced by The-Dream, Timbaland, J-Roc, No ID

I’m a sucker for this song and I don’t care. I still have no idea what it’s about, but it’s the only song that touches on whatever idea or theme the album is supposed to represent because Justin says “holy grail” a few times. It actually sounds like a precursor to The Life of Pablo in retrospect. It’s the only logical way to end an album about nothing.

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