Available on: Roc-a-fella / Universal LP
Jay-Z’s released a fair amount of average material in his time. For every Reasonable Doubt in his catalogue there’s a Kingdom Come, and generally speaking this is something that Jay-Z fans are fine with. He releases too regularly to smack it out the park every time, but he’s so easy to listen to and so natural at making hits that even the weaker records are enjoyable, even if it’s just on the basis of a couple of bangers. Roc la Familia? Sure, it’s an average, distracted album, but any world without ‘I Just Wanna Love U’ in it is a far poorer place. Blueprint 3? Not even close to his best LPs, yet it spawned ‘Run this Town’, ‘On to the Next One’ and ‘Empire State of Mind’. Jay’s always been somebody you can rally behind. He gets a free pass where others wouldn’t. But with Magna Carta… Holy Grail, he’s released one of the most vacuous big name records I’ve heard in a long time.
Comparing Magna Carta to Kanye West’s Yeezus, released less than a month before it, is so obvious that it seems crude, but when they use several of the same traits to vastly different effect it’s impossible not to. Both were trailed by notable pre-release campaigns, Yeezus for its live videos, surprise projections and outspoken interviews, Magna Carta for a money-spinning tie-in with Samsung. Both feature some of the year’s most memorable rap lines, but where Kanye’s might be questionable (stand up, “Put my fist in her like the civil rights sign”), they’re at least delivered with impact and divide opinion. Is there anyone who thinks Magna Carta’s “Twerk like Miley Cyrus” or “I don’t pop molly, I rock Tom Ford … Tom Ford / Tom Ford / Tom Ford” lines are anything more than cheap meme bait? Even better, on ‘Oceans’ Jay forces in a cack-handed reference to Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ (already infamously used on Yeezus‘s ‘Blood on the Leaves’) without backing it up or even making it a prominent part of the song. It becomes just another half-thought cultural reference on an album that, with its constant references to Picasso and Basquiat and appropriation of ‘Losing my Religion’ and ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’, was already drowning in them.
Where Yeezus pulls material from its guest stars that you wouldn’t expect – see Chief Keef’s chorus on ‘Hold my Liquor’ that could prompt an essay on Kanye’s relationship to Keef, Chicago and the public eye, or Assassin’s show-stealing turn on ‘I’m In It’ – Rick Ross’s verse on ‘Fuckwitmeigotit’ is a depressing microcosm of Magna Carta. It’s sluggish and limp over a weedy beat, and whether “Reeboks on, I just do it” is a senseless shot at Ross’s former sponsors (who rightly dropped him over a date rape reference on Rocko’s ‘U.O.E.N.O.’ – if it is a shot, then his apology rings even more hollow) or simply a bored man confusing his slogans, it’s lame as hell. The song closes on one of the most empty couplets of an album full of them, Ross’s “got a bad bitch she a masterpiece / got a bad bitch she a master-piece”. You’d like to think it’s at least a nod to Jay’s Mona Lisa / Beyonce comparison on ‘Picasso Baby’, but I doubt that much thought went into it. Jay half-laughs, half-squeals in reaction, and even the shittiest Samsung phone speakers couldn’t hide the conceit.
‘Crown’ could even be a Yeezus parody, with distorted 808 kick drums, an autotuned breakdown and ominous, repeated samples, but where tracks like ‘New Slaves’ and ‘On Sight’ used those effects to jar their audience, ‘Crown’ simply melts down into beige slurry. Kanye and Jay-Z were already on different pages on the patchy Watch the Throne, but how the hell are they supposed to make a sequel when “After that government cheese / We eating steak” is about as political as Magna Carta gets?
In terms of positives, it’s hard to look beyond Beyonce’s excellent guest spot on ‘Part II (On the Run)’. It certainly wipes the floor with Frank Ocean’s awkward appearance on ‘Oceans’ (he sounds like he barely wants to be there, and “I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo / Before the Basquiat show” sounds suspiciously like it was penned by Jay) and ‘BBC’, which throws Nas on top of a beat that could barely suit him less. ‘Nickels and Dimes’, the album’s closing track, is the only one where Jay’s comparisons to dead heroes stand out (“Johnny Cash, I’m a real G / Cut myself today to see if I still bleed”) rather than blend in.
By then, it’s too late. Magna Carta’s a mess, and not even an entertaining one – it’s simply a dull record by someone who’s in deep danger of going down as a dull human being. But then again, I guess most sports agents are.1