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Jay-Z - Magna Carta Holy Grail (Review)

Jay-Z, Magna Carta Holy Grail

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4.5 out of 5

JAY-Z has delivered his most enjoyable and most complete album in years with Magna Carta Holy Grail, a monster of a hip-hop album in every sense.

Shot through with starry guest appearances and a keen mix of sharp social and political commentary, as well as the odd moment of more personal soul-searching, this is a hip-hop event that effortlessly outclasses Kanye West’s recent offering.

Indeed, for its sustained ability to impress, deliver telling beats and choruses and appeal beyond its hip-hop borders, this is comparable to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Like him or loathe him, Jay-Z is one of contemporary music’s great performers. He’s a giant and he knows it. And Magna Carta Holy Grail is suitably big to match.

On album opener Holy Grail, he combines a sharp rap with blues-soul vocals from Justin Timberlake (sounding for all the world like Bruno Mars) and even a cheeky rendition of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit that can’t fail to put a smile on the face for its audacity. In amongst all this, there’s some brilliant piano arrangements that offset the beats to brilliant effect.

It’s an early marker that this album is all about doing things on a grand scale… and the rest doesn’t disappoint (even though Holy Grail remains one of its finest moments).

Picasso Baby talks about making love in a dirty hotel and blowing up condos (and more things of hedonistic excess) amid crunching bass and sharp synth hooks, as well as a thinly concealed sample of Adrian Younge’s Sirens (as if to underline the album’s cinematic quality…. you can expect this one to steal several trailer spots in the coming months at the very least).

FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt places Rick Ross centre-stage for long periods and brings some menace to the equation thanks to a brooding synth backdrop and moody beats, Oceans finds Frank Ocean singing soulfully about the darkness lurking beneath the waters of the title (while the back-beat screams out Madonna’s Erotica), and FUTW references Homeland and “feeling like Brody”, while taking pot-shots at American foreign policy. When Jay-Z sings “let me be great”, you kind of feel that he already is, especially when delivering cuts of this quality.

And still the hits keep on coming.

SomewhereinAmerica drops one of the funkiest cuts on the LP, with a slick fusion of brass and beats and a sample of blues musician Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s Gangster of Love, amid observational and pop culture commentary on the state of the nation, Heaven offers a scintillating commentary on religion with another of the album’s most insistent beat arrangements, and Part II (On the Run) drops in an almost obligatory guest spot from Beyonce that serves as an enjoyable (and impossibly radio friendly) sequel of sorts to their former Bonnie & Clyde hook-up.

Beach Is Better introduces super-producer Mike Will Made It to the party and he steps up with some scintillating electronic and beat arrangements, BBC really gets the party into full swing with a hip-swinging, head-nodding anthem featuring the all-star guest combo of Nas, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, and Nickels And Dimes rounds things off with a slick riposte to Harry Belafonte’s charge that he and Beyoncé don’t do enough for charity.

There are odd moments that err towards folly. His ode to fatherhood, Blue, is a little too sentimental, while Tom Ford and La Familia feel more like fillers.

But in the main, this is a massive success for Jay-Z that is undoubtedly one of the big release highlights of the year (hip-hop or otherwise).

Download picks: Holy Grail, FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt, Oceans, FUTW, BBC, Nickels And Dimes, Beach Is Better

Track listing:

  1. Holy Grail (Feat. Justin Timberlake)
  2. Picasso Baby
  3. Tom Ford
  4. FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt (Feat. Rick Ross)
  5. Oceans (Feat. Frank Ocean)
  6. F.U.T.W.
  7. Somewhere in America
  8. Crown
  9. Heaven
  10. Versus
  11. Part II (On the Run) (Feat. Beyonce)
  12. Beach Is Better
  13. BBC (Feat. Nas, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell and Timbaland)
  14. Jay-Z Blue
  15. La Familia
  16. Nickles & Dimes
  17. Open Letter