Seventeen years after Jay-Z’s debut album, the former cocaine dealer is finally beginning to crack. Fame is eroding at his unshakable cool. Before Rick Ross, Jay was the original rap Teflon Don—a simple chuckle and glance at his Hublot watch and any problem, diss or heckle would fade into nothingness quicker than Amil's career. But with Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay's 12th solo studio LP, there's a tinge of vulnerability, because, really, how cool can you be with a diaper bag slung over your shoulder? Jay hides behind his foreign cars, exotic vacays and astute business moves, but what's weighing heaviest on his mind is protecting his most priceless assets: his superstar wife and beautiful baby girl.
Yeezus and Watch The Throne may seem like timely, apt comparisons to Magna Carta, yet 2006’s Kingdom Come—Jay’s underappreciated, topically worldly LP that struggled with aging in a young man’s rap game—is the more appropriate parallel. KC’s odes to success, midlife identity crises (“30 Something”), rivals (Cam’ron) and an unborn daughter are replaced with odes to (even greater) success, midlife identity crises (yes, he just said "obvi"), rivals (Lil Wayne) and an 18-month-old daughter named Blue Ivy.
At times, Jay seems just plain annoyed. On "Picasso Baby," he daydreams about going on paparazzi sniping sprees over a scruffy electric guitar instrumental that might make you want to punch a horse in the face with a roll of quarters. Hov brushes off those who sized up his one percent ownership stake in the Brooklyn Nets (a measly $10 million, bah!) on "F.U.T.W." Sounds truly disgusted when parrying entertainer/activist Harry Belafonte's questioning of his own philanthropic efforts (the sincere yet sleepy “Nickels & Dimes”). Yet even when he's fed up, you won't hear any primal screams or badgered croissant servers (Jay prefers Cap'n Crunch, anyway). He simply decides to bow out on the piano-stabbed "Holy Grail," flanked by Justin Timberlake's perfect falsetto: “Enough is enough, I'm calling this off,” he declares, immediately concluding, "Who the fuck I'm kidding, though?”
We finally see Jay-Z sweat on the album’s most vulnerable gem “Jay-Z Blue,” where he connects his much-documented daddy issues to his own aptitude as a father and husband. It's the most introspective and unsure we've heard Jay since maybe "Beach Chair," on the aforementioned Kingdom Come. "I'm lying if I said I wasn't scared," he admits. This is the Jay we need more of: honest and unguarded as he imagines a failing marriage and parenthood. Yet more often, Jay finds solace in his finances, a safe haven on which he's assembled his entire career. "Tom Ford" begs for radio play, with its bouncy 808s and Tim's dazzling synths. Here he cosigns the song's namesake designer and shuns mollies and Twitter the same way he knocked throwback jerseys 10 years ago. He's having fun. But too often it feels like he's going through the motions. “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” is a bass-driven knocker bloated with worthless luxury raps from Rozay and Jay-Z. “Hov just landed in Rome, nigga,” he announces. Uh, thanks for sharing. Then there's “BBC,” the hotly anticipated Pharrell-produced posse cut that joins Nas, Timberlake, Beyonce, Timbaland and Swizz Beatz for an underwhelming dedication to drug dealer splendor.
It seems at times like Jay is rapping for rap's sake. He misses opportunities to dig deeper and really put us in his shoes. Sure he historically hasn’t been known for his narratives (kudos to “Friend or Foe” and the sinister “Meet The Parents”) but he can paint grander murals of his life and times than the money green splatters on MCHG, especially as peers and protege's like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are keeping the storytelling subgenre pumping. We get a sample size of his squabbles with Queen Bey on the lighthearted, teasing interlude “Beach Is Better”—“Girl, why you never never ready? For as long as you took you better look like Halle Berry,” he jests—but did nothing interesting happen on Hov’s trip to Cuba? Has he not been moved by any conversations with folks whole solar systems beyond his hometown Marcy PJs? It'd just be nice to hear the same innovation of his lucrative Samsung roll-out applied to the album's lyrical creativity.
From it's exorbitant title to the lush soundscape, Magna Carta Holy Grail feels like a deliberate strive for epicness. There are plenty of food-for-thought helpings, from the literally deep trans-Atlantic slave trade metaphor "Oceans" to "Part II (On The Run)," a smooth good-MILF-gone-bad duet with Mrs. Carter. But with handkerchiefs laid and steak knives in hand, MCHG serves up endless five-star hors d'oeuvres. It's delicious, but still leaves you hungry for more. —John Kennedy