Jay-Z announced the new album Magna Carta Holy Grail during Game 5 of the NBA Finals, but since he is a business, man, not a businessman, more facts surrounding the business arrangement with Samsung Electronics have come to light than qualitative information about the music it contains. With a dream-team production crew of Pharrell, Timbaland, Swizz Beats and even Rick Rubin in tow, it was almost a given that sonically the album would not disappoint.
However, it wasn’t until Thursday morning, when the album actually dropped for Samsung Galaxy 4 owners (or for those who tuned in to Funkmaster Flex’s show on Hot 97) that some fans finally had a chance to digest the music and decide whether Jay’s newest is a game changer or a digital Frisbee for Samsung.
Ironically, while Samsung got exclusive dibs on the record for a July 4 release (the album officially drops July 9), the app malfunctioned at the same time that the old media, FM radio, streamed the album. Perhaps part of Jay’s #newrules is breaking the Internet?
Upon the first few listens, it’s apparent that Magna Carta Holy Grail is, in fact, a veritable magnum opus. Jay-Z is extremely focused with his lyrics, whether zoning and rhyming like it was 1996 again on one song and then commanding the mic like the rap overlord that he is on another. Here’s a quick rundown, track by track.
“Holy Grail (Feat. Justin Timberlake).” The vocals from Justin Timberlake instantly pull you in, although he sounds a bit like Bruno Mars. Sparse beat and double-time flows with an interpolation of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” make for a very compelling listen.
“Picasso Baby.” A grimy guitar riff underscores a track that feels like “Come Get Me.” A few “woah” inducing lines, not the least of which is, “Ain’t hard to tell/I’m the new Jean- Michel.” Jay surely induced Nas and Kanye West to chuckle with this one.
“Tom Ford.” Sounds like Pharrell drums right away. Jay switches up his flows nicely to ride the slower tempo and channels the Watch The Throne bourgeoisie designer rap.
“F**kWithMeYouKnowIGotIt (Feat. Rick Ross).” Sounds like a typical Rick Ross song, from instrumental to the actual Rick Ross feature. Definitely a club-friendly track, not super-innovative. Jay switches up flow and lyrics are boastful.
“Oceans (Feat. Frank Ocean).” Fans of a lyrical Jay-Z will love this one. He previously explained the concept of the song in the Samsung ad, which is about the full circle of coming from slavery to spillin’ champagne into the ocean. Frank Ocean’s crooning helps illustrate the concept; it turns out to be an epic track.
“F.U.T.W.” Sounds like a 1996, Reasonable Doubt-era Jay-Z. Talking about how far he’s come. The acronym stands for “F**k Up the World.”
“Somewhere In America.” Familiar samples and tongue-in-cheek social commentary such as “Somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerkin” make for a great song.
“Crown.” This sounds like it was recorded at a Yeezus session. There are clashing sound effects, eerie vocals in Jamaican patois, keyboard sounds reminiscent of Hit-Boy’s , and a dark, dragging bass line. The build-up of the beat is epic within itself. When Jay drops bars, it’s to tell Scott Boras that Robinson Cano is coming with him. Generally, this is a song in which Jay asserts he’s a king. Who are we to disagree?
“Heaven.” A pedestrian track compared to the others – the organ keys are repetitive and hypnotic – but Jay offers snarky rhymes and (sort of) dispels Illuminati rumors.
“Versus.” An ominous, dancehall-influenced beat with Jay giving a piece of his mind to an unnamed “sucka n**ga, wherever you are” (borrowed from A Tribe Called Quest, of course). The song is more is more of an interlude, clocking in at a mere 50 seconds.
“Part II (On the Run) (Feat. Beyoncé).” Has a big, stadium sound. Lush orchestration, an epic feel and Beyoncé vocals combine to make this a hit record. There’s an emotional weight that pulls you in.
“Beach Is Better.” A thumping Mike Will Made It production. Very short, but Jay’s clever lines grab your attention here. The gist is something about bringing “sand to the beach” and wifing Beyoncé.
“BBC (Feat. Nas, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell & Timbaland).” An orgy of a collaboration that delivers. BBC, to be clear, refers to being black and being a billionaire. Nas goes first and calls Pharrell a “pharaoh.” It’s an uptempo cut which sounds like Timbaland programming with a frenetic Swizz Beats tempo.
“Jay-Z Blue.” Jay was visibly emotional about in the Samsung ad over this song about daughter Blue Ivy. At first listen, it seems a bit underwhelming in light of the ad; however, the gentle synths and strings, along with the subject matter juxtaposed with Biggie’s vocal samples get the job done.
“La Familia.” Simply put: this is boastful Jay-Z gospel with diss lines aimed at Lil Wayne.
“Nickels and Dimes.” Frenetic drums are juxtaposed with muffled singing, organ sounds and airy synths as Jay-Z evokes Black Album lyricism.
“Open Letter.” This song has made its rounds already – all the way to the White House. Jay addresses his and Beyoncé’s Cuba trip and comments on the status of his ownership stake in the Brooklyn Nets.
The verdict? #MCHG – as it’s known to many people, along with #magnacarta – lives up to its lofty name. While the focus leading up to its release has been on the business behind the music, Jay-Z proves that music does not come second. Magna Carta Holy Grail is balanced, well-orchestrated and fine-tuned. It’s a definitive album in Jay-Z’s already astonishing catalogue of hits.