Review Summary: Aims for the stars and lands on the moon.
Let's just get this out of the way quick: You don't name your album 'Magna Carta Holy Grail' if you aren't aiming for infamy.
With that being said, Jay-Z's return to the hip-hop world is an ambitious one. And while it doesn't hit what its aiming for, it doesn't necessarily miss either. Being the twelfth studio release by Jay, we have seen everything that one could possibly hope to see from one of the biggest names in the game. We've been graced with a classic, some good and some horrid releases throughout the years and the one thing that Jay has taught us is that we just don't know what to expect. Are we going to get 'Reasonable Doubt'? Probably not, at least not in terms of lyrical substance, for we haven't seen Jay touch that since 1996. What about his last, 'The Blueprint 3'? God, please no. So instead of the guy counting cards at the table who is confident in what he is about to see, we are stuck as the newcomer to Vegas holding his breath as the cards turn.
And a breath is released; at least momentarily. As the opener ''Holy Grail'' embraces our ears it's pretty clear that, at least for the first track, our sense of hearing won't be disappointed. Justin Timberlake delivers a soulful intro, behind a Coldplay-esque piano loop. It's beautiful, literally. And then, in almost a snide, sarcastic way, Timberlake mutters, "Sip from the cup til' it runneth over, Holy Grail..."
Bass drop. Aggressive Flow. "Uh's."
Yup, he is back in form. And unlike that horrendous verse on "Suit and Tie" where Jay-Z did all he could to sink what was an outstanding track, Jay and Justin are meshing wonderfully. It is a great album opener, and sets the tone for what the album delivers. Lush tones, clear bass drops, and Jay's braggadocio style in full form. Throughout the LP we are blessed with outstanding production, mainly from Timbaland and J-Roc, who do their part in backing up the album's title. It's extremely varied; from the foreboding, paranoia sounding beat found on "Picasso Baby" to the soulful, jazzy loops that reminisce 'The Black Album' on "Somewhere In America" or the trap-heavy bass of "Tom Ford" that's a surefire single in the waiting. MCHG leaves the listener on their toes never knowing what to expect, but anxiously waiting for what their ears are in store for next.
In fact, the beats are done so well, it's difficult to pay attention to what Jay-Z actually has to say. Which is to say, does he actually have something to say that we haven't heard already in his 17-year career? Most of the time, no. And while it's never normally cringe-worthy, it's also nothing of any real substance either. We hear Jay spit his braggadocio norm such as, "Hov just landed in Rome, nigga/All hail, Caesar's home, niggas" on 'Fu
ckWitMeYouKnowIGotIt" and defending his race on tracks "Oceans" and "F.U.T.W." with lines like "See most of my niggas died early twenties or late teens/I'm just trying to come from under the thumb of this regime/ 1% of a billion is more then niggas even seen" The only problem is the writing is never mind-blowing nor mind-numbing; it's just... average.
That's really the only thing holding the album back; what Jay has to say. Because it succeeds in being an outstanding work in terms of production. Jay's flow is on point as it has always been, as he shows an especially fiery side at the end of ''Tom Ford'' and for the entirety of "Crown." as well as a more sentimental side with his worries of whether he can be/ is a good father on the tracks "Jay-Z Blue" and "La Familia." The guests all do their part as well, with the exception of Beyonce's bore-fest "Part II (On The Run)." Frank Ocean and Justin Timberlake do a great job with their hooks, sticking to their styles while meshing with Jay and the production as well. Rick Ross does an exceptional job as well on his track, making it the second time in recent memory that he has had a verse on the best song on an album along with MBDTF's "Devil In a New Dress." It all comes together in great form and it's sad that maybe the only thing holding the album back in Jay-Z himself. Maybe it's just that everything here is outstanding and he just doesn't measure up as well, because really it's not that noticeable. Only when he brings up things like telling Miley Cirus to keep doing her thing "twerking" and using Kurt Cobain's lyrics when he is using big business corporation Samsung for promotion that has you shaking your head. Maybe he just forgot that the same person who said "Here we are now, entertain us... " is also the same who sported a t-shirt saying, "Corporate magazines still suck" on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Magna Carta Holy Grail is really a standing stone for the 17 years of Jay-Z. It's got a lot of exceptional features about it, though it also features some average and awful things as well. As a late career resurgence it still impresses however. And when Jay-Z is on, it is just amazing. If only the moments where he wasn't weren't on here, then maybe we'd be staring at a classic. Instead, we're left with a great, albeit sometimes shaky, return to form.