On ‘Nickels and Dimes’, a lyrical consideration of his own lasting commitments to the scene and his fans which closes Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay-Z announces that “I’d die for my niggas”. Kanye West drops the exact same line on Yeezus. This bar is startling, even amusing, in its hollowness; as per the mission statement of 2011’s Watch the Throne collaboration, neither have any opposition worth speaking of that would ever put their positions at such risk. On ‘Crown’ Jigga notes that “best friends become your enemies”, but nowadays this transition is reversed. His old rival Nas now has guest spots on his records, and the only shots he sees taken are on the basket-ball court with Obama or administrated during a guest appearance at the the local children’s hospital.
The difference between Carter and West is that while any (admittedly reasonable) objections to Yeezus relate to certain memorable, racially problematic lines studding Kanye’s work, Magna Carta sags under the weight of volumes of forgettable material. Lack of adversity is killing Jay-Z artistically, and his work here suffers accordingly.
Collaborations with Rick Ross and Frank Ocean are both uninspired; in fact, minus the fleetingly fun ‘BBC’, the entire back straight of this album is pretty disposable. When the absence of risk and danger becomes painfully noticeable, Jay simply resorts to inventing it, but ‘Part II (On the Run)’, his duet with Beyonce about an imaginary, Badlands-esque flight from the law, also ends up striking a fairly false note given their status as one of the most visible celebrity couples in history.
Magna Carta Holy Grail doesn’t even properly sustain Jay-Z’s self-mythologisation as the disdainful father of hip-hop, rising above trends and transient culture. Sure, cheap gags like “When I was talkin’ Instagram / Last thing you wanted was your picture snapped” on the enjoyable “Somewhere in America” work in and of themselves. However, the distance Carter wants to suggest between himself and these fads with the lines is given the lie by the straight-faced delivery of lines such as “might crash your internet / And I ain’t even into that”, as if this record wasn’t released via a mobile app.
Jay-Z raps “I don’t pop molly / I rock Tom Ford”, suggesting that the currents moving through underground hip-hop are no longer relevant to him. However, replacing a fashionable drug with a symbol of wealth only serves to suggest artistic irrelevance on his part, and not the other way around.
With Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay-Z wants you to believe that he has crafted an essential, lasting document, but is seemingly unaware of the irony inherent in releasing such an LP as the first primarily digital, corporate app-album. Here, as in many places, it feels like the metaphor he strives for is wholly unsustainable.