When Jay-Z headlined Glastonbury and 'sang' Wonderwall to a packed Pyramid Stage it represented a moment in which he, having been acknowledged as the ambassador of hip-hop, faced down his critics, mocked them and revealed to the world that he was willing to poke fun at himself. On the opening track of Magna Carta Holy Grail he attempts a similar trick, but unfortunately his co-opting of the lyrics to 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' fall completely flat and set up the disappointments that follow throughout the rest of the album. Whilst Watch The Throne felt like rejuvenation of Jay-Z and his most exciting release in recent years, Magna Carta Holy Grail is a return to the dull, safe hip-hop he'd been putting out otherwise.
The album opens with a Justin Timberlake vocal that follows the clichés of being that strained whining performance pop stars think pass as 'bluesy' whilst shoehorning in a vaguely "old world" line - "sipping from your cup till it runneth over" - that could be a sexual innuendo, but just feels awkward. We don't actually hear Jay-Z until about 1 minute 20 seconds in; when he finally arrives he appears to be performing a completely different song which focuses on his status as an entertainer. The problem is that there is a lack of focus in the track, aside from the contrast between Justin and Jay-Z's lines, Jay-Z at one moment complains about press intrusion, before stating that he doesn't care at all about it.
If there is a theme running through Magna Carta Holy Grail, it's Jay-Z attempting to establish himself as a figure of importance. Either by comparing himself to great works of art, which he does in 'Pablo Picasso' where aside from name-dropping the famous Cubist, references Rothko, Koonz and the Mona Lisa as well as mentioning the Tate Modern. Elsewhere, on 'Heaven', Jay-Z states "I'm a motherfuckin' prophet" whilst he calls himself a god on 'Crown'. Unfortunately it lacks the impact of Kanye's similar assertion on 'I Am A God' and musically sounds like a weaker version of West's 'New Slaves'. The other problem is that Jay-Z's importance in the acceptance of hip-hop as mainstream is already well established. Do we need to hear him comparing himself to Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King ('F.U.T.W'), artists or deities? Throughout Magna Carta Holy Grail there is the sense that we've heard this all before and that, rather than being the great work of art or cultural document it claims to be, it is simply Jay-Z by numbers.
The only thing to differentiate this record from other recent Jay-Z albums is the cultural references he makes. Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, twerking and Homeland all get checked off. Though there seems to be a sense that Jay-Z attempts to distance himself from technology. "Fuck hashtags and retweets," he raps on 'Tom Ford' over a backing that sounds like a rehashed version of 50 Cent's 'Ayo Technology' from 2007. His musical references are more traditional, with mentions of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash and Nina Simone's 'Strange Fruit'. In many ways it shows Jay-Z's age. His present day references feel forced and musically the album just isn't as exciting as when he was in his prime.
In recent years hip-hop has really exploded, both musically and lyrically. We have new artists embracing traditional styles, but performing in a way that brings a freshness and excitement to their work. Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d. City featured typical West coast rap sounds, but it was in the lyrics and the overall narrative of redemption that pushed the album to greatness. On their latest mixtapes, Le1f and Chance produce sounds and rhymes that are unlike anything that's been heard before. Even Kanye, Jay-Z's protégée, has been willing to embrace new sounds. First there was the heavy auto-tune of 808s and Heartbreaks; then this year he released Yeezus, which was a bold musical direction for an artist as mainstream as Kanye (although it's a route other rap artists have already taken).
It is telling that Jay-Z's most revealing moments come on the track 'Jay-Z Blue' that deals most directly with his newfound fatherhood and his fears of his relationship falling apart. He directly references his own upbringing and his desire to be better than his parents - "Father never taught me how to be a father / treat a mother I don't wanna have to just repeat another leave another." Jay ends the song stating "and I'm trying and I'm lying if I said I wasn't scared," it's a rare glimpse of vulnerability and probably delivers the album's most outstanding moment. A shame that we don't get more of this.
Magna Carta Holy Grail isn't a bad album, but it's certainly not one of Jay-Z's strongest. Musically, it feels relatively safe, whilst lyrically it rarely offers us new insights into the man. Yet it is worth wondering whether Jay-Z really promised us this, or whether we just expected it of him due to the marketing machine behind him. After all this is an album that, thanks to Samsung, went platinum before anyone had heard it. If Jay-Z is looking for another artist to compare himself to I'd suggest Damien Hirst. Both were once provocative and influential, but now they are both highly valuable brand identities that are sure to deliver something that will be commercially, if not critically successful.