MCHG: Jay-Z needs a mid-life crisis more than we need this album.

by sethisan

It took me a while to decide what I felt about Magna Carta… Holy Grail.

The album is currently on display next to one of the original manuscripts of the Magna Carta in an English museum. Would MCHG make it to any sort of museum on its merits? Not really.

It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great. There’s a Tate Modern reference. There’s yet another foray into the dad-rap genre. There’s the (obligatory) Frank Ocean and the (new BFF) Justin Timberlake as guest crooners.

It feels almost impossible to talk about Magna Carta… Holy Grail in a void, devoid of comparisons with Yeezus. These are their first albums post the Throne collaboration, and while Kanye is going strong, crafting novel soundscapes and an exhilarating new anti-corporate manifesto, Jay-Z is another matter.

Mr. Z, for a man who once spoke the lines:

No lie, just know I chose my own fate
I drove by the fork in the road and went straight

as a promise of artistic coherence and integrity, now seems to be in a place in his career where the case for taking a wrong turn or two is getting stronger with every album he puts out.

To be fair, he’s still ticking all the right boxes. His wordplay is as sharp as ever. I’ve always considered his flow overrated but it hasn’t deteriorated in quality. The simple fact is that we’ve heard it all before and this latest riff on the I’m-unbelievably-rich-and-famous-and-I-have-a-hot-wife theme is getting more vapid and ridiculous with every iteration. He is interesting when he talks about the concerns about his new status as Papa Hova (‘Jay Z Blue’), and the image of champagne spilled on the same oceans that brought his enslaved ancestors to America (‘Oceans’), is poignant. But apart from that, many of his verses are eminently forgettable. After a tenth listen to ‘Tom Ford’ and its nauseating refrain ‘Tomford, tomford, tomford’, I am left with little else to say except ‘Cool story, bro’.

The production redeems the album, enough for it to earn a spot in the lower-middles if one were to list his discography in order of excellence. Timbaland, Swizz Beats and Pharell Williams and the rest deserve credit for creating a sonically diverse backdrop, that goes a long way in propping up some of Mr. Z’s less interesting storytelling.
It lacks the cohesiveness of Yeezus — which is very much the creation of an auteur — but does not suffer for it. ‘Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit’ is a notably exhilarating highlight.

The recent news of J.K. Rowling writing a well-reviewed crime novel under a pseudonym provides a useful point of comparison here. We have two massively successful artists who have deftly handled the monetization of their brand and creative properties. Forays into the sports agent gig aside, it might be profitable for Jay-Z to spend some time considering her example if he wants to continue to be an interesting artist, and not merely a ‘business, man’.