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Jay-Z’s Messianic Masterpiece: Magna Carta…Holy Grail

Magna Carta...Holy Grail

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The title of Jay-Z’s 12th studio album – Magna Carta… Holy Grail – carries with it ironic implications that may hamper our ability to evaluate and even enjoy its music. Only in 21st century America could one of the country’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful artists release an album on Independence Day – the day on which the Declaration of Independence was signed as, really, a replacement for the titular Magna Carta. Jay’s new album can’t possibly bear the weight of these documents…or can it?

If this isn’t ironic enough, MCHG may never be separated from its manner of delivery as an app to recent purchasers of various Samsung products. The temporary glitch in the app delayed the conveyance of the album to such a degree that Samsung users and Jay-Z fans everywhere found themselves frantically tapping their phones, visiting online forums, and getting all bent out of shape as they engaged in a quest to hear what for them in their frustration must have seemed like the Holy Grail.

The irony surrounding the album’s title and delivery method simultaneously puts Jay in an awkward and triumphant position. On the one hand, he knows that his supposedly groundbreaking technological advance in marketing was perhaps a failure, unlike the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence, which went over like a charm with white people in England and the British Colonies. MCHG, moreover, can’t possibly be as important as these documents.

But – wait a minute – this is Jay-Z we’re talking about, and the man knows that, as documents of the law and revolution, the Magna Carta and the Declaration didn’t consider or free Black people. It could just be that Jay knows that hip-hop is the true path to freedom, the journey to which is just as spiritual as King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail.

MCGH and hip-hop in general might just apply as the true law, the true calling to revolution, and the true redemptive blood for which we all search.

And it does. It’s Jay-Z’s most epic and politically charged album yet.

The album opener, which features Justin Timberlake, is “Holy Grail,” on which Jay quotes Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and references Michael Jackson. But he refuses to accept their martyrdom. Like Cobain, in particular, he feels the conflict between being just an “entertainer” and the voice of a generation. He knows that he took on fame himself, but he refuses to give up. He accepts his role as “Michael Jackson thriller” and wants his music to be a Holy Grail.

“Picasso Baby” parodies white art collectors by mentioning Leonardo da Vinci, the Tate Modern, and Jeff Koons. Jay knows that most art collectors are just in it for the money, not aesthetic appreciation – and the sex that comes along with the money that allows the white wealth to propagate. But he reminds us at the end of the track that “the pendulum swings.”

Jay’s a name-dropper on “Tom Ford,” a hip-hop ode to the fashion designer who turned around Gucci. It’s a defiant track because in it Jay positions himself among the moneyed elite by naming the designer and not the just the brand. And on “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt!,” he and guest Rick Ross rap about Black people having limited credit. These tracks attack institutionalized corporate racism – and their defiant beats fit the thematic material perfectly.

Frank Ocean joins Jay on “Oceans,” singing “I hope my black skin / Don’t dirt my white tuxedo,” and the song connects racism, environmental abuse, and people who are forced to immigrate to the United States illegally. And the social criticism continues on “F.U.T.W.,” on which Jay compares himself to Cassius Clay (the Greatest) and advises “Don’t be good Nigga, be great.” But he really hits home when he tells young Black men to “fuck up this world” – this is the stuff of revolution, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom he mentions in the song. “F.U.T.W.” is utterly inspirational.

Considering MCHG’s title, “Crown” takes on particular importance. Jay compares himself to God, rapping frantically. What’s the difference, the song asks, between being a kingpin drug dealer and a “legitimate” businessman (read: endorsed by white male corporate America) that Jay is today? And who really is America’s God today? It’s the man with the most money – the man who wears the crown.

“Heaven” begins with the question, “Have you ever been to Heaven?” And Jay talks about the importance of questioning “it all.” He name checks R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and says that as an MC, he’s a prophet, unlike preachers in the pulpit.

Beyoncé sings the opening lines of “Part II (On the Run)” and proceeds to duet with Jay, just as she did ten years ago on “’03 Bonnie & Clyde.” Jay and Beyoncé go against the sexist and misogynistic trends of commercial hip-hop by showing mutual respect for each other. This song contains something that’s rare for Jay – truly beautiful and romantic rhymes – and Beyoncé gives one of her greatest vocal performances to date.

“BBC” is MCHG’s all-star track, including Nas, Beyoncé, Timberlake, and Pharrell. It’s the most musical accomplished track. The beat is terrific and catchy, and the superstars Timberlake and Beyoncé take a back seat to Jay and Nas, providing excellent backing vocals for their rhymes. Nas equally celebrates his life in the projects and his current life, and he joins Jay in politicizing the track by mentioning the triumph of the Obamas.

On “Blue,” Jay gives what are perhaps his most complex and confessional lyrics on MCHG. He discusses all the trauma that comes with fatherhood: a longing to escape a family in which he feels trapped, a longing to be a good father when he didn’t have one himself, and a longing to leave the stress through drugs. How can Jay be a good father when he didn’t have a role model? And on “La Familia,” Jay proclaims, “Family first. Honor. Integrity” and recalls that he “had another family,” feeling that he can’t be understood. The streets raised Jay.

“Nickles & Times” closes off the record, with a musical tonal shift. Dark synths and cool beats back Jay as he discusses about how he used his mind and not violence to escape his dangerous upbringing. But here he’s just as confident in his humility as he is in the defiant “Picasso Baby” and “Tom Ford.” He raps about his flow being a gift – and he promises that he’ll continue to give this gift to us. The greatest gift, he says, is anonymous.

MCHG may be a bit messianic, but, hey, we need some earnestness in this country right about now. And Jay’s the man to make this very record at this very time – he’s beyond irony. Despite the flaws in Samsung’s delivery method, Jay delivers what may be the strongest and most important album of his career.

—Paul Gleason