There has been no end to the speculation about the direction Jay-Z's career would take once he announced his initial retirement after releasing The Black Album. Obviously, Jigga Man has trouble staying away. Although he fully eased his way back into the hip hop world by releasing a joint album, Watch the Throne, with Kanye West, it always seemed inevitable that Jay would return to the scene in a more complete, grandiose way--and what better name to exhibit said grandiosity than Magna Carta... Holy Grail?
Opening with the surefire one-two punch of a Justin Timberlake collaboration, "Holy Grail" is a soulful track that showcases Timberlake's abilities a bit more than Jay-Z's. A large portion of the song, in fact, relies on Timberlake's vocals--with Jay-Z not appearing until over a minute in. The melancholic chorus, "I just can't crack your code/One day you're screamin' you love me so/The next day you're so cold," is also left to Timberlake's able vocal stylings. While "Holy Grail" is a great start to the album, it shows something of a lethargy on Jay-Z's part. The next track, "Picasso Baby," melds elements of rock with funk in terms of backbeat, with Jay-Z rapping in a somewhat abrasive tone as he expresses desires like, "I want a wife to fuck me like a prostitute." So let's hope Beyonce is delivering on that. At about three minutes in, the song shifts into an entirely different direction, vaguely mirroring the sound of "99 Problems."
Following is "Tom Ford," another Timbaland-produced track with a beat that reveals Tim's continued gift for creating addictive beats. However, Jay-Z once again displays a certain laziness when it comes to his raps--not to mention an unpleasantly annoying intonation throughout the entire song. "Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit" presents the second vocal collaboration on the album, this time with Rick Ross. Jay follows the same formula he does on "Holy Grail" by letting Rick Ross take the reins for most of the track. Next up is "Oceans," in which Jay-Z wastes no time in offering another powerful musical alliance with Frank Ocean (so now you know why the song is named as such). "Oceans" also starts out with Frank Ocean's voice instead of Jay's. The unmistakable richness of Ocean's voice fills the entire room with so much goodness, that you're almost kind of disappointed when Jay-Z joins in. Fortunately, this song shows Magna Carta... Holy Grail on an upswing.
"F.U.T.W." finds Jay-Z making Cassius Clay comparisons and continuing to talk about being from the projects. This attempt at evincing street cred seems to be immediately negated by the allusion, "I just wanna feel like Brody in Homeland." And, speaking of Homeland, "Somewhereinamerica" is the subsequent song, with something of a The Great Gatsby Soundtrack tinged flavor. You might call it the sequel to "100$ Bill." The visceral, ethereal sound of the following song, "Crown," provides one of the most standout moments on the album. Lyrics like "Fear is your only god," serve to accent the often spiritual motif of the record (Yeezus parallels aside).
The "spiritual motif" continues with "Heaven," wherein Jay-Z addresses accusations of being in the illuminati, among other things. Sampling lyrics from the R.E.M. classic "Losing My Religion," Jay-Z's knack for mash-ups and musical recycling is effortlessly flaunted. "Versus" picks up the pace of the album with a more light-hearted beat. Its distinctiveness from the other tracks on Magna Carta... Holy Grail may have something to do with being produced by Swizz Beats, but before you can think about it too much, the track segues into "Part II (On the Run)" featuring Beyonce. "Crazy in Love" it is not, but it does offer an interesting take on the concept of romance as Beyonce croons, "Who wants that perfect love story anyway?/Cliche, cliche, cliche." Yet again, Jay-Z seems perfectly content to let someone else take the spotlight throughout most of the duration.
"Beach is Better" takes the tongue in cheekness to a new level with regard to Jay-Z's personal life as he raps, "For as long as you took [to get ready], you better look like Halle Berry...or Beyonce." It is also somewhat indicative of his age as he uses irrelevant terms not used since the late 90s/early 00s--like "celly," reiterating the white sounding phrase, "Rapping is a young man's game." Another more fast-paced offering, "BBC," is one of the most out of place songs on Magna Carta... Holy Grail--in a good way--especially when Jay-Z screams, "Britney bitch." Next is "Jay Z Blue," which opens with an extract from Mommie Dearest in which Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford laments, "I work and I work until I'm half dead and then I hear people say, 'She's getting old.'" So, clearly, Jay-Z is well aware that his age might be having an effect on his current musical style. But then, it's also more of a creepy tribute to Blue Ivy. Among some of the most incongruous lyrics--and there are many--is "Baby need Pampers, Daddy needs at least three weeks in the Hamptons."
"La Familia" doesn't exactly redeem the awkwardness of "Jay Z Blue," in spite of it obvious The Godfather references. There's just something about listening to Jay talk about being a family man that feels weird and uncomfortable--and is also likely to happen to Kanye West on his next album, though possibly with stronger hints at dysfunction. "Nickels and Dimes" concludes Magna Carta... Holy Grail on a somewhat better note than the two songs that preceded it, but I'm not sure if that's really saying much. Generally speaking, what both Jay-Z and Beyonce have demonstrated is that success and having a baby may not have been entirely conducive to their creativity or relatability.