By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
7:00 AM CDT, July 5, 2013
It's possible to pare down the gist of "Magna Carta Holy Grail," the 12th solo studio album from New York rapper/businessman/new dad Jay-Z, to three simple words uttered in a track called "Tom Ford."
"I'm so special," declares the rapper, 43, and anyone who stayed up late Wednesday night to hear the record, issued first through a computer app available only to owners of a particular brand of smartphone, isn't in a position to argue. He's the man who can sell a million records with a minion's flip of a switch.
In addition to his wife being Beyoncé, what kind of "so special" is the man born Shawn Carter, exactly? Oh, he could go on and on. "It's Bordeauxs and Burgundies," he explains (dismissing Riesling in the process), while a minimal rhythm snaps around him. He later adds that he's the type of guy who'll spend "all my euros on tuxes and weird clothes — I party with weirdos."
Jay-Z partying with weirdos is always a good thing, especially if said sonic freak is Timbaland, a producer responsible for some of the best beats of the past two decades. The team is best known for an early Jay-Z classic, "Big Pimpin'," among others, but they had a falling out a few years ago. They've reconciled and harnessed this creative juice to construct some truly cool tracks — while lyrically traveling the world.
"Parades down Flatbush, confetti in my fur," raps Jay-Z on "F.U.T.W.," a lyrically disposable but aurally pleasing jam about winning, destiny and many other tropes he's tossed over two decades as a professional. On "Oceans," produced by Pharrell, Jay-Z and Frank Ocean roll on a yacht off the coast of Africa while pondering the lives of the ancestors who centuries ago traveled the same water on a tortuous route to America. On "Beach Is Better," he spends nearly $100,000 during a day along the sea.
Throughout "MCHG," beats jiggle with synthetic energy courtesy of the master of genre. Combined and at their best, as on "BBC" and "Heaven," the producer and rapper move with the coordination of expert magicians juggling Champagne bottles and knives.
They sample Biggie Smalls' grunt on "Jay-Z Blue," and its effect is spine-tingling. Justin Timberlake cameos and quotes Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the opening track. Jay-Z cites a line of R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" on "Heaven," begins the awesome "Versus" with a line from A Tribe Called Quest. He samples Faye Dunaway's "No wire hangers ever!" meltdown from the film "Mommie Dearest."
Like former protege Kanye West, Jay-Z shouts out the haunting song "Strange Fruit" on his new work. But unlike West, who samples the song about a lynching for a rant mostly about predatory women, Jay references "Strange Fruit" with respect to the power of its symbolism.
The lyricist also juggles names: Over a 16-song album that could have been cut to a dozen, Jay namedrops Julius Caesar, Pablo Picasso, Lucky Luciano, Mark Rothko, Billie Holiday, Jean-Michel Basquiat (and his graffiti alter-ego SAMO), Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson and the "Mona Lisa." He rhymes "Leonardo da Vinci flows" with "Riccardo Tisci Givenchy clothes."
But to what end? Other than to amaze us with his opulence, good fortune and undeniable skills, the answer is elusive. Despite its name, "Magna Carta Holy Grail" seems unconcerned with delving too deeply into either the democracy or the faith that the two objects symbolize.
For example, when he says, "Welcome to the magnum opus, the Magna Carta," he's implicitly connecting a foundational document of democracy to his new work (and making a play on his last name). But that's the only reference he makes to the pamphlet's history.
And the grail in English mythology was the chalice belonging to Jesus Christ's uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph, along with Nicodemus, took Christ's body down from the cross. In one version of the myth, Joseph and his chalice relocate to Great Britain.
For Jay-Z, this object, one rich with history and metaphor, is nothing but a fancy cup, one notable only because it's the Most Awesome Cup in the World, and only he can drink from it.
"Magna Carta Holy Grail" certainly is shimmering, heavy and at times sonically stunning, and Jay-Z can toss a brilliant metaphor like it's nothing.
But a true masterpiece harnesses intellect and adventure to push forward not only musically but also thematically. Which is to say, sure, call it a Picasso — but just don't compare it to "Guernica."
"Magna Carta Holy Grail"
Three stars (out of four)
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