Jay-Z, Magna Carta Holy Grail - review


In this age of the spectacle, music increasingly matters less than the event surrounding the music - this year has seen Daft Punk's album applauded as much for its marketing campaign as for any intrinsic musical value it may have, and now we have Jay-Z's new album, notable largely for the deal struck with Samsung to deliver a million free downloads to its customers, at a cost of $5 apiece to the company, three days prior to its official release.

The business rationale is bluntly obvious: on Jay-Z's side, he gets a guaranteed $5 million without having to manufacture or deliver a single CD; and on Samsung's side, they get a substantial, yoof-related foot in the door of Apple's OS dominance, the album only being currently accessible through their Android app system. But what does the poor punter get from the deal? 

On the face of it, an hour's free music sounds like a welcome gift, provided your notion of "free" is purely commercial, and doesn't extend to the extra hours of grief struggling to sign up for the deal, and then download it. Factor that in, and the freebie starts sounding a little sour, particularly since Jay-Z, being Jay-Z, spends most of the time banging on about how rich he is, how brilliant it is being married to Beyoncé, and how irritating it is that some people don't find him quite as wonderful as he does. The album is splattered with brand-names, the familiar litany of nouveau-riche ostentation - Bugatti, Hublot, Givenchy, etc - now expanded to include modern-art tat by Koons, Basquiat and Shepard Fairey. 

But at least he deals the boasts out with some panache - one of the funnier aspects of the album is hearing Rick Ross trying to do the jet-set brag thing, and still sounding like a hired doorman. Other guests include Justin Timberlake, smooth and mellifluous on "Holy Grail", Frank Ocean musing on African origins in "Oceans", and a whole posse of associates crowding "BBC", where Jay-Z enumerates the cars he bought for his crew, and Pharrell Williams offers the drollest couplet on the album with "My whole life is leisure/Gangsta lean like the Pisa". 

Elsewhere, Beyoncé and Jay-Z indulge an erotic outlaw fantasy over the miasmic electro-R&B of "Part II (On The Run)", which might better be titled "Get A Room"; and on the album's most revealing track, "Jay-Z Blue (Daddy Dearest)", he uses anxieties over their daughter Blue Ivy to reflect on his own upbringing with an absentee father. "Father never taught me how to be a father," he observes, "Only hugged the block, I thought my daddy didn't love me." It's a rare glimpse of the human behind the hubris, along with the closing "Nickels & Dimes", where he muses about his philanthropic urges being a result of "survivor's guilt": "I gave some money to this guy, he got high as hell; now I'm part of the problem, far as I can tell."

Musically, the album leans heavily on Timbaland productions, with occasional input from the likes of Pharrell, Swizz Beats, The-Dream and Mike Dean. The most notable moments include the aptly rude, garish trombone groove behind the new-money boast "Somewhere In America", where Jay-Z invites his appalled old-money neighbours to his housewarming party; and the sadly sinister horn motif underpinning "FUTW", in which he takes liberties characterising his mere success as emblematic of the emancipatory struggle: "America tried to emasculate the greats/Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes". But then again, as he acknowledges in "Holy Grail", the benefits of wealth far outweigh the irritations of being public property: "We're all just entertainers/And we're stupid and contagious".

Download this: Holy Grail; Jay-Z Blue (Daddy Dearest); Somewhere In America; Nickels & Dimes