Chris Schulz is the deputy head of entertainment for the New Zealand Herald.

Album review: Jay-Z, Magna Carta ... Holy Grail


With Justin Timberlake's flawless falsetto, Timbaland's beats swooping in like a jumbo jet and a breakdown that includes the chorus from Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, Holy Grail gets Jay-Z's 12th album off to a stunning start.

It gets better: Picasso Baby's rolling waves of bass sound like a Pink Panther murder mystery, Tom Ford's off-kilter beats and name-checking could be a superior lost track from Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne collaboration, and F***withmeyouknowigotit's growling menace is as subtle as a fist in the face.

But as good as Magna Carta ... Holy Grail's sonically spectacular first four tracks are, there's one major problem the album can't shake, and it's something every hip-hop album released in what's left of 2013 will struggle with: It's no Yeezus.

What Magna Carta is, is a solid, dependable, predictable and often super-serious Jay-Z record that does everything by the book.

In that, it's almost exactly like the 43-year-old's last solo record, 2009's The Blueprint 3.

It starts with an adrenaline rush of Timbaland bass tricks, then falters with a mid-section that lacks depth and direction, before petering out. And at 16 tracks, it's probably four tracks too long.

There are also few surprises: Timbaland features heavily on the production credits, the freshest guest spot is hip-hop balladeer Frank Ocean on the grinding ballad Oceans, and lyrically Jay-Z seems more interested in rehashing past glories than crafting new ones.

"Just let me be great," he pleads on the plodding FUTW. Crown finds him saying, "You're in the presence of a God". On Oceans he declares: "I crash through glass ceilings, I break through closed doors."

If only. Despite the release of the album through a Samsung app, despite the appearance of a 16-year-old Canadian student in the production credits, despite Jay-Z's dependable flow and compelling narrative voice, there's not enough here to warrant the title's grand ambitions.

"F*** hashtags and retweets," Jay-Z raps on Tom Ford, sounding more like a granddad moaning about kids these days than a rapper at the top of his game.

Magna Carta gets better when Jay-Z attempts to get personal: Part II (On the Run) is a flawed but hopeful duet with Beyonce, Oceans marries Jay-Z's former life as a drug dealer to his life now as a dad, he critiques religion on Heaven ("Question existence until them questions are solved") and addresses his daughter directly on Jay Z Blue ("I'm lying if I said I wasn't scared").

It's even better in the moments where Jay-Z relaxes enough to goof around. He trades friendly rhymes with his former sparring partner Nas on the summery BBC, the doom-laden, future-thump of Beach is Better shows promise but is cut brutally short at 56 seconds, and the funky horn riff of Somewhereinamerica ends with Jay-Z encouraging Miley Cyrus to "twerk Miley, Miley twerk".

You can almost imagine him sniggering in the studio like a teen who's just farted.

But most of Magna Carta is weighed down by Jay-Z's need to be Jay-Z. It's an album that finds him sitting on his rap throne, smoking a cigar, surveying the landscape, doing things how he's always done them, and relaxing just a bit too much.

Yes, with a back catalogue like his, Jay-Z still deserves respect. But another album like Magna Carta ... Holy Grail and we may have to re-evaluate.

Stars: 3/5
Verdict: Hip-hop's godfather goes by book.
Click here to buy Magna Carta ... Holy Grail by Jay- Z

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