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Jay-Z – ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ Album Review

As much as Kanye West might’ve wanted Yeezus to be the cultural high water mark of the summer, even he can’t compete with the sheer magnitude that accompanies every Jay-Z release. And while Yeezus garnered plenty of headlines for its marketing rollout, only Jay could game the system to the point that the RIAA changed their policies, sending his twelfth album to Platinum status even before it was released on Samsung phones on the Fourth of July. #NewRules indeed. And while Kanye hit a narcissistic high point when deciding on his album title, Jay took his album name from an 800-year-old British document that limited the power of Kings over their subjects, a left turn of his own after the opulence that defined so much of Watch The Throne.

And so we have Magna Carta Holy Grail, which doesn’t see Jay limiting himself so much as it does him looking around at the existing restrictions of and encroachments on his power at the top. That’s not to say there aren’t any grand statements about how rich or talented (or even God-like) he is—after Watch The Throne, there’s really no going back from that lyrical vein, at least not completely—but in comparison to WTT, this album sees him looking around at the empire he’s built and feeling around the edges a bit more, testing where the extent of his influence lies.

Take for instance, the album’s first track, “Holy Grail,” where he bequeaths the first minute and a half to Justin Timberlake’s crooning. Jay’s cultural references in the song—MC Hammer, Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain—are the types of figures he’s referenced before, though rarely has he compared himself to their tragic sides. It does seem like he’s wary of, rather than gloating about, his situation now.

The paranoia isn’t new—the Feds have been around since his crack days from Reasonable Doubt, after all—but it’s the personal paranoia, looking around at his empire and wondering what it’s turning him into, wondering if he’s falling into the trap that took those that fell beforehand, that gives the lyrical content a new twist. But of course, it’s not all his fault—”Picasso Baby” lays the blame at the feet of American culture: “No sympathy for the king, huh? / Niggas even talk about your baby crazy / Eventually the pendulum swings / Don’t forget America this how you made me.”

That line is one of several references to Blue Ivy, and highlights another strong theme that runs through Magna Carta, namely his relationships with Beyoncé and Blue. “Part II” has both Bey and Hov speaking on a relationship that, to the outside, seems like the good girl falling for the bad boy; it’s the Bonnie and Clyde narrative that they’ve played up for over a decade now, while Hov’s fatherly concerns for Blue permeate the album.

In other places, Jay is happy to give up the reins a bit; the majority of his guests—Timberlake, Beyoncé, Rick Ross, Nas, Frank Ocean—are the first voices you hear on their respective songs, setting the tone. And the production on tracks such as “BBC”—which is the biggest, wiggliest banger on the whole album—as well as “Heaven,” Oceans” and “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” prove that he was correct in turning the boards over to Timbaland, Pharrell and J-Roc. Timbaland’s flourishes define this album, and Pharrell continues his domination of the summer—”Pharrell’s a Pharaoh” Nas quips on “BBC,” and it’s hard to argue.

And of course, there’s that classic Jay-Z braggadocio: “Conspiracy theorists screamin’ Illuminati / They can’t believe this much skill is in the human body” from “Heaven”; he even delves into Kanye/Yeezus territory on “Crown,” saying “You in the presence of a king / Scratch that, you in the presence of a God.” It’s inevitable with Jay; the “started from the bottom” narrative is already cemented in his folklore, and frankly he’s so far removed from it now anyway that it would seem little more than a retread coming from him. His long ascent to the summit was complete with Watch The Throne; now there’s time to glance around a bit. He may be coming to grips with the fact that there are limits to what you can do at the top, as his clash with Billboard regarding his Samsung deal showed, but that doesn’t stop him—lyrically, promotionally, or otherwise—from trying to push the boundaries out a little further.—Dan Rys (@danrys)

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Best of XXL

  • The Greatest

    Not sure how lyrics got the XXL, while the beats got XL… Easily the best produced HOV album since the Black Album b. Lyricism was def. on point at some parts, weaker at others.. Overall XL is probably accurate tho, not on the classic level of Blueprint 1/Reasonable Doubt, but it is arguably his best post Black Album solo album to date.

  • Josh Huckstep

    Yeah, the production/lyrics rating should be flipped, but overall a good review.

    • Six

      I agree BTW, why should an album review get compared to the next. Not that I was a fan of yeezus but I think an album review should strictly focus on “that” album!

      • Eljay

        why not a collabo with ALC?

    • Ronald Jack

      I’m not too much a fan of the production. They are good beats but Jay-z sounds better on soul samples and harder beats. I think he should do an album with just ninth wonder or just blaze.

      • Jontell Taylor

        ^^^^^This And Only This

      • https://twitter.com/KB_116 Mr. 116

        Ninth Wonder, Don Cannon, and DJ Premier.

        • Ronald Jack

          I don’t know why Jay doesn’t mess with Premier anymore

          • https://twitter.com/KB_116 Mr. 116

            I know right! It’s crazy.

  • BillzClinton

    Really, an XL?…There is very little spirit in this album compared to other Hov albums. One thing this album is missing, and thats Kanye. The swagger is off, the cadence is weak and the rebellion is missing, but the lyrics and some sounds are nice. They should have done WTT part 2 – put Yeezus best together with MCHG best, the result would have been a classic far beyond anything anyone could ever fathom.

    • Ronald Jack

      Jay-z and Kanye go good together on their solo albums (Kanye producing for Jay or one or two features). Watch the Throne seemed like it took both of them out of their element. Kanye was not as deep as he usually is and Jay seemed like he was struggling throughout the album to relate to the subject matter.

  • BrianRaider

    I Feel This Review Is Accurate. I Really Enjoyed The Album!

  • gh

    we new it wasn’t gonna get a XXL but hey some albums that were better than this got a lower rating.

  • Rigby

    Yea Yeezus was missing some Hov and MCHG was missing some Ye. They’ve creatively evolved while away from each other, so Watch The Throne 2 should be amazing.

  • Naya

    @gh J Cole really shd have had better ratings by far, instead of the yeezus experiment, jay z has been consistent so u can’t take that away from him

    • vanchi

      still on that j cole kanye shit smh jay shited on both albums save the hating shit for kanyes and j coles page

      • We

        Jay-Z album was garbage yeezus was better than that shit. To the nigga still suckin cole, Mac album was better. Cole’s album was original and fucking repetitive, no creativity, which is why now after being out so long he is finally getting some press. I do not know how he got the XL because this album was lyrically weak and this fucking album was surrounded by all that BS hype glad I didn’t purchase it.

        • Don

          I agree with you, because you have albums that are better than this garbage like ESGN, that are not getting the XL and gibbs album is better than this shit storm jay makes.

  • dizzy

    good review and he set the lyrical bar up again

  • the truth

    XXL on the lyrics come on, the lyrics were XL at best, the production and lyrics could have been flipped, Also how the originality got an XL, he talks about the same things hes done in past albums

  • wat

    Lyrics were L imo. XL if I’m being generous. XXL for the beats though. Get off Jay’s dick, XXL. If you actually listened, you’d see he stepped down his lyrics for this album. Good album though.

    • that dude

      YUP. Lyrics kinda sucked.

    • Sergio Garcia

      Yeah XXL is Reasonable Doubt type of lyrics which Jay wasn’t to his capacity so an XL would be fine. Some lyrics were nice though.

  • Comic Book Guy’s Bar: CBGB

    Truth is this is just as cohesive as Jay’s entire body of work… which
    doesn’t say a whole lot.. let’s go over the good ol’ Jay format shall

    MAJORITY OF JAY-Z’s ALBUM GO SOMETHING LIKE THIS (excluding most intros):

    1. INTRO/HEARTFELT SONG most likely with an R&B artist/narrator
    (Mary J Blige, Faith Evans, JT, Beyonce, Pain in Da Ass, Memphis Bleek)

    2. BOSSY SONG (City Is Mine, Picasso Baby, Hovi Baby, Takeover etc..)

    3. STREET SINGLE (H to the Izzo, DOA, I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me etc..)

    4. SONG WITH WHOEVER IS HOT RIGHT NOW (FuckwitmeyouknowIgotit, Hello Brooklyn, Run This Town)

    5. CATCHY SINGLE WITH R&B BACKUP (Excuse Me Miss, Change Clothes, Empire State of Mind, Oceans)

    6. TOSS UP WITH A FEATURE (Real As It Gets, What They Gonna Do, Do U Wanna Ride?)

    7. CLEVER SONG (Threats, 22-Two’s, A Week Ago, I Know)

    8. NOTHING TO SOMETHING SONG (Moment of Clarity, Can I Live, Party Life, Ain’t No Live)

    9. “MY SAMPLE/FEATURE WILL HANDLE MY HOOK” SONG (Never Change, Ain’t No Nigga, A Star Is Born, Heaven)

    10. CHARACTER ANALYSIS/INTERLUDES/LAST SINGLE (Song Cry, Venus vs. Mars, Versus, PSA, Friend or Foe)

    11. MADE MAN SONG (All I Need, Say Hello, Big Pimpin’, Justify My Thug)

    12. THE “BODY ME ON MY OWN SONG” SONG (Renegade, Success, Hate)

    Loves Me, Nickels & Dimes, Beach Chair, Regrets, Fallin’, A Ballad
    for the Fallen Soldier)

    • Ronald Jack

      lol @ the body me on my own song song

    • Dyrmakr

      Haaaaa thats funny……..

  • vanchi

    good shit

  • Nathan Alexander

    The production was deff better than the lyrics. The lyrics were weak on some songs (BBC, La familia). Overall i agree with the rating. The album was a great album and deff the album of the year, but not a classic.

    • Evan

      BBC might not be a great song but Nas and Hov ripped it!! As for La Familia, the point was to show these new dudes he could use their ABC flow better than them! I say XXL got this review exactly right!!

  • Jay DeLuca

    I enjoyed this album very much and will 2 until the summer is over or next good release juicy jss album hopefully will b good…it took me a while 2 like yeeezys….good review

  • Ronald Jack

    I like the lyrics on this album. The beats kind of make it hard to enjoy. Some of them don’t mesh with Jay-z voice/style and they make the album boring. Ever since Blueprint 3 his beat selection has been different. Harder beats would have made this album better. BBC is definitely a waste of Nas and Jay’s talent. But I agree with the xl rating

  • Inquiring2mind

    This is the shit I’m talking about. Why everybody out YMCMB/MMG/G.O.O.D Music/Roc Nation gets these kind of reviews. No one whether its The Source or especially XXL can sit here say and let alone prove that anybody or everybody coming out those camps are the only artists out making dope music. NOBODY and please don’t say these are the most talented artists out.

  • macadoshus

    yall got it wrong on this one man.. This is a xxl it has to be just based on the fact that.. who was the last xxl album that has been out in the past 5-6 years? Who has went plat before there album actually dropped?This is hip-hop. This is Jay-Z. This is what the game needs!!! MORE OF

    • Ama

      nas life is good got an xxl dumba$$

    • well….

      good kid, m.A.A.d city got an XXL, and I believe MBDTF got an XXL.

  • CJStylez

    Jon Connors CD is better then Jays & wests

  • Garrett VonRudenborg

    HAH! You’re gonna tell me this album is on the cusp of being a classic? ea the beats were fine, I wont complain about that, but the lyrics AND originality need to be an L. Lets be serious, what was so dramatically original about this album besides the samsung deal?

    • Sergio Garcia

      The lyrics are good. I say an XL.

  • Guest

    “lyrically”, promotionally, or otherwise–from trying to push the boundaries out a little further. Lyrically? I had to double take.

  • KDaniels

    I think they didn’t want to give this an XXL because it isn’t as good as the Blueprint… so they gave the beats an XL even though the production was the highlight of the album.

  • Double-Axe Digital Recordings

    XXL is in the tank….this album sucked!!!!

  • DLloyd1985


  • Dwahn Denson

    This nigga is still stealing lyrics from B.I.G. 15 yrs later and u give him a XXL for lyrics REALLY ?

    • Ben Carter

      It’s called showing respect to your elders, he isn’t biting

  • Sergio Garcia

    Switch Beats & Lyrics rating.

  • Sergio Garcia

    The beats were Top notch. His lyrics were a step down coompare to other TRUE classic like RD, TBP, & TBA. Hell AG had better lyrics. But still the lyrics were good. I say XL since the metaphors were great. Originality is fine. I enjoyed the album but the XXL on the lyrics were dead wrong.

  • itmustbebobby

    The lyrics on this album are GARBAGE! Wow … I like XXL in general but this review is crazy. Might be time to rethink my source for hip-hop news, reviews, etc. Seriously bizarre review.

  • Guest

    better than yeezus

  • Ernest Harper

    great album

  • Ben Carter

    Finally someone tells it like it. Dope

  • Ohioma Flintstones Eboreime

    I am a Jay Z fan and even I wont dick ride Jay this much…..XXL for lyrics…really?? Beats and Originality yeah..but definitely not Lyrics…Lyrics weren’t consistently top notch. He had his moments

  • michaelengadget

    This is not an XL album. I know XXL has to maintain ties to Jay Z so he can feature on your magazine, but Jay is not at his best here, and does not deserve the XL rating. The album’s production is very good, and the beats are fire.

  • cmack510

    i agree with everything except the lyrics part…jay did not rip this record

  • Karol Piechowicz

    L is the higher rank He could get from me. Sorry, this review sucks.

  • Matt Cosgrove

    5 on lyrics?!? Are you fucking kidding me?

  • David Scott

    This album lyrically could have been way better. Jay aint talking bout shit on it but some rich peoples bullshit. Most of the beats knock but I expected more. Kanye’s album is better.

  • cmack510

    ummm yall kinda fucked up on this…the beats need to be XXL, originality can stay where it is but as far a lyrics go jay-z was not spitting like that on this album, he had a few good bars but on some songs he had swag flow to it to apply to young listeners an i didnt like that. lyrics need to be dropped to L

  • Ramon Rojo

    Lyrics were average as hell this albmu has to be Jigga’s worst

  • 2pac1996

    So He Gets A XXl On Lyrics But Em Only Gets A Xl? The Fuckery Is Serious Smh

  • Townshipchessteam

    average album. overhyped and bad lyricism. only complaint on this review xxl

  • truehaha

    I’d give the lyrics “M” maybe! Jay is just a few bumps up from having the lyrics of gucci mane hahahaha

  • Robert Spears

    Really?!?! Them lyrics & Originality were xl at best. Them beats were XXL tho.