The 10 Best Homages On ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there’s no shortage of name-checks and homages on Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail. From requisite rap samples to the less expected rock and Hollywood film influences, the references runneth over on this album. We round up the 10 best.—Sowmya Krishnamurthy
1. Nirvana “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
On the album opener “Holy Grail,” Justin Timberlake invokes the late Kurt Cobain and sings the bridge to the tune of Nivana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The lyrics “And we all just entertainers/And we're stupid and contagious/And we all just entertainers" are very similar to the hook of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (“With the lights out, it's less dangerous/Here we are now, entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us”).
2. The Notorious B.I.G. “My Downfall”
Jay once rapped, “I say a B.I.G. verse, I'm only biggin up my brother,” and no where is that reverence more apparent than on “Jay-Z Blue.” Hov borrows Biggie’s classic line, “I dream filthy/My moms and pops mixed me with Jamaican Rum and Whiskey/Huh, what a set off” from “My Downfall” and samples his late friend’s voice throughout the track.
Jay also takes Biggie’s line about his daughter T’Yanna and reworks it with Blue Ivy’s name to fit the song’s theme: “Apologies in order/To Blue Ivy my daughter/If it was up to me/You would be with me/Sort of like daddy dearest.”
3. Mommie Dearest
In the line “Sort of like daddy dearest," both Biggie and Jay pay homage to the memoir and film Mommie Dearest. The 1981 biopic starring Faye Dunaway is based on Hollywood screen queen Joan Crawford and her abusive relationship with her daughter. Hov samples vocals from the film in the intro to “Jay-Z Blue” as well as the lines “Don't fuck with me fellas. This ain't my first time at the rodeo” and "No... wire... hangers... EVER!" The latter is the film’s most famous line and happens when Crawford finds a cheap wire hanger in her daughter’s clothes. Outraged, she beats her daughter with the wire hanger while going H.A.M.
4. R.E.M. “Losing My Religion”
Hov borrows another famous '90s rock tune on “Heaven” with “That's me in the corner/That's me in the spotlight/Losing my religion.” The word-for-word sample is from R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” Jay uses “religion” here more literally while R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe described his as “a common Southern expression that means being at the end of one's rope.”
5. Ma$e “Feel So Good”
Who would have ever thought the day would come where Jay-Z would pay tribute to 90s Bad Boy rapper Ma$e? Jay’s line “What you know about going out, head west/Maybach 3/TV's all up in the headrest” on “BBC” is just a revision of Ma$e’s 1997 brag: “Yo, what you know about goin' out/Head west, red Lex, TV’s all up in the headrest.” From Lexus to Maybach…Not a bad upgrade.
6. Johnny Cash “Hurt”
The late Johnny Cash is one of America’s most influential singer songwriters. His 2003 hit “Hurt” begins with the gripping statement, “I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel/ I focus on the pain/The only thing that's real.” Hov takes this line on “Nickels and Dimes” and pays homage to the legendary singer. “Johnny Cash, I'm a real G/I cut myself today to see if I still bleed.”
It’s interesting to note that Jay’s longtime friend and Magna Carta Holy Grail advisor Rick Rubin also served as Cash’s executive producer on the album containing “Hurt.”
7. Miley Cyrus Twerk
One of the strangest shout-outs on the album is to former Disney pop tart-turned-bad girl Miley Cyrus on “Somewhere in America”: “Feds still lurking/They see I'm still putting work in/Cause somewhere in America/Miley Cyrus is still twerkin.” Jay could be poking fun at Miley’s overzealousness for shaking it—badly, at that—or giving her props for shouting him out on her “Party in the U.S.A.”
The reference could also be a double entendre, using Miley as a synonym for “white girl” a.k.a. cocaine.
8. High Art
While most rappers name-check Maybach and Bugatti these days, Jay is on his old money shit and busy collecting art. Magna Carta Holy Grail is chock full of art references from his favorite artists (Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Picasso, etc.) as well as museum shout-outs (The Louvre, The Tate Modern and Museum of Modern Art) and nods to the annual Art Basel festival. Looks like artsy Swizz Beatz has been rubbing off on someone…
9. Tom Ford
Jay-Z loves rocking Tom Ford’s crisp suits so much that he devoted an entire song to the American designer and former Gucci head (And you thought Christian Louboutin and Louis Vuitton were cool). Jay may soon be giving fashionistas like A$AP Rocky and Kanye West a run for their money in the sartorial department.
10. President Barack Obama
When “Open Letter” dropped, the line “Boy from the hood but got White House clearance/Sorry y'all, I don't agree with y'all parents,” got more news attention than any rap lyric in recent history. Jay flexed his bff relationship with the President and implied that his controversial trip to Cuba was sanctioned by his buddy Barry.
In the end, we learned that it was the Treasury Department and not Barack who cosigned the trip, but it’s still pretty cool that Jay can reference the leader of the free world and we actually believe him. What other rapper can do that?