Jay-Z has been on the receiving end of some considerable flak ahead of his latest album’s release.
Between sketchy data mining initiatives ( Magna Carta Holy Grail, the rap mogul’s 12th LP, was made available to Samsung smartphone owners three days before its official release only if they downloaded a special app) and grandiose marketing misfires (elliptical commercials aired during the NBA Finals; displaying the cover art next to the actual Magna Carta), Jay-Z’s new music faced an uphill climb before most listeners ever heard a note.
If Magna Carta Holy Grail was remotely compelling, all the hype might be forgiven. Instead, Jay-Z has turned in his most disappointing disc since 2009’s Kingdom Come.
Boasts about conspicuous consumption are part of the rap landscape and often pack a punch when delivered by artists who previously had nothing. It’s tough to muster sympathy for the man born Shawn Carter, as he has spent the better part of the past 15 years living a luxe life as a corporate titan.
Yet the potential for a fascinating record existed — like his protege Kanye West, who mined his personal demons to thrilling effect on Yeezus earlier this year, Jay-Z is a new father with wife Beyoncé, and he could have constructed a gripping collection exploring his feelings about fatherhood (which he alluded to on 2011’s superb Watch the Throne).
There’s an undeniable tension there, between gritty roots, multiplatinum success and ensuring the next generation is raised right. He does touch on the subject, but not until late, on the Mommie Dearest-sampling Jay-Z Blue.
The rest of the time, however, Jay-Z raps about expensive paintings, tricked-out cars and high-profile designers, leaving the listener bludgeoned by bling. It gives Grail a feeling of imbalance, tipped toward the embrace of materialism over raw emotion.
Usually an electrifying presence behind the mic, Jay-Z goes through the motions, drawing inspiration from ’80s and ’90s alt-rock (of all places) and giving Miley Cyrus (of all people) a shout-out.
Sonically, Magna Carta Holy Grail, which features production work from the ubiquitous Pharrell Williams and Timbaland, among others, is as unimaginative as its lyrics. There are a few bright spots — Somewhereinamerica rides a sublimely funky sample of Jimmy Norman’s Gangster of Love — but too often, Grail fails to engage.
Not that Hova lets on: “Your best [expletive] ain’t better than my worst [expletive],” he raps on the interstitial tune Versus. The swagger is admirable, and given all the 43-year-old has accomplished, understandable.
But too many more uninspired albums like this, and Jay-Z just may find himself on the other side of that punchline.