Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail quickly became one of the most anticipated new releases of 2013. Jay-Z shocked the world by announcing a 'sooner than later' release of his newest effort. The problem with Magna Carta Holy Grail is that it fails to live up to the hype or the consistency that has characterized Jay-Z's previous efforts. Over the course of 16 songs, Jay-Z sometimes pleases while at other times he falls short of making a splash. There is no "Empire State of Mind" or "Run This Town" this time around; single "Holy Grail" hasn't had enough time to build a buzz. Ultimately, even some of the better, more memorable tracks are accompanied by a rub of some sort.
"Holy Grail" opens the effort, assisted by Justin Timberlake. Timberlake sounds soulful as expected, but seems to grab more spotlight than Jay-Z, the feature artist. Jay-Z does perform two verses, but they pale compared to Timberlake's contributions which are more interesting. Things are better on "Picasso Baby", in which Jay-Z proclaims himself to be the new 'Picasso'. The production has an old-school, east coast sound that is suited for Jay-Z. The best moment is the production switch-up that provides a backdrop for Jay's best, 'realest' verse, Verse 3 ("...They try to slander your man / on CNN and Fox..."). On "Tom Ford", Hov solutes the fashion designer stating "I don't pop molly, I rock Tom Ford..." on the catchy hook. It's not an outright classic by any means, but it's a worthwhile listen. "FkWithMeYouKnowIGotIt" follows, but finds neither Jay-Z or guest Rick Ross at their most substantive. The hook is catchy enough, but simple and shallowly based in bragging. Rick Ross does take a noticeable shot at Reebok ("Money talk I speak fluent...Reeboks on, I just do it...") Four tracks in, Magna Carta Holy Grail is a mixed bag.
"Oceans" gives Jay-Z a solid track, with Frank Ocean delivering splendidly on the socially conscious hook. The production is also among the best of the effort, using malicious brass and buttressing drum programming. Jay-Z sounds a bit more up to snuff on lines like "...Only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace / I don't even like Washingtons in my pocket / Black card go hard when I'm shopping..." "F.U.T.W." isn't a bad follow-up, and Jay-Z goes deeper on certain lines ("America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, give Cassius the shakes...") while going 'small' on others ("Sipping D'USSE boy this ain't your daddy yak / he in a Caddilac, Me? In in the Maybach...") "Somewhere in America" is brief, dropping Frank Sinatra and Miley Cyrus references within the same song. Crazy?
On "Crown", Jay-Z takes the Kanye West approach, with lines like "You in the presence of a king / scratch that, you in the presence of a God...". "Crown" should be a turn off, but it is enjoyable enough. "Heaven" has a conceptual edge, taking a page out of J. Cole and Game's religious rap (Born Sinner (Deluxe Edition) and Jesus Piece). Like his colleagues, Jay-Z takes a liberal approach that's somewhere between free-thinking and blasphemy... Later on "Part II (On The Run)", Jay-Z brings in Beyoncé, proclaiming "my baby momma harder than a lot of you..." As true as that may be, "Part II" comes off a bit indulgent, overwrought in length, and odd. "BBC" isn't exactly what one might expect from a Jay-Z and Nas collaboration, but it is likable. Jay-Z in particular seems very concerned with all things material. The close of the effort is particularly odd. "Jay-Z Blue" is meaningful, but too much weight for one track. "La Familia" and "Nickels and Dimes" seem like filler.
Ultimately, Magna Carta Holy Grail feels scattered and lacks cohesion. It and Jay-Z himself have their moments, but neither seems to be at the 'top of the game'. After a run including American Gangster (2007), Blueprint 3 (2009), and Watch the Throne (2011), Magna Carta Holy Grail leaves more to be desired. Okay, but we all expect more from Hov.