Has Jay-Z become Apple? Magna Carta Critique

Written by Wil

jay-z-and-Beyonce-using-their-Apple-Mac-LaptopsMagna Carta…Holy Grail Album Review

If he isn’t creating another Reasonable Doubt (iPod) or Blueprint (iPhone), he is failing. If he isn’t constantly innovating and setting the trend for the entire industry, he has lost it. Creating the best phones and tablets aren’t enough. Apple needs to create entirely new categories to be deemed successful.

Is that what we now expect of Jay-Z?

Apple hasn’t actually lost anything. They’ve done the seemingly impossible by creating new verticals numerous times within a decade – Mp3 players, smartphones and tablets. Even their side projects (Apple TVs) have become billion dollar businesses (both Best of Both Worlds albums went platinum). But because of their success, the expectations have been set to unreachable heights. An amazing accomplishment is no longer just an amazing accomplishment, but now it’s the benchmark. Fail to repeat and your brand is on the downturn.

You no longer wonder if a Jay-Z album is going to be good. You expect it to be good. The question instantly becomes “how great is this new album and where does it rank amongst his other releases”. He’s no longer competing against the competition. It’s against himself. Just like each new iPhone isn’t going up against other Samsungs, but rather the growth and adaptation of past iterations of the iPhone.

“How I’m supposed to win when they got me fighting ghosts?”

Apple posted a $9.5 billion dollar profit in Q213. That’s in one quarter. That’s on pace for a $40 billion dollar profit. And this is a quarter where no new hardware releases were introduced. That’s profit, not revenue. Revenue was over $43 billion. Their revenue is equal to any five Fortune 500 companies combined! They’re selling approximately 50 million iPhones per quarter – each valued at $550-850 each. Yet, the stock continues to drop almost as drastically as it ascended.

Why? Because people decide the price of the stock based on personal expectations., not the expectations that Apple sets. It isn’t about whether or not the company’s prodution is strong. It’s about if the company meets the expectations that the investors set, mostly based on past performance.

Welcome to Jay-Z’s inescapable hell.

This is an extremely difficult review to write. A decision has to be made on what I’m comparing this album against. Is this Jay-Z vs. the field or Jay-Z vs. Blueprint Jay-Z? Am I comparing this to what’s currently out now or against the rest of Jay’s discography? Is it possible to judge this album as a singular piece of work, ignoring the remarkable 17-year run that Jay has had? And is that even what I should be doing?

Mariano Rivera has converted 29 out of his 31 save opportunities, compiling a 1.89 ERA this season, good for 2nd in the American League and 3rd in all of baseball. Singularly, he’s having a great season. But in the context of his career – 19th season in the league, undisputed greatest closer of all-time, coming back after missing nearly a year due to injury and performing as good at 43 years old as he did ten years prior – it’s iconic. But when discussing his accomplishments this season, do we look at the singular season comparative to his peers or do we take into account the aforementioned?

That’s the quandary I’m having with Jay-Z’s Magna Carta… Holy Grail.

Let’s start with the easy stuff. This isn’t Reasonable Doubt, nor is it Blueprint. Just as the iPhone 5S probably won’t be the original iPhone or iPod. So if you want to rank this album against the rest of his discography, you can start there.

I personally find it impossible and also irresponsible to ignore his previous accomplishments when judging this album, so I won’t. However, I will say that most people who dislike this album probably do so because, subconsciously, they’re comparing it to what they’ve come to expect from Jay. Magna Carta compares favorably to pretty much every modern day release. It’s rare that you’ll find a more complete album in terms of lyrics, flow, song structure and production. If someone wants to say that Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is a better overall album? That’s fine. But realize that you’re comparing Magna Carta to some of the best releases in recent memory. And realize that Kendrick hasn’t released albums close to that caliber for 17 years, only one.

And that’s the point. Even if you “don’t like” MCHG, it’s most likely because of the standard you hold Jay-Z to. If you were to compare this to a recent Rick Ross or 2 Chainz album – or any other rapper who’s supposedly at the top right now – it would most likely come out on top. Or at least close.

I’ll get into rankings later, but I’ll state that this album is definitely in the top half of Hov’s discog. an astonishing feat for an artist in his 17th year. The shelf life of a hip-hop artist is exceptionally short, more-so than any other genre of music. There have been some incredible runs that have all been short-lived. There’s nobody on the planet that started out hotter than DMX or 50 Cent – both of which had a strong two or three album run before tailing off. Eminem and Nas are the only two who can claim any type of comparison (with Kanye creeping up), but neither run has been as successful or as sustained. On Blueprint 3, Jay had his two most successful singles in Empire State of Mind and Run This Town. To be able to generate this much excitement at this stage of his career is unheard of.

Jay is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Every time 50 Cent raps about the streets and being a gangster, it sounds so contrived and forced and the multi-millionaire (dozens of times over) is instantly lambasted for being phony. If Jay raps about what he’s doing now, he’s called out of touch. I’m not sure what a rapper should rap about, if not their current real life.

Plus, he’s already gone back and released an album after his reign of success – American Gangster – which conquered the topics of an up-and-coming, hungry, struggling hustler. I have no doubt he could write that type of album again, if he so chose. But it wouldn’t sound authentic. AG worked because he was speaking from the perspective of a fictional character, which just so happened to mimic his rise. He’ll never be able to be everything to everybody, and that’s obvious on this album.

“I was wearing platinum when all y’all thought it was silver ‘n’ shit…”

Having said that – I’ll address what I didn’t like on the album first. Jay is usually the one to start trends. He tells us what’s hot. He drops references in songs, then rappers and fans google them. Rappers like Rick Ross had never even heard of a Maybach until Jay started rapping about it. Suddenly, every rapper talks about driving one and Ross names his label after it. From throwback jerseys to button ups, Jay is always one step ahead of fans and other rappers.

Only on #MCHG, he’s not. He’s recycling the same things we’ve heard him rap about on Blueprint 3 and Watch the Throne. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard Jay mention “Basquiat”. Matter of fact, many of his references felt recycled.

On the title track, he talks about MC Hammer and Mike Tyson – again. The lines were cool, but he’s already said this to us. We’ve heard about him

And that’s where we get back into my original question. If Rick Ross or ASAP Rocky refers to these, we don’t think twice. Jay-Z is the one who originated these, so shouldn’t he be allowed to say them? Or are we holding him to a higher standard because we’ve come to expect him to constantly innovate.

But that’s the point. Ross, ASAP, Kanye, J. Cole, Macklemore, etc. have all mentioned Basquiat over the past couple of years. I expect Hova to bring us something new. But that might just be my expectation of Hov vs. Hov.

A comparison that I often here made is “Jay-Z now is like Jordan on the Wizards”. The thing that bothers me is, it’s meant to be an insult. Jordan came back after a three year hiatus and averaged nearly 23 points per game, while being on par with his career assists and rebounds, despite being nearly 40 years old following a long retirement. Yet, instead of looking at that as an accomplishment, it’s look at as a failure.

That’s because we weren’t comparing Jordan with other superstar basketball players. We were comparing Jordan vs. Jordan.

Magna Carta…Holy Grail is a very good album. It’s one of the better releases of the year. Want to give Born Sinner or Yeezus the nod? Go ahead. But, unless you’re a niche fan, there aren’t many other albums you’ll place ahead of it. Jay is Apple. He isn’t a niche anymore. He’s not the cool kid that nobody knows about. He’s trying to appeal to as many people as possible. And that isn’t easy. It’s actually impossible. The more people you try to reach, the further away from your niche you are forced to stray.

Jay-Z is 43 years old. He’s rich beyond belief. He’s a happily married father. He’s not going to create a Reasonable Doubt. Appeal to your niche and you’re labeled a failure. Appeal to the mainstream and you’re labeled a sellout. There are no wins at Jay-Z’s level. Not in urban music, anyway.

There are some great records on this album and the production is top notch throughout. I personally love the title track with Justin Timberlake. I think it will be a huge record. If you don’t like rap records with R&B hooks? Press skip. If you like music? You should enjoy this.

Picasso Baby is Jay-Z at his vintage best. It includes one of the simplest and complex rhymes on the album. I’ve seen numerous reviewers quote “fuck it, I want a trillion” as a way of saying Jay is out of touch. The depth in that line has gone mostly ignored. Yes, taken out of context, it sounds like an ignorant, braggadocios line that could be uttered by any number of simple rappers. But if you listen to the song, he talks about what he wanted when he was starting out, saying he wants to have sex on a bed with a million dollars. He then achieves that and expands on his goals, saying he wants a billion (which he’s halfway to). He then fast-forwards and says he wants a trillion. Basically, he’s saying that his aspirations will always push him to want more. And so far, he’s accomplished it. It’s a deep, complex line, set in a basic tone. Classic Jay-Z.

And yes, I’ve heard the beat that Adrian Young (Sirens) created that sound eerily similar. But if you know anything about music production, you’ll know that it isn’t about just creating a beat. It’s about creating a moment. Timbaland took a beat that nobody had ever heard and made it into something bigger. Adrian has gotten his credit, will get his money, and can hopefully turn this into a career.

I’m not going to analyze every song. There are plenty of reviews giving their opinions. But Tom Ford was a dope song. I loved the beat and the message. Great sound. The collaboration with Ross was really fun. Jay switched flows three times in that verse, which really highlighted the disparity between him and Ricky.

Oceans is apparently a two year old song (even though he referenced Magna Carta in the second verse), but it fits in perfectly. Unlike some reviewers, I had no problem with Frank’s hook. I thought it fit nicely. And the depth of the lyrics was classic Jay.

F.U.T.W. is inspirational and somewhere in America is going to sound amazing live. Crown is one of my least favorite songs, though it’s solid and I’m happy that the young 16 year old female producer Ebony “Wonda Gurl” Oshunrinde received her potentially life-changing placement.

The album is filled with solid, though not groundbreaking, Jay-Z songs. SomeWhereInAmerica, Heaven, the short, but concise Versus and Beach is Better – these are all really good Hov records. Part II is the first time we hear Jay and Bey collaborate on a true R&B record.

All good through the first 13 tracks. No skips. Solid to strong records. But then we get to BBC. The lyrics, the concept, the idea – all dope. But the beat kills it for me. I feel like I only like it because it’s Hova. Like, if this was anybody else’s song (see: Nas “Summer on Smash”), I’d hate it.

I wish I could like Jay-Z Blue, because I love the concept. And I love hearing him and Biggie trade bars. But I find myself constantly skipping this song. The idea was great, but the execution was poor. The “Mommie Dearest” intro was just weird. I liked that angle that he took, talking about the paranoia of not being a good father. But basing the chorus on if him and Beyonce was ever to split up just seemed forced and unnecessary. It was as if he was trying to force the concept.

La Familia is horrible. I have no idea who recommended that he A) record that song, then B) add it to the tracklist, but they should be fired/banished/killed. The Lil’ Wanye shot was weak (and nearly 24 months late) and the whole song was just corny. Beat was overproduced. Jay sounded like he was trying to be tough. Just didn’t buy the whole thing.

By the time I got to Nickles & Dimes, I was ready to restart the playlist. N&D isn’t actually a bad song. Lyrically, it’s really good. Solid production, as well. But after sitting through the last two? You just kinda want the album to be over. Maybe if this was a 14 track LP and Jay-Z Blue/La Familia were gone? It’b be a nice closer.

Anyway – 17 platinum albums and 13 number one albums later, Jay-Z is still creating great, relevant music. It’s unheard of to be creating music at this level this late in your hip-hop career. This album reminds me a lot of the Black Album. Similar lyrical content and production. Not quite as good, but similar. I also couldn’t care less is Samsung is sponsoring this. I care about the music. If Jay has found a new way to capitalize on corporate sponsorships in a period of weak consumer sales? Salute to him. I only care about the music.

I’d say this is a solid 3.75-4/5.

As an aside, here’s where I rank Jay-Z’s discography. Please leave your own thoughts in the comment section below:

Reasonable Doubt 1996 (10)
Blueprint 2001 (9.5)
American Gangster 2007 (8.75)
Hard Knock Life…Vol. 2 1998 (8.75)
Black Album 2003 (8.5)
Dynasty Roc La Familia 2000 (8)
Watch the Throne 2011 (8)
In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 2007 (7.75)
Magna Carta…Holy Grail 2013 (7.5)
MTV Unplugged 2001 (7)
Blueprint 3 2009 (6.75)
Best of Both Worlds 2002/Unfinished Business 2004 (6.75)
Vol. 3…The Life and Times of S. Carter 1999 (6.75)
Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse 2002 (6.25)
Streets is Watching Soundtrack (5.5)
Kingdom Come 2006 (5)
Collision Course 2004 (5)

Other articles that you might like:
Reasonable Doubt vs. Ready to Die
Watch the Throne Review: Hip-Hop’s Thriller?
Life is Good, but is it great?
Does Yeezus Pleezus?
Reasonable Doubt vs. Blueprint (Complex Rebuttal)

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  • I think I will have to agree with you on almost everything except maybe that I like BBC, but as you stated by the time I get to Jay-Z Blue, La Familia & N&D i m ready to start the playlist over. Solid review.

    Good job.

  • pretty solid review overall, only gripes about the album is Jay got a little 2 Chainz-ish at times, so lyrically it was a little bit disappointing but the immaculate production kept the songs moving forward. only thing that didnt sit well with me about the review is your whole, “if you like music” schtick. that’s become as exhausted as a Basquiat reference. still, good work.

  • Solid writting, like all the other pieces. But I had to admit, the screen shot of Hov’s retweet is easily my favorite part lol I love how you broke down the curse of being compared to yourself.

    I have to however disagree with the rankings of his albums. I didn’t enjoy American gangsta at all. I enjoyed collision course (I know a lot of people disagree) I know kingdom come is not his best work, but a FIVE?! That’s harsh … The rest is arguable but not too far off. Solid review as usual.

  • Your writing is very compelling and it draws the reader in.. very knowledgeable to the whole Jay Z career, this review is great manly because you touched on a lot of key points.. the analogy with Jordan vs. Jordan was brilliant and a true eye opener to anything depending on how you look at it! To whom are we comparing Jay to? no one because they haven’t reached his level, no one ever will in my opinion. The problem with my generation (23 yr old.), I apologize on jumping all over but as Wale says we’re soo quick to compare the legends, legendary albums to this new shit! Its good music don’t get me wrong but I wouldn’t deem it a classic cause it reminds me WTT in a sense. But great write up, still pissed you didn’t write up anything for “The Gifted” take care.