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Jay-Z CD cover “Magna Carta...Holy Grail”

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CD review: Jay-Z's "Magna Carta ... Holy Grail”

  • July 8, 2013 - 1:22 PM

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Jay-Z, “Magna Carta ... Holy Grail” (Roc-a-fella )

The mood swings are wide and sudden on the 12th solo studio album by Jay-Z. This rapper who has everything — sales, fame, cars, clothes, fine art, corporate clout and an equally famous wife, Beyoncé — has started to wonder what it’s all for.

“Magna Carta ... Holy Grail” arrived on a tsunami of marketing. Samsung bought a million copies of the album, at $5 each, to give away through a mobile phone app on new models in five days in advance of the official release date. As a result of a change in Recording Industry Association of America certification rules regarding album downloads, the disc will have gone platinum before appearing in stores.

In his new songs, Jay-Z boasts his usual boasts; he praises how “special” his flow is, and he compulsively lists acquisitions, destinations and celebrity pals. He also touts the corporate expansion of his Roc Nation into sports management.

But on this album, the music often tells a different story: less vainglorious, more ambivalent. “Oceans” — which, true to Jay-Z wordplay, features Frank Ocean on vocals — juxtaposes thoughts of slave ships with Jay-Z’s current luxury, cruising on a yacht. It’s typical of an album on which Jay-Z turns away from the anthemic pop of “Empire State of Mind,” the rock stomp of “99 Problems,” or the lavish mélange of electronics, sampled soul music and orchestral buildups that he shared with Kanye West on “Watch the Throne,” their brilliant 2011 duo album.

At 43, Jay-Z has grown-up concerns, particularly parenthood (Blue Ivy Carter was born in January 2012). Its most conflicted and vulnerable song is “Jay Z Blue (Daddy Dearest).” He also mentions his daughter in “Holy Grail,” where he’s cornered at a corner store by paparazzi trying to get a baby picture.

Often, Jay-Z’s boasts are contested by tracks with their own stubborn agendas: minor keys, empty spaces, unyielding arrangements that make his rhymes dodge and weave around them. “Tom Ford,” which has Jay-Z living it up in Paris, is a one-chord Timbaland production that starts out hinting at Radiohead’s “Kid A” and turns into a thicket of synthesizers, making Jay-Z shove his way into the rhythm. The tension improves the song, which is about contention. Timbaland produced most of the album, and his beats carry Jay-Z even when — as in “Picasso Baby,” an art inventory — the lyrics revisit familiar ground.

But Jay-Z is still striving here. He ponders faith, superstition and free thinking in “Heaven,” which quotes R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” while in “Nickels and Dimes,” he wonders whether giving people handouts is just his way to assuage “survivor’s guilt” over his escape from poverty. The songs aren’t cocky or neatly resolved; they’re Jay-Z thinking aloud, grappling with complications that can’t be resolved with cash. The closest thing to a pop song is “Part II (On the Run),” featuring Beyoncé, in creamy lead vocals and breathy harmonies, trading verses with Jay-Z about fugitives finding romance.

Though Timbaland’s productions always hold some sly surprises, this comes across largely as a transitional album, as if Jay-Z has tired of pop but hasn’t found a reliable alternative. A million sales are in his pocket; he can keep searching.

Jon Pareles, New York Times

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