Funny thing, ageing – not least when it comes to musicians: some choose to slowly retreat into a sedate retirement; others do a Salinger, while a few continue to burn the torch at both ends going all guns blazing straight to the grave. Lemmy, maybe..? And Jayhova, aka Jay-Z, née Shawn Corey Carter – arguably the elder statesman of commercial rap now that Dre’s forgotten about the so-called game altogether to focus on manufacturing headphones – now finds himself pinpointed at that exact proverbial crossroads. You can just imagine H to the izz-O; V to the izz-A asking himself: “What can I rap about now? From whence do I draw my divine inspiration?” Or maybe not. But with his life no longer dominated by chewy beef with his fellow rappers, glinting rims nor any other hackneyed hip hop fare you’d care to mention, his attentions naturally turn to altogether more glamorous accessories such as nappies (“Baby needs Pampers”, Jay Z Blue) and bawling baby Blue Ivy.
Understandably, then, this domestic ambience predominates over the course of this bland, and somewhat forgettable hour. Maybe it’s down to its inevitable overshadowing at the feet of that other hip hop colossus who released his pièce de résistance just last month or maybe it’s just because it’s not very good, but Magna Carta Holy Grail is all a little underwhelming, really. And despite its bombastic, giving-itself-massive-delusions-of-grandeur titling, the whole thing falls rather flat on its face – an exercise in blowing your own trumpet ’til you’re puffy and puce in said face, without making any discernible noise whatsoever.
Kicking off with the HRH Trousersnake-featuring, Kurt and the Gang-aping Holy Grail would initially appear to be a statement of intent although, alas, it is as the French would say too much, and consequently feels like he’s trying waaay too hard. Elevating himself to that same artistic pedestal on which the likes of Picasso (Picasso Baby) and Basquiat (BBC) perch is transparently supercilious, not least in light of the fact that what he lays on thick comes nowhere close to backing up that which we hear. The songs are lazy, and frequently commit the cardinal sin, dare I say it, of being boring: what I used to enjoy of Jay-Z was his almost insouciant attitude toward making music – you’d garner the impression that a lot of his hitz could easily have been nothing but happy accidents, in spite of the evident work and thoroughly considered thought to have gone into their production. Conversely, it here feels all too forced; far too obvious, and it’s to the record’s patent detriment.
And essentially, there’s the overarching sense of this being nothing but a bunch of typically hubristic, if hollow posturing, and plenty of preening without any of the prerequisite oomph to back it up. Like a declawed tiger, if you will: the 8-bit chiming of Tom Ford, with its oh-so-self-aware po-mo referencing of hashtags and retweets (that’ll age real well, won’t it?), and the readymade internet meme soundbites à la “Miley Cyrus is still twerkin'” (Somewhere in America) are nothing but cheap shots aimed at rousing an unnecessary controversy. In fact perhaps paradoxically, the most revealing aspect of the record comes from one of its shortest, and indeed least substantial songs: clocking in at just under a minute, Beach Is Better – replete with knowing wink to his dearly beloved, delivered over what sounds painfully reminiscent of the Casualty theme tune – makes this out to be some massive in-joke that everybody knows about, yet is still content to be swindled and so too fooled by quite simultaneously. It’s not a feeling I particularly like, in all honesty.
A few things are rather more transparent, however: King John likely wouldn’t have been coaxed into going to the Runnymede listening party for Magna Carta Holy Grail, nor would King Arthur have set out on a to this day fabled quest in search of it. Let alone Terry Gilliam & co…
Released: July 15th, 2013 [Virgin EMI]