ALBUM REVIEW: The greatness of ‘Grail’

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First Posted: 7/8/2013

“The Internet is like the Wild Wild West,” Jay-Z said in his promotional video for his latest release, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” – an album he gave away to Samsung cell phone users three days early.

Although the marketing strategy has been criticized (Samsung actually paid for a million copies; they weren’t free), and the RIAA tried to change the rules (the album went platinum the day it was released), the record itself is nothing shy of great.

The Jay-Z that emerges from this record is calm, relaxed, and he comes with friends. “Magna Carta” features guest appearances from A-list celebrities like Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, and Rick Ross. Timbaland is credited with production on 11 of the 16 tracks.

Of course, Jay is too intellectually restless to give us an album without some surprising twists. He quotes Nirvana, R.E.M. and Billie Holiday and takes potshots at Miley Cyrus, Scott Boras and Harry Belafonte.

“Oceans” opens with a lovely melody from Frank Ocean, who ponders sitting on a yacht docked off the Ivory Coast, spilling champagne into the same waters that once bore the slave ships carrying his imprisoned ancestors. Jay follows suit at first, but by the second verse, he’s become sufficiently distracted to remind us that his memoir “Decoded” recently topped the bestseller list.

The Wu-Tang-infused “Heaven” seems poised to pose some intriguing eschatological questions, but once he’s asked them, Jay simply shrugs them off, rapping: “Question religion, question it all/Question existence until them questions is solved.”

Midway through “Magna Carta,” Queens rapper Nas delivers a quick verse on “BBC.” There’s always a burst of excitement when these two appear together, two former rivals who still carry on from ‘90s hip-hop. Nas has always taken a different approach: testing himself even at the risk of falling flat. Rap counterpart Kanye West, for as many faults as he’s had, has always tested himself and his musical boundaries in similar ways to Nas, and in ways Jay has rarely dared.

There’s no reason to think Jay isn’t capable of aging just as gracefully has some of his counterparts, but to do so will require a dose of self-reflection, vulnerability and a willingness to fail. If “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is any indication, Jay-Z still has a lot of growing up to do.

‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ Jay-Z Rating: W W W V

-Matt Morgis, Weekender Correspondent