Five Years Later, JAY-Z's 'Magna Carta Holy Grail' Represents His Rocky Path to Maturity

In allowing himself to mature, JAY-Z rediscovered his value not just to music, but to the culture.

Frazier Tharpe

JAY-Z, Beyonce, and Pharrell walk into a studio. Nas is there with Timbaland. Justin Timberlake waltzes in from another room. Swizz Beatz is there, because he owns the studio. That’s four artists with something like 13 classic albums between them, and three producers who in some part scored all of them. And the song they walk out with hours later is…“BBC.”

The 13th track on Magna Carta Holy Grail, JAY-Z’s 12th album, encapsulates the tension behind the project in a microcosm. Earlier in the night that song was created, Jay and Bey attended the 10th anniversary dinner for Pharrell’s brand, Billionaire Boys Club. After the celebration, they ended up at Swizz's Jungle City Studios on the west side of Manhattan and found their peers, whereupon JAY-Z declared it’d be a crime not to make a song with so many legends, in one studio, at the same time.

This is the problem with most of MCHG, a diagnosis made more pronounced by the markedly more impressive Jay albums that followed it. Too much of the album is the product of stumbling into the studio after D’usse-fueled nights out, by a GOAT who can do better, surrounded by collaborators who had grown too comfortable to push him to do so. (In an interview released the same night as the album, Timbaland, its de facto executive producer, posited it that it may stand with his best.) Hubris, in a word.

As we know now, the hubris of JAY-Z at the time ballooned to such a dangerous level that he had to exorcise the whole era to fully better himself and move forward. In 2013, it’s understandable why Jay would be so impressed with himself as to rap on Grail lines like “The other day I cut myself to see if I still bleed” or “Other day this bitch asked if I was God—fuck I’m gon say, no?” The year prior started with him headlining Carnegie Hall, later on he christened the opening of the Brooklyn stadium he had a hand in developing with EIGHT consecutive sold-out shows. He was 17 years into his career and, as he raps alongside Timberlake on the title track album intro, he was “still getting bigger.”

Somewhere along the path, that progress stalled his search for creative progression. Prior to MCHG, he delivered Watch the Throne, which challenged American Gangster as the definitive ideal post-retirement JAY-Z album: contemporary and forward-sounding, laser-sharp bars, and nuance underneath the rarefied stunting. That’s a delicate-balance that takes time to craft; it has been reported that he created the bulk of MCHG in two weeks. Such a small window has proven fruitful for Jay before—but The Blueprint was a different zone, one focused on making a definitive statement. Two weeks to write around having not much new to say, well, doesn’t exactly yield a classic.

Still, the album is unfairly maligned. Last year’s 4:44 and this summer’s Everything Is Love find Hov doing laps around his technical output on MCHG, despite being a birthday away from 50. Yet, even if we remove “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” (as it’s been reported to be a verse from the WTT sessions, “Living So Italian,” we hardly knew ye) there are extended flashes of brilliance here. The beat switch on “Picasso Baby” provides the album’s most thrilling moment, musically and performance-wise. Jay is at his most self-aware, mean-mugging the media and rumors, and acknowledging the tenor of the conversation around him: “Even my own fans like, old man, just stop—I could if I would but I can’t, I’m hot” is Vol. 3 levels of sneering swagger. “Oceans” birthed the “Only Christopher we acknowledge” line that’s become an annual social media cliche on Columbus Day. The 50-second black-out on Mike WiLL Made It’s “Beach Is Better” cruelly leaves us wanting more and the vibrant, bouncy “SomewhereinAmerica” continues Jay’s trend of turning in the album’s contender for best song in the 11th hour.

The themes, maturity, and vulnerability we’d later praise him for on his most recent albums are here too, just unrefined. A song like “F.U.TW.” clearly has the idea kernels of “Black Effect” or “Story of O.J.” It opens with “America tried to assassinate the greats, murdered Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes” and ends with “We have yet to see a ceiling we just top what we top / Cause the bars never struggle and the struggle don’t stop.” The song construction, with its staid beat and been-there-done-that flows, just doesn’t make for a compelling listen for the four minutes in between. The more successful “Heaven” toys with his outlook on religion and spirituality, while also deflating the concern the overwrought “Holy Grail” inspires that maybe JAY-Z and Justin Timberlake don’t work so well together. In retrospect, “Jay-Z Blue” is a dark prequel, exposing a sliver of the marital strife the elevator footage and Lemonade would later blow wide open. Jay paints a picture of a marriage struggling to adapt to becoming a new family with a nightmarish daydream that sees his house broken with his baby in the middle. It’s a dark fantasy, but one that feels real enough for him to apologize to Blue Ivy in advance.

Is Magna Carta Holy Grail an underrated gem in JAY-Z’s sprawling discography? Well, no. In 2013 the man himself ranked it 6 out of 12, I demand a hard re-rank. But it is overhated, a disappointing submission only because we know he can do much better. Strangely, these are some of post-prime Timbaland’s best beats but despite having dozens of prolific records together in the past, they did not bring the best out of post-prime JAY-Z. From a zoomed out vantage point on his discography, it represents a stumbling block on his path to refining himself not so much as a rap elder statesman jockeying to stay afloat and not washed ashore, but rather as a man reconciling with his own maturity and how that reflects in his life and thusly, his music. In allowing himself to mature, JAY-Z rediscovered his value not just to music, but to the culture overall, and the ROI is staggering. (An overly harsh takedown of the album in the New Yorker questioned Jay’s value in a post Trayvon Martin world. An interview with Elliott Wilson at the time featured seething rage towards George Zimmerman, and a Trayvon documentary is set to follow one he produced on Kalief Browder.)

When No I.D. discloses the craftsmanship that went into 4:44 like Hov doing daily morning check-ins from his treadmill routine and creating a playlist of his favorite songs to inspire themes and ideas, it speaks of clarity and commitment. It’s a far cry from stumbling into Jungle Studios, drunk, cueing up a beat. That’s the thing about “BBC,” though. The lack of effort is mistaken for effortlessness, sure. But, when you listen to Hov seamlessly skipping across a “Blurred Lines” dead ringer with a verse that conflates a Mase interpolation with his infamous R. Kelly incident and lands an ingeniously simplistic Britney Spears punchline, it may be lazy but it’s undeniably fun.

Stream Magna Carta Holy Grail now.