The release of Jay-Z's new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, was drowned out by all the talk about his deal with Samsung that forced fans to reconsider commercialism and made the record industry rewrite its rules. But after a not-so-smooth holiday release, it's time to talk about, you know, the actual music. The critics are chiming in after a full day's worth of listening around the planet, and while there are certainly raves, the response is often chilly, with some saying Magna Carta is no Yeezus and others simply concluding that the record doesn't quite come together.
Jon Pareles at The New York Times, for instance, writes that "though Timbaland's productions always hold some sly surprises, 'Magna Carta ... Holy Grail' comes across largely as a transitional album, as if Jay-Z has tired of pop but hasn't found a reliable alternative." But, of course, the business is also part of the review, as Pareles notes: "A million sales are in his pocket; he can keep searching." That not-quite-revolutionary tone returns in Jeff Rosenthal's assessment at Billboard. "As an event, it's good, it's great, it's disappointing and back again," he writes. "As an album, though, it tends to be safe." As part of Spin's "impulsive reviews," Rob Harvilla has a harsher take: "This is a reoccurring problem: Rich dad rap is still dad rap, and Jay-Z will never not sound like a bored first-class denizen on his fourth Bloody Mary ordering opulent, au courant, marvelously vapid beats out of a SkyMall catalog."
Then comes another question: Is Magna Carta Holy Grail really all that deep, what with its portentous title and all? Randall Roberts at the Los Angeles Times doesn't think so: "For Jay-Z, this object, one rich with history and metaphor, is nothing but a fancy cup, one notable only because it's the Most Awesome Cup in the World, and only he can drink from it." But Rob Markman at MTV hails Hov's depth: "It all sounds great, but subsequent listens uncover thoughtful commentary and societal observation, lending to the album's replay value."
Of course, there is applause. Steve Jones gives a four-star review at USA Today, writing that the music was "more than worth the wait." Vibe concludes: "Good ass job, Jay." And AllHipHop.com's Chuck "Jigsaw" Creekmur is calling Magna Carta a win: "All in all, Magna Carta is another victory for Brooklyn's royal son."
Oh, and about those Yeezus comparisons. At Spin, Chris Martins calls the stacking-up with Kanye's new release "inevitable," adding that "Yeezus is the better album... but Magna Carta Holy Grail is a fine example of Jay-Z once again near the top of his game." Philip Sherburne, also at Spin, explains that the "the second half plods — compared to Yeezus, the production feels flat and monochrome." Marlowe Stern at The Daily Beast is perhaps most vicious: "Whereas Magna Carta sounds like a collection of tired jet-set raps over random beats strung together, Yeezus sounds like a unified whole—a minimalist treasure dripping with anti-corporate vitriol. That Yeezus came together thanks to the eleventh hour intervention of Rick Rubin is ironic, to say the least."
Magna Carta Holy Grail isn't officially out until next week if you don't own a Samsung phone, but go forth and stream. We won't tell anyone.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.