With Watch The Throne having firmly established itself in the modern hip-hop pantheon the timing of recent releases by its creators Kanye West and, now, Jay-Z couldn't have been more intriguing. West's Yeezus - which dropped in the middle of June - was a seismic assault on the listener, with Kanye in full-on god mode throughout. Jay-Z, the music impresario that he is, will be fully aware that West has raised the bar with Yeezus and before that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That's why Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail is such an important album; it'll either reaffirm his standing as hip-hop's brightest star or settle him gently into the number two spot.
Hip-hop isn't a game for the modest and no one knows this better than Kanye West. Jay-Z follows his buddy's lead on Magna Carta by repeatedly reminding you of the healthiness of his bank balance and his deistic qualities but he doesn't seem able to do this with the same degree of authenticity as West, like the imitators who decided to smash their guitars on stage as soon as they saw Pete Townshend doing it.
Magna Carta is a patchy album. Jay-Z is a fantastic vocalist, technically better than Kanye, but Hov just doesn't have as much to say. Yes, he's rich. Yes, he had a kid with Beyonce. Yes, he's very successful but listening to rich people rap about their exclusive privilege from atop their lofty soapbox can get old pretty quickly.
The album is not without its plus points. 'Picasso Baby', a recycled Beastie Boys groove by the sounds of things, is Jay-Z spitting lyrics at his absolute best. 'Heaven', which tips a cap to Aerosmith's 'Dream On' and even namechecks R.E.M., is a standout as is 'F.U.T.W.' 'Crown' may as well be a Kanye song ("You're in the presence of a king / scratch that, you're in the presence of a god") but falls a bit too flat to make the sort of impressions which Kanye has come to take for granted.
The collaborations on the album come in thick and fast. Justin Timberlake is the first vocalist you hear on Magna Carta as he lends his voice to the opening track 'Holy Grail'. Mrs Z herself shows up to show family support on 'Part II (The Run)' and there are contrasting returns from Rick Ross on 'F*ckwithmeyouknowigotit' (awful) and Frank Ocean on 'Oceans' (great).
While it's far from being a bad album, Magna Carta Holy Grail won't have the critical and artistic impact that Jay-Z was hoping it would. Maybe it's sorely lacking the input of producer Rick Rubin, who was presumably too busy working on Yeezus to lend a hand. More likely, though, is that Jay-Z seems a little too sanitised in comparison to Kanye West nowadays.
Watch your throne, Jay.
Review by John Balfe | Three Stars