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Jay-Z has filled his new album, Magna Carta... Holy Grail, with predictable guest stars and swaggering lyrics. Guillaume Baptiste / AFP
Jay-Z has filled his new album, Magna Carta... Holy Grail, with predictable guest stars and swaggering lyrics. Guillaume Baptiste / AFP

Jay-Z finds it hard to be humble for Magna Carta... Holy Grail

There are hints of new horizons, but as the title suggests, the album is still outrageously self-aggrandising.

Jay-Z
Magna Carta... Holy Grail
Roc Nation
***

It must be hard to remain humble when you sell a million copies "before the album even drops", as Jay-Z declares during Somewhere in America, the most boastful cut on his 12th long-player.

Not that modesty has ever been part of the superstar rapper's musical ethos, but the wide-ranging hype preceding this release suggested that his new material might be aimed at a broader audience, revealing more of the brain behind the braggadocio. There are hints of new horizons but, as the title suggests, Magna Carta… Holy Grail is still outrageously self-aggrandising.

The "million sold" lyric refers to a landmark deal with a smartphone manufacturer that pre-purchased those albums for its customers. It proved a fine publicity coup for the business-savvy MC, who made further headlines by launching the album artwork alongside the real Magna Carta at England's Salisbury Cathedral. That cultural theme appears early on the album in a suitably glitzy fashion on the funky Picasso Baby. "House like the Louvre," he crows, "or the Tate Modern, 'cause I be going ape at the auction."

It's been five years since Jay-Z reached a huge new audience at the Glastonbury Festival, kicking off his headline set with an Oasis cover, and he again references indie-rock royalty such as Nirvana and REM here. If these are intended to appeal to rock fans, though, Jay-Z could have chosen less obvious examples.

According to Jay-Z, the album is about how to negotiate life's pitfalls "and remain yourself", and there are enlightening moments. FUTW is an impassioned address to modern black America. The moody Jay-Z Blue tells a dark tale of fatherhood. And on Part II (On the Run), he and Beyoncé dismiss the "perfect love story".

The guest stars are slightly predictable but they do add spice, particularly Frank Ocean's glorious chorus over the dramatic horns on Oceans. The party jam BBC features numerous cameos, including Pharrell and Nas, while Timbaland and J-Roc provide some thrilling beats.

The most interesting noises are the retro video-game bleeps of Tom Ford, although the lyrics again prove wearyingly consumerist, Z lauding the eponymous menswear designer. Picassos, clothes, a million copies sold: when you're married to Beyoncé, surely you shouldn't need to show off about anything else?

artslife@thenational.ae

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