If he has not reached it already, Jay-Z will probably surpass $1 billion net worth in his lifetime, and it’s on his mind: “If I’mma make it to a billi, I can’t take the same route,” he raps on “Oceans” from his 12th studio album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail.” This is a successful and gifted man with a beautiful house and a beautiful wife, but there is hardly any “How did I get here?” soul searching, no exploration of the possibilities beyond what can be bought. An existential exploration of having the world truly become your oyster could resonate as strongly as the anthems of bad streets and good fortune that punctuated his ascendant years, but “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is as shallow as a Fendi pochette.
Without a clear demonstration of thoughts beyond trivia and acquisition, Jay-Z winds up blowing out pristine but hollow tracks like “Picasso,” which reduces fine art to name brands. His legendary gift for rhyme composition even feels out of whack on “Oceans,” which skims some weightier territory (the BP spill, the slave trade and “Strange Fruit”) but puts him above it all, dropping puns on a yacht, surrounded by an azure paradise. Speaking of puns, Frank Ocean pops in on the hook of “Oceans,” but guests distract rather than enhance on “Magna Carta Holy Grail.” Beyonce totally upstages her husband amid the stately piano and bass drops of “Part II (On the Run)” — this Bonnie and Clyde ballad doesn’t land because Jay-Z is too busy with the sweet life, “chucking deuces, chugging D’usse,” to get his hands dirty.
Production is solid throughout (except for “Tom Ford,” where Jay-Z tries trap music about three years too late) and mostly executed by Timbaland, who dusts “Magna Carta Holy Grail” with the gloss he used on Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience,” but the material is not nearly as rich. The same team that tailored “Suit & Tie” is present on the opening “Holy Grail,” but Timberlake and Jay-Z feel spliced together here rather than complementing one another as Jay-Z rails on the paparazzi and Timberlake sings about romantic obsession and makes a regrettable reference to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is not Jay-Z’s worst album, but it suffers from the same detachment that marred 2006′s “Kingdom Come.” The remarkable flow is still there and probably always will be, but “Magna Carta Holy Grail” shows a man who knows how to say it but has nothing to say.
— George Lang