With typical canniness Jay-Z has sold his own leak, licensing 1m downloads to Samsung to distribute before Magna Carta Holy Grail’s official release. But he needs to do the business musically too: aside from his Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne, the rapper’s recent records have been dull.

Opening track “Holy Grail” is unpromising, Hov comparing himself to Mike Tyson, Kurt Cobain and, er, MC Hammer as Justin Timberlake sings a weedy hook – but the rest does the job in style. Fine production, mainly by a rejuvenated Timbaland, combines rap classicism with innovation, from Space Invader bleeps and cowbells to chopped-up modern classical arrangements, while Jay-Z deploys his verbal tricks (uh’s, drawn-out syllables, lyrical run-ons) with masterly fluency.

He explores the theme of black success with wit; but beneath the clever boasts there’s also an intriguing layer of ambivalence, as with the pun on slavery and shopping when he depicts himself in a designer clothes store “picking cotton” with a black Amex card.


Magna Carta Holy Grail

(Virgin EMI)

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