Cynics may well roll their eyes at the hoopla surrounding Jay-Z's latest album, not least its disingenuousness.
"Fuck hashtags and retweets," runs one offhand soundbite from Tom Ford, a juicy cut from Jay-Z's entertaining 13th-odd album. In it, Jay-Z is in a youthful, playground taunt mode, flaunting his wealth as per his own brand requirements. The production – sonar bloops, arpeggiating shivers and tickly beats – grabs the ear even harder.
All event albums require publicity; it may be an old rule but it's axiomatic. Contrary to his own rap, Jay-Z's latest offering finds myriad social media strategies wired into its very DNA – #NEWRULES, it declares. A deal with the electronics giant meant a million Samsung users received Magna Carta Holy Grail free on US Independence Day via an app before anyone else. It's a deal that has netted Jay-Z's Roc Nation a cool $5m and an excess of publicity, both pro (innovating is good) and con (that app wants your GPS co-ordinates). The catch? These first million "sales" of MCHG won't make the US charts. Like Jay-Z cares: keeping one's profits, however they are derived, is one of the earliest lessons of street commerce.
Then there's the album's title. Magna Carta Holy Grail is not intended to publicise an antique legal document that first limited the power of kings (sorry, nice, gullible people at Salisbury Cathedral, where a copy of the Magna Carta resides; it was joined last Tuesday by Jay-Z's album artwork). Rather, it's meant to trigger more online squawking about whether the world is in fact run by an all-powerful cabal obsessed with triangles. "Conspiracy theorists screaming 'Illuminati'/ They can't believe this much skill is in the human body," a mischievous Jay-Z declares on Heaven. Elsewhere, there's a talking-point lift from REM's Losing My Religion, while the title track riffs on Nirvana, which reveals Jay-Z's age more than anything deeper.
The tingle of a triangle does introduce Oceans, where R&B man of the moment Frank Ocean provides MCHG's best guest spot (and that includes Beyoncé's contribution, and just edges Justin Timberlake's on the title track). The title – Oceans (feat Frank Ocean) – may clang, but Oceans is one good reason why this album is more than just a marketing coup.
"I hope my black skin don't tear this white tuxedo," muses a Caribbean-sounding Ocean, as a boat docks in the Ivory Coast. Jay-Z's wide-ranging verses take in champagne, the BP oil spill, the slave trade and the Santa Maria, all carried along on the same element. "This water tells my story," confirms Ocean.
It's inevitable that the usual litany of labels and put-downs dominates Jay-Z's concerns; Shawn Carter's wraps-to-riches story is the meta-narrative to all his albums and only fades a little in the umpteenth retelling. There isn't really a great deal of headline news here, lyrically, just Jay's constantly varying, beat-sensitive flow, familiar from Watch the Throne, his last album with Kanye West. This time around, Jay adds art to his portfolio on Picasso, Baby, bragging about his walls on possibly the only hip-hop track ever to reference Tate Modern.
BBC, meanwhile, is not a big-up to the British broadcaster but a song celebrating the Billionaire Boys Club. It finds Pharrell Williams (who runs a company of the same name), Swizz Beats, Beyoncé and Timberlake all partying away cheerily, celebrating that meta-narrative once again. While Beyoncé's lower register is a draw on Part II (On the Run), Jay and Be's love song, it doesn't really top the couple's previous duets, such as 03 Bonnie and Clyde.
On the first four listens it's the varied production – the sinuous work of Timbaland, in the main – that really elevates Magna Carta Holy Grail beyond the usual Jay-Z document. But tune into Jay on the surprisingly vexed topics of fatherhood (Jay-Z Blue, with its unlikely sample of Mommie Dearest) and charitable giving (Nickels and Dimes, with its even more unlikely sample of Gonjasufi) and suddenly the concerns of this Magna Carta feel a lot less old hat.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Joella Marano