Like few other album openers, "Holy Grail" encapsulates what follows it and reflects a particular point in an artist's career.
He doesn't enter until the 80-second mark, preceded by a theatrical verse and hook from summer 2013 tour partner Justin Timberlake.
As with a significant portion of Magna Carta...Holy Grail, it has a dashed-off, created between business engagements quality -- maybe there wasn't enough time to ask Timberlake who translated his version of the Hebrew Bible ("Sippin' from your cup 'til it runneth over").
Likewise, the album's remainder is sporadically energized and frequently hasty-sounding, played safe with just enough timely pop-culture references and sonic curveballs to demonstrate that Jay-Z still has his finger on the pulse.
He has Timbaland and J-Roc -- also co-producers of Timberlake's 20/20 Experience -- involved with most of the tracks, highlighted by a pair that sample Adrian Younge's 2011 psych-soul masterpiece Something About April, as well as some brilliantly bleary and prickly work on "F.U.T.W." Significantly lighter lifting is done by a cast that includes the likes of Pharrell and Swizz Beatz, as well as Kyambo Joshua and Mike Dean, who shine on the scuffed-up Gonjasufi-sampling finale "Nickels and Dimes." For all the lyrical flaunting of material wealth -- revolutionary art, designer fashion, yachting, globe-trotting -- the greatest ostentatious display here is in the enlistment of 2012/2013's hottest producer, Mike Will, for a single minute-length track.
Unsurprisingly, it's the wildest, most advanced moment on the album.
Jay-Z is armed with and weighed down by an immense back catalog.
Any given track is bound to be compared to a past highlight.
The MC indeed can't help sounding more mechanical than novel and, as a 43-year-old referencing Internet memes, he's possibly a little desperate to relate to younger listeners.
He still drops some casually brilliant reminders that he remains one of the best, as on "Oceans" ("Only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace/I don't even like Washingtons in my pocket") and on "Nickels and Dimes" ("Pardon my hubris, Stanley Kubrick/With eyes wide shut, I could cook up two bricks").
The album is an adequate addition to one of the most impressive artist discographies within any genre, not great enough to overshadow the heavily scrutinized corporate alliance that assisted with its ascent.