MagnaCartaHolyGrail.jpgJAY-Z: Magna Carta Holy Grail
Roc-A-Fella / Universal, 59 minutes
Rating: 3 / 5

Acquisition is a dominant theme in rap, but what happens when a rapper becomes so wealthy he can buy a museum wing’s worth of modern art or a yacht decked out with elephant tusks? Who are we, average listeners, when he moves among the one per cent of the one per cent?

We get Magna Carta Holy Grail, an hour spent in the company of a very, very rich man, for whom money is as abundant as oxygen and ordinary human experiences are fleeting.

Listed by Forbes as the second-richest rapper in the game, Jay-Z has almost nothing left to prove commercially or critically, and his ninth album struggles when its subject matter falls into mere boasts of wealth. I much preferred the conflict between material and spiritual concerns in “Heaven,” or the surprisingly unsentimental reflection on fatherhood “Jay Z Blue” to any further rundowns of his opulent lifestyle. 

At 43, Jay’s had so much dough for so long it gives him meager inspiration. Fans would be advised to take stock of Magna Carta’s often minimalist, constantly top-level beats (from luxury producers like Timbaland, Swizz Beatz and Pharrell to newcomers like Brampton native WondaGurl) and let his occasionally cringe-worthy wordplay pass by. The more you learn to ignore lines like the Seussian “I never stuck my cock in the fox’s box / but damn if I ain’t open Pandora’s Box,” the more fun you’ll have.

BasinskiCover.jpgWILLIAM BASINSKI: Nocturnes

2062, 69 minutes

Rating: 4 / 5  

William Basinski is the second-closest thing ambient music has seen to crossover success, heir apparent to Brian Eno. This is in large part owed to his masterful 9/11-themed opus The Disintegration Loops, but more crucially the emphasis on repetition and emotional directness he shares, in his own way, with pop music.

The eerie and tranquil Nocturnes is split into two tracks; “Nocturnes” runs 41 minutes and repurposes source material dating to the late ‘70s, back when this kind of long-form tape loop-based music was still done with rolled-up sleeves, so to speak. It closely fulfills the original purpose of ambient: to colour the background of daily (or nightly) activity. Basinski as usual takes a singular refrain and manipulates / degrades it, but in ways that make its repetition less overt than the album's second half.  

That would be the 28-minute “The Trail of Tears,” which shifts an ominous, Morricone-esque loop back and forth before dropping into an extended drone; it’s like the more-insular cousin to Disintegration’s citywide soundscapes.

Both pieces work on two levels, as is typical of Basinski; one that can inspire verbose, academic analyses, and another, something as beautifully mindless as a good night’s rest.

skylargreydontlookdown.jpgSKYLAR GREY: Don’t Look Down
Interscope, 46 minutes
Rating: 2.5 / 5

Years after a failed debut under her birth name Holly Brook in 2006, and with too much time spent thanklessly co-writing (Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie”) or chirping hooks (Fort Minor’s “Where’d You Go,” Dr. Dre’s “I Need a Doctor”) on other people’s hits, the woman rechristened Skylar Grey has finally released her debut album Don’t Look Down.

The inexplicable “C’Mon Let Me Ride” has already done its time as the album’s wasted crossover bid, leaving the rest of Don’t Look Down to fend for itself. Barely resembling anything she’s done over the past seven years, most of it is passable, pleasant pop-rock fluff. “Religion” is Taylor Swift with a few more years experience; “White Suburban” recalls a time when pop singers were ripping off Feist to show their “serious” side. It’s not game-changing stuff, but the further she goes from rap (Angel Haze steps awkwardly into the deceptively gentle “S***, Man!”) the better.