One of the more prevalent trends in pop music this year has been the element of surprise. Instead of your typical buildup for albums — months of promotional appearances, singles sent to radio, press blitzes — artists across the board are releasing them with just a few weeks’ worth of buzz.
The thinking, of course, is that’s all you need to sell music these days. If you’re a musician of the magnitude of David Bowie, Kanye West, and Justin Timberlake, all of whom have put out recent albums with little advance warning, your fan base is probably hungry for your latest.
Now we have Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail,” news of which surfaced not even a full month ahead of its release. It’s the rap mogul’s first solo album since 2009’s “The Blueprint 3” (and a follow-up to 2011’s “Watch the Throne,” his acclaimed collaboration with West that confirmed their reputations as the genre’s reigning titans).
Almost immediately “Magna Carta” was overshadowed by its back story. Jay-Z struck a deal with Samsung, in which the smartphone company bought 1 million advance copies of it. If you downloaded a special app, you got the album digitally on July 4, four days before its official release. Before we even heard the music, detractors were already grousing that “Magna Carta” smacks of corporate greed, that Jay-Z is railing against a system that he’s fully part of.
Like West’s “Yeezus,” this is an album that believes wholeheartedly in its greatness, which is a diplomatic way of saying it elevates its maker to the status of a deity. West has “I Am a God,” and Jay-Z has “Crown”: “You in the presence of a king / Scratch that, you in the presence of a God” go the first lines. A few minutes later he boasts, “I ball so hard on ESPN / See my name come across on CNN / ’Bout 6 minutes, you gonna see it again.” All of which is fine, assuming you share the man’s high opinion of himself.
Soon enough, though, that self-aggrandizing falls flat on “Magna Carta,” with the same rote themes recycled throughout its 16 tracks. Even Jay’s entrance on his own album is a grand gesture. As if announcing the arrival of royalty, the opening “Holy Grail” lets Timberlake, with whom Jay-Z will be touring this summer (including two nights at Fenway Park, Aug. 10-11), croon for nearly a minute and a half before Hova surfaces with one of his most insipid introductions ever.
The music, at least, is refreshingly warped, full of sharp detours into deep ’70s soul and electronic soundscapes overseen by producers like Timbaland, J-Roc, Pharrell Williams, and Swizz Beatz. Trilling, metallic beats set the propulsive backdrop for “Tom Ford,” while a sly Latin piano line seeps into the melody of “BBC.” Beyoncé, his wife, joins him for “Part II (On the Run),” the album’s most sensuous slow jam that brings out a softer side we don’t always associate with Jay-Z. And “Oceans” is built around cinematic crescendos and the sweep of Frank Ocean’s guest vocals.
Typical of Jay-Z, “Magna Carta” is flush with pop-culture references well beyond hip-hop. The title track mentions Kurt Cobain before the chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is twisted to Jay-Z’s specifications: “And we all just / Entertainers / And we’re stupid / And contagious.” A line from R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” is similarly evoked on “Heaven,” a convoluted exploration of faith and how we distort it to our own advantages.
On “Somewhereinamerica,” Jay-Z raps about Miley Cyrus’s twerking, the art of booty-shaking; it’s hard to tell if it’s a diss or a nod of approval, but it’s still unexpectedly humorous. Like so much of this album, Jay’s words aren’t nearly as provocative as the sounds that cradle them.