The Hidden Meaning Behind Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail Album Cover

When Jay-Z released 2013's Magna Carta ... Holy Grail, critics were particularly savage, as The Atlantic recounts. Pretentious, portentous "dad rap" written by a "bored first-class denizen on his fourth Bloody Mary ordering opulent, au courant, marvelously vapid beats out of a SkyMall catalog." Ouch. The Timbaland-produced album, Jay-Z's first since 2009's The Blueprint 3 (with its key track, "Empire State of Mind"), was a "hedge-betting, black-tie/Black Card affair," as Pitchfork said, and featured a gallery of luxury hip-hop collaborators such as Swizz Beatz, Pharrell, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, and Nas.

The album's cover, in particular, caused a bit of head-scratching at the time of its release. It featured a sculpture later discovered to be Alpheus and Arethusa by 16th-century Italian sculpture Battista di Domenico Lorenzi housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, per Complex. The statue had Jay-Z's name in big, black, block letters on top of it, and a black censorship rectangle on top of his name and the sculpture. Jay-Z's video for the album's second track, "Picasso Baby," was filmed at the Pace Gallery, set to a live background audience, and featured Jay-Z and legendary Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović. 

All in all, it seemed Jay-Z was trying to analogize classic art with a modern incarnation of artistic expression: hip-hop by way of Jay-Z. The result was something that not too many people felt they could grok or relate to, no matter Jay-Z's best intentions. But what exactly does the cover mean?

Happiness for a gangsta ain't no love in these streets

One very clear portrait emerges from any analysis of the cover of Magna Carta ... Holy Grail: censored art. Jay-Z could have been going for any number of angles with this choice. He could have been predicting how critics and fans might respond to the album's high concept (the unity and equality of all art over time, regardless of origins, whether "high" or "low," and so forth), possibly believing that they wouldn't want to hear what he'd have to say (therefore censored). It could also be a take on hip-hop's long history, in general, with censorship and the American public's "tell me how it is, but keep that s*** clean when you do" attitude toward the realness of the Black-American experience and its voices. It could also be a take, therefore, on how societal forces — economic, racial, socio-historical — suppress the elevation of hip-hop into the realms of so-called fine art. And so, Jay-Z could be snubbing these forces while inherently placing himself into a deified position (Hova, anyone?) where it's his responsibility to combat said forces.

As for the name: Jay-Z could have been calling for the inclusion of his album into the ranks of vaunted historical artifacts. And why Alpheus and Arethusa? A tale of all-consuming desire, perhaps? Or, maybe Jay-Z just saw it at the Met one day and got inspired.

Or, you know, as some have suggested: the cover just looks cool.