If I’m being really honest, and this is a place where I try to always be transparent about my thoughts on music, Jay-Z hasn’t put out a great solo album in over a decade. I say solo because one could make the argument that Watch The Throne is a great album. I wouldn’t make that argument, but I could see someone else doing so. 2002’s Blueprint Vol. 2 is a sprawling masterpiece that catches Jigga at the height of his powers. The following albums felt watered down in comparison. You could really feel his detachment from the streets as he looked down upon them from his penthouse condo.
In 2003 after The Black Album gave us “99 Problems” and “Dirt Off Ya Shoulder,” he announced his retirement to focus on his other business ventures. This was short-lived, and he returned in 2006 with Kingdom Come. This is maybe the most forgettable of all Jay’s releases. He followed that with the American Gangster soundtrack. 2009’s wrap-up of The Blueprint trilogy was a huge let down for me, sounding more like a pop album than something from the greatest MC of his time. With all this disappointment mounting up, I approached Magna Carta Holy Grail with a bit of cautious optimism. There was still hope after all, in a guest list featuring Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Nas, and Frank Ocean.
Adding to my worries was this release strategy giving people with Samsung phones an early copy of the album. I understand that the industry is changing and artists have to come up with new ways to make money off their music, but come on! You’re Jay-Z! Your deal only paid you 5 million! You make that every day from your line of skin creams! You’re an icon for Pete’s sake! This is a gimmick for people like Lady Gaga. In 2011 Amazon struck a deal to offer Born This Way at 99 cents-but they made up the difference and paid the other $8 per album sold, so Gaga actually got a better deal per album.
Anyway, the really important thing is the music and I suppose this review should get going in that direction before I go full curmudgeon.
I like the strategy J takes on this new album. Instead of talking a lot about how he’s been out of the game for a while, he opens the album with a minute and a half of Justin Timberlake singing over a beat. Most artists would feel the need to be the first thing you hear, but Jay is such a huge figure that he could do one verse on every song and still be the only thing anyone remembered from it. And his team-ups with Timberlake are fantastic. So much so that I feel like they should do a whole album together like Best Of Both Worlds with R Kelly. Timberlake loses some of the pop sheen his vocals generally have in favor of a scratchier, more emotional performance to kick off “Holy Grail.” When Jay finally kicks in to a rhyme at the minute twenty mark, it only takes a couple words before he mentions his daughter and already I’m starting to regret pushing play. He makes up for it by referencing Kurt Cobain and stealing lines from “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Then he mentions Blue Ivy again. It’s a vicious circle.
In my review of 20/20 Experience I mentioned that I hoped Timbaland would get involved in other big albums because I think his sound fits really well with where music is heading right now. I still believe that, but “Tom Ford” is a misfire of epic proportions. The video game 8-bit sounds have been done to death (I think I was finished with it when Lil’ Flip did that song “Game Over”). Timb does some really strong work elsewhere on this album-his fingerprints are on damn near every song and that does help create a great album flow. One thing I would say about Jay’s output is that his rhyming flow has always been the best around, but his records often feel stilted. So this is a big win for everyone.
Another returning guest is Frank Ocean, who exploded to superstardom after his featured vocals on “No Church In The Wild” from Watch The Throne. His appearance on “Oceans” is one of the highlights of the album, and proves that Jay is one of the best collaborators in music (Rick Ross’s verse on the album must have been a favor he owed someone). The song is a well-crafted track that isn’t as hard-hitting as Kanye’s “New Slaves,” but touches on similar subject matter. While Yeezus takes on the supposedly post-racial America, Jay looks at it more historically. Maybe my favorite line appears in the first verse when he says: “I’m anti-Santa Maria. The only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace. I don’t even like Washingtons in my pocket. Black card go hard when I’m shoppin. Boat docked in front of Hermes pickin cotton.”
“Somewhereinamerica” had potential to be a great song based on the first minute or so. The production by Hit-Boy and Mike Dean is top-notch. It’s got a jazzy feel with a foundation of trombone and piano. It’s ruined three quarters of the way through, though, when Jay says “Miley Cyrus is still twerkin'” and then goes on for about thirty seconds saying “Twerk Miley Miley.” It’s just cringe-worthy. Not only does it sound awful, it immediately dates the album. In a couple years is anyone going to remember that Miley Cyrus was known briefly for just showing up at rap shows and twerkin’? Will anyone remember her at all?
On “Heaven” Timberlake comes back, but his voice is filtered and sounds a bit odd. Also odd is Jigga quoting R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” This marks the one time that Jay’s flow feels off, like he’s trying too hard to get that line in there when it doesn’t really need to be. Does Jay-Z really feel it’s necessary to reference non-rap songs? The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” thing fits I guess, but repeating Michael Stipe’s lyrics is just weird. It also seems convenient that Kanye’s album mentioned God so often, and now Magna Carta Holy Grail seems to be hung up on religion as well. A little TOO convenient…
I was really looking forward to “BBC” after hearing that it featured uncredited vocals from Pharrell, Nas, JT, Bey, and Swizz Beatz. Turns out it’s a just ok song that has all of those guests singing as a choir in the chorus. It does have a nice verse from Nas that’s better than anything he did on his last album. Overall it’s a disappointment that has some flashes of genius but can’t hold them long enough to be significant.
Like most rap albums of the last decade, Magna Carta Holy Grail eventually wears out its welcome toward the end. Sixteen tracks is about four too many, and there are some obvious cuts that could have been made. The imperfections are part of the fun, though. I read something Jay said about just recording the album and getting it out there. If that’s the way you’re doing it, there will definitely be things you wish you could take back. I like the strategy though. And the good easily outweighs the bad on this release.
Hip-hop is going through a bit of a transition right now. If you had told me last summer that I would like a record by J. Cole more than a new album by Jay-Z, I would have thought you were crazy. But here we are, with Born Sinner a cut above Magna Carta and Yeezus-and just slightly behind Run The Jewels. Hova fans will have no problem loving this new album, though. And I think the run of shows with Jay and Justin Timberlake just got a bit more interesting with these song that feature a bigger collaboration between the two artists. I’ll report back on that when I see them here in Chicago in 17 days.