If you're a Jay-z fan, you have to know he plants seeds of what he wants to do down the road early on. There was destined to be a "Black Album" years before although at the time he wanted to drop it with little to no promotion or singles. Oh wait, guess what, while it wasn't the actual album with the title, "Magna Carta Holy Grail" fits the bill in most respects, and he even hinted at this as an album title before, playing off of his last name. I wrote a while back about the hype beasts and how he had a great promotional idea and tactic, my hope would be that he could actually deliver musically. While there are some calling this magnificent, and a classic already within it's release, I remain less than convinced. So after taking almost an entire day to listen to this several times I am ready to give my review of the new album. I must say right now, mentally I am in a different place, after all, he is competing with proteges J.Cole and Kanye West as well as Wale. I also just finished reading Questlove's autobiography, Mo Meta Blues and started reading a book about Prince. Sp yes, all of this as well as Jay's stature in the game have something to do with how I view this album.
The album starts with Justin Timberlake driving the 'title track' "Holy Grail" with some serious vocals on the hook. Ultimately, I'm not a fan of the beat during the verses or Jay-z's flow which is choppy as he talks about the struggle with wanting to be in this position. We have all seen lyrics where he spits about not being able to take Blue Ivy to the store, but i was hoping for something more continuously soulful. The interpretation of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" chorus near the end of the first verse was a waste of a high brow concept. "Picasso Baby" starts with a hard guitar riff while Jay talks about coming up and getting to his goals financially. The song perks up more as it gets darker when the beat switches at about 3 minutes in bringing the Jay-z I'm more looking for to out to play for a minute.
Now I've seen a few people sweating the next two tracks "Tom Ford" and "F8ckwithmeyouknowigotit" . Tom Ford has some Timbaland beat that is alright at parts but the hook probably annoys me a lot more than anything else. It's lazy as Jay raps about his new euro balling again like he did at times on Watch the Throne. The other thing is he attacks the social media generation slightly like he did on Death of Autotune a few years ago as he speaks about not having time to instagram or tweet. Meanwhile this is the biggest promotional tool for viral popularity and he benfits immensely from it. The second song actually has a tight beat but features generic Rick Ross-ness from the boss himself. This song could have benefited from something to really take it in another direction, or maybe a different voice than what was expected. Ross is too predictable and his verse wasn't as good as some of the ones he throws away on mix tapes.
Obviously Frank Ocean is on "Oceans" which watching him explain in the clip was cool until Frank's extra obvious hook started and literally spelled it out for you, wasting what is a good track by not allowing the listener to put that connection together. It ruined the song but I didn't even catch it until the fourth listen because I was skipping past it. "F.U.T.W." was more rehashing of Jay's come up as Jay starts talking about a past that is pretty much another lifetime ago. I'd prefer him to have attacked it differently. "Somewhereinamerica" is a new interpretation of talking about the American experience. Jay raps about the changing world we are in - bringing up slyly, the issue he had buying a penthouse years ago over a beat with a nice jazz trumpet and piano riff. He ends off his verse talking about "Miley Cyrus Twerking" which became a quick catch phrase.
"Crown" wastes almost a minute letting a heavy bass beat build though Jay isn't at his lyrical best with his straightforward shot at baseball agent Scott Boras which Jay could have pulled off more adeptly. He could have dropped more bars on this song as well. "Heaven" sounds a little cluttered in the beat to me, like it's ultra compressed as Jay addresses the illuminati rumors more directly and it's good but he lets way too much of the song get away, with only two verses and choruses that play over and over. "Versus" might be the mulligan on this album but it's more of an interlude than an actual song.
He teams up with his wife Beyonce on "Part II (On The Run)" a sort of continuation of the Blueprint 2's 'Bonnie and Clyde' as they use the age old idea of if being in love with you is wrong i don't want to be right. In a lot of ways this feels like a throwback to more mid-90's song with the keyboards and synths but Jay kind of struggles to get his verse started to me. Often that's the hardest part and it's a simple song and it works because of that dynamic I spoke about within the track. This leads to another short track "Beach is Better" where he talks about his lady and life being the 'beach' that is better than yours.
"BBC" is the best you could expect when you have Swizz, Pharrell, and Timbaland involved in the track and recording along with Nas, Justin Timberlake, and Beyonce. The beat isn't overly busy and while I appreciate Nas on the album, couldn't he have been on a more meaningful track that allowed him to show the best of his talents? Let me get "La Familia" one of my least favorite songs on the album first where Jay starts with a wack hook and continues with some truly sub-par tough talk verses. Now, waiting for you Biggie tribute, check "Jay-z Blue" which includes Big's trademark 'ugh' in the back as an ad-lib and Jay going back and forth with a bar from 'Suicidal Thoughts' with Big. This is a very solid track and my favorite on the album, reaching back for that hunger while pushing subject matter forward into the point he is in his life. The beat is mean too. "Nickels and Dimes" is about the small things to build and create growth as well a couple of plays on the phrase in each verse.
Overall Magna Carta Holy Grail is a good album but I wouldn't call it great. There are some good verses but too many are simple and not really up to the lofty expectations that exist for Jay-z. Listening to "Welcome to the Jungle" from watch the throne was a great example of the type of lyricism that was expected. Instead we get trite and played out songs like the one featuring Ross. Even if you're doing something that is average having someone unexpected on it would spice it up, say reuniting with Memphis Bleek or bringing Kendrick Lamar on board though that would be expected. The problem is at this point in his career with the incredible hype, every song should be an event on this album and it isn't. They are just songs. Looking at Watch the Throne they had some moments that really shone, Yeezus had some great moments interspersed with attempts that may not have gone over. This album is in a lot of ways too safe and not progressive enough to really push Jay where he needs to be. It reminds me of the blueprint 3 mixed with American Gangster when he should have been the Black album mixed with Kingdom Come if that makes any sense.