Barely three weeks has passed since Kanye shook the hip-hop world with Yeezus, and now good friend and fellow Def Jam rapper, Jay-Z has released his latest album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, with a media stunt all of his own: a deal with Samsung giving away a million copies of the album to Galaxy product users via a downloadable app. Although Jay-Z has admitted in the past that lyrically he is no Talib Kweli, known rather for catchy hooks and impeccable production, save for a few places of lyrical laziness this album is coated in historical references and filled with hidden/double meanings. While no Yeezus, Jay shows growths as a rapper, covering a myriad of content, from self-loathing in his fame to commentary on race and class, and reminds us he is still sturdily at the top of his game, perhaps more than ever.
1. Holy Grail — ft. Justin Timberlake
Reflecting on his position with in the entertainment industry, Jay-Z sets the tone of the album with big name comparisons of himself to other greats who have grappled with the price of fame. JT's part is just ok for me, but Jay comes in hard repeatedly referencing Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, most notably at the end of the second verse and the following bridge: "I know nobody to blame, Kurt Cobain, I did it myself ... And we all just entertainers, And we're stupid and contagious, and we all just entertainers." Ultimately Jay is entertaining us, feeding us those popular images and popular names we love to glorify and branding himself as one of the greats, dead or alive.
2. Picasso Baby
A perfect follow up to "Holy Grail" in that Jay continues his incessant name dropping from the man who holds the title of the song, to Rothko, Basquiat, Da Vinci, Mona Lisa. Basking in his riches it seems Jay cannot decide what wants. But fuck it right, he's after that billion, make it that trillion. "Oh what a feeling" it must be for his daughter Blue, she could lean on a "Yellow Basquiat" or what ever else she wants to do.
3. Tom Ford
In what seems to be back lash against hip-hop's affinity to the club drug Molly as of late, this track touts the hook "I don't pop Molly, I rock Tom Ford." Over a bumping base, Jay-Z throws down a radio ready verse with the aim of popularizing a movement against Molly.
Love it. Pimp C sample at the beginning explaining his affinity for jewelry; it features Rick Ross; and talks about bad bitches. No thinking, turn the sub on, the volume up and ride out: "I Just landed in Europe nigga, shopping bags I look like a tourist nigga ... Look at me, pure nigga." Bad bitch, you know I'm bout it.
5. Oceans — ft. Frank Ocean
A commentary on black and American history specifically in relation to the Atlantic Ocean during the slave trade. An interesting track that has very good moments layered in imagery and meaning, such as the hook, "I hope my black skin don't dirt this white tuxedo" and in the first verse with the quip, "Only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace." At the same time however, there are other not so well thought out moments such as the running comparison to Oceans 11.
6. Fuck Up The World
With a laid back hook repeating "fuck up the world" against a verse that goes hard, Jay creates an extended metaphor juxtaposing himself to the great Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali. It's great to see Jay-Z recasting his past in a different light than the usual dope boy talk and once again touching on racial and other relevant political issues with the lines.
Another track I absolutely love however, for completely different reasons than "Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit," though ultimately boils down to the same fuck you white America vibe. Jay is rich and black and he did it his way — "only in America" could this conceivably happen. Remember he ain't "a business man, he's a business man," who is in large part responsible for hip-hop's popularity, especially amongst young white America. Thus, he is responsible for Miley Cyrus, and every white girl across America (yes, your daughter), twerking. This is what I want to hear from Jay-Z. He's been rap's golden boy for years, and he's finally pushing some boundaries, not just "Big Pimpin.'"
This track is hot, dark and dirty. I seriously question weather this beat was left over from Yeezus. And it's not just the production, lyrically it has a similar tune: "you in the presence of a king, scratch that, you in the presence of a God." Similarly between the two verses, Jay followed the hook with the words "Fear is your only God, Get y'all to fear me is my only job".
9. Heaven — ft. Justin Timberlake
Continuing on the God theme of the previous track, Jay creates more god-like imagery of himself. At the same time he encourages his listeners to "question religion, question it all, question existence until them questions are solve." This time following the hook Jay-Z quotes REM's loosing my religion. Yet, after explicit images casting himself as god or Jesus, he then ends the song reminding "only god could judge us."
10. Versus — A second great interlude track. Short and sweet, acknowledging other rappers just long enough to dismisses them and all their money talk. Far and few can compare to his stacks, let alone other rappers.
11. Part II (On The Run) — ft. Beyonce
A follow up to Bonnie and Clyde this is a nice love song with some great lines. B's melodies verse Jay's unmelodious jarring rap works great over a slow jazzy beat. This track is exactly what it is supposed to be: smooth sounding with classic references — something to ride out to with your significant other and romanticize your past and future.
12. Beach Is Better
Sounding also like a beat picked up from Yay's project, this track hits fast and hard. Lyrically it's nothing special, just more bragging about a his money and lifestyle, though one line is worth leaving you with: Girl why you never ready, for as long as you took you better look like Halle Berry — or Beyonce
13. BBC — ft. Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Nas, and Swizz Beatz
A celebration of their wealth and success this upbeat track with a gang hook of super stars retells the story of rags to riches. A fun song with Nas and Jay on a verse each, it's old school feel rounds out the progressive album.
14. Jay Z Blue
The most introspective track on the album, the title alone reveals a disturbing duality between his negative emotions and his daughter named Blue. Ultimately, it is a reflection on his role as a father and a husband and the uncertainty of the future, especially because he has no past for an example. Admitting, "seen my mom and pop drive each other mother fucking crazy" and later, "father never taught me how to be a father." Adding to the mix, the second verse has Biggie samples.
15. La familia
This song is just ok with me. The production is not there and along with a lackluster flow (although it picks up at the end) Jay's voice sounds like it's cracking and fading. In other words it doesn't sound like someone who is "head of the family." This could have been far more effective as a shorter track, somewhere between the time of "Verses" and "Beach is Better."
16. Nickles and Dimes
A good outro track. Definitely more of a classic Jay-Z feel, just reflecting on it all. The best line comes at the beginning though, and the rest it anti-climatic. I guess that's why it's the outro.
Overall the album is very listenable whether closely or in the background. It is interesting to see how this Jay-Z and Kanye relationship will continue to play out. For me, Kanye and Yeezus have heavily influenced the production and lyrics of Jay-Z in the making of Magna Carta ... Holy Grail. I have always like and respected Jay-Z. I hope to see him continue in this direction, that is not just formulating a perfect hip-hop song and brilliantly marketing it, but pushing hip-hop's boundaries and his business ones too. Listen up ya'll, this is a good time for Hip-Hop.