As the last moments of "Nickels and Dimes" (the last track on Magna Carta Holy Grail) faded into silence, my mind became filled with an overwhelming sense of disappointment; in my eyes, Jay’s self-proclaimed “Magnum Opus” had fallen flat on its face. More so than any other musical project I was upset that this fell short of expectations. I first thought that it might be due to the excess amount of hype that started with the announcement through a Samsung commercial. Multiple play-throughs, lyrical analysis, and shallow excuses did little to assuage the intensity of this disappointment. I was so close to condemning this record to failure until I turned the focus inward to try and understand why I viewed this album in such a negative light. What I found was something nearly every fan may be guilty of: Judging an artist’s present work based on their past creations.
Though not exclusive to the works of Jay-Z, MCHG has been held prisoner by its emcee’s past greatness; instead of experiencing the album in itself, I immediately — and unknowingly — compared it to the heights reached by the likes of The Blueprint and The Black Album. Before this realization I was desperately searching MCHG for the antagonistic verses of "Takeover" or the grandiosity of the "Heart Of The City" or even the clever wordplay of "Lost Ones." Ultimately the search was fruitless; I could break down every facet of MCHG and still not be satisfied because I would be searching for something that no longer exists; Jay-Z has grown up.
What I was hopelessly oblivious to before now seems embarrassingly obvious: This album exhibits the evolution of Jay-Z. Past albums featured the fervor of a young Hova aiming to usurp rap royalty and ascend to seize the throne. It would be ridiculous to expect him to retain this style considering he’s widely thought of as one of the best in emcees in the game. Once you’ve made it to the top you no longer compete to prove you’re the best, but instead do what you feel is necessary to stave off the challengers. This air of superiority is common throughout MCHG: Self-assured verses are paired with confident production that stand as testaments to achieving one’s goals; the sound of success. At one point, he even rattles his jewelry close to the mic for all to hear.
Although some might be apprehensive to see such a drastic change in style, Jay has adapted his style so that it’s synchronized with his superstar status in the industry. Oftentimes the flow on this album is so confident, so polished that it seems the depths of the music were neglected and the album is limited to the blinding sheen on the surface; a far cry from what we’ve come to expect. The purpose of this article isn’t to review the album, instead, it could be called a review of the reviews; my intention is to demonstrate that artists should be liberated from their past, for better or for worse. Audiences should them to explore regions of their creativity that were formerly uncharted; let them do something new. Realistically — as he’s always done — Jay-Z will continue to rake in millions of record sales, so liberation factors little into the equation for him (he knows what sells). Though, other artists are less fortunate and are restrained by expectations brought on by old works.
The importance in all of this is that the artist retains their freedom to create. There will always be that pressure to succeed (especially coming off of past successes), but an artist shouldn’t feel compelled to repeat what has worked for them in the past; they must be allowed to extend the boundaries of their talent and we should expect as much from them. This is the risk we run when we’re free to create; we will discover something new that can elevate the art form or become so constrained by failure that we’re paralyzed by the court of public opinion. The point is that the attempt was made to bring something to light that few have experienced. Jay-Z broke the mold — that he created — in favor of something that is relatively new territory for him. Call his music arrogant. Call it empty. Call it anything you wish, but give credit to the artist for deviating from his/her past to extend into the unknown.
Jay hit the nail on the head in "On To The Next One": "Hov on that new s***, N***** like how come/N***** want my old s***, buy my old album." Can’t say he didn’t warn us.