Hip hop artist retirements are about as meaningful as Brett Favre in sweats so it should come as no surprise to anyone that Jay Z1 just released his fourth post-retirement LP, Magna Carta … Holy Grail (iTunes). Jay Z never ascended to the top of my all-time hip hop legends list, but I’ve always recognized his value as one of hip hop’s most broadly appealing entertainers. My sense has always been that Jay excelled at perfectly placed samples2 and breathy, sometimes stuttery hooks3, dabbling in both the boastful, party anthem and truth from the streets sides of hip-hop without ever diving completely in. I’ve seen some criticisms of this album stating that it lacks lyrical punch. My passive listening thus far hasn’t helped shed any light on that specific point, but I will say that Jay’s lyrical prowess never impressed me as much as his unique delivery and overall cool. The longevity of Jay’s career means the span of his relevancy sometimes pits him in the company of Biggie and Tupac and subsequent comparisons therein – comparisons that a living legend wouldn’t outwardly shy away from but are nonetheless patently unfair. Some critics believe every significant artist’s release should be their magnum opus, an inherently flawed opinion that would drive any sane individual to retirement papers. I’ll go out on a limb and say that this isn’t Jay Z’s magnum opus (nor his holy grail), but it definitely has some bright spots.
Before I listened to a note, the tracks I heard the most noise in the blog and twitterspheres were “Tom Ford” and “Part II (On the Run)”. Both are solid tracks, with “Part II” being the more appealing track of the two for my ears thanks, in part, to Beyonce’s appearance on the track (which is probably the reason for its relative notoriety). The beat on “Tom Ford” (the impetus for most of the praise I read), is pretty cool but the rest of the track isn’t really where Jay Z excels for me. After listening to the album for almost two days straight now, the most notable tracks are “Holy Grail”, “Oceans”, “F.U.T.W.”, and “Nickels and Dimes”. “Holy Grail” features upcoming tour-mate and controversial night-stealer Justin Timberlake singing a verse/hook that occupies at least half of the song. “Oceans” is a nice background song, offering a smooth hook courtesy of Frank Ocean, with a steady lyrical flow. “F.U.T.W.” offers up my favorite knockout opening line (“Don’t be good … be great”) and the bassy, muddled beat reminds me of RZA inspired work from the height of Wu-Tang Clan’s popularity (“C.R.E.A.M.” anyone?). “Nickels and Dimes” is probably the weakest track of the ones I’ve highlighted but, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a sucker for samples and rhymes. This concluding track lives up to HOVA’s reputation for the right hook at the right time with tight rhymes.
When Magna Carta … was released I emailed a close friend who most closely shares my musical sensibilities and asked him if it was a must-purchase. He responded by asking if I’ve ever been disappointed by a Jay Z purchase? To be fair, I only own one complete album4 so that advice proved inconclusive for me at the time. After listening to the album for a couple of days I’m ready to conclude that it’s a worthy purchase for die-hards, but might be best left to a la carte purchasing or streaming via subscription services (Rdio or Spotify) for more casual fans. It’s not a career defining album, but it is a great addition to a hall of fame worthy resume.
- Jay Z’s representatives have recently confirmed that his moniker is now hyphen-free
- “Hard Knock Life”, “Song Cry”, “’03 Bonnie & Clyde”, “Empire State of Mind”, “Young Forever”
- “Can I Get A …”, “Jigga My Nigga”, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”, “Dirt off your Shoulders”, “99 Problems”
- Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, owing to its release before the Napster/iTunes a la carte era of music downloading/buying. This is also Jay Z’s all-time best selling album in the U.S., certified 5x Platinum.