July 8, 2013 14 comments
It was roughly three and a half weeks ago when an advertisement featuring Jay-Z and Rick Rubin conversing in Jungle City. The commercial spot appeared in the middle of Game 5 of the NBA Finals, leaving everyone to forget about the series for three minutes in anticipation for his 12th studio album, Magna Carta… Holy Grail. Loaded with big producing names such as Rubin, Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz, and Timbaland, Shawn Carter laid the groundwork for the inevitable hypetrain that soon followed. Partnering up with Samsung to digitally release the album early on Independence Day, downloads of the app soared in the millions, making him virtually platinum before anyone pressed play on it.
His tagline for the promotion was ‘#NewRules’, though it was rules already been used long ago in the mixtape circuit. Only this time it’s under a powerful business machine and used to make bank for those on top. I start to think does Hov really need to make another rap album? Over the years he has meticulously build an empire that has catapulted to various outlets of entertainment: be it video games, films, or sports. He’s sitting on a piles and piles of money, he’s one-half of one of the most recognizable celebrity couples today, and has associated with some of the most powerful figures in the world (Barack Obama says, “Hi”).
Still his interest in making music is considerably high, though he’s very content in being the contemporary emperor with nothing more to prove yet gains more for his namesake. And with MCHG, he marginally succeeds in matching the hype he made for himself that hits at times and misses at given opportunities.
Starting with the grandiose “Holy Grail”, Justin Timberlake comes in all blue-eyed soul over intense layered keys, lamenting over a woman who has wronged him time and time again. The woman happens to be the fame and the pitfalls that come with it, as Hov referenced MC Hammer and Mike Tyson within the first verse of them succumbing to bankruptcy. It’s a beautiful pairing on paper since the two knocked one out of the park with “Suit & Tie” earlier this year, but this comes off a little flat as far as intros are concerned.
It also becomes the story for most of the album, filled with great production from top to bottom but weren’t capitalized to its fullest potential. Timbaland continues with steroid-free resurgence delivering prime, stuttering beats that used to fill the airwaves in the late 90s-mid 2000s. “Picasso Baby” is a fine example of Jay-Z finding interesting ways of using Basquiat’s name in any form, along with artists of the Italian Renaissance (Leonardo Da Vinci flows/Riccardo Tisci Givenchy clothes/See me thrown at the Met/Vogue’ing on these niggas). It’s not until the beat switches over midway through where we find Mr. Carter in Vol. 3 form (I ain’t never stuck my cock in a Fox’s box/But damn if I ain’t opened Pandora’s Box). He also takes a note (or two…or three) from his protégé Kanye on “Crown”, twisting the gothic Reggae samples that Travis Scott is so fond of. The thing is he never comes off as abrasive like his chaotic counterpart or menacing as Rick Ross in delivery.
Which brings me to the features, who all clearly outshined Jay-Z in every aspect on this album (all except Nas on “BBC”). I don’t know how it happens, but Nasir always seems to fumble and get left behind in collaborations with his ex-rival (and if you bring up “Black Republican”, you already lost since Wayne and Juelz made that obsolete). Timberlake does a fine job in his respective outings (“Holy Grail” and “Heaven”), Rick Ross dominates “FuckwithmeyouknowIgotit” literally (taking up 85% of the song and biting Lil Reese again), and Frank Ocean melts “Oceans” with his crawling falsetto. The true winner funny enough is his wife Beyonce on the “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde” sequel “Part II (On The Run)”. Over the swirling synths and flawless input from Cocaine 80s’ James Fauntleroy, this would have served well as a deep cut on her upcoming album as she skates on the track effortlessly. Even Notorious B.I.G. comes back from the grave again to add some adlibs and lines on “Jay-Z Blue”.
But all that good stuff stops right there after “Beach Is Better” where Jay-Z made a crucial mistake in cutting the song so short at under a minute and ruining a potential hit. He boasts about his wealth and having his woman looking like his woman over a magnificent Mike Will beat. As soon as the song gets really interesting, it stops and goes into the weird posse cut “BBC”. Another opportunity shot in the dark, Pharrell is feeling the groove with his favorite keys and drums though is misused in places that would been befitting elsewhere. It’s a clusterfuck that Nas happens to get lost in and everyone else involved is stuck to a lukewarm call-and-response hook.
The album drags afterwards, with “Jay-Z Blue” attempting to be the last saving grace in the form of “Daughters” of 2013. Unlike the latter, it fails to evoke the exact emotive response and feels less as genuine as the “Hey look, I’m a dad now” song he did over a year ago. It’s nice to see that Hov is proud of being a part of fatherhood, but I already feel a million times broker than I am when he speaks on her stunting on us regular folk.
‘Y’all not worthy/sometimes I feel like y’all don’t deserve me’ are some of the final words on his closing track “Nickles And Dimes”. He responds to questions about his charitable integrity by continuing to give back to his fans through this. If he was serious about making fulfilling music, at least he could have waited a little longer.
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