Magna Carta Holy Grail (to be released nationwide July 9, 2013)
It's been a weird few weeks in the world of hip hop.
A couple of weeks ago, seemingly out of nowhere, Jay-Z announced that he'd be dropping his 12th studio album and Samsung phone users would get first dibs.
It's consolation for having a phone the size of a car battery, I guess.
Meanwhile, to assist in promotion, Jay held a virtual scavenger hunt, with the winners getting to view the track listing early. Hope y'all had fun with that. I just waited till the listing hit Wikipedia like a normal adult with a job.
I can't hate too hard because the bizarre promotion actually worked: Anticipation for the album reached a fever pitch. But with a name like Magna Carta Holy Grail there's no way Jay can meet those heavenly expectations. Not unless God himself came through to spit a hot 16 - and even the good lord couldn't help Kanye West's album.
Magna Carta Holy Grail doesn't turn water into Ace of Spades champagne but it's still a major blessing for hip hop.
My biggest criticism of Jay-Z lately is that he has become detached from his listeners. Cool, you had brunch in Paris and played spades with the Obamas and went shopping on the moon, we get it. And as you'd expect, Magna Carta Holy Grail is filled with his usual Scrooge McDuck rich-man raps but, thankfully, with a twist. Hov brags about decadence in "Picasso Baby" ("champagne on my breath," "sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa") but subtly brings things back to Earth. "No sympathy for the king huh?/N****s even talk about your baby crazy." Finally, we get to hear from Shawn Carter again, not just Jay-Hova.
"FUTW" gives Jay a chance to ponder the fates of black heroes: "America tried to emasculate the greats/Murder Malcom/Give Cassius the shakes." Meanwhile, he can't help but revel in his own success: "You know I'm gonna shine like a trillion watts/You know a n**** trill like Michael Jackson socks."
Jay waxes nostalgic on "Nickles & Dimes" as he relives his ascension and even briefly returns to the days of Reasonable Doubt on "Somewhere In America." "When I was talking Instagram, last thing you wanted was your picture snapped."
Shockingly, Jay drops his tough-guy persona on "Jay-Z Blue" as he shares the stresses of fatherhood. Backed by clips of "Mommie Deariest" and vocals from The Notorious B.I.G., he sounds almost pessimistic here, and it's a vulnerability Jay rarely shares.
But don't worry about things getting too heavy. This is a Jay-Z album, of course, so there's plenty of time for him to boast about his greatness. And thanks to outstanding production, the bulk of which is handled by Timbaland, he sounds great doing it. "Heaven" harkens back to '90s boom bap while the effects in "Tom Ford" sound like Super Mario power-ups. "Part II (on the Run)" might be my favorite beat of the year. It's so classy I wanna throw on a sequined Ric Flair robe and strut down a case of crystal stairs. Beyonce's hook is just icing on the cake.
Sometimes things go a bit overboard, though. With an ensemble cast including Nas, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell and Timbaland on "BBC," you'd expect a masterpiece. Nope, it's more like a knockoff of that Fat Joe and Kanye track. And it doesn't help that Swizz Beatz is yelling in the background. Nate Dogg is spinning in his platinum grave.
"Versus" sounds awesome but stops so abruptly that you'll think your mp3 file is corrupted. And Rick Rawse drags Jay-Z down to his usual low standards on "F***withmeyouknowigotit." Just repeat the title over and over - that's the song.
A couple of weeks ago I ranked Jay-Z's entire catalog. Magna Carta Holy Grail sits comfortably in the middle of the pack. It's certainly not the classic we were promised but you'll have a hard time finding a better rap album this year.
Best tracks: "FUTW," "Part II (On the Run)," "Tom Ford"
4 stars out of 5