As an event, it's good, it's great, it's disappointing and back again. As an album, though, it tends to be safe. He's surrounded by friends, in the commercials and on the tracks: there's Beyoncé, Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz, Nas, Rick Ross, Frank Ocean, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. It's in the same vein as "Watch The Throne," where there's much talk of revolution, of race and class, but - while they championed Occupy Wall Street in Occupy All Streets shirts - now, these words have been co-opted by a giant phone company.
Jay's trying to be a lot of things to all people, as one does when as big as he is. And while it's unfair to measure Jay against others, we're living in a world where Yeezus has risen, and it feels like Jay's dipping a toe rather than fully diving in. When Kanye is heaving bombs from across the court, you can't clap so loud when Jay lobs lay-ups.That's not to say it's not good - it is - sometimes you just want to see some sweat.
Check out our track-by-track review of Jay-Z's "Magna Carta Holy Grail."
2. "Picasso Baby"
I haven't heard a Jay-Z mixtape track in years, so this brings back memories. The beat sounds like lasers have been shot through Schroeder's piano from Peanuts. Ugh, it takes one verse for Jay to compare himself to Basquiat ("I am the new Jean Michel") and bring up Warhol; for a guy who claims to spend so much time at MoMA, why does always name the same names? But regardless, this is all burying the lede, because after a brief intermission, Jay goes full throttle at the mudslingers and Fox News talking heads: "I never stuck my cock in Fox's box"; "Ni--as even talk about your baby crazy," which makes him want to "Come through with 'Ye mask on, Spray everything like SAMO." Such a great couplet. Nice to hear Jay with some fire in his voice.
3. "Tom Ford"
"I don't pop molly, I rock Tom Ford." Are the two mutually exclusive? Over a beat constructed out of machine gun sprays, Nintendo themes and bottle blows, Jay-Z appropriates MIA's flow from "Bad Girls" and raps things like, "Guns on ya Tumblrs... Fuck hashtags and retweets, ni--a / 140 characters in these streets, ni--a." Who is Jay's social media person? An uncredited Beyoncé whisper-coos to close the track. It sure sounds like a single, and maybe it is a single, but it's hard to tell when the only promotion is the idea that there's promotion.
4. "FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt" (Featuring Rick Ross)
Before we go any further, this song is great. It opens with a long intro from the late Pimp C, talking about the necessity to wear so much jewelry. Rick Ross allows the beat to breathe, or maybe it's the other way around. "Got a bad bitch, she's a masterpiece" is the most Jay-Z-esque lyric that Rick Ross says. The most Rick Ross-esque thing Jay-Z says? "Hov just landed in Rome, ni--a / All hail, Caesar's home, ni--as."
5. "Oceans" (Featuring Frank Ocean)
Some might find it crass to compare the escape from slavery to "Ocean's 11," and it probably is. It's not a completely thought-out simile, but it's here, and Jay's saying things "on holiday playing Strange Fruit" and hoping for "billies," because get it? Do you get it? And must Frank Ocean sing about going to the Basquiat show? Especially when "I hope my black skin don't dirt this tuxedo" is such a powerful thing to say. Why must Jay bury good lyrics within bad ones? I fail to understand. I need RapGenius to explain that to me.
6. "FUTW (Fuck Up This World)"
Jazzy, swirling chimes, like a storm is brewing. Jay-Z sees himself holding a baton in MLK's relay race. And, to hear him tell it, it makes a lot of sense; the idea that a black man could make so much money, be the face of so many things... it's inspiring. (There's some bad writing on parts of this album - see "Oceans" - but when Jay says things like, "America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes," one remembers just how good he can be. Seriously: "We have yet to see a ceiling, we just top what we top / Cause the bars don't struggle and the struggle don't stop."
This song is a perfect example of the highs and lows of the album. The production is great, a bubbling trombone loop, full cheeks and sweaty brow, conjures visions of a dank jazz club. But then there's the lyrics, which are a bit smug and a bit too cool-dad. For half the song, he insists that Miley Cyrus twerk. Why? And why to this song? Is Miley Cyrus a thing now? I guess we should just be lucky he didn't namecheck Amanda Bynes.
Wolf snarls, Sizzla, Travis $cott and Colecovision soundboards? Is this a left over "Yeezus" track? Jay does compare himself to a god, twice, so maybe. But there are two key differences: Kanye would never dis Scott Boras about stealing his clients, and Jay isn't truly interested in getting dirty. You know how expensive brands used to sell jeans that were already beaten up, already had holes and stains? That's what Jay's "revolution" sounds like.
As corporate as the album is - and it is corporate - it can be pretty subversive. Case in point: Jay-Z interpolates R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" because he can, but also says things like, "Question religion, question it all / Question existence until them questions are solved." And yes, it's very on-the-nose, but it could also worm its way into a lot of brains long abandoned for mush.
"Hey sucka ni--a, where ever you are" opens this quick interlude, where Jay dismisses any rappers who think they're on his level. Try looking in New Orleans. That's probably where they are.
11. "Part II (On the Run)" (Featuring Beyoncé)
When they recorded "'03 Bonnie and Clyde," Jay-Z and Beyoncé were only "rumored" to be dating, which was never really a "rumor" but something that people thought was a "rumor" because the couple never talked about it. This sequel isn't exactly meant to quiet the masses; Jay tosses out a couple of retweet-ready lines: "My baby momma harder than a lot of you ni--as" and "She was a good girl till she knew me / Now she is in the drop bussin' U'e."
12. "Beach is Better"
Man, c'mon. The best song so far is only 56 seconds? What kind of game is that, Jay? What kind of game is that? The beat sounds so alive, and he just hogties it into submission: "I brought sand to the beach / Cause my beach is better / You can keep ya beach / Cause that beach whatever." This is Jay with a toothpick in the side of his mouth, sneering. Perfect. And the Mike Will Made It beat? Perfect. Everything's perfect, and then it's snatched away.
14. "Jay-Z Blue"
Oof. Jay-Z really rhymed "Pampers" with "Hamptons." He's talking all "fuck joint custody" and needing a joint, there are Biggie grunts and "Mommie Dearest" quotes, which is... terrifying and uncomfortable. Weren't we all happy a few minutes ago? What the hell just happened? I feel like I'm watching my parents fight. Is this my fault? Did I do something wrong? I'm just going to go hide under the covers and pretend I'm asleep. That being said, the most brutal and honest line on the album might be "Father never taught me how to be a father." This is a song that will improve with time, but is simply too much for one listen.
15. "La Familia"
No. I'm still hiding under the covers, pretending to be asleep, but only because I want this song to get off my porch. Go next door, song. Jay's flow is too sparse; the beat's barely there, like it's checking text messages and half-listening. This feels like an overlong interlude. Meanwhile, there are interludes that are far too short! I wish we could swap them, but we can't, because the Samsung app finally started working and Jay-Z's album has been released.
16. "Nickels and Dimes"
For a pretty good album, the last couple of tracks are a real bummer, just chock full o' holes. The hook - based around a Gonjasufi sample - sounds like the old lady from the "Titanic," stumbling through a sentence. Meanwhile, Jay's doing that thing he always does when he beats wordplay into the ground: "Can't see it taking food out my little monster's mouth / That will drive me gaga." Jay's incredibly smart, but he doesn't need to underestimate his audience the way he does. And it's too bad, because he opens with "Got a thing for nickel plated nines and pretty dimes, Mac-11 I squeeze like lemon limes." This is "Oceans" all over again.
Overall, the album sounds great, there's just no denying that. Jay-Z's lyrics, however, ping-pong between great to serviceable, clever to unforgivable. Do I expect too much? Am I quibbling? It's entirely possible. But Jay put those lyrics out as a series of advertisements for the album, and so they're asking to be examined through forks and knives. Is it a "#classic"? Unsure. A "Magna Carta Holy Fail" (as tweeted by some)? Probably not. It's closer to the former, with flashes of the latter. Even if it burns out quickly, people love fireworks on July 4th.