It’s been almost four years since Jay Z released his 12th solo album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, which dropped on the 4th of July in 2013 via an exclusive Samsung release. The album became his 10th straight solo album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and 13th overall (counting joint projects with R. Kelly, Linkin Park and Kanye West) and spawned the No. 4 Hot 100 hit “Holy Grail” feat. Justin Timberlake, which took home the Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration in 2014.
Since then, however, the rap icon has been relatively quiet on the music front, largely limiting his verses to guest spots on projects by close and frequent collaborators like Beyoncé (“Drunk In Love”), Jeezy (“Seen It All”) and Rick Ross (“Devil Is a Lie”) and keeping his mind on his bevy of businesses. But lately, there have been more and more signs that Hov is gearing up for another album, steadily re-introducing himself into a hip-hop world that he’s conquered — and, in 2003, had briefly retired from — over a 20-plus year career.
Is a new Jay Z album on the horizon? Let’s examine the evidence.
The first indications that Jay was back in the studio came in quick succession in April, first with the release of Drake‘s “Pop Style,” which reunited Jay with Kanye West and had fans hyperventilating about the potential of a Watch the Throne 2. The fact that Jay only contributed two quick lines, and that Drake eventually removed both from the final track, threw a bit of cold water on the moment, but nonetheless it signaled that Hov was back in the booth for the first time in more than a year.
Later that month, however, the release of Beyoncé’s relationship-chornicling Lemonade — with her husband the clear thematic target of her album — sparked rumors that Jay would release a response record, and revived the long-running question of whether Jay and Bey might themselves release a joint album, with one source telling Billboard that in the past an album had been “nearly finished” but not quite completed. Just Blaze, a longtime producer for Jay and Roc-A-Fella who produced the Lemonade track “Freedom,” was cryptic, telling Billboard in an interview, “Nothing I can speak about right now, but stay tuned.”
May 24, 2016
Out of nowhere, the remix to Fat Joe and Remy Ma‘s triumphant comeback single “All the Way Up” was released on Tidal, featuring the first full Jay Z verse since lacing Jeezy’s “Seen It All” in July 2014. And Jay didn’t hold back; amid the rumors swirling around his family life following Lemonade, he slyly opened his verse by addressing the situation (and echoing Guru): “You know you made it when the fact your marriage made it is worth millions / Lemonade is a popular drink and it still is.”
Jay’s word play was on point; not only did he simultaneously squash a long-running beef with Joey Crack (thanks to N.O.R.E. and Memphis Bleek, as the former explained to Vibe), he managed to sneak in references to Tupac‘s infamous bathtub photoshoot and Prince‘s decision to restrict streaming access to his masters to just Tidal.
May 31, 2016
Suddenly, after the mogul hadn’t dropped a verse for nearly two full years, Pusha T released “Drug Dealers Anonymous” and delivered Hov’s second verse in a week, with Jay flexing in a laid-back flow for an extended tour through his bona fides. But beyond the fact that his verse was lyrically excellent and dripping with confidence (even including a “Damn Daniel” reference), the most promising aspect in terms of anticipating an upcoming album was that, for the second straight time, Jay clearly had something to get off his chest.
Right before his verse comes in on the track, a clip plays of conservative pundit Tomi Lahren admonishing Beyoncé for her epic Super Bowl Halftime Show performance (“Your husband was a drug dealer. For 14 years he sold crack cocaine”), which Jay goes on to incorporate into his verse. He seems almost annoyed, needing to tell his side of the story — which he has always done best through his music.
June 27, 2016
By the time DJ Khaled‘s “I Got the Keys” with Jay Z and Future dropped, it almost seemed like Jay was stretching, getting himself as ready as possible by biting off a little bit more each time. “Pop Style” was a quick drive-through line; “All the Way Up (Remix)” was an unassailable 16; “Drug Dealers Anonymous” extended to over 40 bars; and on “Keys,” he had the space to fully stretch out, going in over two verses with Future relegated to hook duty.
It was also the most dexterous of his latest run of tracks, mixing up flows and speeds throughout, as he addressed the 20th anniversary of his debut album Reasonable Doubt (the actual anniversary was two days prior), the lawsuit against him and Timbaland over the beat from “Big Pimpin'” and some clever subliminals likely aimed at Drake, who had said “I used to wanna be on Roc-A-Fella, then I turned into Jay” on his “Summer Sixteen” track. Again, it’s Hov addressing situations he hadn’t yet touched on that clearly needed to speak his mind about.
July 7, 2016
And finally, the first new track with Jay Z as the lead artist since MCHG almost exactly three years prior arrived in the form of “spiritual,” a heartfelt tribute to the victims of a spate of police killings of black men in the U.S. over the past several years — most recently (at the time) Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, who had been killed on consecutive days in the week leading up to the track’s release. Over a sparse beat by producers Rey Reel and Detail, Jay goes in about the systemic challenges facing African-American youths, his fears as a father wanting to protect his daughter and the raw pain he’s experienced over the years: “Peeling back the layers, uncoverin’/ Scars that never healed, I never kept it this real.”
It’s easily among his most personal tracks to date, showcasing an earnestness that he’d previously saved for songs like “New Day,” “The Joy,” “Song Cry,” “Glory” or “No Hook” years prior. It’s Jay rapping with purpose, an encouraging sign for what may arrive on a forthcoming LP. (Three weeks later, Jermaine Dupri would tell Rap Radar that an album “might” be done already.)
Jan. 31, 2017
After mega-producer Zaytoven (Gucci Mane, Future, Waka Flocka Flame, Migos) posted a photo of he and Jay Z in a recording studio the previous November — captioned Jaytoven, no less — Zay talked to Billboard about the circumstances that led to the photo, confirming both a collaboration between the two and an upcoming Jay Z album.
“I was in L.A. in a meeting with [veteran publishing executive] Big Jon [Platt] and he was like, ‘Me and Jay was just talking about you,'” the producer said about how the studio session came about. “So he text him and [Jay Z] said, ‘You have Zaytoven over there? Can he come to the house?’ First thing [Jay Z] said [to Big Jon], ‘Tell him when he come over, make sure he bring them beats with them strings and pianos in it.’ … I feel like [the collaboration] is gonna be for both of [our projects]. I know it’s going to be a trophy for me.”
Just two days later, TMZ cameras caught Jay leaving a recording studio with longtime recording engineer Young Guru, who has worked on a slew of Hov projects over the years. And in an interview last November about the success of Rae Sremmurd‘s “Black Beatles,” Mike WiLL Made-It mentioned that he was on his way to a studio session with Jay — perhaps an extended “Beach Is Better” is on the way?
Feb. 12, 2017
Released just as the 2017 Grammy Awards came to a close, “Shining” saw Jay rapping with an effortless, almost breezy confidence about Beyoncé’s recent announcement that she’s pregnant with twins (“I want a boy and girl to fight for truth / Whatever God give me, I’m cool”), also throwing in a reference to 21 Savage (“21 Grammys, I’m a savage n—a”) and some subliminal disses, which many took to be shots at Drake (“I know you ain’t out here talkin’ numbers, right?/ I know you ain’t out here talkin’ summers, right?/ I know you ain’t walkin’ ’round talkin’ down/ Sayin’ boss sh-t when you a runner, right?”). In other words, another verse that showed he was perfectly in the pocket.
But more significantly, with Beyoncé doing plenty of heavy lifting, this song seems like it could have been a lead single for either artist — as previous Bey/Jay collaborations like “Crazy In Love,” “03 Bonnie and Clyde,” “Drunk In Love” and “Deja Vu” all were — but instead, was released with DJ Khaled as the lead artist, and Jay and Bey billed as guests on what is essentially their own song. While it’s ostensibly scheduled for Khaled’s next album, Grateful, it also felt like a classic “test the waters” move by Jay, putting out a song that felt like it could be a hit but not placing himself front and center; if it succeeds, full steam ahead, but if it stalls on the charts, it’s easy to re-calibrate without taking a hit in any real way.
So far, the song is doing well; “Shining” debuted at No. 62 on the Hot 100, despite it having been out for fewer than seven days of the tracking week, and with an initial availability only on Tidal (it’s now on all digital services). Will it foretell a new Jay album in the near future?
Update: April 8, 2017
Frank Ocean‘s recent habit of dropping a new track every few weeks — what started with his guest slot on Calvin Harris‘ “Slide” then continued with his own “Chanel,” along with remixes featuring Travi$ Scott and Young Thug — included the song “Biking,” which featured Tyler, the Creator and Jay on the opening verse. In what started with a halting flow before transitioning into a more cohesive, purposely choppy delivery, Jay floated around the title-card metaphor in ways that only someone of his stature could: “Life goes in cycles, what comes around goes around / So ‘fore it goes down, n—a, get you some icicles”; “12 o’clock, boy, silly nice / Willie in traffic, I’m Philly nice / E.T. on the handles / Handlebars like a Xanax.”
It’s not a big showpiece, but it’s significant all the same; Jay guested on Frank’s Blonded Radio show on Beats 1 back in February, talking about the shifts in radio and technology, and the two have collaborated since 2011’s Watch the Throne with Kanye West, where Frank contributed vocals to “No Church in the Wild” and “Made In America,” and on Magna Carta… Holy Grail with the appropriately-titled “Oceans.” (Frank also worked with Beyoncé on “Superpower” from her self-titled 2013 LP).