Friday, July 12, 2013

"Magna Carta Holy Grail" is a Solid Late-Period Jay-Z Album

I've been throwing around this half-baked theory on Facebook that Jay-Z is the Greg Maddux of rap.  Unlike Jigga, Maddux was never much of a high heat thrower, even in his younger days, but they have numerous similarities in the way they have aged.  Many baseball pitchers have trouble adapting to the loss of velocity that comes with old age, but Maddux just used this as an opportunity to fall deeper into his role as a strategist.  To him, at-bats were chess, and he would work hitters through the sheer force of his movement and variation.  He may not have had all the tools that the younger guys did, but he was able to thrive by leaning into his age rather than resisting it.  In the same way, Jay-Z has managed to create Magna Carta Holy Grail, an album that may not have the zest of his younger days, but one that mostly succeeds due to how he utilizes his arsenal.

One of the most vital parts of this arsenal is his stable of great producers, whose beats cause many of the songs to work in spite of themselves.  "Tom Ford" has a terrible, meandering chorus and "FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt" might as well be a Rick Ross song given how little Jay-Z shows up on it, yet both are saved by their great production.  He rounded up the likes of Timbaland and Pharrell for this one, and it's almost like the rap Expendables in the way that it has this old guard of hip-hop combining their powers to create something.  Like those action heroes of yore, Jay has lost a step or two, because at times it feels like he's coasting on the lyrical front.  There are some flashes of wit and vitality, but many of his verses get bogged down in half-time rapping and weak couplets.  "Versus" manages to capture everything that's bad and good about Jay-Z's rapping on this album, all in the span of 51 seconds.  How he can start off with something as awful as "Hey sucka nigga, wherever you are / I thought about you fool while I was driving my car" and then close out with something as knotty as "The truth in my verses versus / your metaphors about what your net worth is" is kind of strange and impressive in its own right.  This save-the-best-for-last mentality continues on album closer, "Nickels and Dimes," which features one of my favorite lines: "Pardon my hubris -- Stanley Kubrick / with Eyes Wide Shut, I could cook up two bricks."

Another element in his array of assets is the rogue's gallery of featured guests that appear on the album.  Having a good artist to play off of seems to elevate his game, because all of the best songs have a prominent guest spot.  First, there's "Oceans," which is a top tier Jay-Z song, while also making me desperately want a new Frank Ocean album.  I've never been very impressed with collaborations between Jay-Z and Beyonce, but "Part II (On the Run)" is just wonderful.  Backed by a watery, cavernous beat from J-Roc & Timbaland, Beyonce's vocals are appropriately regal, sounding as if she's in a giant room and singing into a distant mic.  But no song captures the collaborative spirit of Magna Carta Holy Grail more than "BBC," which is just ridiculously fun, and features Nas continuing this streak of reinvigoration that he's been having lately.  The one exception to this "great guest = great song" rule is Justin Timberlake, unfortunately.  It's almost as if the two of them had an agreement to stink it up on each other's albums, because first we had Jay-Z's limp verse on "Suit & Tie," and now we've got two complete whiffs from Timberlake on "Holy Grail" and "Heaven."  The latter features some quality rapping from Jay, but JT's grating chorus nearly ruins the song.

Nobody exudes opulence better than Jay-Z, and with all its references to high art, Magna Carta Holy Grail might be the apotheosis of his obsession with luxury.  It's all a bit off-putting at first, because of the way he seems to keep the audience at a distance.  Kanye West may mention Givenchy and French restaurants on Yeezus, but that album always feels like a direct invitation into his headspace.  When Jay-Z tells us that we know nothing about Wayne Perry, it just feels like we're viewing him from behind a glass wall.  But everything turns around on "Somewhere in America" which is the Rosetta Stone for understanding what the album is about -- the infiltration of (a largely white) high culture by a black man who came from nothing.  "Shout out to old Jews and old rules / new blacks with new stacks," he starts off the song saying, and if you look closely, the album has numerous references to making it but still feeling like you don't belong.  Even the album cover backs this notion -- there are famous sculptures, yet the "Jay-Z" is blacked out.  On "F.U.T.W.," he also talks about how he no longer fits into the world in which he grew up either.  This limbo of being too rich for his street past and too New Money for the current upper class gives the album a backbone that makes it a much more interesting listen.

However, it seems that nobody else is as high on this album as I am.  I'm not saying that I love it, but I think that it'll be remembered much more positively with time.  After all, it is the second best post-retirement Jay-Z album behind American Gangster.  Plus, it doesn't have any of the pop trash that plagued The Blueprint 3,  like "Run This Town".  Jay-Z has always been very much a traditionalist, and this is definitely a traditional rap album, which may be difficult to adjust to in a year full of forward-thinking ones (Acid Rap, Yeezus, Run the Jewels).  On Magna Carta Holy Grail, we see Jay-Z long past the point where he has to prove that he's great, and perhaps we're supposed to view it with the same surprise and delight that we would if The Rolling Stones put out an album that was good, but didn't reach the band's peak.

No comments:

Post a Comment