Jay-Z, Magna Carta Holy Grail

You could easily say that hip-hop has definitely changed in the past five, maybe even ten years. The leader of the change could be Kanye West, as evidenced by the innovative yet flawed Yeezus which I’ve reviewed here on this blog. Where Kanye was all about pushing the envelope, and trying new things in the name of creativity, the stark contrast is sticking with what you’re good at, and what works.

Jay-Z returns with not nearly the amount of flair West did, and boasts a sprawling 17-track album of, what many could consider, traditional hip-hop. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, reigns true for Hova. Jay-Z starts off his twelfth studio album with “Suit and Tie” collaborator Justin Timberlake, for the “Holy Grail” track. JT’s smooth vocal on the hook fit well with Jay’s solid verses. The track features some beautiful piano pieces mixed in with claps and sounds, showcasing Timbaland’s hand on the track. The song runs a little long towards the end, leading one to believe the two superstars were likely in the studio for a while together during JT’s 20/20 Experiencesessions. The track bleeds like it fits in with that world, appropriately. “Picasso Baby” features some classic Hova, even with its simplistic hook and chorus, yet suffers towards the end with some lackluster lyrical content and a switch up in beat, again in possible tribute to JT’s new style. A specific standout track comes with a feature of Frank Ocean on the chorus, conveniently titled “Oceans”. Jay’s verses are particularly strong here, with verbiage about issues of the day, but the track is sandwiched between some of the more disappointing tracks from Magna Carta. Both tracks aren’t quite smart on the titles, as well as the content, and just fail to keep the attention of the listener.

Most of MCHG’s tracks were produced by Timbaland and J-Roc. Fortunately, there are more winners on Magna Carta to jump into. “Crown” introduces itself as, what appears to be, a continuation of the content from Watch the Throne, and it works, since the rapper hasn’t sounded better recently than here. Jay even takes a page from his counterpart West, comparing himself as a god. The production also sounds like something similar to Yeezus, just more condensed and focused. Timbaland and Timberlake return to kick it with Jay on “Heaven”, driving an infectious beat and some of the man’s more poignant lyrics, even if borrowing from R.E.M. for a moment. “Part II (On the Run)” has a classic R&B style featuring the talent Beyoncé on the chorus, while “Jay Z Blue” finds Hova more transparent and real than ever, diving into talk of his kids and the struggles of family life (over an acoustic guitar beat, to boot). Rounding out the album is another solid track, “Nickels and Dimes”, another deep track about family and the friends he’s had for years.

Hip-hop used to be focused solely on the streets and life stories. While many have strayed away from those topics to talk more about weed, cash, and women, Jay-Z has stayed focused in on what makes hip-hop real. He also always has a better way of talking about such real topics, and it sticks in your mind for longer than some of the others you’ll hear on the radio. Overall I was impressed with Magna Carta, more than I expected to be. Usually we’ve got some time in between releases for different rappers and entertainers to give us new music, but this year, it looks like we’re getting quite the handful. Kanye, Jay-Z, Drake, and even Eminem all putting out new music this year. It gives the public a chance to see the major differences in every artist, and it just keeps getting better.

Justin Mabee