Jay-Z: Magna Carta Holy Grail

Release Date: July 9, 2013

In any game, there are at least 3 ways to play:

  1. Fear of Losing – Play it safe, don’t rustle any feathers, just survive.
  2. Fear of Never Winning – Put it all on the line, take strategic risks, if it fails then it’s all over.
  3. No Fear of Ever Losing – Freedom to take creative artistic risks, but maybe lose that drive that propelled the former models.

There are very few who are immune to eventually arriving at model #3, given significant success at stage #2.

I began listening to Jay-Z at that stage 2 breakthrough moment on his near-flawless The Blueprintalbum. He’d had some success to that point within the genre, but The Blueprint propelled him into pop culture and marked the beginning of his rise to “mogul” status. That was an all-or-nothing, go big or go home, leave it all on the court effort. It pushed the limits of the genre and had cross-over appeal but still had a street relevance and relied on Jay doing what he does best – spitting the best flow in the game.

I simply can’t hate on that transition to the No Fear model. I’m proud for artists to achieve that status where they have creative artistic freedom. But for Jay, “rapper” has become one of many hyphenates in his title. Gone are the days of relying on the success of the album. If the album fails, he has nothing to worry about other than some bad press. In my opinion, it is that desperate dependence that fuels an artist and propels them to greatness. When that is gone, sometimes the heart leaves the process.

On Magna Carta‚Ķ Holy Grail, Hov stretches his legs in terms of artistic creativity while still doing what he does best, better than most everyone out there. Sonically, the album feels like a blend of The Black Album and The Blueprint 3– both of which had their high points and definitely surpassed the lackluster albums that came between them. Jay’s delivery is on point. The failure, to me, is in content – and it isn’t even fair to call that a failure. He’s being true to himself, it’s just that his self has become so distanced from where he once was.

The lead track, “Holy Grail” features Justin Timberlake beautifully oozing heartache. Some folks want to harangue artists for whining about the difficulties that come with celebrity – “I got haters in the paper / photo-shoots from paparazzi / can’t even take my daughter for a walk”. Strangely, I have some sympathy for this. Did they ask for success? Sure. Are they hoping for fame? Yes. But celebrities are people, too, and they do deserve the freedom to live real lives. I think that the track wins, not for shining a light on the plight of the artist in the spotlight, but for calling out the public for being here today, gone tomorrow.

To me, none of the other tracks are really stand-out, break through tracks. The production lacks the familiarity of The Blueprint (i.e. the old samples that Kanye West brought to it). I don’t know what to expect from track to track, which keeps me on edge and keeps me from just enjoying it. When Jay references the past or pays homage to his early work, it just feels like he is clowning himself. When he tells me I “can’t knock the hustle”, I just think “you haven’t had to hustle in the last 10 years.”

What made those early records great (and much of rap music for that matter) was/is its aspirational quality. It was all about a vision of success and a yearning, striving, never-say-die attitude to achieving that dream. It was the music of the everyman. Now, to hear the music that comes once that dream has been fulfilled is, in a way, very alienating. We’ve gone from saying “I want a bad ass car/house/champagne” to name checking brands and designers that are so expensive even rich people haven’t heard of them.

Like I said earlier, he’s being true to himself and that’s great. But I have to think that to hear him go out and play “Hard Knock Life” today would almost feel like karaoke – and that’s a bit sad to me. So I have to go back to the JT duet and (in a way) sympathize, because I have to believe that it really is lonely at the top.

Jay-Z: The Blueprint

Release Date: September 11, 2001 (I didn’t realize that until I wrote this review.)

I took one performance to change my view of rap music. Prior to it, I was probably “ambivalent” at best. Then I watched Jay-Z on MTV unplugged, complete with The Roots, a string quartet, and backup singers.I was impressed throughout the program that Jay was able to edit himself and keep the program fit for TV. About halfway through “Song Cry” my ears perked as I noticed him start to let a little bit of language slip. And then I saw this transcendent moment of a songwriter being exposed on the stage in the same way you might see a guy with a guitar in a coffee shop. And in that moment I realized that rap artists are artists indeed and that their music has meaning. When I finally got to dig into the song more it cemented itself as one of my all-time favorite tracks.

I’ll admit: I may be biased due to the fact that this is the first rap record that I was really exposed to. That being said, I think it’s the best rap record ever. (There’s a pretty vocal contingent that wants to say that Illmatic is the greatest ever, but I just can’t even get past the first track on that album. And I may still be biased since Jay takes Nas to school on The Blueprint.) Every rapper tries to claim that they are the best in the business but few can back it up. Many records claim to be the blueprint (even Jay-Z tried to claim it twice after this) but this is the only one that lives up to the title. In fact, it appears on numerous year’s best, decade’s best, and even all time greatest albums lists. It’s a very big statement, but I would nearly say that it is to rap music what Pet Sounds is to Rock and Roll.

With 15 tracks (2 “hidden”) only 2 are flat out duds – “Hola Hovito” and “All I Need”. The rest of the album is a master’s class in songwriting.

The album begins with an homage to Slick Rick (“The Ruler’s Back”) followed by the aforementioned beatdown of NAS and several others (“Takeover”). Probably the most well-known track on the album (and arguably the track the validated and launched the career of Kanye West) is the West-produced “Izzo (H.O.V.A)” a semi-biographical story with a phenomenal hook. Another Yeezy-produced gem is “Heart of the City” where Hova laments the way things have changed in the ghetto and in rap music.

I’ve spoken before (twice now, even) about my love of The Temptations and David Ruffin so it should come as no surprise that the album-track “Never Change” which samples Ruffin is one of my personal favorites. Another deep track “Renegade” – written by, produced by, and featuring Eminem – is likewise great, if you can handle Eminem. In my opinion, it is one of Em’s best performances in his entire catalog as far as intensity and delivery is concerned, though the lyric is quite harsh.

I like both versions of “Girls, Girls, Girls” (Track 3 and Hidden Track 2). I’m not 100% certain where I land on which one is better, they both have their own spin. It’s exciting and intriguing to me to hear two different versions of the same concept but with completely different lyrics, beats, samples, and producers. This contradiction highlights the collaborative artistic nature of hiphop music and the influence that the producer has on the artist.

PS – Spin Magazine posted a Jay-Z Remix album this week that had an amazing re-work of “Song Cry” [explicit].