2013 is sizing up to be a big year for the Roc-a-Fella family. Kanye dropping his sixth studio album, Jay-Z’s protégé J.Cole releasing his second and now the man himself with Magna Carta. But it doesn’t end there, talks of a new Beyonce album have been circulating along with one of the most anticipated debuts in Hip Hop, coming from Jay Electronica — which is apparently finished. Magna Carta had a similar build up to Yeezus, where a sense of something game-changing and ground-breaking is about to be bestowed upon us, from album name to promotion. Jay-Z had these short adverts where he explains to a homeless man that sleeps in the studio about the concepts behind the album. “The duality of it” and “the next big thing” were descriptions thrown about in the advert enticing fans into thinking Jay-Z is going to drop something epic, which to be honest he has not done since 2003. However we find that the only game changing and original thing about Holy Grail is the way it was marketed. Jay-Z was $5 million heavier and platinum before the album was even released because Samsung already bought the songs to promote their latest app.
Most of the album consists of Jay-Z bragging about his lavish life, then complaining about the difficulties that come with being so rich and successful, then back to bragging and explaining his desire to obtain a trillion dollars. For Jay-Z, places like Paris and Rome are seen as cities which are rich with a history in high art and are sprawling with people that have immaculate style and taste. Jay aligns himself with this culture and much of his lyrics consist of proving himself to be a part of it. ‘Picasso Baby’ name drops popular artists, fashion designers and art galleries in the same breath while he spends all his Euros on the rather tedious ‘Tom Ford’. So Jay-Z longs to be a part of this refined culture, but at the same time enjoys being seen as the outsider and thinks of himself to be a nightmare for the upper-class, white Western Europeans — this is embodied by Rick Ross’s verse on the hash-tag ready ‘fuckwithmeyouknowigotit’ a song designated for people in clubs who wear sunglasses with a bottle of alcohol in one hand and a bulk of cash ready to be thrown in the other. ‘Somewhere In America’ is another example, a unnecessary bragfest about being black and rich and moving into an upper-class white neighbourhood, “Come and see what your new neighbor ’bout”, a tired theme which has been covered numerous times before. Much of Jay’s lyrics are toe-curlingly cringe at times, like a 40 year old uncle that used to be cool but now is rocking an obey snapback. JT singing ‘smells like teen spirit’ or Jay saying ‘twerk miley’ are awkward pop references that seem to come out of nowhere, but nothing grinds the gears as much as the ‘skrrr!’ sound he makes. ‘BBC’ sounds like a star-studded party that you would probably wish to be a part of, but once there realise it’s not exactly your cup of tea as it actually sounds quite sinister and could have been named ‘Monster‘ part 2. In fact the song got me listening to Nas’s Life is Good which is a far superior dad-rap album than this, and even includes an empty-stomached verse by Ross.
The good stuff about the album actually reveals even more negatives for Jay-Z himself. The two songs ‘Versus’ and ‘Beach is Better’, presumably unfinished for artistic reasons in order to make fans dream of what could have been, in fact are better than most of the finished songs and should of been given more focus, but instead Jay goes down the safe route once again as with most of the album. Soon you find out that the most stand-out tracks on Holy Grail are where hooks/choruses are handled by singers — and not Jay-Z’s mindless swearing such as on ‘FUTW’. While most of the production by Timbaland and Swizz Beats is tired and second rate compared to the gems that they collaborated with Jay on before, ‘Oceans’ with its crashing cymbals and horns actually resonates really well with Frank’s sombre vocals and the same can be said with ‘Part 2 (On The Run)’ where Beyonce absolutely forces her husband into the backseat and takes over the wheel. Meanwhile ‘Nickles and Dimes’ turns up with the unexpected sampling of LA’s Gonjasufi and ends up being the most introspective track on the album. Here he addresses his critics such as Belafonte who has been displeased with Jay-Z’s “lack of social responsibility”. He disagrees with Belafonte’s statements by claiming his “presence is charity”, basically meaning his story of rags to riches is an inspiration alone and he doesn’t have to do anything else. Although gone are the days of Public Enemy and KRS-One in mainstream Hip Hop and the Jay-Z/P-Diddy generation can now boast about having privileges that Belafonte and other black activists have allowed them to enjoy, it is disappointing that this generation won’t carry on their work. If you’re gonna rap about ‘Niggas in Paris’ at least say something about the discernible racial inequality that plagues the city.
Alas who wants to hear that in a club anyway. If it has no sex appeal, controversial swear words in the title, tweet-baiting wordplay about how rich you are and relevant pop references it won’t get the YouTube views rolling in or the radio play. It’s a shame therefore that ‘Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit’ and ‘Crown’ will be the best sellers, while the former was made in “like 5 minutes”, the latter sounds like a left over from the Yeezus catalogue. Jay-Z seems to be more focused on his entrepreneurial ventures outside of music, such as becoming a sports agent, rather than creating anything substantial or inspiring. The very safe, middle-of-the-road instrumentals and same-old lyrical material means that Mr. Carter is still going through a musical dry spell. To be fair the man hasn’t got much to complain about. Friends with the president, Beyonce as a wife and being hailed as the greatest rapper by a devoted following renders the man problem free. This is probably the reason why all his material consists of bragging about his success and defending himself against American blue-bloods and conspiracy theorists. Speaking of which, I reckon these Roc-a-Fella releases are planned to be mediocre so Jay Electronica’s debut can be hailed as best album of the year…
Top 10 Jay-Z Tracks
The best of Hova from 2004 and before.
Like Illmatic and Ready to Die to it’s difficult to choose a stand out track from an album of classics. But if you ever find yourself puffing on a cuban while waiting for your cristal to cool…