Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail is a game-changing album in many ways. The unorthodox partnership between him and Samsung, the exclusive early launch of the album through a smartphone app, the unveiling of the album art next to the actual Magna Carta, and the three-minute teaser that came out of nowhere during the NBA Finals to announce the whole thing were all unprecedented moves in hip-hop, and even the music industry as a whole. These huge moves set new rules (or as Jay tweeted, #newrules) for the industry, and further cemented the fact that Jay-Z isn’t just a businessman, he’s a business, maaaaan.
However, Jay’s progressive business ventures aren’t the only aspects of MCHG that are unprecedented. He’s also the first rapper to put out a culturally relevant release while in his forties. While Nas’ excellent 2012 release Life Is Good may have provided a good framework for the type of album to expect from an illustrious rap veteran nearly two decades into his career, and possibly influenced MCHG in a similar way that Nas’ legendary debut (and my personal favorite album of all-time) Illmatic influenced Hov’s also-legendary debut album Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z is presently much more entrenched in the pop-culture spotlight, and therefore has to cater not only to the devout hip-hop heads but the broader commercial landscape as well. Jay-Z is obviously one of the best rappers ever, but with such uncertainty over how well he would navigate these uncharted waters, I was a bit nervous about how good this album was really going to be.
The realization that Timbaland was going to be the primary producer of the album didn’t do much to settle my nerves down. Timbo’s done some outstanding work, recently rejuvenating his career as a hitmaker by producing all of Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, but the last time he worked with Hov was on The Blueprint 3, and we all know how poorly that turned out (in case you forgot, here’s a “Reminder”). And the sight of Swizz Beatz’ gigantic schnozz in the teasers was horrifying, as Swizz and Timbaland are notorious for ruining tracks by unnecessarily ad-libbing all over them. But luckily the production on this album was mostly superb, as good Timbo showed up, the other producers (including Pharrell, Mike WiLL Made It, and Hit-Boy) made solid contributions, and Swizz Beatz thankfully only yelled on one track.
Most importantly, Jay-Z came through on MCHG. This album is arguably the best work Jay’s put out since The Black Album a decade ago. Jay-Z will always be the master of flow, and lyrically he’s still one of the best doing it, pardon a few clunky punchlines and the dumbed-down club banger “Tom Ford”. Hov did a great job articulating his high-society status (“Picasso Baby”), his never-ceasing hunger for more (“F.U.T.W”), and even his thoughts on being a new father (“Jay-Z Blue”) without abandoning his roots or seeming out-of-touch with the times.
The world has not yet passed Jay-Z by. MCHG may not be on the same level as his classics like Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, and The Black Album, but Hov is still at the peak of the hip-hop mountain, still selling platinum albums, and still has the hottest chick in the game wearing his chain (and now a wedding ring). Plus he’s still hustling, recently selling his stake in the Brooklyn Nets, which he helped immensely in their rebranding and their move to Jay’s hometown, to become an agent and run Roc Nation Sports, which has already attracted stars such as Kevin Durant and Robinson Cano. On “Picasso Baby”, Jay-Z proclaims that he wants a billion dollars, and follows it up in the next verse with, “F— it, I want a trillion.” On “F.U.T.W.” Jay says that, “America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes,” but he refuses to be marginalized like the black pioneers before him, instead asserting that he’s going to keep “basking on top.” He’s not stopping anytime soon.
At this point in his career, Jay-Z will have to keep going at his best to keep time from overtaking him. It may already be impossible for him to top The Black Album or The Blueprint or Reasonable Doubt at his age, but he’s committed to growing his empire, and he’s certainly going stay on the grind. We don’t know what Hov will do next, but we do know that somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerking, and Jay-Z is already planning his next big move.
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