Listening to Jay Z’s seminal 2001 album, The Blueprint, didn’t all of a sudden make me a hip hop fiend. But it did make me finally kind of understand the rise of Jay Z over the last 20 odd years. From drug dealer, the rap superstar, to pop culture trend setter, to corporate success, to what I assume will eventually be the unchallenged overlord of the entire planet Earth. I liked it enough that I’ve listened to it a couple more times since. And more than that, I respect his career a whole lot now.
But that shouldn’t be a surprise since The Blueprint is such a well regarded classic. So where was Hove (yep, I’m so down with him now, I’ll drop his nick name) more than a decade later with last year’s humbly titled Magna Cart… Holy Grail?
With a lot more Justin Timberlake crooning than Jay Z rapping, I could have done with the ratio being reversed on Holy Grail. Question: Is it a legal requirement that every single hip hop album opens with a song declaring that artist is back and that anyone who doubted they would be, can basically shove it up their ass?
With its dirty bass and rough drums, Picasso Baby is the most experimental song I’ve heard in my very limited experience with Jay Z, and it’s pretty cool. Its weird change in direction in the last third just makes it even more interesting. The experimentation continues on Tom Ford. And while it’s definitely as interesting as Picasso Baby, I can’t say it’s as good. Its herky jerky beats and 8 bit computer game blips never quite build any momentum.
But the first real disappointment on Magna Carta comes with Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit,a song that’s as lazily slapped together and tossed off as its corny name. F.U.T.W might not the first brag fest dressed up as a song on this album, but it could be the most blatant. I get it Jay Z, you used to not have much, now you have lots. Move on. What did surprise is that I didn’t expect a reference to the character Brody from the TV show Homeland. It’s funny imagining Jay Z and Beyonce just hanging out on the couch, catching up on the latest episode of Homeland on the DVR, after avoiding spoilers all week. Later references to R.E.M and Stanley Kubrick are even more perplexing.
When I wrote about The Blueprint, I said it, “comes off as amazingly insecure. Not in execution, that’s immaculate and shows why Jay Z is such an admire practitioner of what he does. It’s just so insecure in lyrically and thematically”. Well, after another decade of ever growing success, that insecurity is still there on Magna Carta, and most present on Heaven. Dude, you’ve made it and you’re pretty good at what you do, you don’t have to keep telling us that. Just in case we don’t get it though, he backs it up again immediately with Versus. Andhe could have left Mrs Z on the couch watching Homeland instead of dragging Beyonce out for lazy and boring Part II (On the Run).
From Versus through to Beach is Better, it’s a pretty inessential trio that sounds like filler. And when you’re crowding your album with 18 tracks, inessential filler is even more annoying than usual. The only upside to those three clunkers is that they made me really appreciate the weirdness of BBC. It might be awkward, and I’m not sure if I actually like it or not, but at least it’s not Versus, Heaven or Part II.
While The Blueprint was built on a solid foundation of vintage samples, there’s a lot more custom made electronica on Magna Carta… Holy Grail. And while the musical approaches are far from similar, the unifying nature of Jay Z makes them both undeniably Jay Z records. It also means I really like them both, just for different reasons. If I had to choose, The Blueprint will probably prove more re-listenable to me, but Magna Carta is still more than worth a spin.