In 2003, Brooklyn-rapper-turned-international-icon Jay-Z dropped one of his greatest works and what was then billed as his final album, The Black Album.
A full decade later, the hip-hop mogul offers fans his self-proclaimed “magnum opus,” his 12th solo studio album, Magna Carta…Holy Grail.
On his most recent album, there are two conflicting images of Jay-Z: The pompous and flamboyant rap superstar and the sincere artist who is conscious of his own faults and aware of the negativity that fame and fortune attracts.
On one hand, the 43-year-old’s latest album plays out like an aural trophy case; Mr. Carter vainly pointing out his prized achievements and expounding, quite often and in great detail, why he’s music’s créme de la créme.
Highbrow references and elite production are in abundance
On track eight, aptly titled “Crown,” Hov illustrates his importance to the hip-hop genre and rise to prominence by rapping:
“You in the presence of a king, scratch that, you in the presence of a God / put in the belly of the beast, I escaped, a ni**a never had a job.”
MCHG offers up a lot of familiarity to fans: Highbrow references, elite production and reflective ‘started-from-the-bottom-now-we’re-here bars’ that listeners have grown accustomed to hearing for decades.
On most of the album, he’s rhyming not just confidently, but arrogantly, about everything from becoming a legitimate force in the sports world (“Crown”) to labeling himself rap’s savior (“Heaven”) to owning high-end, designer clothes (“Tom Ford”) and becoming “new money” (“Somewhere in America”).
And while more than a substantial amount of this album is bombastic, there are moments, layered underneath the seemingly-infinite amount of braggadocio, where Jay-Z offers listeners handfuls of substance.
Jay-Z raps as father, husband and businessman
On the Justin Timberlake-featured opener, “Holy Grail,” which pays lyrical homage to Nirvana’s anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the two stars discuss the beauty and ugliness of fame while the outro, “Nickels and Dimes,” sees the rapper pondering his genuineness when assisting those looking for handouts because of said celebrity.
“Oceans” sees Jay and guest vocalist Frank Ocean expressing their disdain for multiple water-related events in American history, including the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.
In other places, MCHG shows Jay-Z acknowledging his dual role as father and husband.
On “Jay-Z Blue” the rapper details the difficulties of being a dad while also juggling a top-tier rap career and multiple business ventures, and “La Famila” sees Mr. Carter defending his better half by responding to a Lil’ Wayne line where the New Orleans emcee subliminally implied that he’d kidnap Beyoncé and hold her for ransom.
“Ni**s wanna kidnap wifey, good luck with that bruh / you must gon’ hide ya whole family, what you think we wearing black for?”
In a genre that was built on the belief that being authentic is always the best practice, it’s interesting to see how many music critics and fans alike toss criticism at Jay-Z for rapping about his real-life exploits.
Yes, a large portion of the album’s subject matter is over the top, but isn’t Jay-Z’s life? Does that make the music any less enjoyable?
Grown man thoughts
Songs like the gritty, Boi-1da-produced “F**kwithmeyouknowigotit,” featuring a spotlight-stealing performance from Rick Ross, and the Robin Thicke “Blurred Lines”-esque posse cut “BBC,” featuring Nas, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell, Timbaland, Beyoncé and Timberlake are both instantly infectious.
Jay also collaborates with his wife on MCHG standout “Part II (On the Run),” a slow, melodic rap ballad that gives the album a refreshing change of pace while offering a rare, heartwarming moment that shows the couple’s personal life spilling over into their art.
Ignoring the flashiness and magnificence of the MCHG rollout is mission impossible: The partnership with Samsung for an insanely short (three weeks), yet grand album promo run, commercials during NBA Finals games, unveiling of the album cover next to one of four remaining original Magna Carta documents, which the album was named after, and selling a million copies prior to its Independence Day release to Samsung owners.
And like his good friend Kanye West did with his most recent album, Yeezus, Jay-Z made a statement, deliberately or not, that his name alone was enough to build hype for an album.
Still, despite the grandiose presentation and nontraditional delivery of the album, MCHG is a quality Jay-Z release that falls in line with his above-average track record.
While it’s not Reasonable Doubt or The Blueprint, and probably not even the best rap release of the year, MCHG is definitely proof that Mr. Carter still has something to offer in the realm of hip-hop, and music as a whole.
Brandon Neasman is a freelance writer who has penned articles for both national and regional publications, including usweekly.com and the Hard Rock Hotel’s Las Vegas magazine. A graduate from Florida A&M University, Brandon is an editor at mostlyjunkfood.com and a graphic designer for the Gannett Company, Inc. You can follow him on Twitter at @Bnease.