Sound — 8
Jay-Z has a pretty crazy history that leads up to his modern day domination of mainstream rap. He is at least authentic in growing up in a rough neighborhood and doing the legwork to earn his place in rap. He worked hard including rap battles with his contemporaries, working with other rappers in the late '80s and early '90s trying to get established, selling his CDs out of his car and finally having huge commercial success after coming to a distribution deal for his first album, "Reasonable Doubt." He has gone on to have released a total of 12 studio albums and 5 collaboration albums over the course of his career. He has maintained the forethought to diversify as a businessman and multiply his earnings and is currently one of the wealthiest living rappers with a value somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 million dollars. "Magna Carta... Holy Grail" is Jay-Z's 12th solo studio album and has 16 tracks with a total runtime of just under a full hour. There are various guest vocal appearances including his wife, Beyonc, as well as Rick Ross, Frank Ocean, Justin Timberlake, and others. Numerous producers were used as well, including Timbaland, J-Roc, Boi 1da, Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz, WondaGurl and many others. Notably, this is the debut of WondaGurl, who is a 16 year old Canadian girl who was discovered by Boi 1da. The album's greatest strength is the diversity of subject matter and beats, so when a track comes on that you aren't necessarily digging if you give it a minute something different will come on. The album opens with the track "Holy Grail," which is sung by Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z coming in to rap the verses. I've had a hard time coming to terms with his use of lyrics from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on this track. The next track, "Picasso Baby" starts out with a really nice bass line and is a slow-burn type of track and one of the slower tempos on the album. The third track, "Tom Ford," has an interesting groove with an Atari-like synth coming in to complete the groove. The fifth track, "Oceans," includes Frank Ocean on guest vocals and has some of the deepest lyrics. The track "Crown" uses a beat created by the 16 year old WondaGurl, and is a pretty interesting track. The album closes out with a track called "Nickels and Dimes" which contemplates the implications of success and philanthropy.
Lyrics — 7
Jay-Z did a great job with picking most of his collaborators on this album. While I'm not 100% behind anything that involves Justin Timberlake, the use of Frank Ocean, Rick Ross and Beyonc is well-placed. Jay-Z's voice has aged well and he still has the strength behind his voice to deliver the aggression that he needs to deliver. So, let's get on to some of these lyrics. Jay-Z is undeniably a talented wordsmith, but there are occasions on the album that I find myself raising an eyebrow. As an example, from the track "Oceans" (featuring Frank Ocean): "See me in sh-t you never saw/ If it wasn't for these pictures they wouldn't see me at all/ Aww, whole world in awe/ I crash through glass ceilings, I break through closed doors/ I'm on the ocean, I'm in heaven/ Yachting, Ocean 11." The "Ocean 11" reference was a little off, to me. Then you have a lot of references to rock song lyrics, like the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" fiasco mentioned above. There is also an R.E.M. "Losing My Religion" reference on the track "Heaven": "Have you ever been to heaven? Have you ever seen the gates? / Have you bow down to your highness? And do you know how heaven taste? / Lie me down/ That's me in the corner/ That's me in the spotlight/ Losing my religion." Mostly the lyrics are okay, and at times really clever little turns of phrase pop up, so I cant really complain here. Jay-Z is a professional at what he does.
Overall Impression — 8
The strong point on this album is some really good beats that is the one thing that stays strong from beginning to end. The lyrics are kind of hit or miss, but they are at least more hit than miss. The collaborators on the album were well chosen for the tracks they are involved with. My favorite beats on the album would have to come from "Crown," "Picasso Baby," and "Somewhere in America." "Somewhere in America" would have to be my overall favorite from the album because it has a whimsical twist to it, and who can resist Jay-Z chanting "twerk, Miley, twerk" while he's trying not to crack up. I don't really have a least favorite track from the album the songs are really all fairly solid with the exception of a few week vocal lines. As far as mainstream hip-hop goes, Jay-Z is king of the hill.