This is the first album review using my new Hip Hop Evaluation System (HHES), Jay-Z's "Magna Carta...Holy Grail."
The first song on the album, "Holy Grail," is probably the best overall track. It starts off with Justin Timberlake at his best. The lyrics on the song seem to be examining the rigors of success, family and the challenges of fame. Not the most profound song ever, but pretty good. And the Nirvana reference is pretty awesome.
The next track, "Picasso Baby," is maybe the best stuff, lyrically speaking, that Jay has ever written. It seems a bit more complex that his usual work and the thickness of the art-related references is kind of mind-boggling coming from a popular rapper. You'd expect this type of stuff from a underground rapper, but this is the King.
And then he follows it up with a fashion mogul check on "Tom Ford," that is good enough lyrically, but has an amazing backing track that sounds damn near Nintendocore. Yeah, a Jay-Z song about fashion set over a Nintendo beat. That happened.
The album was going so good and along comes Rick Ross to fuck it up on "FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt." The song isn't terrible, but the performance by Ross wastes what is a pretty good backing track and makes Jay-Z's verse a bit worse because he adopts Ross's lazy style for part of his verse. He ramps it up after that, but closes out with the same kind of lazy shit Ross brings.
On "Oceans," Frank Ocean helps bring it back to the good shit. So far this is the deepest song on the album, once again with great production and a very good hook from Ocean. The song touches on the journey from slavery to rich black men riding luxury boats on the same oceans that the slaves traveled in slave ships. And it does it in a way that isn't preachy or disrespectful of the topic the way that LL Cool J's recent "Accidental Racist" fiasco was.
The next three tracks, "FUTW," "Somewhereinamerica," and "Crown" are pretty standard Jay-Z album tracks. Which is to say that they aren't spectacular and they pretty much say the same things he's already said a bunch of times. The production is pretty good, but not as good as the earlier tracks.
"Heaven" steps things up quite a bit. The production isn't the greatest thing ever, but is a step up over the last three tracks. But the lyrics are pretty heady stuff for someone in Jay's position. From dropping R.E.M. lines to telling listeners to question religion, existence and pretty much everything else is pretty impressive for a popular musician. This is doubly emphasized by a Timberlake hook. when Jay-Z and JT are telling you to step up your critical thinking, something good is happening.
Too bad "Versus" is only 52 seconds long. It may be the best 52 seconds of the album. It sounds amazing and the lyrics are pretty hard-hitting. They're typical rap boasts, but very good typical rap boasts.
At times I really like what Beyonce brings to a song. "Part II (On the Run)" is not one of those times. Jay's raps here are pretty good, better than on many of the other songs on the second half of the album, but they are interrupted by weak Beyonce performances.
"Beach Is Better" is probably only worth its 56 seconds. It's not bad, but it seems like an undeveloped idea and probably could've been left off the album.
Next up is "BBC" and in his verse, Nas has the verse of the album. He brings it as strong as he's ever brought it and just a few minutes after listening to Rick Ross, I can't see how Ross even calls himself a rapper when people like Nas bring it. Jay seems to work with the level of the guests on whichever track he's on. Ross brought him down, where Nas brings him up. This has probably the best hook outside of the first track and definitely has the best production of the album. If this song isn't a big hit, there's a problem with how we choose hits in this country.
The next three tracks are mostly filler. "Jay Z Blue" probably means a lot to Jay and Beyonce, but doesn't grab me like it should. "La Familia" is a tried-and-true, but played out hip hop topic song. "Nickels and Dimes" is most notable for a pretty strong beef with Harry Belafonte that is entertaining and a few other references that are entertaining. None of these are terrible, but they don't carry much weight, despite good production.
Flow: 9 Jay is one of the best (if not most technically competent) of the popular rappers and this is one of his better albums in terms of consistent flow.
Lyrics: 8 Creative and original for Jay-Z, but at times they seem to go off the rails or get a bit repetitive.
Message: 7 The album starts off with really good songs with strong messages, but comes and goes a bit after that.
Technical: 6 Jay doesn't do the most technically difficult raps, but he does do some creative things from time to time on this album, although there isn't anything here that other above average rappers couldn't do pretty easily.
Production: 8 Probably the best production Jay has had in a while, particularly on the stronger first half of the album.
Versatility: 5 Jay isn't known for his versatility and he doesn't attempt to stretch beyond his normal vocals here, although what he does is far from terrible.
Collaborators: 7 This is mostly a Jay-Z album and the collaborators aren't that vocally present except in a few songs. Rick Ross and Beyonce are bad, but Frank Ocean, Nas, and the guest producers add a lot to the album.
History: 8 Jay knows his hip hop history and lets that come through in quite a few places. In several songs he takes on broader history, particularly on "Oceans," and does it well, if not often enough.
References: 8 Some great references on some of the songs, particularly the first few songs, but a lot of bland or repetitive references come in later that drag it down a bit.
Originality: 7 Most original album that Jay has done I think, which is to say that it isn't groundbreaking, but it's different than most of what you hear on the radio.
Total Score: 73, which means it's a quality album, but not quite a masterpiece. The album starts off really strong with 4 of the first 5 songs being great before hitting a lull in the middle that it only sometimes recovers from.