Earlier this weekend, a couple of my friends and I were driving back to Norman from a great restaurant in Oklahoma City discussing Nas and Jay-Z*. I mentioned that The Blueprint was better than Illmatic, and my friends scoffed. Then I turned on “Takeover”, and we marveled at the best dis track ever. After that, there wasn’t any doubt in the car which rapper was better. Thirteen years later, The Blueprint is still one of the best albums of all time, and Jay has made at least three other classic albums, not to mention his monster collaboration with Kanye that took over the world. He’s more than deserving of the title Best Rapper Alive**.
Then how do we explain Magna Carta… Holy Grail? I’m at a loss. There are some truly terrible songs on this record (“Tom Ford”, “F*ckwithmeyouknowigotit”) and then some songs that don’t achieve horribility or greatness but sit in that middle of the road area that any artist should abhor (“Holy Grail”, “Oceans”). There are no great songs- NONE. At least The Blueprint 3 had “Run This Town” and “Empire State of Mind”. Jay-Z squanders some great vocal samples from JT, Frank Ocean, and Mrs. Carter herself, while delivering verse after verse of uninspired lyrics and plodding vocal performances. Not one chorus has the punch of a hit; even if Jay-Z isn’t going to make the song of the year again, couldn’t he at least have given us a catchy hook? The Best Rapper Alive has made one of the most boring and disappointing rap albums in recent memory.
Even when he’s boring though, Jay still manages to be interesting. What’s particularly interesting is how Jay-Z and his former protégé, now bestie-for-life, Kanye have made two polar opposite albums. Whereas Kanye could never be content with anything less than pushing the limits of style and substance alike, Jay-Z seems like he’s happy to stay in the lines. Yeezus sounds like a new landscape; MCHG sounds like Jay-Z took a bunch of different sounds that other people already tried, appropriated them for his own songs, and stamped “CUTTING EDGE” on them. He even hijacks several classic lyrics, but doesn’t earn their significance by surrounding them with worthy themes of his own.
His best rapping performance (other than “Somewhereinamerica”, which is sadly the most fun song on the album) comes on “Heaven” where he finally demonstrates some of that vocal play he used to be so good at. Unfortunately, the sample on that song is pretty boring and uninspired. Jay finally gets it right, only for his producer to fall flat on his face. Hov also reaches for some higher themes on “Heaven” that almost resonate before he uses “Losing My Religion” as a crutch. Another song that gets close is “Jay Z Blue”; Hov raps about his dad and his desire to rise above that man’s mistakes when raising his daughter, Blue. It’s certainly an effective song, but the samples feel a bit off (like most of the album), and it’s admittedly hard to get behind a loving father theme when the guy rapping still uses the word “bitch” on his records.
I’m not saying it’s a bad album, but it might be. I honestly can’t get past the fact that it’s JAY-Z; I’m not sure I can really call anything he does a bad album. It just feels wrong, perhaps because everything he does is inherently interesting. A lot of these songs capture my interest, because I’m interested in Jay-Z as a person, but none of them excite me. Some are saying this is a transition away from the pop sound Hov has recently leaned on towards something more experimental and legitimately cutting edge. That could be nice. But MCHG honestly makes me think I’d just settle for another Blueprint 3.
*I’m not dropping the hyphen. Sue me, Jay.
**But really, we all know Kanye’s better now.