A title like Watch The Throne was basically a millennial take on 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me concept. Both suggest that when these men speak, people drop everything and listen. This was true in 2Pac’s era, and it has most certainly been proven true over the last few weeks for Jay-Z and Kanye West. The spiritual siblings abruptly announced new solo albums, releasing them with no singles, videos, or other conventional forms of promotion.
These are the “Hashtag-New-Rules” that Jay-Z teased, by instead taking a never-seen-before, unconventional route. That is, finishing the album, announcing it via TV spots during the NBA Finals, and then distributing it for free via a Samsung smartphone ap on the 4th of July. This, coupled with Kanye’s coverless, experimental “fuck you” LP, Yeezus, which only was previewed through an SNL performance and by projecting the songs on sides of buildings in several major metropolitan cities. Yeah, streets is watching the throne.
However these bold, outlandish 48 laws of power moves set the bar extremely high, as if it weren’t already in the stratosphere via both artists’ catalog of classics. Treating these albums as an event; much different than the way their peers just sort of annually throw things out, make these the summer blockbusters of rap music, which like say, Man Of Steel, can leave audiences divided.
The sound of Magna Carta Holy Grail is laid back and subdued. It’s a true blue rap record, unlike Kanye’s Yeezus, and almost a realized, real life sequel to Reasonable Doubt; one where he is living the dream that he fantasized about on his debut. Largely produced by Timbaland – alongside Swizz Beats, Pharrell, and overseer Rick Rubin – this is Jay at his highest point: rich beyond belief, status in the stratosphere, and the hottest chick in the game carrying his last name.
Themes of wealth and fame are explored at length, as the album kicks off with “Holy Grail” with Justin Timberlake, perhaps the album’s most fully realized tune, and a fine start to the LP. He doesn’t shy away for his love for material things as both “Picasso Baby” and “Tom Ford”, name dropping some items you might find around his house, ironically doing so over raw hip-hop production. Hardly the kind of stuff you’d hear while shopping The Forum at Caesar’s.
The album’s laid back pace both helps and hinders Magna Carta Holy Grail. He never seems to go for an celebratory club banger like “Big Pimpin’” or “N****s In Paris”, nor does he go for arena anthems like “Empire State Of Mind” or “PSA”. That being said, given his catalog of hits, upon first listen, you are almost looking for that one track that stands out among the rest. But it’s not here, as the album is seemingly meant to be taken as a whole.
Once you’ve figured that out, the album can be enjoyed, despite it’s strange pacing and arrangement. There are great cuts on here like “Beach Is Better” and “Versus”, both which clock in at under one minute each, unfortuantely cutting off just as you are getting into them. The same can be said for “Somewhereinamerica”, which sounds like something DJ Premier produced for Jeru in 1994, if Dr. Dre remixed it in 2001. The beat is so dope, you forgive it for only being 2 minutes and 30 seconds, and for the inexplicable Miley Cyrus lyrical validation stamp.
But when the album does go for the heavier material, it really does deliver. “Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit” is light on subject matter, but beefy in production, as Rick Ross backs up Jay with an addictive hook, preceded by words from the ghost of Pimp C. Later on “Heaven”, Jay silences all theories of devil worshipping and illuminati conspiracies, by simply renouncing any kind of religion completely, and doing so in prime lyrical form. “Oceans” also deals with some heavier handed subject matter, as Frank delivers a chilling, brilliant hook that compares the yacht to the slave ship, ever so poetically.
“I see elephant tusk on the bow of a sailing lady / Docked on the Ivory Coast / Mercedes in a row winding down the road / I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo / Before the Basquiat show and if so / Well fuck it, fuck it / Because this water drown my family / This water mixed my blood / This water tells my story This water knows it all.”
Yeah, “Oceans” is deep.
And so is “Jay-Z Blue”, where he explores fatherhood, wanting to be a better man than his own dad, who abandoned him at a young age. Even his most commercially viable track, “Part 2 (On The Run)” – an obvious sequel to “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” – is a much heavier ballad than its predecessor. Clocking in at five and half minutes, it plays more like something you’d hear in the closing credits of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice 2, than in rotation on local your pop station.
With a few cuts that could have been left on the studio floor, such as the disappointing “BBC” with Nas and Pharrell, Magna Carta Holy Grail plays solidly throughout, despite it’s awkward pacing. This is more of a late night drive home record, than a prime-time-at-the-club LP, and that is when it will likely be most appreciated by its audience. It’s a slow burner, one that grows on the listener with repeated listens, which is why it may also be overlooked or glossed over by a large percentage of the audience.
Over the years, Jay has rewritten the rules of rap, in both a musical and a business sense. Today’s “new rules” are simply what he referred to yesterday as The Blueprint. However he will forever be held to the standard of that album, The Black Album, Vol. 3: The Hard Knock Life, Reasonable Doubt, and so on. While this is one of his boldest LP’s – for many reasons – it’s also a bit underwhelming at times, despite however solid it may be.
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