Trapped In The 90’s: Hip Hop’s Obsession With The Past

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Earlier this year, Spin Magazine released a landmark issue celebrating their 30 year anniversary. It was a list that counted down the 300 best albums from 1985-2014 — all 30 years of the magazine’s existence. Lists of this magnitude aren’t fun for the strict ranking; they’re fun for the dialogue they start, a chance to process history while it’s happening or revaluate more established classics. These big catchall lists are more amusing than provocative. The big guns one would expect all hang around the top ten. Nirvana, The Smiths, Radiohead, and Daft Punk all get to share the glory. But underneath this ranking is lurks something more interesting. There are 55 hip hop albums on this list, and given that the first iconic rap LP’s occurred near the ’84-’85 period, those 55 albums rank as a list of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. It’s interesting to see on its own. Here’s the top 10 (with their ranking in the original list as well).

  1. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Wu-Tang Clan (1993) [2]
  2. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West (2010) [8]
  3. The Blueprint – Jay-Z (2001) [13]
  4. Fear Of A Black Planet – Public Enemy (1990) [15]
  5. Paul’s Boutique – Beastie Boys (1989) [17]
  6. Aquemini – Outkast (1998) [21]
  7. Illmatic – Nas (1994) 23]
  8. Ready To Die – The Notorious B.I.G. (1994) [27]
  9. The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest (1991) [32]
  10. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – Public Enemy (1988) [36]

As a list on it’s own, those ten albums are about as good as you can get in the genre, but looking through the whole list reveals some interesting things about how we process Hip Hop history.

  • Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is absolutely the greatest album of all time. As I’ve written before, there’s no other album that can create an entire universe for a listener to fall into. Rap was never the same after it.
  • Spin don’t got no love for the west coast? Well let it be known then!  Only six albums from L.A. crack the top 50 and they’re all legends: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, N.W.A., 2Pac. Kendrick’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City is apparently the greatest L.A. album ever, ranking in at 12th. There’s nothing from the Bay Area.
  • The golden age is over. Usually these lists are the type that idolize the first golden age of rap (1988) or that glorious ’93-’96 period, but albums from all over the hip hop timeline populate the list. No one doubts how good Kanye’s MBDTF is, but I never thought I’d see the day where it was the second greatest album ever.

No list is perfect, and this one is certainly flawed. It’s fun to see the whole of hip hop history be grappled with because there’s a big divide between classic and current rap music. Every new generation of every genre has to hear their elders complain about how much better music was back in the good old days, but given the speed of change in rap music, the generation gap is particularly acute.

Hip hop is a dynamic, evolving genre. It’s the sound of ebb and flow, volcanic tensions constantly dissolving into one another. One of my favorite dichotomies is the fight between past and present. Rap is inherently youthful, resting on the shoulders of young teenagers who vividly reimagine their world every couple of years. But it’s also music as archeology; the genre was literally born by repurposing the records that came before it. An artist can say more with with how they place a sample or a lyrical reference than with an actual bar of their own.

That tension manifests itself outside of the actual music. When Time Magazine ran an article and interview with Vince Staples where he claimed that the ’90s got too much credit in rap, the internet blew up. Old heads came at him saying that he was the problem in Hip Hop and he had no respect for the genre. The outrage even culminated in a war of words between Vince Staples and 90’s rapper Noreaga (aka N.O.R.E), the exact type of New York brass knuckles lyricist that’s been swept away by contemporary tastes. The irony is that Staples clearly has a ton of respect for hip hop, knows all of the classics, and can absolutely rap his ass off. The only L.A. rapper on the 2014 All-Star Rap Squad, Staples rewarded my trust in him with one of the seminal albums of the year, Summertime ’06.

Vince Staples doesn’t deserve all of the flack he’s received, but there’s a reasonable frustration from the older hip hop heads. In every other genre, the great records of the past have been able to institutionally enter the classic canon. Whether through enshrinement in a hall of fame or a countdown on VH1 or a list in Rolling Stone, rock and roll found a way to embed itself into the cultural consciousness. The fact that hip hop has made it so far into popular culture without acceptance by any of these gatekeepers is impressive on it’s own, but it’s also had a terrible side effect. The music business continually treats rap music as a continual fad, so only the young guns are given commercial opportunities. Old rappers don’t get radio play or label support. It’s one thing for new rappers to rebel against the old generation, it’s another thing entirely to grow up without knowing who they are.

Pitting past against present is a false binary. These rappers exist in completely different contexts. There’s only a handful of rappers working today that wouldn’t be laughed off of a stage in the 90’s; conversely there’s only a handful of rappers from the 90’s who would even get a record deal today. It’s crazy to fault a genre this propulsive for changing every year. It’s absurd that rap doesn’t have its own hall of fame and golden oldies stations (although we’re trying–word to KDAY). But that’s why these lists like SPIN made are fun. We get to span eras and see how the genre has evolved. Vince Staples might not sound like a 90’s rappers, but like many of his peers, his music is grappling with the ghosts of rappers past. The old king is dead, long live the new king. Here’s to the next 30 years being just as revolutionary.

Macklemore’s Burden: A Few Thoughts On His Heist At The Grammys

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tv show gifsI know Taylor Swift, I know

The Grammys have never gotten it right.  Since the beginning, it’s missed the boat on every exciting musical trend.  Frank Sinatra won Album Of The Year during the summer of love, the soundtracks of Grease and Star Wars were nominated over signature punk albums in the late 70’s, and the golden age of hip hop was completely ignored.  The Grammy’s aren’t about rewarding the year’s best music, but about opening the doors of the industry and accepting the new flock into the fold.  So when talking about the history of terrible winners for Hip Hop album of the year, the forest is being missed for the trees.  The nominations are never even close to being correct.  Hell, this year most of the hip hop awards weren’t even televised!  Think about the lack of respect there.  The hip hop album of the year category was the only one where all the nominees had gone platinum, including best album; Macklemore, Kendrick, Jay-Z, Kanye, and Drake.  Yet they didn’t even televise it.  The biggest night in music is certainly not the most important, or at all significant.  It stings this year because hip hop has clearly become the most progressive and critically appreciated genre and found no love.  But the Grammy’s have always been off base and always will be.

Macklemore’s rise to success is problematic for a number of reasons that have been elaborated in several think pieces following his big wins at the Grammy’s.  There are great pieces in the New York Times and Spin Magazine worth reading.  It’s pretty gross seeing a white rapper instantly become a superstar because he’s a conscious voice in the genre, as if there aren’t decades of political, conscious, independent rap that have gone completely unnoticed by the masses.  It’s more nauseating knowing that he jump started his fame thanks to a novelty hit that racked up millions of views on youtube, which thanks to Billboard now counts in tallying up the Pop charts. Seeing “Thrift Shop” turn into a major hit was like watching Rebecca Black’s “Friday” or any other goofy youtube phenomenon turn into a hit song. The Heist is a very boring album. Ryan Lewis deserves most of the credit for it’s success, padding it with stadium filling, electro tinged beats that aim for self importance but land perfectly on the radio.  Macklemore is a decent enough rapper, but his double time flow he steps into constantly and his pauses in the middle of his bars put him in the same category as club rappers like Pitbull, Flo Rida, and (maybe) Ace Hood, not the conscious heroes he looks up to.    He’s managed to inherit all the lousy qualities from guys like Talib Kweli (who is opening on tour for him) like awkward stuffed sentences and eye rolling superiority, without any of the hyper lyricality.

I think there a couple things that most of the critics are missing about the Macklemania and why he’s so popular.  First is his voice.  It sounds absurdly white, much more so than other white rappers like Action Bronson, Yelawolf, Evidence, Alchemist, or anyone else.  Most of these rappers take some kind of vocal tone or presentation to avoid sounding so white, but here Macklemore is sounding like a cold ass honky.  For suburbanites, the white voice is easier to understand.  There’s a familiar nasal quality, and it’s one of the reasons Eminem became so popular.  People think he can rap better because they can easily understand all the things he is saying, even in the double time flow.  Combine that with Macklemore’s penchant for using very deep singers (Ray Dalton on “Can’t Hold Us,” Wanz on “Thrift Shop,” the fantastic Allen Stone on “Neon Cathedral”) for his choruses to create the faux-soul vibe tinging the whole project and it’s an instant hit.  But that’s an aesthetic choice that isn’t necessarily problematic.  The real issue (that I see) isn’t his conscious platitudes, but what problems he chooses to confront.  And they’re all very middle class social issues: materialism, artistic integrity, same sex marriage.  It’s horrifying to see America hold him up as a champion of social justice because “finally someone in Hip Hop is acknowledging these things” when no one cares about the problems rap regularly talks about, like inner city violence, drug abuse, poverty etc etc.  The Heist throws hip hop under a bus. He mocks it on “Wing$,” where he confesses that he loves Nike’s too but man they’re just shoes and why are young kids killing themselves over them.  He burns it on “Same Love” where he actually says “if I was gay, Hip Hop would hate me.” Oversimplifying issues in rap music in order to make your case is stuff that unaware 1% congressman do, not Grammy winners within the whole genre.  The song that sums up everything that’s wrong with The Heist and Macklemore in general is “A Wake.”  The song laments all the tragedy in the world, and then something interesting happens in the second verse.  He worries about his position to speak on all these problems.  “Don’t wanna be that white dude million man marching, fighting for a freedom that my people stole.”  In a noble attempt to grapple with being a white rapper, he ends up sounding sanctimonious and turning his own white privilege into a victimized position.  Maybe he really doesn’t understand how condescending it sounds when he says “I’m not more or less conscious than rappers rappin’ ’bout them strippers up on the pole, popping. These interviews are obnoxious, saying that ‘it’s poetry, you’re so well spoken’, stop it,” just like he doesn’t understand how texting Kendrick he should have won for best Rap album (but not artist or album of the year) is pandering as well.  His impressive humble brag does a great job of reinforcing the distinction between the two styles while looking like he’s being supportive.  And it’s cultural carpetbagging at its finest when he jacks the chopped and screwed style on the very next song “Gold”, which of course is intrinsically paired with the type of rap music that he subtly dismissed.

Guys this is literally the rap version of the White Man’s Burden, where Macklemore can’t stand idly by at all the injustice in the world that he just has to do something despite his own awkward social position, and I’m a little shocked that none of the crazy liberal people at the colleges he’s appealing too haven’t picked up on this yet. Yes, misogyny and homophobia in hip hop is an issue, but it’s not nearly as simple as Macklemore would have you believe and in 2014 there are an incredible amount of ways that hip hop has for dealing with it. Great rappers take problems within the genre and use them to illuminate the systemic issues within the country at large, not pin the larger issues on the genre.  And as far as we still need to go when it comes to gay rights, it’s not ok for Macklemore to say “hip hop hates gays” when fellow nominees Jay-Z and Kendrick have come out in support for same sex marriage, Drake has challenged the entire hip hop definition of masculinity, and Kanye wears a dress.  Not to mention the incredibly vibrant scene of queer and female rappers creating interesting progressive music. I don’t want to take away from everyone who’s had a meaningful experience with “Same Love,” and it is awesome to see a pro gay rights anthem make the rounds, but it’s painful to see it come at the expense of the genre he’s using to make the statement. And when there are so many great rappers out there, challenging the norms of the genre, this kind of undercooked fodder winning awards is unacceptable. 

Drake vs. Kendrick: Battle Of The Millenials

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Exciting times everyone!  A new generation of rappers have finally grown up and supplanted the old guard as the keepers of the charts.  A new generation of fans have anointed them.  The XXL Freshmen have graduated, acclimated to the pace of the internet era, and can now stand without the cosigns of the elders.  And now we have a war for the new king.  Jay-Z has vacated his throne for his place at the auction, Eminem is too busy trying to fit as many words into a sentence as he can, and Lil Wayne got his talent stolen from the aliens from Space Jam.  Now we have two contenders for the throne, two rappers that represent different styles but are both worthy of the crown.  Kendrick Lamar and Drake are both outsiders to the game and made music that represent their unorthodox outlook.  Both are highly critical of, but still adore, the gangsta violent music they grew up with, just like Rap fans now.  Both have positioned themselves as the voice of a generation.  And now they’re in a pseudo-beef!  This might seem like an easy pick depending on what you feel.  Drake is the commercial juggernaut, Kendrick is the rapper’s rapper.  Drake writes hits, Kendrick writes bars.  The situation is more complicated than that.  Kendrick has been all over the radio lately and the days that people could say Drake can’t rap are long gone. Before we get into the debate, let’s recap how former allies have turned against each other.

A high profile beef like this, where both artists are battling on the highest stage imaginable, was impossible just five months ago.  This summer, Big Sean released the song “Control” that featured Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica.  Kendrick, already in the middle of a career year, went Super Saiyan on the track and claimed himself the reincarnation of 2Pac and the king of New York, said he was in the same conversation as the all time greats, and most importantly called out all his peers, saying “I got love for you all but I’m trying to murder you niggas, trying to make sure your core fans never heard of you niggas.”  And he NAMED NAMES, calling out J. Cole, A$AP Rocky, Meek Mill, Drake, and more.  The internet blew up, rappers took turns trying to defend their honor, and my mom thought that Kendrick was being mean.

The thing is that Kendrick is already above most of the people he mentioned.  He’s more successful commercially and critically.  The only person worth firing shots at is Drake.  And Drake didn’t like this song at all.  He dismissed the track as a gimmick, expressed offense at Kendrick’s attitude and said that he doesn’t intend on working with Kendrick anytime soon.  Plus, there were some subtle shots towards K.Dot in “The Language,” with Drake saying “fuck any nigga that’s talkin that shit just to get a reaction,” mocking Kendrick’s commercial sales and new found fame.

Then Kendrick went for the throat.  At the BET Hip Hop Awards, during the TDE cypher, Kendrick dropped one of the best verses of his career starting with “I hate y’all, I’ll do anything to replace y’all” and rapped “and nothing been the same since they dropped Control and tucked a sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes, HA HA Jokes on you, High five, I’m bulletproof.”

The internet exploded again and demanded a Drake response which we are still waiting on.  This is exciting for a number of reasons, but it’s great to see the genre’s biggest stars battle it out in the limelight.  We haven’t seen an actual rap battle between commercially viable rappers since 50 Cent ended Ja Rule’s career.  If Drake is LeBron James then that makes Kendrick Kevin Durant, the extremely gifted athlete who is done being the nice guy and is also after the throne.  Choosing five not so obvious categories, we’ll see who would win in a battle.

EXPERIENCE:

This is a big one because you have to know what you’re getting yourself into when you get into a beef.  Drake is no stranger to people throwing shots at him.  In fact, he’s based his entire career upon being a lightning rod for criticism and mockery and it seems to only make him stronger.  His biggest beef came a couple years ago, when old school rapper/gap model Common threw shots at him on “Sweet” and called him soft.  Drake responded with a verse on Rick Ross’ “Stay Schemin,” channeling vintage Jay-Z and proved himself a giant that could brush Common off his shoulder.  He starts off “It bothers me when the broads get to acting like the broads,” flips the script byu calling Common soft because he’s just after the attention, and subtly commented on sleeping with Serena Williams, who Common used to have a thing with.  It was a masterful verse which showed a dormant side of Drake, started off his epic 2012 run, and proved that he could rap with the best of them.  Kendrick hasn’t had that kind of moment simply because no one’s attacked him yet.  I mean, who would be dumb enough to do that.  The only similar beef experience was when ex Bad Boy artist Shyne called Good Kid, M.A.A.d City lousy, so Kendrick laughed it off on his victory lap loosie “The Jig Is Up.”  Drake’s proven himself worthy of handling the majors in a beef, so he gets the point here.

Drake 1 – Kendrick 0

INFLUENCE:

We can only go so long in this breakdown before pointing out an obvious fact.  Kendrick is the better rapper by a long shot.  There shouldn’t even be a competition between the two.  But this is still a close match because of the fingerprints Drake has left all over the game.  Kendrick’s influential in his own right; GKMC has spurred on other albums to deliver knockout albums and not just hit singles, and he has reignited the torch for lyricism in the genre.  But Kendrick wouldn’t even be in this position if it wasn’t for Drake.  Drizzy gave him the biggest looks of his career by putting him on his Club Paradise tour and then giving him a whole interlude on 2011’s Take Care.  Now his most popular songs have Drake all over them.  “Fuckin’ Problems” and “Poetic Justice” literally have a Drake verse on them, and lead single “Swimming Pools” is produced by T-Minus, who helped build Drake’s sound.  Even a volcanic artist like Kendrick has to fit into the framework that Drake created.

Drake 2 – Kendrick 0

TEAM:

This was a much harder category until the BET Cypher, when Black Hippy and new signee Isaiah Rashad created one of the greatest musical moments of the last 500 years.  Go watch that video again.  Kendrick steals the show but all of them come to play.  They’re hungry.  Black Hippy is the best crew by a mile and right now stand with the greatest hip hop groups of all time in terms of quality and consistency.  But the best part is how they work together and sound like an actual team, rather than just four rappers on the same track.  Drake has two crews to work with, his own OVO and Young Money.  It was a good move for Drake to distance himself from Young Money so he could grow into his own label, but OVO doesn’t have any firepower behind it other than Drake.  Young Money has talent but it’s a commercial maze, filled with successful sub par rappers and a leader who thinks that signing Paris Hilton is more important than putting out a new Mystikal tape.  There is one giant wildcard though.  If Drake decided to get Nicki Minaj, that could be doom for Kendrick.  She’s crazy and can shit on your whole life.  Kendrick isn’t nearly volatile enough to handle Nicki.  Maybe Q could but it would be very close.  Unfortunately, Drake’s not that cool with Nicki anymore as he admitted on his album, so I doubt they’d be able to bring the chemistry that Black Hippy could muster.  But be warned: Nicki Minaj is the X factor and the game changer.

 

Drake 2 – Kendrick 1

LEGACY:

Let’s not be too mean here.  Being the main man of Toronto is kind of cool.  Drake is actually pushing his whole Toronto thing, being proud of his Canadian heritage and actually making Toronto part of the Hip Hop landscape.  He’s not only helping the image but also creating a sound, so in 2013 Toronto Hip Hop is actually a thing.  That’s impressive.  That all might be enough to beat out the average rapper claiming the west coast.  But Kendrick is no average rapper.  He already is the king of LA.  He was anointed in 2011 by Snoop Dogg and The Game, signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label and made him relevant again.  He brought the whole coast back.  Nothing’s topping that unless someone was able to do that with New York (which will never happen, that city is too fractured).  Plus Kendrick is channeling 2Pac, saying that he came to him in a dream which inspired him to make 2011’s Section.80.  And he’s got the bona fides of all the old school rappers saying he’s bringing rap back.  Even if Drake does try to pull some Houston Cash Money connect, that’s not messing with Dr. Dre.

   

Drake 2 – Kendrick 2

JAY-Z FEATURE:

This is probably the most important category.  To become the new king you have to have to grab the old kings crown, either through diplomacy (having it handed to you formally) or mutiny (like when Lil Wayne bodied all of Jay-Z’s beats).  The only problem is that both Kendrick and Drake got Jay-Z “passing the torch” features.  On Kendrick’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix)” Jigga is about as close to vintage form as he’ll ever get, rhyming about how he runs through the White House in a mink coat and sits next to HIllary Clinton smelling like dank.  It’s one last hurrah for the old GOAT before Kendrick goes off and cements his place in history, taunting other rappers who emulate their idols while proving that he deserves to be in the same conversation as them at the same time.  Meanwhile, on Drake’s “Pound Cake” off Nothing Was The Same, Jay-Z says cake 17 times.  If that’s not what you want from Jay-Z right now, then I don’t know what to tell you.  In a way, Drake and Kendrick both got from Jigga what they wanted.  Kendrick got Jay-Z the rapper, and Drake got Jay-Z the icon.  And they both work.  We have to call this a tie.


Drake 3 – Kendrick 3

 And it’s a tie!  Who knows how this beef will play out or if it will even happen as Drake has yet to release a response to K.Dot’s violent comments.  But if it does, we’ll give the battle to Kendrick because he’s a better artist and rapper in every single way.  Either way, both artists are doing great right now.  Drake has started his tour, with Future and Miguel opening for him, and has positioned himself as the biggest rapper this side of Kanye.  Kendrick is actually touring with Kanye and is continuing to have a monster year, demolishing features from drug rap with Pusha T to goofy country songs with Eminem.  He is the best.  Enjoy the following videos and try to see either of them on tour if you can.

World War Jay Z

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Jay-Z has ascended all the barriers that rap stars fall into.  He hangs out with the president, performs at Carnegie Hall, and writes best selling books that legitimize the entire genre.  He’s married to the queen of pop and has sired the most important musical heir in the history of music.  He is the embodiment of the american dream, a rags to riches story set in the 21st century.  He’s not a business man, he’s a business, man.  J. Hova has evolved beyond the rap game, so why does he keep making music?  With Magna Carta Holy Grail, his 13th number one album (only The Beatles have more), Jay-Z pushes his case for relevancy.

Many people don’t like Jay-Z.  Even though his reputation as the G.O.A.T. has been cemented in recent years, he’s been written off as a has-been.  Rap has always been a young man’s game and it’s hard to rap with hunger when you’ve accomplished everything.  As Andre 3000 says, “I used to be a way better writer and a rapper when I used to want a black Karmann Ghia.”  The more common critique of Jay-Z, and the most popular dismissal of this album and his recent work, is his success is alienating.  Rappers have always boasted about material wealth, but Jigga takes it to a whole other level.  Popping bottles on a yacht is one thing, but going ham at the auction isn’t resonant at all.  Where other rappers are fun, Jay-Z is smug and elitist.  I’m not sure why the 1% raps have become so stigmatized in the critical world for Hov but for every other rapper it’s ok.  The lightning rod for this album has been the infamous Samsung marketing deal.  He sold a million copies of Magna Carta to Samsung who gave it away for free to the first million people who downloaded an exclusive app.  A lot of people were offended by the corporate synergy that Jay-Z represented, how he was co-opting the extensive internet culture that Hip Hop had developed in the past decade, and how he was gaming the system.  And that’s what all the reviews zeroed in on, how Jay-Z had become out of touch with the common man and that his album and the way it was sold exemplifies that.

Magna Carta Holy Grail isn’t a great album, but it is a fun one.  In the rush to defame the album, everyone missed the good parts.  Timbaland handles the majority of the production and boy does he do a good job.  Timbaland had been in a rut for a while and it looks like 2013 is his reawakening.  He constructs mini pop kaleidoscopes for Hov to fall into.  The beats all have an ambition to them.  The plodding keys of “Picasso Baby” transform into swirling guitars and “F.U.T.W.” alternates between shimmers of piano and floating horns.  Other guest producers add on to the luxurious soundscape that Timbaland sets.  Boi-1da’s “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” broods and swirls while Rick Ross stomps around in probably his best appearance of the year, and Mike Will Made It’s “Beach Is Better” only lasts for a minute but has enough power to destroy the world (seriously, if Jay-Z is smart he’ll put out a 5 minute remix with a new verse from him, and add in Kanye and 2 Chainz.  Track of the year).  And standout “Somewhere In America,” courtesy of Hit-Boy is the best track that never appeared on the Great Gatsby soundtrack, all swing and jive.

The album that warrants comparison to Magna Carta isn’t from Kanye or any other rapper; it’s Timbaland’s other baby The 20/20 Experience.  Timbo started his bid for MVP this year with Justin Timberlake’s comeback album and there’s a lot of similarities.  Album statements over singles, “grown-up” sophisticated pop music, unusual track times.   Jay-Z and JT are working together, on tour together, have features on each others albums, and they’re both trying very hard to sell a classy image that they like art and wear tuxedos.  If there’s any general theme on Magna Carta, it’s this image.  Jay-Z really likes Picasso and Basquiat.  He doesn’t pop molly, he rocks Tom Ford suits.  He wants people to let him be great.  Lyrically, the album doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it just synthesizes elements of his past two records.  Jigga combines the The Blueprint 3’s rap chart assimilation with Watch The Throne‘s Horatio Alger tale.  He’s either thoughtfully reflecting on his fame and fortune, or reveling in it.

There are deep moments.  Jay-Z contemplates how far he’s made it compared to his ancestors while Frank Ocean serenades him on “Oceans.”  “Jay Z Blue” is a letter to his daughter and doesn’t shy away from his fears of being a father.  But the thing that’s been downplayed about Hov is his ability to change up the flow and have fun, and he does that more on this album than any of his other late period releases.  He didn’t become famous because he could rap pound for pound like Nas; it was his flow and versatility, his ability to hop on trends right at the moment they teetered over into popular consciousness.  “Tom Ford” does just that, hopping on a EDM jacking “Molly” beat while undermining the current popularity of the form at the same time.  Using a song’s structure to juxtapose a message is something that other rappers do too (even underground favorites like Freddie Gibbs and Danny Brown), but I don’t care about the purpose.  I like how Jay stretches out the words in the chorus, how he growls and you can hear his face scrunch up when he talks about how everyone is sweet.  I like Beyonce, instead of having a credited normal boring singing part, simply swags out over the chorus echoing her husbands sentiments.  Yes Jay-Z has lost a step, yes he’s not as good as he once was, yes he adds in a few too many “uhs” to fill pauses, but he still is miles above other mainstream rappers.  And it’s fun to hear him use his skills to have fun.  And he still flexes when he wants to.  “Heaven” is the best track on the album, where he combines his playful delivery with a more in depth topic.  He confronts the illuminati discourse surrounding him and scoffs it away, smoking hashish with his fellowship while everyone points fingers at him.  “These are not 16’s these are verses from the bible, tell the preacher he’s a preacher, I’m a motherfuckin prophet, smoke a tree of knowledge.”  Just nasty.

 Magna Carta Holy Grail isn’t great.  For all the high points of the album, there are a lot of moments where it feels stuffy and boring.  It’s so frustrating to hear Beyonce and Justin Timberlake, the two best pop singers of their generation, used for such maudlin tracks like “On The Run (Part II)” and “Holy Grail.”  There’s no cohesion to the album.  It doesn’t have Watch The Throne‘s grandeur, The Blueprint 3‘s commercial power, American Gangster’s story concept, or even Kingdom Come‘s gimmick.  I suppose that’s why everyone latched on to the Samsung deal; it was the only thing to hold on to.  But this is just a regular album that certainly didn’t deserve the scorn that has been piled on it as of late.  As Hov says himself “Even my old fans like ‘old man just stop,’ I could if I would but I can’t I’m hot.”  Just listen and enjoy what you can, because somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerking and Jigga man will be performing at the MoMA.