Jay-Z’s heavily anticipated 12th album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, dropped a little less than 12 hours ago. It is not currently available for purchase at any of the “normal” outlets (think iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, etc.), but if you have a Samsung Galaxy and/or any profiency at using search engines, it’s there for the listening. Its 16 tracks clock in at 59 minutes and 4 seconds, which means there’s a lot to digest here. We’re not in any rush to judge the album until we’ve spent at least 24 hours with it, but here are the five tracks that stood out to us over the course of the three spins we’ve given it so far today:
“Holy Grail (feat. Justin Timberlake)”
In a strange twist, the first voice you hear on MCHG is NOT Jay-Z’s; rather, it’s that of his fellow Legend Of The Summer, Justin Timberlake. Over a somber and sparse piano beat and some of the “Yeah!”s made famous on Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die LP, Timberlake bemoans his inability to “crack the code” of a “cold” woman in his life for the first 79 seconds of the track. At that point, the song’s beat —courtesy of The-Dream and Timbaland—kicks in, and Jay enters the scene. His verses consist mainly of him complaining about the overwhelming pressures of fame (“The bright lights are enticing/But look what it did to Tyson,” he’s got “psycho bitches in my lobby”), so much so that he references the most test case of the negative ramifications of fame from the last 25 years: Kurt Cobain. Hov twists the lyrics of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” slightly (“And we all just entertainers/And we’re stupid, and contagious), but thankfully, doesn’t sound like he’s ready to give up on the world.
This song seems poised to be the first single off the album and, as such, is weirdly downtempo, especially when compared to the lead single off Jay-Z’s last album, 2009’s The Blueprint III. Of course, that song was “Empire State Of Mind,” an anthem that Hova conciously does not try to replicate at any point on this album. Justin and Jay’s contributions to “Holy Grail” don’t entirely fit, thematically, and as such, we don’t see this song having the kind of lasting impact that “Empire” (or even “Run This Town”) had.
“Part II (On The Run) [featuring Beyoncé]”
When you first see a title like this, your curiousity is immediately piqued: “Part II” of WHAT, exactly? Well, in this case, it’s a sequel to Jay and Bey’s “’03 Bonnie And Clyde.” This track finds America’s royal couple on the run from the 5-0, and —spoiler alert— going down in a blaze of glory. Again, much like “Holy Grail,” this is not a celebratory track by any stretch of the imagination. Bey sounds as depressed as we’ve ever heard her (“Who wants that perfect love story, anyway?”), even while trying to convince herself that falling head over heels for a criminal is her life’s destiny (“And if loving you is a crime / Why do I bring out the best in you?”). And Jay seems resigned, much like Clyde Barrow, to go down in a hail of bullets.
“Oceans (feat. Frank Ocean)
We’re all in on this track, one of the heaviest on MCHG. The Grammy-darling Ocean sings the hook, and his expressive voice lays the groundwork for Jay-Z to ponder the African-American experience. As Hov himself explains it, “It sounds like a celebration of where we are now on some big yacht, throwing champagne in the water. But the undertow of the thing is that this is the same water that brought us here originally as slaves, so it has this whole duality and even how we re-write history, the stories we were told about the history of America.”
The beat of this track, which comes courtesy of Hit-Boy, reminds us more than a little of Kanye West’s “Heard ’Em Say.” Thematically, it’s consistent with the rest of the album, as it revolves around Jay-Z’s existential struggles with being one of the richest black men in a country controlled by rich white men, and how white folk have misappropriated black culture. Despite this heavy subject matter, it contains what might go down as the album’s single most memorable line: “Somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerkin / Twerk Miley Miley twerk.” It’s a rare moment of levity (and also an acute social observation) on an album that’s primarily concerned with very heavy themes.
[GIFs via Heavy.com]
“Jay Z Blue”
Jay-Z sampling Mommie Dearest? WHAT? This out-of-left-field choice is, perhaps, the most “WTF” moment on the album (in a good way!). The song is about Hova’s relationship to his daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, but it’s not as sweet and gushy like “Glory” or as optimistic as his pre-fatherhood track on Watch The Throne, “New Day.” Here, Jigga Man faces off against his greatest demon — his own insecurities. He admits his own fears that his relationship might crumble (without hinting that they actually are), just like his parents’ did when he was a little tot growing up in the BK. It’s a real and honest track, and full of the kind of emotional honesty that has made Jay-Z one of the greatest rappers of all-time. Oh, ps…
NO WIRE HANGERS!
[Photos: Life And Times]