Jay-Z is now in his twilight years. The Blueprint 3, which hopefully we all can now admit was a bad album, signified the beginning of the slide. Jay-Z has always had his share of mediocre albums but what made that album even more of a misstep was how limp he sounded. Even in the heavily encumbered “Blueprint 2” or the nursing home soundtrack Kingdom Come Jay-Z’s technical abilities never waned. His song concepts might have been off but he was still the best rapper in the world.
He is no longer that rapper and Magna Carta Holy Grail cements it. Even Rick Ross, not particularly known for his verbal prowess, outshines Jay-Z on “Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit” Mind you Ross lumbers along the track where Jay-Z of old would have playfully eviscerated those bars in between sips of Cristal. But when Ross drops a line like, “Money talks, I speak fluent, nigga,” it reminds you of the days where that would be Jay’s throwaway line.
Two snack sized songs, “Versus” and “Beach is Better”, highlight the problems of Jiggaman in 2013. “Versus” has a sample loop that sounds straight out of his debut, Reasonable Doubt. However unlike that sharp and hungry incarnation of Sean Carter here Jay-Z spits mediocre stream of consciousness rhymes that go nowhere. “Beach Is Better” begins with an epic intro and when the beat drop it reminds the listener of another Jay-Z hit of old; the Memphis Bleek helmed “Is That Yo Chick.” He even anchors it with a classic Jay-Z sounding double entendre, “I bought sand to the beach, cause my beach is better/ You can keep your beach, ‘cause that beach whatever.” He then wastes all that goodwill by stumbling through a few more bars before suddenly cutting the song seemingly out of ideas.
Here’s the thing though; despite these major flaws it’s still a good album. Jay-Z still does the best Jay-Z impression out of all his competitors and the production on the album is probably one of the best in his long career. “Picasso Baby” and “F.U.T.W.” have beats so tailor-made for his persona even he couldn’t fuck it up. The neering laugh he gives in “Somewhereinamerica” after his “twerk for me Miley” diss shows that in despite his black tie affairs he still has fun rapping. Even his blatant attempts to stay current, “Tom Ford’ bangs hard compared to the last time he flirted with trap; the horrid Kanye West collaboration, “H.A.M.”.
There will most likely be no more classic albums added to the Jay-Z discography which is a shame. But he’s doing something that seemed impossible to do in hip-hop ten years ago; he is aging gracefully. While, Magna Carta Holy Grail has its low points mixed in with some solid highs the fact that it even exists is pretty amazing. He may not punch as fast as he used to, he may not be as mobile, but there’s still a few good matches left in him.