1. Daft Punk ‘Random Access Memories’
2. James Blake ‘Overgrown’
3. Kanye West ‘Yeezus’
4. Chance The Rapper ‘Acid Rap’
5. Justin Timberlake ‘The 20/20 Experience part 1’
6. Drake ‘Nothing Was The Same’
7. Mayer Hawthorne ‘Where Does This Door Go?’
8. Rhye ‘Woman’
9. Toro Y Moi ‘Anything in Return’
10. Childish Gambino ‘Because the Internet’
11. Disclosure ‘Settle’
12. Flatbush Zombies ‘Better Off Dead’
13. Pusha T ‘My Name is My Name’
14. Arctic Monkeys ‘AM’
15. Autre Ne Veut ‘Anxiety’
16. Tyler, The Creator ‘Wolf’
17. Quadron ‘Avalanche’
18. Partynextdoor ‘Partynextdoor’
19. A$AP Rocky ‘Long.Live.A$AP’
20. The Weeknd ‘Kiss Land’
21. CHVRCHES ‘The Bones Of What You Believe’
22. John Legend ‘Love In The Future’
23. Rudimental ‘Home’
24. London Grammar ‘If You Wait’
25. Thundercat ‘Apocalypse’
Two years on from his last album, Drake returns with ‘Nothing Was The Same‘. Having just passed 1 Million in sales, could this be his greatest work yet?
Drake’s third studio album is yet another addition to Drake’s remarkably consistently output since he signed to Lil Wayne’s Young Money imprint just five years ago. Nothing Was The Same weans out almost all fillers, making it much more succinct than 2011′s ‘Take Care‘. It also tries less hard in its pop aspirations than his 2010 major label debut ‘Thank Me Later‘. While Drake’s best work may still be his breakout 2009 mixtape ‘So Far Gone‘, Nothing Was The Same is easily one of the best rap albums of 2013, and further solidifies the Toronto rapper’s position as the current king of the genre.
Nothing Was The Same sees Drake’s knack for anthemic songs in full effect. Yet, single ‘Started From The Bottom‘ and album cut ‘Worst Behaviour‘ are also unlike anything he has ever done, drawing heavily on his father’s Memphis roots, where Drake spent many of his teen summers. The rapper’s southern cadence and almost lazy flow on these tracks is immediately jarring, but their stellar hooks and basslines mean these tracks are those that get the most replays. Drake also takes it back to the old school with this album with numerous soul samples and several references to the Wu Tang Clan. On these tracks, Drake continues to prove himself lyrically; the verses on epic intro ‘Tuscan Leather’, ‘Wu Tang Forever‘ and ‘Pound Cake’ are of the highest calibre. There is a hunger in his rhymes, whether that be due to his bubbling rivalry with Kendrick Lamar, or fear of becoming the next Ja Rule or Nelly, who both at one point seemed destined to be rap’s new king. Drake’s level of consistency seems to indicate he won’t similarly fade away, from his presence on the mic to the quality of guest verses.
Production is also noticeably less ambient on Nothing Was The Same than on any of Drake’s previous work. The emcee’s musical partner, Noah ’40′ Shebib flips the same soul sample three times on ‘Tuscan Leather’, while Boi-1da provides the dancehall infused ‘The Language‘ and the incredibly atmospheric ‘Pound Cake‘. ‘Overly focused it’s far from the time to rest now’ Drake says on Pound Cake and the music reflects a focus on finding a direction for his future sound, with Nothing Was The Same more varied than cohesive. However, production highlight comes from Hudson Mohawke. Fresh from producing the standout tracks on both Kanye West and Pusha T’s latest albums, the Scottish producer strikes again with the wonderfully murky Connect.
While ‘Take Care’ fused hip hop and R&B virtually seamlessly, Nothing Was The Same seems to purposely separate them, with two sounds doing battle within the album. One is very much the indie inspired R&B that Drake flirts with on every project. Tracks like smash single ‘Hold On We’re Going Home‘, ‘Come Thru‘, ‘Too Much‘ and ‘Furthest Thing‘, all take influence from the likes of James Blake, Sampha and latest signees to Drake’s OVO label, Majid Jordan and Partynextdoor. The other is a more rap oriented sound, all pitched samples and hard rhymes suggesting Drake isn’t quite as unaffected by those who call him soft as he may seem.
Album closer ‘Pound Cake‘ sees Drake trade verses with a tired Jay Z and one can’t help but think that this is a cunning plan to put rap’s old king, and new king side by side, and for Drake to once again stake his claim to the throne. But in all honesty, it is no longer a claim but a reality. Drake is unquestionably rap’s biggest and best. Having surpassed his mentor, Lil Wayne and with Kanye more or less forsaking the genre to push other musical boundaries, Drake is peerless at top of the game. His only challenge seems to be the rise of Kendrick Lamar, and the subliminals between the two will be watched with great interest as 2013 comes to a close.
Nothing Was The Same is an excellent piece of work but it seems too early to label it Drake’s best. 2011′s Take Care is still played today and it’s hard to believe it was released almost two years ago. Nothing Was The Same stands to fare exactly the same. Yet it is very hard to shake the feeling that Drake’s classic album is still to come. In one of the finest feature verses of the year, on Migos Versace, Drake said ‘I think I’m selling a million first week, man I guess I’m an optimist’. While Nothing Was The Same didn’t quite achieve it, it’s a virtual certainty that Drake’s fourth album will do just that.
Let’s face it, underrated US rapper, Oddisee, is the best artist you’ve never heard of.
While it is true that any real hip hop head would know the name Oddisee, to a mainstream audience, the man behind some of hip hop’s most forward thinking beats is relatively unknown.
Yet based on his own mantra, it seems that its just the way he likes it. Thriving on an alternative path, Odissee is a shining light for independent artists, proving that mainstream success isn’t the only route to stardom.
Recognised primarily as a producer, with credits on the most recent Danny Brown and Joey Bada$$ releases, Oddisse (real name, Amir Mohamed el Khalifa) is also a talented emcee and songwriter. After signing to renowned independent label, Mello Music Group, in 2008, emceeing has become as much of his focus as production, epitomised in this year’s combination of the two; purchase Odissee’s instrumental album ‘Beauty in All‘ and get the rhyme-filled mixtape, ‘Tangible Dream’, free of charge. In Oddisee’s own words, he’s all about the beats and the rhymes, not just one or the other.
Attached to the releases was a brief word from the man himself. He said:
‘I realized that although the masses may not know of my body of work, it doesn’t take the whole world to have the world I want…Perhaps the world may never know of my accomplishments but accomplishments they are nonetheless’.
What sets Oddisee apart is the way he goes about his business. Unlike many underground producers who shun the spotlight, and those up and coming rappers over eager for the limelight, Oddisee represents the balance. Speaking in a recent interview with RCxMCC, Oddisee said that while artists are by their nature introverts, artistry today demands you more of a public figure. And the Washington rapper is very much so, touring and showing both sides to that rapper / producer combination.
Remarkably consistent in quality of output, Oddisee signed a multi-album deal with Mello Music Group in 2008, and released a series of projects over the years, on which he either rhymed or produced, such as ‘101‘, ‘Mental Liberation’, ‘Everything Changed Nothing‘, ‘Odd Seasons‘, and ‘Traveling Man‘. Each project shows a level of consistency unrivalled by most rappers, underground or mainstream, with each posessing it’s own unique tone. In fact, in that same interview with RCxMCC, Oddisee was asked to name his favourite of his own projects. He answered:
‘I don’t think I can honestly pick one. My records are kind of like memories. They all hold equal value to me.’ His latest instrumental album, ‘Beauty in All’, embodies this, forming an experience around a listener rather than narrating one.
Oddisee also points to Canadian superstar Drake as one of his favourite current emcees and it is not difficult to hear the influence, especially on mixtape, ‘Tangible Dream‘. Both rappers are known for the blunt honesty in their music and share a mixed heritage. Oddisee was raised by his African American mother and Sudanese father and speaking to SoulCulture earlier this year, during their OKnotobeOK campaign, he claimed that mental illness and personal issues were largely ignored by both cultures. The rapper noticeably addresses this on his latest releases, more open than even 2012′s particularly frank album, ‘People Hear What They See’. But Oddisee’s unique, almost minimalist production is what separates him from almost every emcee around at the moment.
Oddisee is an inspiration for any independent musician, having stayed true to what he has always known but, crucially, without being afraid to experiment. It is even more impressive considering that he has been in hip hop for more than a a decade.
So, for those who know Oddisee, keep up the support and spread the word. But if you never have, check him out as you are in for a real treat. The foreword attached to his latest releases ended with:
‘All I want to do is make music for a living so that I can live to make music.’
If a gem like that doesn’t pique your musical curiosity, nothing will.
NME.com recently experimented with an online paywall in September. Is this a smart move for journalism – taking into consideration it is so readily available online – in terms of music? The music magazine ran a trial charging for online access to articles for the first time, asking readers to pay 69p for their cover story on indie four-piece Haim.
As the first major UK music publication to introduce said online paywall, NME’s choice to do so represents a milestone for music journalism. The magazine’s dramatic decline in circulation in recent months prompted this reaction, and also sparked debate over whether publications have the right to charge for their content.
It is true that there is hardly any financial value in news. With the development of the internet and social media, one publication’s exclusive is immediately posted elsewhere with no reference to its origin. In many ways, the concept of paying for music journalism mirrors the debate surrounding illegal downloads.
So the big question is: what is the point of a paywall when sites like Rolling Stone, Q and even Twitter offer the same content for free?
From a business perspective, paywalls are not about getting people to pay for content. The aim is to attract readers who will be participate in offers and promotions, and are willing to pay to do so. But with a new generation growing up with a noticeable lack of interest in newspapers, and magazine’s which are becoming more online based, a paywall like this, that is meant to reduce losses from print decline, could eventually result in the downfall of both offline and online journalism.
Another proposed solution is the method of offering certain benefits to paying subscribers; exclusive mobile content though apps for instance. These apps would be free but a reader cannot access that content unless they are a paying subscriber. But if you are a passionate reader, is it unfair to ask said reader to support the publication as a whole?
Online paywalls could function in exactly the same way as rappers releasing mixtapes; both for free and on Itunes. As such people pay out of a sense of appreciation rather than as a consumer. Moreover, this allows readers to ‘try before they buy’, a concept not as dirty as people may like to suggest.
Interestingly, a successful music journalism paywall system already exists. In a 2011 article in The Independent, journalist Ian Burrell cites Lester Bangs, an American music journalist who died nearly 30 years ago, as the innovator of a prosperous paywall system. Today, British site ‘Rock’s Back Pages’ continued success owes much to Bangs’ work.
Editor Barney Hoskyns persuaded the Bangs estate to contribute almost 20,000 pieces of music journalism to their archive. When subscribed to the site, users can access this archive, including a 1973 profile of Iggy and The Stooges. The site offers content from a myriad of genres, with material on artists from folk band Pavement to rapper Notorious BIG.
While the £120 a year subscription is rather steep, RBP’s true success is based on its use as an academic resource. Two thirds of Britain’s universities have group subscriptions, as have dozens of institutions from overseas. So Hoskyns voices a concern that has been growing in journalistic circles, quoted as saying: ‘I still have a problem with the self-destructiveness of free. Everybody has gone over the same cliff holding hands and thousands of journalists have been laid off.’ IPC (ironically, the publisher of NME) disliked RBP’s use of NME content in building its success. The ensuing legal case came to nothing.
It has been said that online paywalls are not the solution because they fundamentally oppose the nature of the Internet. But they might be a necessary evil even if some newspapers have tried and dropped them due to dramatic losses in audience. In any event, publishers are entitled to charge for journalistic product, in that they shoulder the cost and risk of creating news and comment. If advertising does not provide enough revenue, they have every right to explore other means, including charging for access.
However, while certain sites see journalism as a public good and often lift their paywalls in exceptional circumstances, entertainment journalism is perhaps the exception to the rule. While many music journalists do their work out of love, that does not mean their work holds no value.
Even so, it seems clear that music journalism’s fate rests in the hands of the reader and what they are willing to do for it’s future.
Building on the acclaim of his Mainstream EP from earlier in the year, Mide releases ‘Unlikely‘, a funky piece of acoustic soul.
With his previous EP earning praise from the likes of SoulCulture, MOBO and MTV UK, ‘Unlikely’ acts as a third single from his upcoming debut album ‘E.G’. The track is uplifting in its own self-deprecating way with Mide passionately singing ‘Mr. Regular because I’m nobody in particular.‘ On this evidence Mide definitely won’t be a nobody for long.
Like his last single, ‘Mainstream‘, ‘Unlikely’ sees Mide again connect with artist, singer and producer Jonathan Owusu Yianomah; marrying Mide’s passionate, almost husky vocals to Yianomah’s funky bassline. Even though the track’s guitars are folky, the horn segment lends it a real live feel as well as bundles of energy. The song relies heavily on it’s chorus and rightly so; it is lively, original and a true earworm.
Clearly, Mide is an artist with something to say, both personally and socially, and has a voice that demands attention. Clever song-writing and never having to reach for those elusive high notes, Mide is a thoroughly British talent on the rise.
‘Unlikely’ will be available on all digital stores on October 14th and is the final single to be released before the debut album, slated for release later in the year.
Recently seen unexpectedly wowing Jay Z in his own music video, Kiah Victoria continues to wow listeners with her latest release, the “Look Up” EP.
Big hair and a bold voice, Victoria’s appearance in the rapper’s Picasso Baby short film was a welcome surprise, and showed but a glimpse of the singer’s star potential.
On this new EP, the twenty-one-year old former actress absolutely soars over the murky atmospheres, constructed by trip hop producer Tolu Adeyemo. Victoria’s crisp vocals compliment Tolu’s immersive beats, most noticeably on ambient opener “Sunlight”.
“Rooftop”, is a fantastic showcase for the singer’s varied range and really explores her impressive vocal ability. The track itself is flamboyant and even cinematic at points but, combined with Victoria’s modest lyrics, is a perfect place for new listeners to begin.”Rise” is another classy if more traditional ballad. The New York songstress sounds almost tortured over an instrumental that subtly builds, using some tremendous horns and just the right amount of reverb.
Having starred on Broadway at only the tender age of ten, the drama of the stage can certainly be heard in theatrical closer, “Home“. Melodic background vocals, apt lyrics and a skilfully layered instrumental, Home might just be an immediate highlight.
With Adeyemo and Victoria harnessing a distinctive sound, the pair approach the fusion of post-dubstep, indie R&B and neo-soul from a fresh angle. At just four tracks and with second EP “Gravitate” coming soon, the Look Up EP is a terrific teaser of even better things to come.
Mynature is back with his new single ‘MR IS Rap‘ and its accompanying visual, a track in which the South London rapper’s myriad talents really shine through…
Creating buzz in an oft-ignored UK hip hop scene is seldom straightforward, especially without either a major cosign or supposedly ‘selling out’. Yet through the artist’s contagious confidence, two extremely polished mixtapes and critically acclaimed ‘Myni-Mondays‘ Youtube series, Mynature has amassed something of a name for himself.
New single ‘MR IS RAP’ signals an intent to crossover from the underground grime scene into the more mainstream arena, dominated by the likes of Tinie Tempah and Professor Green. But, uniquely, MR IS RAP manages to avoid compromising any of Mynature’s raw energy whilst simultaneously standing as some of his most accessible work to date.
The track itself is a showcase of Mynature’s versatility as both an emcee and songwriter; from the rapid fire punchline flow of the tracks first verse, followed by the intricate rhyme scheme of the 2nd and then crowned by an excellent melodic bridge.
Appreciation of melody is a rarity in UK hip hop and is one of the more refreshing elements that Mynature brings to the table. Backed by a spooky, synth-heavy instrumental, courtesy of up-and-comer EFX, Mynature meshes the cheekiness of classic hip hop with a gritty and sincere emotion. The 50 Cent influence is also clear in his range of cadences.
Even so, there is a real bounce to the single, the vocally distorted chorus a neat touch, really expressing the energy of the man himself. The accompanying video does likewise. MR IS RAP is awash with bold claims and hip hop posturing, but like most of Mynature’s music contains an undeniable undercurrent of maturity, no doubt stemming from his troubled background that in itself lends perspective, and sets him apart from many of his UK peers.
The tracks infectious chorus ends on the refrain ‘Sit back, turn it up and take notice!‘ and on this evidence, many will, with Mynature making all the right moves on his way to becoming the UK’s next big rap star.
Essex singer-songwriter Robbie Sea, returns with a six-track EP ‘Through the Hoop’ and quite frankly, it’s really rather good…
Balancing bouncy anthems and brooding songwriting is no mean feat, but Robbie Sea’s ‘Through the Hoop‘ accomplishes it with ease. Beginning with spirited lead single ‘Levitates’, the singer-songwriter’s sophomore release races by with a subtle but contagious energy. ‘Levitates‘ itself boasts perhaps the year’s most infectious guitar alongside a chorus that you’ll be singing for days to come.
‘Drug of Choice’ is another huge summer track yet one with a message; that of the dangers of addiction. Straddling the line between seriousness and accessibility, this really is the EP’s greatest strength and an obstacle many artists fail to overcome. ‘Drug of Choice‘ is also a chance for Rob Clemson (former drummer for Essex metal band, Fei Comodo) to showcase his outstanding vocals. The high notes on this track in particular are exceptional as is the rapid-fire, almost whispered delivery of each verse. Clemson’s vocal tone, reminiscent of Patrick Stump (of Fall Out Boy fame) and of Panic at the Disco’s Brendon Urie, borrows the flamboyance of those vocalists, supplementing it with his own quirky angst and an audible hunger for success.
‘People go crazy when they fall in love’ Robbie croons on ‘Lethal Mind Traps‘, revealing a quivering vulnerability in his inflection. The tracks second verse really is the definition of intense. ‘Lethal Mind Traps‘ is also a great example of expert use of backing vocals, creating some of the smoothest and most soulful harmonies of the year so far.
The EP’s title suggests that Clemson jumps through hoops for no-one but himself, a stance embodied in ‘Corporatocracy’ and ‘Stand in Line’. And while the former is slightly heavy-handed, ‘Stand in Line’ is a powerful call to arms.
‘Through the Hoop’ is another solid addition to Robbie Sea’s growing discography, solidifying the Essex singer-songwriter as one to watch for the future. While his views on the industry may not do him any favours in gaining radio spins, the calibre of his music is undeniable. On ‘Levitates’ he admits that it will take time, and while the single itself is clearly an immediate hit, the EP is no doubt a grower, improving with every listen.
‘This has been the summer of hip-hop albums. But who reigned king? With releases from Wale, Jay Z, J.Cole and Yeezy this summer, what does this say about hip-hop?
More than anything, this summer has shown that, in hip-hop, there is an enormous gulf between those at the top of the rap game and those who just inhabit it. Competition is rife and probably more so, than in any other genre. Good music is just but, one of the aspects needed for success.
The releases from Wale, J. Cole, Jay Z and Kanye West display the wide spectrum that hip-hop can encompass. But it also shows how advantageous personality, unique style and a knowledge of the business can be. Most of all, this summer has only confirmed that, of all genres, hip-hop is still the most talked about and as thoroughly debated as everHis third album, ‘The Gifted‘ is Wale’s best project so far, and the one in which he most embraces the poetic persona he so revels in, alongside the albums smooth, jazzy sound. Yet, whilst being the most traditionally hip-hop album of those released this summer, the album, in its solidity, fails to push any kind of musical boundaries. It signals Wale’s seeming acceptance that he will never reach that superstar status he craves and is instead content to do his own thing, even if that means falling back on his enjoyable mixtape sound.
J. Cole, on the other hand, has used the release of his sophomore album ‘Born Sinner’ to attempt the very same jump that Wale had previously. Nonetheless, the North Carolina rapper shows that he still has a fair way to go if he is to ever force his way into the so-called top tier of rap. Regardless, Born Sinner is a clear improvement on his debut, with his production more accomplished and several of the tracks ranking among the best in his career so far. He still shows glimpses of the rap saviour he was once hailed as, but seems to have suffered from giving away too much free material. Having seen both Drake and Kendrick Lamar surpass him both artistically and in popularity, Cole’s promotion was to move his release date to coincide with that of Kanye’s Yeezus. Aiming to, at the very least, put his name in the conversation. That bold move has only helped his career, boosting both his sales and his name – even managing to outsell Kanye with 38,718 copies whilst Kanye sold 28,701. Yet Kanye’s lack of acknowledgement of Cole as a competitor perhaps speaks greater volumes.
Whereas Jay Z’s ‘Magna Carta…Holy Grail‘ is perhaps more about the albums well publicised marketing ploy, rather than the music itself. Professing to try and change the game (by releasing the album via Samsung users directly), Jay Z’s release strategy only really works if you’re Jay Z. Neither J. Cole nor Wale could hope to sell 500, 000 units in its first week this way, let alone reach platinum before copies are on the shelves. The album itself is something of a safe effort, toeing the line between commercial and underground hip-hop that Jay has straddled since coming out of retirement. The album shows flashes of the lyrical Jay Z (of old) but will only ever be regarded as ‘a good Jay Z album’, not a great one.
Contrastingly, the provocatively titled ‘Yeezus’, only cements that Kanye will always be Kanye. The album is genre-bending and as polarising as any work of art should be. It forces a listener to have an opinion, for good or for bad. Reactions to Kanye’s sixth solo album suggest hip-hop is not quite ready for such a level of genre experimentation. Most hip-hop traditionalists dislike it with their clout seemingly affecting sales, whilst indie critics with a taste for Burial, Daft Punk and the like gave it rave reviews. Its ability to initiate debate is possibly its greatest strength.
These summer months have proven that hip-hop still has the power to dominate the music industry. But arguably no artist delivered on their quite considerable hype this time around. Jay Z won in many senses; topping international album charts, racking up the most sales and the album itself a solid addition to his catalogue. On balance, Kanye lacks sales but earned near critical acclaim, an even greater feat considering his last album was magnus opus, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘.
But the real winners this summer are the fans. Blessed with an abundance of quality music, there is only more to come as both Drake and Eminem prep releases for later in the year. Indeed, hip-hop is often tarred with a bad reputation (for whatever reason), but the large majority of music on these four albums are perfect examples of the positives of the genre.
While hip-hop is not as competitive lyrically as it had been in its golden age, it continues to go from strength to strength in its diverse range of content and in its undoubted musicality.
On the day that the United States of America celebrate their independence as a nation, Jay Z, a man the very embodiment of the American Dream, releases Magna Carta…Holy Grail to the masses. Promotion-wise, Hov has followed his former protege Kanye West’s lead yet with his own inimitable Jay Z twist. No other artist in music history can brag that (with no single to speak of) they have sold a million records before the album is even released for purchase. And brag about it Jay Z will, because that’s what he does best. And that’s no slight on the man who is undoubtedly the most successful rapper of all time, as relevant and integral to the genre at 43 as he was when he was 26. Ruthlessness has always been one of his defining traits and continues to be so in 2013, dropping an album out of nowhere, with no regard for the releases of close friend Kanye West and his polarizing sixth album Yeezus and Jay’s Roc Nation flagship signee, J. Cole with his sophomore project Born Sinner. Perhaps the secret to Jay Z’s unmatched longevity is this lack of compassion towards other artists paired with the respect he demands in the game. With a habit for craftily pouncing on who is hot right now (it’s Justin Timberlake and Timbaland’s turn this time around), Jay has never been afraid to discard anything once it has served its purpose. As such, always the smartest of businessmen, Jay’s Samsung-sponsored album drops in and adds even more weight to this fundamentally hip hop moment.
Channelling the opulent sonics of Watch The Throne, Jay Z’s latest solo release has several standouts. One of which is ‘Picasso Baby’, where Jay raps nimbly around some vicious guitar riffs immediately reminiscent of perhaps Jay’s most recognisable hit, ‘99 Problems’. Crucially though, Picasso Baby is more comfortably familiar than it is repetitive. The rock and roll undertone to Jay’s music, evident ever since ‘99 Problems’ and in collaborative work with both Linkin Park and Coldplay, is perhaps most prominent on this twelfth studio album, in tracks like the aforementioned and on ‘Jay Z Blue’ in addition to interpolations of famous Nirvana and REM lyrics. The Travis Scott-produced ‘Crown’ is another darker offering, sounding suspiciously at once like a Yeezus throwaway but also significantly less minimalist than a lot of the tracks on Kanye’s latest project. Added to the album at the eleventh hour, surely it is no coincidence that Hov joins Mr West in proclaiming himself God on this track. Other highlights include ‘Nickels & Dimes’, a magnificently produced yet sombre closer. The beat is again cinematic with verses bringing to mind the revelatory Jay on evidence on the Watch The Throne cut, ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ and is as close to vulnerable as Jay has been in years.
Yet, these insightful moments are few and far between on Magna Carta with Hov’s stories and brags just not as engaging as they used to be. It seems to be that, as an artist, Jay doesn’t really have anything meaningful to talk about at this point in his life. Give him a concept like 2007’s American Gangster and he shines but for several years now, most of what Jay Z has rapped (often expertly) about is just how rich really is. The only real topic of any meaning is his newfound fatherhood, explored on ‘Jay Z Blue’. But, it is debateable how many rap listeners relate or even desire to hear about the daughter of two global megastars. Any mention of Blue Ivy seems to come off as slightly saccharine and despite a well-place Biggie sample, Jay’s own father issues have been explored in far more interesting ways on past tracks. In this way, the album sometimes comes off as a Kanye-less Watch The Throne and as such lacks both his single-minded direction and trademark panache. The result is an album that is undeniably enjoyable but neither memorable nor progressive.
However, Jay is most experimental with flows on the album, aping a forced Chief Keef / 2 Chainz-esque flow on both ‘La Familia’ and ‘Tom Ford’. These tracks are arguably the only time in Jay’s long career that he has ever noticeably sounded like he is straining for relevancy, with the attempts actually becoming quite grating. Yet the tracks are loaded with quotables that wonderfully sum up Sean Carter’s almost overseer role in the game, particularly the latter (‘I don’t pop molly, I rock Tom Ford). His change of flow also works perfectly on tracks like ‘F*ckwithmeyouknowigotit’, again expertly displaying the triple time flow from Watch The Throne's 'Who Gon Stop Me'. Like most Jay Z work there are several double entendres which will likely be missed on first listen (including a clever shot at Robert De Niro on that Rick Ross collaboration) As such, those quick to condemn Jay's lyrical performance on this album are somewhat premature.
The real strength of the album lies in its, at times, stunning production. While some of the beats – however good – seem to lack a sense of progression, with Heaven falling victim to this, Jay prospers on the numerous piano-led beats on the album as well as the knocking bass-heavy sounds, with Timbaland having a hand in the majority of production. Nonetheless, for all of his, Pharrell Williams’ and Swizz Beatz’ experience, arguably the best instrumentals on offer are produced by relative newcomers; Hit-Boy with ‘Somewhere In America’ and Travis Scott with ‘Crown’. Much like how a young Kanye West rose to prominence on Jay Z’s The Blueprint (2001), it remains to be seen which one of these producer / rappers will soon shoot to stardom.
As a whole, Magna Carta lacks a bit of Jay Z’s usual grittiness but on tracks like Timbaland’s ‘Picasso Baby’ and the Boi-1da produced ‘F*ckwithmeyouknowigotit’, Jay’s prowess as an emcee really comes to the fore. The latter track boasts a solid Rick Ross verse before Jay Z bursts through sounding revitalised over such a menacing beat. Although already having a stellar 2013, the seemingly forever young Pharrell Williams also provides some jazzy, if at times a little stale sounding production for Brooklyn’s prodigal son. ‘Oceans’ (featuring Frank Ocean) falls a little flat while ‘BBC’ is definitely a case of too many cooks, with the instrumental cluttered. Regardless, Nas continues his fine form of guest verses and most definitely brings the best out of his once rival. Much like the ‘B*tch Don’t Kill My Vibe (remix)’ released earlier this year, where Jay Z traded bars with man of the moment Kendrick Lamar, verses like his own on ‘BBC’ indicate that the reason Jay has dropped below his former lyrical standard is because he isn’t challenged often enough. It showed on the aforementioned remix as Jay was undeniably out-rapped by young Lamar. Has one of the greatest ever to do it lost a step? Magna Carta doesn’t really make a case for or against in that lyrically, it’s very much a mixed bag.
Furthermore, for all the grandiose, cinematic beats, they infrequently feel like they’re from two different albums; a glossy, jazzy album battling against a more gritty, rock infused one. The album’s title references duality but, on this album, the balance just isn’t quite right. While it possesses undoubted variety in both production and content, the album lacks a true theme binding it all together, with the exception of the faux religious motif suggested by the albums double-edged title. In recent years, religion has been used as a hip hop gimmick, an effort to add meaning or weight to the genre that verges on cliche. And Jay Z, in his position at the top of the game is not exempt from that. Still, this album feels less a collection of singles à la 2009’s The Blueprint 3 and more of an album project. It even lacks a natural chart-topping single, minus perhaps melancholy ‘Holy Grail’ with its ominous pianos and impassioned Justin Timberlake hook. Nevertheless, it is hard to shake the feeling that on Magna Carta, Jay Z is often just rapping for the sake of it.
As such, Magna Carta…Holy Grail as an album is more of a reminder of Jay’s presence in the game than it is his skill as a musician. His preaching of new rules and bypassing labels is all very well and is possibly the way of the future, but a platinum-selling album lacking singles and any real promotion is only really possible for an artist of Jay Z’s fame. What the album does suggest is that Jay Z’s spot at the top will soon be there for the taking, if it isn’t already. Magna Carta may not be as genre-shaking as Yeezus but sees a reclined Jay Z over perhaps the cleanest production of his career. Not his lyrical best, but with more than enough gems, Magna Carta will be remembered as a good but not great Jay Z album; nowhere near his best but certainly not his worst.