Not for nothin’…but Kanye West had me worried. As a hip-hop fan and as a music fan, the disappointment of Yeezus had me tempering my anticipation of Magna Carta Holy Grail with preparing for the possibility of a hip-pop offering from big brother Jay-Z under the guise of a “boundary-breaking” LP. Luckily, the major difference between Jay-Z and Kanye is that Jay-Z understands that in an attempt to make the next great hip-hop album, one must actually create a hip-hop album. The comparisons to Yeezus will end here, though, as MCHG will surely knock that album off most discerning listeners’ playlists as the premier LP du jour. It’s apparent from MCHG that Jay understands and accepts his role as one of few with the power to take hip-hop to that ever-elusive “next level” that rappers so fondly speak of without making the mistake of abandoning the genre entirely for the sake of pretense and shock value.
While I’m probably one of a cultish group of old school Roc-A-Fella-heads still yearning for Jay to pick up the phone and get Sauce Money or Jaz-O on a track or getting Primo or Ski on the boards, at a certain point you’ve got to begrudgingly accept that Jay has reached a point where he’s not returning to old territory and though it’s a missed era of rap for many of us, Jay pushes his current cohorts to new levels of creativity where, although a Timbaland record is easily identified, a Timbaland record made specifically for Jay-Z is a whole other animal entirely, and a vicious one at that. Even Frank Ocean, who I’m usually underwhelmed by, brings a certain indispensable texture to the mournful horns of “Oceans”. “Nickels and Dimes” employs an eerie Gonjasufi sample and is probably the best song on the album, representing both the top-shelf Jay-Z we know and the elegant, alternative-inspired production style we started seeing back when he gave us “Beach Chair” with Chris Martin.
While I initially cringed at the idea of a duet with wife Beyonce, “Part II (On The Run)” is easily a highlight of the album and the studious listener can determine why they’re such a pair musically and as a celebrity couple: they don’t inundate the public with their relationship, instead leaving the expression to their art. This makes the potentially sappy concept of a couple’s duet more palatable…the talent level both exhibit can almost be considered a given. “Jay-Z Blue” touches on issues of fatherhood and succeeds at popularizing traditional family values in a genre where absentee and partial-custody fatherhood is so often considered the norm, with so many rappers content to referencing their “baby’s mothers” and not their wives. In the same vein, “Heaven” inspires independent thought about religion and spirituality in a genre where religion is only mentioned as a firm conviction, if at all. On tracks like these, Jay shows the growth from the cool, collected customer we first encountered on Reasonable Doubt to the more vulnerable, more complete individual we now know as probably the most influential MC in rap history.
Sadly, “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” to me represents one of the album’s biggest flaws. A lazy, uninspired Rick Ross collaboration, the song succeeds as a mindless track to drive around to, but not as a viable component to the album as a whole. Though the production quality is there and Jay-Z himself supplies a good verse, the overall concept covers too much of the ground that’s been tread over a million times over the past few years by lesser artists, Ross (whose contribution strangely monopolizes nearly 75% of the song) included. This is a trap Jay didn’t need to fall into at this point in his career. Granted, the track isn’t, by any means, un-listenable, but could have easily been relegated to bonus material.
Criticism of a Jay album, though inevitable, must be put into perspective. While critics have panned certain albums in his catalog, those same albums could still probably be placed miles ahead of recent albums by other artists that the same critics have labeled “good”. As Jay is quick to remind you, he’s light years ahead of a lot of other artists both in skill level, reach and influence and his music reflects this. With MCHG, Jay solidifies his lonely spot in the “grown-ass MC” category, a place for rappers who age gracefully and are not afraid to rap about their life as-is as opposed to trying to convince listeners that, at 40 plus, they’re still the same guy they were 20 years ago, which just doesn’t make sense. MCHG is an album for slightly older hip-hop fans who have evolved to a wider appreciation for other genres, as some of the inspiration here may be lost on young or less-sophisticated palates. Good music is ultimately good music, but the current soundscape may have some minds clouded as to what that sounds like, as the bar’s been set low. Luckily, Jay-Z isn’t dumbing it down for the knuckleheads. It just remains to be seen whether anyone will rise to meet the new standard.
Tracks Kept: 16 out of 16