For anyone that’s cared to listen, my only problem with the otherwise excellent Netflix exclusive House of Cards series is that the Kevin Spacey portrayed Francis J. Underwood’s quest for, and consolidation of power is far too easy. Dominoes tend to topple over, but Underwood’s opponents step-aside like well-trained matadors. It’s easy to root for the underdog and even the boss (if they’re amiable enough). But the one who breezes through everything (without ever hinting at all the work put in) could never be confused for the “everyman.” We cheer for Michael Jordan, but sympathize for the player riding the bench. I feel the same way when I listen to Magna Carta…Holy Grail.
Not to say that Jay-Z should go back to rapping from the perspective of the scrappy hustler, “back to the wall ashy knuckles,” that spun golden yards of the crack game on Reasonable Doubt. It’s a ridiculous request and were Jay to readopt that persona it would be as roundly dismissed as Rick Ross following the outing of his false “gangsterism.” That’s not where Jay-Z is in his career; he’s signing Kevin Durant to his new sports agency, going all in on what Bomani Jones pointedly called “the greatest cell phone promotion ever,” and vacationing in Cuba. He’s got infinite album budgets and a Rolodex of five-star producers that would make entire labels blush. Wealth talk in hip-hop has never been what’s driven people away, Big Bank Hank on “Rapper’s Delight” bragged of having a “Lincoln Continental and a sunroof Cadillac” (oh how the times have changed). Jay-Z’s longing for a “Picasso in his casa,” on the booming “Picasso Baby” is an extension of a material longing that only years of struggle could create. But the hunger was satiated somewhere between the turkey bacon for breakfast and the bottles of champagne for a nightcap.
Jay’s hunger has always been at its greatest when he’s had something to play off of. Watch the Throne was cut from the same fine cloth he’s now stitched in every time he leaves the crib, but he had Kanye West around to light the proverbial fire under his ass. Excepting the Murder’s Row production list, The Black Album succeeded so wildly because Jay was rapping on the door of retirement. Jay only crafted the all-time diss track “Takeover” for The Blueprint because vocal critics like Nas, Prodigy, and Jadakiss were closing in on all sides. The higher the flames under Jay-Z’s feet get, the higher he ascends. MCHG then is unmistakably frigid at points.
By all accounts Mr. & Mrs. Carter have a perfectly happy and healthy marriage, but you’d never know it from the lack of chemistry displayed on the tepid “Part II (On the Run).” The song, which rides a quasi-late-80s/early 90s R&B groove and hasn’t been officially confirmed as a sequel to the explosive “03 Bonnie & Clyde,” is a further down trending of what began on the cloying “Lift Off,” where the two last me. Surrounded by “No Church in the Wild,” and “N****s in Paris,” that track felt entirely unnecessary and coming in at nearly 6 minutes, so does “Part II (On the Run).
Even with all the namechecking of Basquiat paintings, Tom Ford clothing tags, and surprise trips to Marrakesh to smoke hashish, the most opulent thing about the album is its length. The run time of 59 minutes is deceptive; with late-album tracks like the Timbaland beach-house groove “La Familia,” contributing to the feeling that MCHG is much longer. Despite putting a Gonjasufi sample to provoking use on closer “Nickels & Dimes,” Hov flatly ignores the Neil Young advice that “it’s better to burn out than fade away.” Likewise, the suit and tie s*** of “Holy Grail” could’ve been hemmed to get it under 5 minutes.
That being said, there are clear highlights to be found on MCHG. Like an eyeball grabbing summer-blockbuster, “Holy Grail” is decadent and overblown in the best way. Justin Timberlake creates a grand scale from the get-go, howling over a piano “I still don’t know why I love you so much.” Jay continues the “papa paranoia” of Watch the Throne‘s “New Day,” surrounded by “haters in the papers, photo shoots with paparazzi,” to the point where a walk with his daughter becomes next to impossible. And despite what’s been said of the reworking of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the moment flies by so fast over the sprightly beat it’s hard to take stock of. “Oceans” is another moment of pure brilliance, returning to the imbalances between wealth and race that WTT delivered a treatise on. OF-crooner Frank Ocean conveys the mood, “this water drowned my family, this water mixed my blood, this water tells my story, this water knows it all,” making the confined quarters of a yacht sound like paradise when considering the slave ships that came before.
Elsewhere, the brash Timbaland beat of “Heaven” is one-step from launching into “Dream On,” and again employs Timberlake, this time to soulfully question just who makes it into heaven. Jay rips through round 1 on the song, effortlessly rolling off the 12 jewels of Islam (knowledge, wisdom, understanding, freedom, justice, equality, food, shelter, love, peace, and happiness) giving credence to the line “can’t believe this much skill in the human body.”
For any overabundance that “Nickels & Dimes” has, Jay-Z’s lyrical dexterity is on full-display here. He moves from talk of Mac-11’s to soft-drinks and Johnny Cash without batting an eye and later evokes Kubrick’s nightmarish Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick the dictionary definition of “perfectionist” is an idle auteur for Jay to compare himself to at this point in his career. Jay-Z albums now are meticulously crafted things, not a note out of place, everything from the guest-list to the packaging and promotion obsessively micromanaged. But the curtains are never pulled back for us to see all the sweat and sacrifice that goes into the finished product. The house of cards is set up, but never in danger of falling down.