This is why you never see what happens after the happily ever after. Following the post-retirement victory lap with his protégé on Watch The Throne, Magna Carta… Holy Grail has Jay-Z going around again only this time he’s circling the drain. While Kanye used the success of WTT to release an album that puts his reputation on the line both as a musician and a celebrity, Jay-Z is happier treading water in his dollar-sign shaped pool. Since its announcement MCHG has rung hollow. An exercise in corporate pretension from its $20million Samsung tie-in to its absurd primetime trailer right up to the overwrought smarm of opening the album with upcoming tour partner Justin Timberlake on the charmless ‘Holy Grail’, a song so misguided it has our 43 year old multimillionaire singing an excerpt of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
When he ‘retired’ with The Black Album in 2003 Jay-Z admitted, “I dumbed down for my audience and doubled my dollars” supposedly implying he could turn out tracks like ‘U Don’t Know’ and ‘99 Problems’ at ease but knew that blinged-out fluff paid better. With nothing to lose since, he has reawakened his storytelling gene on the superb American Gangster and swung for the fences on WTT as well as the solid Kingdom Come and Blueprint 3. Here he doubles down on whatever bet he made with the dunces back in the day. We get a Miley Cyrus diss, a follow up to ‘‘03 Bonnie and Clyde’ in ‘Part II (On The Run)’ that is so hammy Beyoncé is moved to sing ‘cliché’ repeatedly over the intro, lyrics from A Dummies Guide To Modern Art and… a 43 year old millionaire singing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
Jay-Z’s staying power comes from the fact that no matter how vapid the subject he maintained a smoothness and dexterity in his rhymes that was backed up by an infectious self-confidence. So it’s exciting to hear that he might open a new book of verse by reflecting on his marriage, the conflicts of fame and parenthood on ‘Jay Z Blue’ before it becomes clear he can’t bring himself to do more than acknowledge that he is indeed a famous married father. Which is all the more frustrating because, putting aside (though not excusing) the lyrics on Yeezus there is a real honesty at the cold heart of it that makes Kanye compelling while Jay-Z refuses to let his guard down, though that is not the only lack of commitment here.
Where once he would have handled Timbaland’s lush stuttering beats in cruise control, now he can’t even bother to keep up with rap’s most one-note player Rick Ross on the dumber than it’s named ‘Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit’. The production is in fact MCHG’s saving grace and should give Timbaland, who oversees most of it, a new lease of life though it does his employer few favours here, washing over leaden verses and sinking boasts except on the purposefully glib ‘Tom Ford’ where the two find their groove.
Other than that the only times Jay-Z manages to puff out his feathers and show glimpses of that old menace are on the sparkling ‘F.U.T.W.’ and the two most intriguing tracks ‘Versus’ and ‘Beach Is Better’ both of which come in at under a minute. Closing track ‘Nickles And Dimes’ hints again at a more reflective Jay but like so much of MCHG never fleshes out. Exactly a decade ago a bored Jay-Z ‘retired’ by asking defiantly ‘What More Can I Say?’ If the same question was asked of him now, the answer would be clear. It’s fitting though that, on an album made pre-platinum by a mobile company, for the first time in his career Jay-Z decides to phone it in.