Label: Roc-A-Fella, Roc Nation, Universal
Producers: Boi-1da, Hit-Boy, Jerome "J-Roc" Harmon, Kyambo Joshua, Marz, Mike Dean, Mike Will Made It, No ID, Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz, The-Dream, Timbaland, Travis Scott, Wondagurl, Vinylz
Features: Justin Timberlake, Rick Ross, Frank Ocean, Beyonce
Jay-Z has sustained a hip-hop career to the age of 43. A remarkable achievement. And he is effectively as strong a rapper as he's always been. His skills haven't really faltered. And his storied business acumen has put him in a position of greater success than any of his contemporaries. He is a survivor of the hip-hop generation who not only endured but flourished. A few others have made it to his level—Dr. Dre, Puffy—but none have epitomized the possibilities of rapping, of maintaining one's place on the throne through pure verbal talent and star power, that Jay has. (With a possible exception made for Eminem).
Which isn't to say that Jay's most recent album is great, or even close to it. It is at times disconnected and joyless, and feels out of step with hip-hop today, and relies heavily on the trappings and signifiers of success to make up for what's missing. His dominance is like a feedback loop: he's winning, because he has the fruits of success; he has the fruits of success because he's winning. But though he goes through the motions, his music was never about human connection. Jay-Z does not relate to what you're going through. Rather, he allows you to, however briefly, feel what he's feeling. Or perhaps "feeling" is the wrong word for it. He allows the listener to share in his sense of control, his precision, his expertise, his focus, doing whatever it takes to achieve success. Jay-Z is cold. He revels in unapologetic mercilessness. He is an athlete with a single-minded purpose: victory at all costs. When it looks like he could appear weak, he calls up an investor. The record could flop, but he never will.
You only really believe a few things he says; he's continued to feed into his own mythos, a ruthless businessman who may or may not have just taken his sponsors for everything they're worth. He's as calculating a public figure as we've ever seen. This record only fails in that, compared to other albums, it lets the listener see, or hear, or feel the calculation. He used to openly brag about being a calloused capitalist. But as he moves from the streets to the boardrooms, everything gets a little more cloak-and-dagger. (No pun intended.) Of course, this only undercuts his music if you want to enjoy it for the music itself. If you're more interested in what Jay represents, Magna Carta Holy Grail still epitomizes Jay's persona. "Never Change" was on his Blueprint for a reason. — David Drake