Jay Z is often criticized for not doing enough. He's shown us what it means to succeed in the white man’s world, and with that success, the thinking goes, comes responsibility. A man of his stature, with his reputation and influence in the black community—which he himself is quick to boast about—should be present and outspoken when atrocities and injustices are inflicted upon us. Never mind that, as Complex contributor Judnick Mayard pointed out, we too often unfairly look to black celebrities—who are sometimes just as uncertain about what to do in the face of senseless tragedy as the rest of us—to provide all the answers. Not every black celeb wants to be Jesse Williams or Killer Mike. Yet silence or distance from those in and of our culture can be difficult to stomach, from the GOAT rapper especially.
Last night, during the shooting in Dallas, Jay released a new song, "spiritual," and connected with us by dialing directly into those feelings of confusion and helplessness, the conflict of being a Business, Man with no answers, just persistent personal demons. It's his first song as the lead and only featured artist in three years. His last solo offering was his 12th album Magna Carta Holy Grail, a collection of songs whose content was widely criticized for being vapid and mired in one-percenter problems. Writer Sasha Frere-Jones took Jigga and the album to task so harshly the summer it dropped—the same summer as the George Zimmerman verdict—that we felt compelled to offer a defense.
When word got out that Jay dropped a new song last night, the lingering disappointment around MCHG led people to immediately think the worst (as did the unfortunate timing). Statements like, “Bad timing for a new track,” or, “Why would he drop it exclusively on Tidal?” were tweeted and then deleted after people took the time to listen. People want to brand Hov an opportunistic sellout yet again. But "spiritual" is as necessary as cool water on a hot day.
I believe music heals. I believe that.— Punch (@iamstillpunch) July 8, 2016
Most would agree that latter day Jay Z is at his best when he peels back the curtain; his Wizards-era discography has been most vital when he gets introspective. Despite the brevity of its two verses, “spiritual” is arguably his most personal work yet, an amalgam of the songs and verses from 2006 onward where he dug deep. The anxieties from “Jay Z Blue” regarding his capabilities as a father, given that his own failed him, resurface here. The sentiments from Watch the Throne’s “Welcome to the Jungle”—"Where the fuck is the press? Where the fuck is the Pres/Either they know or don’t care, I’m fucking depressed”—are compounded on lines like “I need a drink, shrink, or something/I need an angelic voice to sing me something.” The “Sandcastles” video takes on a wholly different flavor after you’ve heard Iceberg Slim plead, “Extend your arms, I’m cold/Hold me for a half an hour until I am whole.” The second verse even finds him rapping to his inner child.
There’s social commentary too, reminiscent of the “Murder” half of “Murder to Excellence,” or, if you go further back in his catalog, pro-black songs like “This Life Forever” and “Young, Black & Gifted,” songs that support the argument that Jigga has always been about our empowerment. "spiritual" may not be as overt or detailed as those songs, but it feels urgently raw and passionate. "No, I am not poison, just a boy from the hood, I just wanna do good," he appeals on the hook. It’s a vast improvement over Kingdom Come’s Hurricane Katrina-centric “Minority Report," where he sounded bored trying to blandly unpack his own shortcomings as a social activist: “Sure, I ponied up a mil, but I didn’t give my time.”
In contrast to his detached delivery on that song, his flow on “spiritual” is erratic, off even; but in a way that feels appropriate, underscoring his equally erratic state of mind. One-take Hov sounds like he’s spilling the bars out in a spoken-word stream of consciousness, prioritizing pure emotion over his trademark technical excellence. (This was likely influenced by the track’s producer Detail, who has a history of bringing unprecedented vocal performances out of complacent rappers. Hopefully Jay has more in the stash with him.)
“spiritual” isn’t new. It's an unfinished recording from the vaults, as he explained in the letter that accompanied the song. TDE’s Punch apparently urged Hov to put it out around the time of the Michael Brown shooting—the refrain invokes the “Hands up, don’t shoot” protest call—which would date it circa Aug. 2014. The song may be have been recently dusted off, but it feels of a piece with the three new offerings Jay used to kick off the summer. Taken together, they suggest he's moving in the right direction if a new LP is indeed coming soon. His 48-bar showout on “Drug Dealers Anonymous” is an impressive return to form as a rapper, while “I Got the Keys” shows Jay more deftly maintaining his own aesthetic amidst today's sounds and trends without sounding awkward or dated. (Take note of how MCHG’s worst song, “La Familia,” unfortunately adopted Future’s then-popular “Karate Chop” flow; meanwhile “Keys” features the pair working comfortably alongside each other, in their own elements.)
He’s rapping better and going deeper than he was three years ago. If Magna Carta sounded like Jay rapping from the biggest castle with the tallest walls, his 2016 offerings suggest the king has finally rejoined the mob. Just like we wanted him to.