Review Summary: Although not at the top of his game, Jay-Z's first post-retirement album is still a solid effort. Gone is the edge and in it's place is a cool maturity.
Just three months ago I recall sitting at my desk, on my computer and reading the first rumours of the impossible occurring. It was alleged to have three different titles and three different release dates by three different sources. Soon after, the shroud of mystery began to slide back and the truth poked its head out. The impossible was about to occur: Jay-Z was coming out of retirement with a new album. Clearly, my excitement was difficult to contain. The Michael Jordan case(s) aside, how often does the best ever there ever was decide to quit and come back?
I suppose I should have expected a cheesy opening monologue. But as the opening notes unfolded from my stereo, something rather unexpected occurred: I was bored. Like a kid unwrapping socks at Christmas, I was shocked and disappointed. Me and Hov were off to a rocky start so far, but then like finding a wad of Benjamins inside those socks, the second track alleviated any fears. Sampling the classic Allman Brothers Band song Whipping Post, the song Oh My God's beat pops like a one-two punch. His energy is as powerful as it ever has been. But despite the fire of songs like Oh My God, Show Me What You Got, and Trouble, gone is some of the edge that made Jay-Z famous.
This may be for the best. The man has had ten years on the scene and has re-invented himself with each album to some degree. This album sees a large departure from the feel of previous albums like The Black Album and The Blueprint. The lyrics reflect the sad fact that Jay-Z is in his late 30s, incredibly reach and is running out of enemies. There is much less aggression and even though it would be overkill to have every song pull an audible knife on the listener, the album lacks anything comparable to songs like Takeover or Threats. The only thing that comes close is Dig A Hole, in which says "I give em enough rope/they put themselves in the air/ I just kick the chair" and a chorus with the order to "Dig a hole/ bury yourself". Threatening? Maybe. Lazy? Just a touch. Rather than staring the enemy in the face, he almost seems to think that he has become so big that enemies just die on their own. Maybe I just miss the Jay-Z who had to fight to get to the top.
At least he can not be accused of not progressing as an artist. Like it or not, this is a step in a new direction. That direction just happens to be an aging rapper trying to reinvent himself. But its not all bad. The album, though different overall is well done. It has a fair share of surprises like Anything which features Usher and Pharrell. When I hear of that collaboration, I thought that there was no way they could fail. I was wrong. It is actually one of the least original and developed songs on the album. But when I heard that Jay-Z would have a song featuring Chris Martin, I quietly snickered to myself. I love Coldplay and Jay-Z but at the time I thought that there could not have been a more misguided and hopeless collaboration. Much to my surprise, their song, Beach Chair (which even sounds lame), is one of the best and most progressive songs on the album.
As relaxed and passive as the album is at times, it is still the best ever doing his thing. In most cases, the relaxed feel translates to a slow grove, and only rarely results in boredom. Its certainly no Black Album or Blueprint, but overall I really enjoy this album. Some fans will undoubtedly reject this for the reasons I've discussed, but the album represents a new Hov. And a new, if not perfectly realized, direction by Jay-Z is still better than most others can ever hope to achieve. Take him or leave him, he is still the best.