"Diamonds & Wood" is an ongoing series in which music critic Shea Serrano breaks down the 5 hip-hop tracks you need to hear this week.
One of my very favorite writers of all is this very smart, very insightful man named Henry Abbott. He runs a site called True Hoop, which is part of the basketball arm of ESPN. There are, were I to guess, maybe somewhere around 85 different websites on the Internet (85 seems like a lot, but the Internet is mad big, yo). Going to all of them could eat up probably two or three hours of your day. The information they offer is endless and compelling. Still, True Hoop is among the three or four that I am certain to visit every single day (the others being Four Pins because I want to be as crispy as possible, YouTube because there are still several Manu Ginobili videos I haven't seen yet and the Wikipedia page for Blood In Blood Out).
TH is great. They run all sorts of interesting pieces on there, from long player profiles to video chats with players and writers to statistics-based articles that shoot holes in all of your favorite basketball theories (Kobe Bryant being clutch, for example, or even the idea of "clutch" at all, really).
Among their most consistent features is a segment called "First Cup: [DAY OF THE WEEK]", where Abbott (or someone filling in for him) will gather up the most interesting stories from the country's most prominent basketball writers, highlight a portion of them and then link to the rest of the article. It's a very simple, very effective idea. You get to read the day's important basketball news without having to complete the arduous task of looking for stuff on the Internet. (You want me to go to each site myself and LOOK for a story? Jesus Christ, who am I? Zeus?)
So, since it's such a great thing, I am going to steal it. (Kris Ex, one of the best hip-hop writers on Mother Earth once told me, "Good writers borrow, great writers steal." I found out later that he stole that from T.S. Eliot.)
Everyone is talking about and will continue to talk about Jay-Z's new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. You should talk about it too because if you don't then you won't be like everyone else and the worst thing you could ever be is not like everyone else. So here are some ideas and thoughts for you to steal:
My true best friend the unstoppable Randall Roberts, for The LA Times: "'Parades down Flatbush, confetti in my fur,' raps Jay-Z on 'F.U.T.W.,' a lyrically disposable but aurally pleasing jam about winning, destiny and many other tropes he's tossed over two decades as a professional. On "Oceans," produced by Pharrell, Jay-Z and Frank Ocean roll on a yacht off the coast of Africa while pondering the lives of the ancestors who centuries ago traveled the same water on a tortuous route to America. On "Beach Is Better," he spends nearly $100,000 during a day along the sea."
My true best friend the mighty Jeff Rosenthal, for Billboard: "As an event, it's good, it's great, it's disappointing and back again. As an album, though, it tends to be safe. He's surrounded by friends, in the commercials and on the tracks: there's Beyoncé, Pharrell Williams, Swizz Beatz, Nas, Rick Ross, Frank Ocean, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. It's in the same vein as 'Watch The Throne,' where there's much talk of revolution, of race and class, but - while they championed Occupy Wall Street in Occupy All Streets shirts - now, these words have been co-opted by a giant phone company."
My true best friend the undefeatable Claire Lobenfeld, for Stereogum: "He lays in just as heavy on youth culture on head-knocker 'Somewhereinamerica.' It brims with Jay’s trademark subtlety, as he raps, 'Ask Bun B about me/ this ain’t no snapback/ a nigga been trill”'in reference to the Tumblr-famous #Been #Trill collective and their #NY# hats — although, whether Tumblr-rap or the odd use of the Yankees logo hurts him more is up in the air."
My true best friend the true of heart Rob Markman, for MTV: "With his verses Jay mulls over the pitfalls of his fame atop somber piano keys and a steady drum knock. That's not to suggest that Holy Grail is an over-intellectual affair. There is a ton of dual meaning packed behind each Jigga rap, but it works just as well with a surface listen. 'Picasso Baby' starts off with nods to the MOMA, the Met and the Louvre, but two-and-a-half minutes into the Timbaland-produced gem, the tempo switches and so does Hov's subject matter. 'I never stuck my c--k in a Fox's box/ But damn if I ain't open Pandora's box,' he raps with grit, denying seedy Internet rumors that he once had an affair with Brooklyn rapper Foxy Brown."
My true best friend the incomparable Jon Pareles, for The New York Times: "But on this album, the music often tells a different story: less vainglorious, more ambivalent. 'Oceans' itself — which, true to Jay-Z wordplay, features Frank Ocean on vocals — juxtaposes thoughts of slave ships with Jay-Z’s current luxury, cruising on a yacht; its track is a brass-section elegy. It’s typical of an album on which Jay-Z turns away from the anthemic pop of 'Empire State of Mind,' the rock stomp of '99 Problems,' or the lavish mélange of electronics, sampled soul music and orchestral buildups that he shared with Kanye West on 'Watch the Throne,' their brilliant 2011 duo album."
My true best friend Jordan Sargent, for Spin: "Of course, Jay has always made music so that the masses would marvel. But this was once achieved through his skill as a rapper. He was the best MC since Biggie — he knew it, he knew that you knew it, and so he said it. But on MCHG, we're simply supposed to marvel at Jay's things."
My true best friend the tough tamales Christina Lee, for Idolator: On Magna Carta, Jay-Z compares his castle walls to art museums, but tends to concern himself with everyone else. He sounds most satisfied when he bullies everyone else on radio right now, like the molly-littered rap landscape in the springy “Tom Ford” and Miley Cyrus in the tooting seventh track 'SomewhereinAmerica.' ('Twerk, Miley, twerk,' he wryly instructs, adding, 'Only in America.') The longer he busies himself with everyone else, though, the more he resorts to obnoxious, if not clunky, taunting — like in 'La Familia': 'Tell these n—-s to pull they skirts down, I can see their ovaries.'”
Buy Magna Carta Holy Grail. Stream it here.
Shea Serrano is a writer living in Houston, TX. His work has appeared in the Houston Press, LA Weekly, Village Voice, XXL, The Source, Grantland and more. You can follow him on Twitter here.