Given the hype and icky Samsung pre-release, expecting greatness from Jay-Z's 12th album is reasonable. But instead of the cohesive mastery of Reasonable Doubt, the godly flow of Vol 2... Hard Knock Life or the insta-classics of The Blueprint, we get eclectic but undaring tracks by too many producers in Jay-Z's much-rapped-about kitchen.
The glut of competing elements never quite gels on opener Holy Grail, and by the third time Justin Timberlake's drawn-out hook comes in, the song's been going on way too long. (Hearing Jay's signature "uh" behind that ill-placed falsetto is almost funny.) From there, nothing really begs for a repeat spin. Oh, yes, BBC is irresistible: but doesn't it swing just a touch too Pharrellian for a Jay-Z album?
Indelible isms from albums past (I'm a business, man; 99 problems; lawyer fees) have been replaced by (cringe) twitter mentions and (double cringe) Miley Cyrus references. The new, honest, interesting material here is baby Blue: fatherhood has its soaring joys and self-doubt-laced challenges, even for Picasso owners, baby. Heaven is Jay-Z at his most introspective (shame it samples something Eminem used 10 years ago).
Divulging that he wants to fuck Beyoncé like a prostitute in a dirty hotel is deliciously badass and weirdly romantic. More of that raw Jay and less of the glitz could have salvaged the album.
Top track: Nickels And Dimes
Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake play the Rogers Centre on Wednesday (July 17).