Jay-Z : "Oceans (f/ Frank Ocean)"

from Magna Carta Holy Grail (Roc-A-Fella; 2013)

By Brent Ables | 16 July 2013

So yeah, Magna Carta Holy Grail is a bit of a slog. Spread out over an hour and sixteen tracks, the album feels at once overcooked and underthought in a way that only a multimillionaire mogul could pull off. Because it’s Jay-Z, we get guest spots from red-hot commodities like Justin Timberlake (channeling his inner Robin Thicke) and Beyonce (channeling her inner Adele). Because it’s 2010’s Jay-Z, most of these 50K-for-a-verse appearances overshadow the nominal star of the spectacle. For a full two-thirds of this record, Jay-Z sounds like he’s barely engaging with his own music. At times this seems deliberate, as if he’s giving Timbo’s production room to breathe in the same way Timberlake did earlier this year on The 20/20 Experience. But on tracks like “Tom Ford” and the deadly-dull “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” where the production is hardly a driving force, it’s easy to wonder whether Jay-Z even cares. Combine that apathy with a slow beginning and a snoozer of a final stretch, and you’ve got a custard-filled zeppelin of a rap record.

Those who have dismissed Magna Carta as a broken contract, however, are forgetting about the record’s other third. The mid-album run from “Oceans” to “Versus” is straight fire. Had it been an EP, it would be Jay-Z’s best solo work since American Gangster (2007); as it is, it’s a welcome oasis in a vast expanse of boredom. And the entire arc coasts on the energy introduced by one Frank Ocean. To be sure, he has a great blast of production behind him, courtesy of the wet-dream production combo of Timbaland and Pharrell Williams. The horns that introduce the track crash with all the force of a typhoon, leaving behind a resounding minor chord in their wake while Frank Ocean blesses us with his gentlest croon. And Jay brings his A-game to the track’s verses, hitting on all the lyrical tropes that define his mythos while peppering his lines with the complex internal rhymes that he does better than anyone else in his income bracket. But Ocean is the shining star here—so good they named the damn track after him.

Frank Ocean’s abilities are already well beyond those exhibited on last year’s excellent Channel Orange (2012). As he also did on Yeezus, Ocean brings a clarion tone to his appearance here that makes every auto-tuned vocal rap hook of the last five years sound like Agent Sasco with a bad chest cold. As his voice gets stronger, he continues to learn how to wield it better: listen to the way he curls his vowels around the “Basquiat show / And if so” rhyme, making a personal idiosyncrasy into an immensely endearing hook. But it’s ultimately the depth of his lyrics, unmatched by anything else on the album, that takes the song to the next level.

The “Oceans” in question on this track are the ones that made the slave trade possible a few short centuries ago and then turned into a canvas of luxury and privilege for, among others, wealthy African American rappers. First blood in the water, then champagne in the sun. As the drones over at Rap Genius have already explored in some detail, Ocean packs his lines with symbolism, alluding to everything from Ivory hunting to the goddess Atalanta. Perhaps his most powerful image is this: “I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo / Before the Basquiat show.” When you consider that Basquiat is a graffiti artist whose art began as an explosion of color on drab city walls, the line itself becomes a multi-hued splendor: social commentary dressed up in the poetry of luxury. Would that Jay-Z’s suit and tie were always so resplendent.