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Jay-Z and Skylar Grey 

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click to enlarge Magna Carta Holy Grail

Jay-Z

Magna Carta Holy Grail

Roc-A-Fella / Universal Records

File next to: Big Sean, Big Daddy Kane

Since the two curator princes of Watch the Throne — Jay-Z and Kanye West — chose to release subsequent solo albums two weeks apart, comparisons are inevitable. It's fair to say that where Kanye is stark and innovative, Jay-Z uses lush over-production; where Kanye offers a blank CD for the physical product, Jay-Z has an overpriced box with glossy booklet. That may not make Magna Carta Holy Grail a complete disappointment, but its most interesting moments are in dissonant off-putting tunes like the closer, "Nickels and Dimes." Jay-Z wishes this could outrank The Black Album through track overlays, but where's the spirit? He invites plenty of friends to the party, but his guest singers add little to the mix. Jay-Z promised us Illuminati conspiracy weirdness and odd arrangements, but all we get are celebrity cameos and champagne. Is it any wonder this connubial-bliss zillionaire was chosen to score The Great Gatsby? — Loring Wirbel

click to enlarge Don't Look Down

Skylar Grey

Don't Look Down

Interscope Records

File next to: Kate Nash, Lana Del Rey

After releasing a piano-pop album under the name Holly Brook, Skylar Grey was tasked, as arranger and muse, with finishing Dr. Dre's still-unreleased Detox album. So it was a toss-up whether Don't Look Down, her first full-length work under the Grey name, would exhibit urban toughness or sparkly pop. With guest appearances by Eminem and Travis Barker, along with the mean cover art, one might expect some hip-hop here, but this is pure pop — and that is an unabashedly good thing. Detractors might place her stylings somewhere between Taylor Swift and Paramore's Hayley Williams, but they'd be overlooking the fact that this woman can write and arrange like nobody's business. From the opening "Back from the Dead" to the closing "White Suburban," Skylar Grey leaves no doubt she can craft a perfect three-minute pop tune. And those who call that goal too superficial fail to realize that it's summer. — Loring Wirbel

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