Think Twice: A Pair of Rap Albums Hint at a Weak Link

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When the rap game’s own hegemonic class briefly conceded the impetuous domination over their respective lanes, and finally decided to join forces in 2011 for their highly anticipated collaborative project they’d already amassed—jointly and independently—six landmark hip-hop albums. And while Watch the Throne may not have been “as good” as any of those six albums it did largely put things into perspective—perhaps out in the open for the first time ever—that Kanye West is indeed both the multiplatinum duo’s brains and brawn. Hell, even one of wrestling’s most iconic tag teams, the Mega Powers, had to have a weak link. Furthermore—as cockamamie as it may be—the Mega Powers comparison is an apt one in assessing the dynamic and working relationship between Jay Z and Kanye West. How so? For starters, it helps to imagine Jay Z as Hulk Hogan (entire careers have been built on casually swaggering their way to the top of the game, on never being ruffled and certainly never looking worried) and Kanye as “Macho Man” Randy Savage (insecure, vulnerable, ego-maniacal characters whose style—perfectly punctuated by their flamboyance—was only out-shined by their amazing talent). Like the Mega Powers during their heyday, the two influential hip-hop superstars teaming up was, ultimately, an inevitable move. And although it’s, by and large, questionable if the timing was right one thing is for certain: This pairing would drastically alter the public’s perception of them as creatives forever. After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Akin to that of the Mega Powers’ dominance over the World Wrestling Federation tag team circuit in the late 1980s, Watch the Throne largely felt more like a victory lap by two of the biggest brand names in hip-hop than anything else. Sadly, there is much upheaval in seeing (and hearing) two masters of their craft together—simultaneously and for an extended period of time. Someone just has to falter. It’s no secret, Kanye West has helped Jay Z find his trademark sound, and essentially created one of the past decade’s most influential and evocative hip-hop soundscapes. The Blueprint proved to be as aptly titled as any hip-hop album has ever been and over the following three years both artists experienced great success on the strength of that album’s ubiquity. But by 2004, Jay Z had grown tired of life as the king of the castle and Kanye was increasingly bored playing second, even third fiddle to his labelmates. No longer in the shadow of a giant and with the scepter now firmly in his hands, Kanye would refuse to look back and began to pave way for himself as a threat in music. And it comes as no surprise: He still hasn’t passed that scepter along. It’s always been an uphill battle for Kanye; trying to convince those proverbial old heads he could triumph on the microphone where other rhyme-challenged beatmakers had met with mixed success at best. (What, you think I’d forget about Dre?). More often than not, Kanye still sounds hungry, unsatisfied and generally frustrated—and somehow still vying for the illusive top spot despite being one of music’s most in-demand artists.

So who occupies this illusory top spot? If you ask Kanye, it’s none other than his tag partner. Jay Z even gets top billing, and an eqully baffling all caps treatment of his name. (Credited to: JAY Z & Kanye West on iTunes.) Although, this is all possibly for seniority’s sake. For the first time, a rift within the hip-hop Mega Powers’ seemingly impenetrable fortress of solitude begins to take precedence. In addition, Jay Z is slotted into an unfamiliar role on Watch the Throne: The old pro jaded by the fame, the money, the women, and the years of self-indulgence. Who would have thought? It’s an odd position to find the (then) eleven time number one Billboard 200 artist. Many iterations and scale backs, difficulties during the recording process, and intense arguments regarding the direction of the project—the dream team of Jay Z and Kanye West appeared to be more dream than team. And like Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage together in the ring before them, Jay Z and Kanye West—despite their differences in approaching the medium of music—were able to deliver a quality show with Watch the Throne as it turned out to be a truly imposing, braggadocios piece of escapism bliss. The final product is so obscenely opulent, appropriately self-absorbed and undeniably egotistical that if you were to consume anymore of it you would be required by law to put down your headphones, go for a walk, and clear your mind—as you will never relate to their ostentatious wealth or global popularity.

And the two are at their absolute best when they’re celebrating their ostensibly unlimited financial privilege and power. From the unabashed greatness that’s on display on “Niggas in Paris” (featuring Jay Z showcasing his trademark technical marksmanship he still has in him), to the dizzying fun of “Otis” (Kanye impressively chops up Otis Redding’s soulful grunts and makes it into the driving mechanism of the track), to the grandiose and concurrently obnoxious “Who Gon Stop Me” (which finds Kanye hilariously rapping in Pig Latin: “Niggas talking, they bitchmade/ Ixnay off my dicksnay”). Watch the Throne is an almost literal treasure trove of flagrant wealth and audacious entertainment. And while the two fire on all cylinders in equal measure, it’s indisputably Kanye who is the project’s director and luminary. His distinguishable presence can be felt throughout Watch the Throne’s breezy 46-minutes; everything from the production, album’s scope, dramatic and boastful lyrics, subtler moments, myopic sillier moments, and even distinctive taste and sense of style. It’s all clearly Kanye’s line of work. But that’s no shots fired at Jay Z and his particular creative output because we have to remember that, despite all of this, he was the one old head who gave Kanye his blessing to pursue a solo career in rap. But it is Kanye who used that signature moxie of his to quickly developed a signature sound, and then another, and then another, and by the time they reconvened to work on Jay Z’s Blueprint 3 in 2009, the tables had very obviously been turned. Kanye was now in Jay Z’s ear as a peer more than a hitmaker, and the respect ran deeper than meer musical aptitude.

Fast forward to two years later, and the superpowers of hip-hop have moved on past their grandiose collaboration with each going on to release a solo studio album with just a mere months time between them. Listening to both, Yeezus and Magna Carta Holy Grail, respectively, in the same year almost feels as if Watch the Throne never happened. Did we imagine the whole thing? Was it all just a dream? And as monumental of an occasion as Watch the Throne was at the time, it only serves as a reminder, to everyone, that Kanye West and Jay Z are two clearly dissimilar artists with two entirely divergent visions and ideas. And a return to their particular lanes that they’ve both so perfectly carved for themselves is perhaps only apropos post-Watch the Throne rap spectacle. Think of 2013 as going to work with a hangover after partying all night. And it’s germane that Kanye West’s album is up first because Yeezus, his sixth solo studio album, is the indelible paragon of a katzenjammer. Whenever the name Kanye West comes up in conversation, the word “restraint” doesn’t usually get thrown around much. Throughout his career, Kanye has always come off as exuberant and overexcitable; a twitchy little guy perpetually uncertain of his status. Even when he steps outside of himself and catches a fleeting bout of righteousness, there’s something embarrassing about it: Witness his now infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!” outburst—next to a horrified Mike Meyers—on national television. His music overflows with a similar spirit of torrential eagerness, sprouting codas and instrumental breakdowns, and full choirs on its way to the maximalist proportions. There’s probably no more irrepressible persona in hip-hop than Kanye, which is why one of the most shocking things about Yeezus is that in some ways he displays something nearing self-abnegating.

One: The album tops out at a spare ten tracks (40-minutes in total length), compared to The College Dropout’s twenty, Late Registration’s twenty-one and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s fourteen. Two: Apart from a ragged-sounding Chief Keef on “Hold My Liquor” and a cocksure cursory verse from King L (also known as King Louie) on “Send It Up”, Yeezus has no guest MCs. Sure, the music still overflows with Kanye’s trademark generosity but there are far fewer moments of bloat than on the caloric overload Late Registration, which, as a pure listening experience was akin to eating an entire cheesecake in one sitting. In some ways Yeezus serves as a document of Kanye’s maturation as a musician and transformation into a doyen curator. Here he continues to push at mainstream hip-hop’s sonic contours; sampling a number of unlikely sources and providing uneasy soundscapes that can only be crafted from hours spent in-studio and not on a home audio workstation via cheap software. Take the first two songs released to the public: “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves”, (bet Kanye’s camp had a fit when they read those) a pair of bludgeoning sledge hammer shots to the gut. “New Slaves” is simply an ingenious piece of minimalist craftsmanship—in that Kanye has framed his unflinching voice over a simple, never-changing six- or seven-note instrumental figure whose tone shifts from an antiseptic keyboard drip to an over-the-top synthesized choir noise—that’s retroactively more in line with a cheesy 1980s horror film than a tension-bubbling song about indifferent subservience in a go-go era. Not only that, but the whole song—with its antic approach to basic song conventions and bare drums (just a high pluck on the last note of each phrase)—would’ve greatly distracted from the unsettling tone of every note of that riff had they been more pronounced.

“Black Skinhead”, by contrast, rolls on sheer breathless menace moved forward only by galloping, bare-bones drums and a massively feedback lurch of a bass that sounds like a horde of monsters looming up on the horizon. Lord knows that the phrase “living in the moment” is used by a lot of people these days—most of whom unfortunately want “the moment” to be as easy as possible—but “Black Skinhead” is a song that rightfully earns that phrase as it’s a song that doesn’t leave any room for anything other than the present moment. As the panted vocal loop calls upon a desperate late night rush down an empty highway to hell, those screams that quiver from channel to channel feel like the contorted shrieks of every cranked-out hitchhiker ghost you’re zooming past. To note the substance vs. style argument Yeezus has since generated across the music world, it’s interesting to see just how so many critics and pundits alike have initially failed to grasp the substance on the album, and yet still have given Kanye a pass for lacking “quality” lyrics. I appreciate the scant reviews that at least hold him accountable for what they take to be unfocused lyrics but ultimately I have found, so far, every critic has missed the mark when discussing the content of the album. It’s neither blindly misogynistic nor incredibly self-righteous as some note; the complexity reflected in its level of frustration and self-consciousness is part and parcel with its emphasis on the perception of racial identity and the paradoxes of the so-called “success” of the modern black entertainer. Frankly, Kanye West gives the listener so much to chew and possibly, for the first time since his 2004 debut, is finally able to channel daunting inner turmoil and frustration. Hearing his agonizing screams on “I Am a God” reinforces that opinion as it is the sound of pure, unadulterated catharsis.

As for the message taking a purely self-persecutory tone, this is also largely false. A lot of critics like to mention the alleged misogyny of the album but they seemingly overlook the elements of self-criticism and indictment of black (contemporary/hip-hop) culture. Do they actually think that Kanye’s sampling Nina Simone’s devastating lyrics about lynching blacks juxtaposed with lyrics about superficial black relationships is lost on Kanye? It’s significant that Kanye’s perspective switches from first person to third person in the last verse of “Blood on the Leaves”—where he talks about how “he only wants to see her ass in reverse”—implicating both the male and female in the doomed relationship, and subsequently calling it an “unholy matrimony”. And in that same token, like Kanye West’s Yeezus, Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail isn’t going to stop being divisive any time soon. That much I think we can say with certainty. Opinions on just about every moment on this record appear up for grabs, largely in part to an engagingly distracting marketing plan involving Samsung’s new cellphone and its #newrules. One of the #newrules Team Hov seemed to overlook in this increasingly bizarre release strategy is that by cutting a majority of one’s rabid fanbase out of the zeitgeist moment you run the risk of alienating them all at once. But in recent years—in direct proportion with Jay Z’s meteoric rising stock (quite literally)—he has divided his fans into the haves and have-nots. While only a small branch of people could acquire Magna Carta Holy Grail on its release date (first one million to download with specific Samsung smartphones), Jay Z has found a new way of undermining the listener. Even before they hear the music.

But where Yeezus created a gaping schism through its unconventional musical approach and minimalist guerrilla-style promotion, the discord Magna Carta Holy Grail has since generated is contributed almost entirely to its shriveled and impersonal persona—coupled with music that is not as intellectual or adventurous as its title suggests. Magna Carta Holy Grail is the signal of a rapper’s shift toward creative insignificance and as an “artist” now primarily defined by his business forays. Expensive production, star-studded guest spots and yet a final product that relies too much on a shaky promotional gimmick for inspiration. Unlike on Watch the Throne—which found Jay Z occasionally bringing out harsh sociopolitical (black-on-black crime), vivid emotional underpinnings (hardships of youth and coming of age), to the lavish foundation (I’m rich as fuck, look at me)—there’s no such filter on Magna Carta Holy Grail. He’s simply practicing legacy-building here. And in the most uninteresting ways ever imaginable. The filter that’s missing on Magna Carta Holy Grail is, of course, Kanye West himself. It’s obvious. There’s no guest verse spot or production credit from Kanye anywhere here. Not even as a creative consultant, of sorts. Zilch. Nada. Zero. It lacks that radical presence of Kanye to complement Jay Z’s grown man musings. By now, Jay Z should have the inherent know how that Kanye has, evidently, brought out the best in him—dating all the way back to 2000’s “This Can’t Be Life” beat. And if he can’t be there physically he should be there in spirit. Instead what we get is ginormous production that suit his guests better than himself. None of this is made more apparent than on the Rick Ross feature “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt”, a song that has Jay Z flopping around like a fish out of water. His verse is equally cringe-inducing: “Lucky Luciano is what they call me, paesano/ A 100 keys at the piano plays across the Verrazano/ El Padrino, in the villa in Venice sipping vino/ Not bad for a mulliano”. The real question is did anyone expect anything better from a rapper whose most poignant line in the past five years (maybe even more) was “Ball so hard?”

Expectations are not the only thing that cause Magna Carta Holy Grail to drag either. Jay-Z, the monolith himself, sounds drained, almost tired. Too many trap rap, Southern-tinged beats may be to blame for this. For all the hubbub about a superstar producer list, musically the album doesn’t live up. Timbaland is in straight cruise control mode with the bland first single “Picasso Baby” and the sleepy-eyed “Holy Grail”. Pharrell Williams continues his hackneyed 2013 campaign with more footprints, this time with two afterthoughts: “Oceans” and “BBC”. Young stalwart producers Boi1da, Hit-Boy, and Travi$ Scott also miss their opportunity to excite Jay Z to compose an interesting song, and Mike WiLL Made It bestows Jay Z with a fifty second beat for “Beach Is Better” that—even when disregarding its short runtime—begs to be fleshed out. Jay Z’s world on Magna Carta Holy Grail is hermetic and mostly uninviting. Here is a man now so incredibly successful, critically and commercially, that he is invulnerable. Unassailable. Like the Colossus, his mighty stride casts a shadow over popular music that it really doesn’t matter if it is loved or hated. It is simply just there. You know it’s there. And if you don’t know it’s there, you will. It must be reckoned with, acknowledged, and respected as a product of some sort of stupendous will. The Black Album felt like a fitting conclusion, the perfect swansong, to his illustrious career as a rapper. He was already on top, left with nowhere else to go. The Blueprint was the decisive blow against Hov’s few remaining enemies, establishing him as the unquestioned hip-hop hegemon. His return (specifically here, on Magna Carta Holy Grail, the fourth album since his “comeback”) reeks of Arrested Development syndrome—especially with final results as mediocre as this.

Both Kanye West and Jay Z’s albums also bluntly flirt with the idea of self-deification and mythologizing, but where Kanye’s take on it is self-effacing (leaning more towards showing the listener the essence of art and the importance of faith)—all the while presenting an artist who tries to find the appropriate response to the albatrosses of his time—Jay Z’s strives for something closer to the New Testament tradition (detached to the point of potential nonexistence). Jay Z proves less of a presence than ever, and his rapping is utterly lifeless and anemic enough to skirt self-parody. The fact remains, however, Jay Z is not a great lyricist and can hardly be taken seriously as an imparter of wisdom before talented entertainer (albeit one who has hit a dead end and not a career high). Kanye West’s Yeezus is truly a mad genius’ opus, a work so rich in artistic freedom and the possibility (and necessity) of making art for, and in the face of, a repressive authority and its hypocrisy, technology and empiricism. It is an album by which knowledge is acquired on one’s own without reliance on authority, and the role of the individual, community, and government in the making of both spiritual and personal art. It’s not far-fetched either, the album is the coda for self-actualization for the Millennial Generation. But, naturally, before one can reach the paramount, they must first dig deep into their utmost fear: self. Fortunately for Jay Z (unfortunately for us, the audience), he has nothing left to fear; not even his inner most thoughts and emotions. So why should we care? With an hour of your time invested on Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay Z can’t even remotely find an answer to that million dollar question. Or, roughly $500 million, in Hov’s case.

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