I’ve told you I have no desire to be a music journalist in any way, shape or form. I’m a musician. I like making music, not writing about it. Leave the analysis for those with more time to dedicate to it. I shouldn’t be spending my hours writing about other people’s music when I could be making more of my own.
And there’s the slippery slope of sour grapes. Considering I can’t stand most of the stuff I hear and comment on and I’m generally talking about people who have been far more successful than I, it’s tough to avoid the perception that I’m bitter. I AM bitter, but I do my best not to let that cloud my normally infallible judgement.
So I really should just leave this whole music commentary thing alone. Leave it to the professionals with fine arts degrees who are being compensated for their time spent penning musical opinions. I should really just stay in my cave & let my work do the talking.
But apparently I can’t help myself.
It appears the fate of hip hop hangs in the balance in 2013. Apostles of Yeezus are set to square off against beholders of the Holy Grail in an apocalyptic battle that will decide the future of a genre. Or something like that.
Maybe it’s not that serious. But Kanye West's absurdly titled Yeezus & Jay-Z's equally presumptive Magna Carta Holy Grail have each provoked wildly passionate and often diametrically opposed emotions. There have been positive & negative outbursts for both, but Kanye does appear to be winning in the minds of critics and fans alike. Though it’s worth noting that, as I write this, MCHG has only been out for two weeks (less if you don’t own a Samsung phone or didn’t feel like having every action monitored by yet another giant conglomerate…).
Naturally I feel it is my duty to give the world proper perspective on this kerfuffle. Despite my misgivings about dabbling in music journalism, I am compelled to use my god-given ability as the Arbiter of Good Taste to let you know on which side you should fall in this epic debate. That and I love hearing myself talk. Or reading my own words, as the case may be.
So where do we begin? Music? Lyrics? Concepts? There are few indulgences I enjoy more than sitting in the studio late at night, after the session has finished, talking about music. Or, shall we say, engaging in spirited debate about music. In those situations I could go on and on for hours, often to the chagrin of whoever happens to be on the receiving end of my pontification. But, considering I’ve droned on quite a bit already without actually analyzing either record, let’s keep this to two categories - Music, where we’ll dig into the tracks & the skill-levels of the emcees, and Message, where we’ll try to figure out what these guys are attempting to say to the world. I’ll do my best to trade in brevity. I will surely fail.
We’ll start with a little note. I’m failing at the brevity bit already.
Obviously Jay-Z is not a ‘producer’ in the sense that Kanye is. You’ll never catch Sean Carter behind an MPC. But Jay-Z controls his records, shapes them himself - so he deserves as much credit & blame for his product as Kanye does for his. And before the Yeezers (that’s what you call Kanye fans, right?) come after me - yes, Kanye is a more talented musician. Jay-Z can’t make a track and therefore will always be inferior in terms of overall talent. Everybody on the same page? Good. Now that we’ve got that out of the way…
MUSIC - PUNK v POLISH
I don’t need to tell you who is Punk and who is Polish in this little analogy. Though Yeezy has done a much better job with his tag than Jay has with his. And Yeezus shows a lot more Polish than people give it credit for, while there is absolutely zero Punk in MCHG.
You have no idea how much it pains me to admit this.
But it’s true. Musically, Kanye’s record ticks a lot of the boxes. It is an ALBUM. There is continuity and cohesion. It is adventurous and forward-thinking. Emotional, gritty, engaging. West’s whole soul is in this record. The fact that I don’t particularly like his pompous soul can’t negate that.
Kanye is searching for the future with Yeezus. I don’t know that he gets there, but at least he’s attempting to plunder the farthest reaches of the time-space continuum. And it is that willingness to try new things that makes me forgive the whining voice, the autotuning, the prosaic lyricism. Almighty delusions aside, his experimentation on ‘I Am A God' in particular is the kind of adventure alt-pop dreams are made of. The kind of adventure I'd like to see high-profile artists go on more often.
Yet West still manages to squeeze some quality, dare I say ‘catchy’ hooks and songs into Yeezus, which Jay-Z somehow failed to do on Magna Carta - something viewed as more than a little ‘commercial.’ There is not a single truly memorable tune on MCHG, while I constantly have ‘I Am A God’ or ‘Black Skinhead' or 'Bound 2’ (among others) looping in my mind. OK, that’s a lie. There are three hooks from MCHG that stick in my head - ’Holy Grail,’ ‘F.U.T.W.' & 'Crown.’ But none of them are terribly good and two of them are positively terrible.
How did someone with the track record of S dot Carter manage to make an entire album without a single classic? Even Kingdom Come had ‘Show Me What You Got' (it IS a classic. Fuck you). I think there was an attempt for something timeless - sometimes on Holy Grail I felt like I was listening to an updated version of Jay-Z’s catalog. Tracks that seemed to reference the vibes from The Blueprint or Hard Knock Life or The Black Album without achieving any of the timelessness (real word, I swear) exhibited in Jay’s best work. Just give me the real thing, dammit!
Magna Carta Holy Grail is more pleasant to listen to than Yeezus. At times. Especially if you’re a fan of old-school Knock & Thump. The record actually had me rocking until Rick Ross started raping - oops - rapping. And I, personally, could listen to Jay rhyme all day. Kanye’s whiny (or worse, mechanically modulated) voice & often obvious lyrics can drive me up the wall. But while Kanye gives about 1500% (don’t worry, I checked the math) on every track, Jay is barely trying for half his album. He gets sloppy, less creative, fails to really dig in or seem to give a crap in general.
Or worse, he tries too hard. Jay-Z should really not be saying words like ‘trill’ or ‘twerk’ (though we’ll give him a pass on ‘twerk’ since he’s using it to mock Miley Cyrus). It sounds like your creepy uncle trying to be cool. There’s a certain desperation for Jay to keep himself current that is the only real cohesive thread throughout the record.
And the record is current. But it will be dated in a couple of years. Aside from some throwback bangers, most of MCHG is really just the best of what mediocrity has to offer in today’s entertainment climate. Beyonce may have offered up a bit of unwitting commentary when repeating ‘cliche’ over & over again in her intro to ‘Part II (On The Run).’ Or maybe she did it wittingly…
If Jay-Z wants to stay relevant then he should embrace who he has become as a leader, not rap over disposable beats using words adults should be embarrassed to say (again, ‘trill?’ Really?). There are far worse things to be than a grown-up mogul.
For all his foibles, at least Kanye sticks to being Kanye. While Jay-Z spends some cuts trying to sound like Drake or some other popular, interchangeable, hack of a young rapper, Kanye is honing and developing his style and voice. We’ll ignore the fact that his style & voice originated as (and still kind of is…) a whiny Jay-Z knockoff.
One of the few tunes where I think Mr. Carter actually puts it all together, embraces who he is and gets a little personal is ‘Jay Z Blue.’ The 'Mommy Dearest' sample may have been a bit over the top but you’re rhyming about your tenuous relationship with fatherhood. I get it. And I thought the Biggie sample was a clever touch and executed well. A link to one of his musical mentors as he’s talking to his daughter. Maybe not the most subtle move ever, but it works.
Speaking of Christopher Wallace, I have mixed feelings about Jay-Z’s post-Black-Album trend of continually referencing old lines of his (half of which were B.I.G. references in the first place) in new songs. I initially thought it a bit lame if not lazy until @k122n posited that it could be Sean Carter The Business driving consumers to his old records. Keeps them current, boosts sales a touch, maybe snags an extra license or two. Kind of like a personal audio hyperlink. It’s an interesting theory and, if correct, I see it as a sign of genius. If you think that’s selling out, you don’t understand the music business.
Nonetheless, most of Magna Carta Holy Grail is a flop of Brobdingnagian proportions. Not that Jay-Z has never put out a questionable record before, but this may be the sign that it’s time for him to move on. Stay in the boardroom. Make deals, guide young minds, maybe executive produce an album here or there. After an incredible run, Sean Carter may have said all he has to say. Musically, at least.
But for the first time in my life, I’m excited to see what Kanye West does next.
Jesus H. Jones. I hate myself right now.
MESSAGE - THE REVOLUTIONARY v THE MAN
By now the narrative has been well established: Kanye has created a hiphoppunkrockdisestablishmentarianist masterpiece and Jay-Z has released a corporate Trojan Horse designed to mine your data and empty your wallet. Kanye has launched a revolution for the next generation while Jay-Z has lost touch sitting in his ivory tower (ebony tower? Which would be more racist in this context - the actual idiom or the joke? Just pretend I wrote whichever you consider less offensive). To a certain extent, these perceptions ring true, if a little extreme.
But of course things are more nuanced than that. And despite their best efforts to convince us to the contrary, they are both very much the music business establishment. You can play the rebel all you want, Kanye, but you still came through the System. And, though Jay would have you believe MCHG is about the trappings of fame, it is very much a record designed to propel Brand Carter to new heights.
True, there are no riches in record sales anymore but, much like anything Red Bull does, albums are about raising your profile with consumers. If we go too far down that road, however, this becomes a very dry read indeed. If it isn’t already. So we’ll just get back to the art of it all…
It is interesting to see how the two deal with the dichotomy of their different realities. Mr. Carter can’t seem to decide if he’s still the upstart from Reasonable Doubt or a very successful modern business, man. Mr. West’s neuroses have him leaping from battered victim to god-like leader of the untelevised revolution. Personally, I’d like to see Jay-Z embrace the leader he has become and Kanye mature into the leader he thinks he is.
That’s really what grates me most about Kanye West. Sure, it annoys me that he’s so revered despite being a narcissistic twit with a generally mediocre catalog (don’t get me wrong, the hits are masterful), but what I really can’t stand are the delusions of grandeur. I hate that he truly believes he is The Voice of This Generation.
I hate it because it’s true.
I won’t waste space here explaining how terrible human beings are in the modern world (especially when Bob Lefsetz did such a good job of that already) but Kanye IS their voice. Every single one of those (mostly white) kids pumping their fists at his concerts is just as entitled, self-centered, and delusional as he is. Yeezus help us.
Which is not to say that Jay-Z doesn’t engage in plenty of hyperbole about himself. But his lines feel more like hip hop bravado while Yeezy’s feel like the mantras of a man who built an aluminum space-ark so his followers could join him in the next existence.
One boast that gets my g.o.a.t. with both of them is the MJ self-comparison. Or comparisonssss as the case may be (especially with Kanye). In fact, I have more of a problem with the MJ similes than the god metaphors . Gentlemen. Come on now. Neither of you are the reincarnation of Michael Jackson. That’s like Dwyane Wade calling himself Michael Jordan. You are both very talented individuals but you’re just not that brilliant. It’s ok. Few are. VERY few. Please stop blaspheming the Christ of Pop.
OK. So I’ve been dancing around one final issue. Mostly because I’m white, partly because I’m squeamish. As a straight male of the caucasian persuasion, it’s tough to speak on most truly important issues. People that look like me have had the benefit of, you know, everything. For a long time. I don’t know what it’s like to be persecuted because of something I was born with. (Before the trolls at the Self-Hating White People Police get on my ass - people assuming you’re a racist or calling you a cracker or the panoply of other things you people (yeah, I said it) complain about are really nothing. I’m not going to get into it here, but just stop it. Please. Your insistence that I shouldn’t be embarrassed by white people makes me more embarrassed by white people)
Where was I? Oh. Right. Avoiding talking about race.
Here’s the deal - it has to be talked about with these records. With Yeezus at least. The first two singles are ‘New Slaves' & 'Black Skinhead.' Nuff said. And Kanye has received a lot of praise for taking such a solid stance against the establishment, for speaking out for a very important issue that somehow often gets lost in the entertainment industry. An industry built on years of racism.
But here is where my footing is dicey, because I don’t know that he succeeded. But how can I really know that sitting here in my white skin (and clothes too, don’t worry)? I just don’t feel like Kanye deserves as much credit as he’s getting considering he’s dropping N-Bombs liberally throughout the record. And rarely in an ironic manner that’s meant to illustrate his point. Also, how do you expect to be taken seriously with that hook on ‘New Slaves?’ It’s homophobic as all get out and just not that clever. But the homophobic & misogynistic lyrics, the morethanslightlyinsensitive references to Native Americans or Parkinson’s sufferers? Those I can get over. It’s not ideal (ok some of it is pretty awful) but this is hip hop and at least he’s not encouraging date-rape. Still, how do you maintain credibility on the issue of black empowerment when you’re using ‘nigga’ in one song basically only because it rhymes with liquor (or liqua, i guess)?
*I cringed typing that last sentence, but I’m dampening my guilt with the fact that there’s an -a not an -er and the fact that I’m quoting. Still feel a little queasy.*
At least Kanye is trying to send a message, though. Whether it’s credible, whether he succeeded, he tried. And for a person in his position, that’s an important thing. Hopefully it’s not lost in the cacophony of the modern news cycle over the coming months and years.
That was what I originally wrote on ‘New Slaves’ & ‘Black Skinhead.’ But the more I listen to those two songs, the more I read their lyrics, the more I backtrack on this opinion. Just because I don’t like Kanye’s often heavy-handed lyrics doesn’t mean they’re not smart, doesn’t mean they’re not getting the message across. And his use of the n-bomb (on these two songs, at least) appears to be cleverly ironic & meant to illustrate his point.
Again, whether he succeeded or failed, the importance of a person in Kanye West’s position even attempting to send America this message about race cannot be understated. With a media & culture that continually tells the masses that people of any color other than white are ‘less than,’ everyone - entertainers, businesspeople, black, white, women, men, everyone - has the responsibility to speak out as loudly as possible using whatever platform they may have. We’ve seen what happens to our society when we remain silent.
In fact, the more I think about it the more I realize there are few people in a better position to speak on the issue of race than Kanye West. All those entitled, self-centered white kids shouting ‘nigga’ while singing along at his concerts are precisely the people who need to hear about white privilege and black oppression.
MCHG, meanwhile, seems more focused on Jay-Z’s personal struggles than anything else. Don’t get me wrong, Kanye is bitching about selfish things all over Yeezus, but MCHG rarely makes an attempt to enlighten the audience. Rarely, not never. ‘Oceans' (featuring Frank Ocean. Haha) is a beautiful piece. And it says some of the same things Kanye is saying on ‘Black Skinhead’ & ‘New Slaves,’ albeit in a smoother manner. Too bad Jay didn’t expand on it or make it a focus…
There’s another commonality (and dissonance) between Yeezus and MCHG on display in ‘Oceans’. Jay-Z, as is his way, subtly drops a ‘Strange Fruit’ reference and moves on. Whereas Kanye drones in his whining Kanye voice, repeating ‘I see the blood on the leaves’ in ‘New Slaves.’ Despite the whinging drone, should I give ‘Ye credit for digging in a little more, using a line from ‘Strange Fruit’ instead of just the title? No. He ruined that with his mewling. But he does deserve a LOT of credit for the song ‘Blood On The Leaves.’
A lot of credit, or a one-way ticket straight to hell.
‘Strange Fruit' is one of the most important songs in history. When it comes to music speaking out for social justice, it doesn't get more monumental than Billie Holiday’s classic (though the version West sampled is Nina Simone’s).
Here’s me listening to ‘Blood On The Leaves’ for the first time:
"OK, ‘Strange Fruit’ sample. Let’s see where Kanye goes with this. That’s an awful lot of responsibility to take on. Right…now he’s started his autotuned whinging. Great… Using the sample beautifully, though.
"So what is going on here? Is he rhyming about a breakup? He is. He’s doing a goddamn breakup song while Nina Simone sings in the background about lynchings. You have GOT to be fucking kidding me!!! I’m done with this dude. I can’t even… Somewhere, Abel Meeropol is rolling around in his grave.
I suppose I should at least finish listening to the whole s…wait…what? ‘Fuck them other niggas cuz I’m down with my niggas??’ What. The. FUCK??? What kind of ignorant, backward-ass motherfucker would…I mean…how do you disrespect ‘Strange Fruit’ like that??”
I had to listen again. Pulled up the lyrics & listened yet again. Searched for nuance & meaning. Subtext & hidden messages. I desperately wanted it to be something more thoughtful & respectful than it was. Or maybe I just couldn’t believe that even Yeezy would be crazy enough to use such an important song for anything other than an important message.
And maybe, just maybe, Kanye West, though still certifiably insane (maybe. probably. don’t sue me, Kanye), is a lot smarter than I ever gave him credit for. Or has matured more than I thought he ever would. Maybe he’s exhibiting subtlety & nuance I didn’t know he was capable of. Maybe he has constructed one of the smartest and subtextiest songs ever written. An allegoric anthem for the injustices visited upon Black America.
Or maybe he’s just a twit. I honestly can’t tell.
Because, the truth is, if it weren’t for the Nina Simone sample, I would have just heard the breakup/abortion song and moved on. So am I really so desperate for this to not be an abomination of history that I am imparting my own deeper meaning on West’s words?
If it is indeed an incredibly layered tune with racial subtext out the wazoo, ‘Blood On The Leaves’ succeeds where ‘Black Skinhead’ & ‘New Slaves’ fumble a bit. And Kanye may be more than a bit of a genius. If it’s not, if it really is just a song about breakup & abortion… then you should be ashamed of yourself, Mr. West. Not for the abortion talk (I’m all for it), but for taking a massive deuce all over a piece of history. Bastard.
The point may be moot. I don’t think most people get it even if it is a brilliant allegory about the black experience. I think most people take it as a break-up & abortion song and either don’t know or don’t care about the significance of ‘Strange Fruit.’ Sadly, a quick perusal of the interwebs reinforces that theory. I won’t blame Kanye for other people misinterpreting his deep message, but if there is no deeper message in ‘Blood On The Leaves’ then it may negate the rest of his album. At least when it comes to the Message. It would be such an incomprehensibly gargantuan misstep that I don’t think it could be forgiven.
Or he’s a genius. Fucking Kanye.
I think you all know where I stand by now. Musically, it’s not even close. Despite the fact that I used descriptors like ‘garbage’ and ‘a waste of space’ the first time I heard it, Yeezus is something special. The first worthy album of 2013. Kudos, Mr. West. I apologize to all of the critics & fans whom I’ve been calling crazy for the last month.
When it comes to The Message, Kanye probably wins too. Though I still think he gets more credit than he deserves, tis far far better to try and not fully succeed than to not try at all. The margin of victory hangs on his intentions with ‘Blood On The Leaves.’ An ingenious continuation of the struggle gives him a landslide the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Mondale administration. An history-butchering breakup song renders Kanye, his album, and his Message irrelevant.
*Self-Editor’s Note - ‘the struggle?’ Really, Reynolds? Who the fuck do you think you are? Cornel West? Slow down.*
But the biggest question, musically, has to be - is this the best we have? It is truly disappointing that Yeezus (as wonderful as it may be) is the best record so far this year. Maybe I’m asking too much. It is an incredibly tall task to produce something that can garner attention now and still stand the test of time. But I feel like there has to be more. More innovative music, more evolved ideas. I appreciate Kanye’s attempt to raise the bar, though. However misguided it might be at times.
Of course, this could all be nothing more than a well executed Team Jacob v Team Edward ploy. Nothing sustains promotion better than having two rabidly opposed camps digging in their heels and shouting at each other over the internet.
Even if the release of these two contrasting records was a ploy, I applaud the strategy. We’re all just trying to make the next dollar. And it was worth being duped. If people hadn’t started fighting over these albums, I wouldn’t have re-examined Yeezus.
I just wish Jay-Z the MC was still as good as Sean Carter the Business, man.