Jay Z – Magna Carta… Holy Grail (6/10)
Kanye West – Yeezus (8/10)
Watch The Throne, 2011’s collaboration album between hip hop’s self-proclaimed royalty was a very interesting release. For all the hype and hysteria, like so many other ‘supergroups’, it sparkled in places without ever really equaling the sum of its parts.
Part of the reason behind this could have been a lack of understanding of what makes both Jay-Z and Kanye West great in the first place. For all of their similarities, and the way in which the latter is seen as the former’s protégé, they are actually remarkably different artists. As a result Watch The Throne, while producing the odd moment of genius, left you with a vague sense that it didn’t quite work. A bit like Damon Albarn fronting Oasis.
In fact, that analogy isn’t so wide of the mark, as there are similarities to be made between the careers of Britpop’s standard-bearers and the East Coast’s finest. Back in the day, Blur were always seeking creative change, while Oasis were a stunningly successful one-trick pony. In the world of hip hop, Jay-Z plays it safe, while Kanye seems fascinated with taking the genre further and experimenting. Resultingly, every Jay-Z album sells by the million, while Kanye West (arguably not assisted by a string of PR disasters) has sometimes struggled to convert critical acclaim into record sales.
Here in the present, this week saw the release of Jay-Z’s modestly-titled Magna Carta… Holy Grail, which arrived just a fortnight after Mr West brought out his equally self-effacing offering, Yeezus. Having given them both a good listen, it’s hard to distance myself from any preconceptions that I had about the pair.
Magna Carta… is very much what you would expect, a solidly polished piece of rap featuring a number of guest vocals, ranging from the predictable (Beyonce) to the fantastic (Frank Ocean – as featured in WTT highlight No Church In The Wild). Central to the theme of the album is the usual rags-to-richer shtick that populates much of the Jiggaman’s back-catalogue, combined with the customary yells of “Oh!” and “Whassup!”
My issue with Jay-Z’s current direction is that he appears so capable of producing a decent album that he almost comes across as resting on his laurels. Magna Carta, by any other artist would probably be an impressive achievement, yet this almost struck me as a case of lazily going through the motions. His sound, which once seemed revolutionary, is practically now easy listening. The album will no doubt sell by the bucketload, but as a aural experience it just fails to excite.
The same cannot be said, however, about Kanye West’s Yeezus. His previous solo effort, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was honestly the best hip hop album to be released in a very, very long while. It was an extraordinarily hard act to follow and yet in his own abrasive way, West has absolutely nailed it.
From the very off, this is an album that is intent on confrontation. Indeed if anyone actually bought CDs any more, this would probably leap out of the box once the security tag was removed and beat the shit out of you. Lead single Black Skinhead (one of a number of frankly hilarious track titles), comes at you like a rap version of Gary Glitter’s Rock & Roll (part 2), but with added intent. Where Jay-Z has opted for guest vocals, West has dragged in current flavours-of-the-month Daft Punk to produce a few tracks, with the results more likely to appease fans of the French duo’s old work than their recent funk eulogy Random Access Memories.
In many ways, it should be so much easier to like Jay-Z than Kanye West. He keeps a relatively low profile, is married to a genuinely talented singer and appears to be one of music’s good guys. This compared to the catalogue of wankerish escapades by Kanye, ranging from his Taylor Swift intervention to the ridiculous naming of his child. All that and the fact that his wife represents essentially everything that is wrong with modern society.
And yet, the more time goes by, the more I find myself siding with West. His albums are vibrant, daring and most importantly interesting. Even his mediocre 808s & Heartbreaks album appears to have been a necessary evil, allowing him to experiment with techniques he would go one to master on later releases. Jay-Z is a man going through the motions, Kanye is pushing the genre to new places. Who wouldn’t be excited by that?
I’m watching the throne, and for my money the prince of hip hop has become the king.
By Harry Harland
Jay Z – Oceans (feat Frank Ocean)
Kanye West – Black Skinhead