Wednesday 25 September 2013

Double review: "Yeezus" by Kanye West and "Magna Carta ... Holy Grail" by Jay-Z

Kanye West and Jay-z? Who are they? What are they? If you don’t know who either musician is y̶o̶u̶ ̶d̶e̶s̶e̶r̶v̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶b̶e̶ ̶e̶u̶t̶h̶a̶n̶i̶s̶e̶d̶ , don’t worry, because I’m about to kindly educate you on the matter!

Widely regarded as hip hop icons, Kanye West and Jay-Z are two American rappers who have both achieved mainstream popularity and critical acclaim, particularly within the last decade. Despite being very different people, the pair pretty much share identical lives and personalities. They’re both attention whores when it comes to the media and they both think they’re Mother Teresa when it comes to philanthropy. Both men are married to glamorous megababe superstars (Kim Kardashian and Beyonce) and both have baby daughters with stupid names (North West and Ivy Blue Carter).

Coincidentally, both artists released new albums this year within almost a week of one another. The two records have been out a good few months now and I’ve had a lot of time to listen closely to them both and formulate a solid opinion. My overall feelings towards each album are similar and so I thought it would be a cool, interesting idea to do a double album review, comparing and contrasting them both. Call it an essay if you will. An essay with lots of gratuitous pretty pictures.

First and foremost, I’d like to admit that I’ve never really been an avid fan of either Kanye or Jay-z in the past for reasons I’ll describe later. The only reason I gave these albums a gander was because I’m a sucker for hype.

Kanye only warned his fans that he was dropping his new album, Yeezus, a month before the release date, posting on twitter “June Eighteen”. The album leaked four days before its official release date causing an internet media frenzy. Critics were all giving it rave reviews. I felt compelled to listen to it.

 Jay-z meanwhile released a promotional trailer for his new album, Magna Carta… Holy Grail, which can be viewed below.

That Santa-Claus-looking dude is Rick Rubin, a record producer who had nothing to do with this album whatsoever as far as I’m aware. Why the hell is he in the trailer? And what’s all that Samsung endorsement crap? Whilst there are many things I detested about this trailer, I could not help but grow excited at the fresh sound of the beats. In fact, I was so excited I downloaded the album pretty much the hour it was released.

Optimism has its downfalls. I gave both these albums a try, despite previously never caring for either artist, and got myself all worked up like a kid at Christmas. I should have treated this album like the new Snoop Lion album, an inevitable disappointment. Instead, I dived into these records, expecting to find a pony at the bottom of my stocking, only to be greeted by a grubby lump of coal.

The problem with these albums has nothing to do with the beats. The beats are bloody PHENOMENAL! Some of the best producers in the biz were employed to work on these albums and it shows. Yeezus is impressively raw, composed of deliberately choppy sampling and thunderous bass that gets the bowels moving. It’s Death Grips’ experimental sound made slightly more accessible. Jay-z meanwhile uses an eclectic mix of instrumentals, incorporating influences of latin music, piano ballad and synths. Trap-heavy track, “Tom Ford”, has one of the greatest beats I’ve ever experienced. It makes me want to buy a Cadillac and ride through the suburbs with the windows down. It makes me want to grind the nearest object. It makes me want to twerk. It makes me want to do things white males should never do. Words cannot describe how great this beat is. Eughaeghgeahu98u8u9!!! Not even gobbledegook suffices.

Sadly, the problem lies beyond the beats. The problem with this album is the actual rapping itself. Kanye and Jay-z open their mouths and kill each track. I mean that in a bad way.

For me the major issue is to do with their inflection: the way they hit notes as they rap. There’s something that bugs me about both rapper's tones. When Kanye says “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” on the track “New Slaves” there’s something almost gratingly whiny about it - the way he holds the end of the word “swalloweeeeeeeer”.

Then there’s the lyrics. Let’s return to that little track, Tom Ford, by Jay-z. The perfect beat is shat upon with some of the most absurd lyrics ever devised in hip hop. The whole song is about a fashion designer, Tom Ford. He designs expensive suits. I don’t care if the subject matter is tongue-in-cheek, its stupid. “I don't pop Molly, I rock tom ford”. I don't take ecstasy, I wear expensive suits. Its utter nonsense.

Kanye is no better. In the track “I am a God” (I’ll discuss that title in a moment) he spits “In a French-ass restaurant/hurry up with my damn croissants”, a line that seems to pop out of nowhere, sharing no association with the rest of the track's subject matter.

 What's a "french-ass restaurant"? french-ass???

Croissants aren’t even something that get served in restaurants. They’re breakfast food - cafĂ© fodder. You go to a French restaurant to eat boeuf bourguignon and steak tartare. Perhaps I’m getting a little over-analytical here.

For the most part, I find myself laughing at the lyrics and I’m not sure comedy was the intention.

On top of the pure nonsense is an unhealthy dose of braggadocio, rodomontade - whatever fancy word you want to label it with. I call it being a dick. Kanye West’s cockiness reaches an all-time high on the track “I am a God”. Here he pretends to pretend to be arrogant. Kanye is known for being way too big-headed, and making a song called “I am a God” doesn’t come across as an ironic gesture to me, but instead a confirmation that he really is a self-absorbed dick. Jay-z has clearly tried to tone things down but, at the end of the day, he's still rapping about how big his wallet is. On “Picasso Baby” he talks about how he collects famous artwork without truly having an appreciation for it. Am I supposed to feel sad about that? It just leaves me feeling somewhat angry.

Talking of artwork, I’d like to quickly note that the album artwork on both albums is atrocious. It looks like Kanye was trying to outdo the White album in terms of minimalism. The crossed out font on Magna Carta… Holy Grail is equally pretentious.

Anyway, I don’t wish any readers to slip into a coma, so I’ll wrap this review up, because its getting rather wordy. Overall, I think the beats rule. Sadly, everything else kind of sucks.

 I feel Kanye and Jay-z have both taken a different direction on these albums, and I respect them for trying. However, it will take a change in the rappers' styles and lyrical focus to truly convert me over. I can’t see Kanye or Jay-z ever changing their style just to fit my needs, especially when there are a sea of hova and yeezy fans who already adore the artists for who they are. 

Magna Carta ... Holy Grail