Much as the pensioners romping around playing Quadrophenia to absurd ticket prices have long since forgotten their pledge to clear off before becoming caricatures of themselves, so does Jay-Z’s celebrating the 10th anniversary of his ‘final’ album by releasing yet another mediocre effort drip with so much irony. The contrast with the recent Kanye West release ‘Yeezus’ is so stark that I was reminded of the song ‘Night and Day’ by Cole Porter. It isn’t just that the focus of each release is different – one is pure crass corporate factory ‘product’ and the other is finely crafted artistry – it is also that Yeezus is just SO much better than MCHG that there is little point of doing an actual comparison. But let’s take a quick look at each in turn.
This album is a co-production of Samsung and Jay Z – one is pushing their phone brand and potential music platform, the other just wants another pile of money. Samsung reportedly paid $20 million for 1 million copies of the album to give away to anyone with a Samsung Galaxy SIII, Note II or S4 who was among the first million to download their app – which is how I got my copy. And while crass commercialism is not necessarily a bad thing, when it is obviously the driving force behind the production of a piece of music … it really shows.
I could spend a while dissecting the album, but frankly it isn’t worth it. It isn’t terrible, just mediocre. The music is harmonically thin, rhythmically uninteresting and uninspired, and sonically sounds like any random rap album from the last decade. Many songs sound like sketches from amateurs, created in software that overly quantizes rhythms, and uses stock software synthesizer sounds. In other words, it is incredibly unsatisfying and unimaginative musically. For me, that means I will never listen to the album again.
The lyrics seem to reference random pop culture and allow Jay Z to revel in his wealth in a way that is different from most rappers and ends up feeling pathetic. References to Michael Jackson, REM. Miley Cyrus ‘twerking’, Homeland, and other pop-culture minutia feel shallow and random. Indeed, the heavy attention paid to the twerking lyric shows how little there is to the content of the album. When the three most used words on your album are ‘uh’, ‘mother-f***er’ and ‘ni**er’, you know poetry isn’t the aim – and yet there is no intensity, no meaning, no artistry. Uh is uttered more like someone says ‘um’ mid-thought in speaking rather than as a rhythmic punctuation.
Mediocre music, mediocre lyrics, no passion, no intensity.
My Favorite Song: Pass.
Would I recommend?: No! Jay Z should have quit with ‘The Black Album’, the last time he seemed to have any fire or inspiration. The video preview looked much more interesting than anything that is actually ON the record! Jay Z succeeded getting loads of hype and money, and Samsung succeeded at getting loads of attention. Anything else – art, music, lyrics, customers – is superfluous.
Here is the promo video:
As they say, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. So Kanye West partnered immediately with Daft Punk, who is having an amazing year, to create some of the key rhythms and soundscapes for the album. The result is an album that is sonically rich, rhythmically interesting, and harmonically varied.
I have always respected Kanye West for his music, not been impressed with his rapping/singing, and not thought much of him as a person. For my review of his last album ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ I said: “Here is my quick take: this record is filled with interesting music that is utterly ruined whenever Kanye West opens his mouth, and even worse when he attempts what he tries to pass off as ‘singing’.”
For ‘Yeezus’, let me offer a similar summary: this album is so good that Kanye can’t mess it up when he opens his mouth! In fact, on many songs, he intensity and the ferocious growl of his voice adds to the urgency and dark thematic material. When I was hanging out with my younger song (the dubstep fan), we listened to the album and he remarked that he loved the album and it was his favorite rap album.
To me that was very telling – Kanye didn’t just make a great rap album, he enlisted Daft Punk and wrapped his own musical stylings around an electronica-heavy sensibility. The result is a cross-over effort that will challenge listeners of multiple genres.
My Favorite Song: “On Sight” – starting with a ferocious hard-sync synth and dropping into a syncopated electronica beat before Kanye starts rapping with an edge and sense of urgency, you immediately know this is music that demands you to listen. The heavy resonance filters grate on the ears and the offset rhythmic placement of notes refuses to allow you to relax. The break in the middle of the song is interesting, but it is how the main them smashes back in that really sets the stage for how the remainder of the album will proceed. And at times Kanye seems to be fighting with the synth rhythms, and it is glorious.
Would I recommend?: Absolutely! As someone who mostly loves jazz and other highly improvised music, I was attracted to rap in the 80s and early 90s. But I have found most rap since the mid-90s harmonically thin and generic, so having an album with music that actually warrants multiple listens earned this a spot on multiple of my electronic devices. Are there clunkers? Sure – I could have done with a bit less misogyny in a few songs, but overall this is an amazingly strong album. Just like when Kendrick Lamar released his album in late 2012 – you can go ahead and hand this the ‘best rap album of 2013’ trophy now … no one else will touch it.
Here is Kanye performing ‘Black Skinhead’ on SNL:
As I listened to each of these albums again, one comparison struck me – whereas Jay Z trotted out his wealth on a regular basis, it was done as someone who has been so rich for so long that he lacks context for NOT being rich. There feels like an expectation of popularity and likeability based solely on wealth. With Kanye – particularly on the song ‘I Am A God’ (another Daft Punk contribution), there is a dichotomy in which he realizes his actual place in the world but also realizes that because of fame and fortune he has an elevated position that allows him to demand things others cannot have.
There is a single way that Jay Z’s new album has something that Kanye’s does not – because of the massive hype campaign and free giveaways from Samsung, the album has gotten loads of attention and will sell many copies, more than Yeezus. Kanye’s album dropped without a clear single, without the massive hype afforded by a company like Samsung, and a sonic sensibility that is much more challenging than the thin mainstream stylings of Jay Z. And as someone who regular buys albums pressed in quantities counted in the 1,000s, I very much appreciate anyone who puts their art as their first priority.