Step To Your Idols

09 Jul 2013

With the release of his self-proclaimed “magnum opus”, has Jay-Z set a dangerous precedent? Or will this latest work be overshadowed by his former protégé?

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The dust was barely allowed to settle around the release of Kanye West’s divisive, yet chart-topping, Yeezus, before his mentor and collaborator Jay-Z had announced the arrival of his own new solo album in the form of Magna Carta Holy Grail. Though, with the album’s Platinum status guaranteed with a million copies distributed for free last week in conjunction with Samsung via an app on their smartphones, what is the rapper, otherwise known as Shawn Carter, actually setting out to achieve? 

With their release dates so close together, it comes as little surprise that, still, so much critical argument, discussion and attention is devoted to West’s Yeezus; even the veritable Lou Reed, notably making comment after his admittedly life-saving liver transplant earlier this year, is assertive in outlining his appreciation of West’s sixth album:

“It works because it's beautiful — you either like it or you don't — there's no reason why it's beautiful.  […] He feels it, and either it moves you too, or it doesn't, and that's that.  You can analyze it all you want.”

The fact that Reed had his thoughts on Yeezus published last week, during the pomp, ceremony and hype that surrounded Carter’s Magna Carta… could be perceived as something of a put down, for an album that many consider a rather conservative affair when placed in the context of West’s latest. 

It’s true to say that Carter, despite comparing this work to one of the most important historical documents in history, has retained his place as the more understated of the pair; whilst fervently religious, West does make himself out to be a manifest deity. This contextually conservative vibe has permeated the whole record, and many critics’ approach to it.

The comparison has infiltrated most media, even down to the RapGenius annotations through all of the Magna Carta… lyrics; these opposing, contradictory views that chide with each other’s rhetoric have already been discussed, shared and sampled across the Internet. It has built into a fascinating and compelling dichotomy that I cannot help but feel is part of a competitive rivalry between the two that, I’m sure many will jump to tell me, has been visible as far back as West’s “Big Brother” from his Graduation album in 2007. That song ends with bickering over the validity of each other’s friendship with Coldplay’s Chris Martin: “I told Jay I did a song with Coldplay / Next thing I know he got a song with Coldplay”.

This argumentative streak stretches as far as the personnel involved in both albums, Frank Ocean being a notable inclusion for each record. Understandably, this goes beyond the desk too, with the Samsung ad for Magna Carta… aired during the NBA Finals showing a lounging Rick Rubin posed as the architect for what, on paper, are two of the more important releases of the year. When he spoke to XXL though, he admitted himself to be little more than a prop, the footage cut during what amounts to little more than a listening party:

“I liked what I heard, but it was a little difficult—after just coming from the Kanye sessions—to listen to Jay’s album, because they’re so different. I was in a very alternative and progressive headspace, and Jay’s record is a more traditional hip-hop record.”

Despite Rubin’s rather back-handed compliments, there are still similarities to draw between the pair, as Jon Pareles wrote in his New York Times review, “they have both gambled that name recognition and pent-up anticipation would get their new albums noticed with or without radio hits.” And as mentioned, Carter has seized upon his own opportunity to bypass a sales quota entirely, forcing the Recording Industry Association of America to completely reassess how they recognise sales; despite meeting with disagreement from the Billboard chart, it looks set to be the first of many albums released in this unconventional, yet corporately validated, structure. 

Though, with so much of the attention focussed on the promotional campaign and distribution, how does the album actually hold up musically? There was much speculation once Carter’s appropriation of Kurt Cobain’s lyrics from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had become common knowledge, with the lyrics delivered through the Samsung app ahead of the music's release. And his active engagement in seeking permission from Courtney Love was endearing, if not a little bizarre. Was Carter setting himself up as a practitioner of Hip Hop’s Grunge or Alternative movement to Kanye’s self-proclaimed New Wave? In the end, with Justin Timberlake on backing vocals, it comes across as an inappropriate and misinterpreted usage that frankly, sounds rather plain and inoffensive.

Carter does the same with R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” on his song “Heaven”, making the memorable chorus into this half sung drawl of a bridge, which is surprisingly one of the more interesting tracks on the record. When he raps in the second verse, “I'm secular, tell the hecklers seckle down / Y'all religion creates division”, it’s a refreshingly frank admission of disconnection, especially when rappers like West are unashamedly bullish and unwavering in their religious beliefs.

So the album does have its fair share of interesting lyrical talking points, but rarely do they rise above reiterating how awesome Carter’s life is. “Picasso Baby”, for example, reads like an Art Museum brochure with its endless listing of popular artists alongside all the stuff that he has. Like most Capitalist success stories however, Carter just wants more. It seems to make sense then, that for so much of the album he seems to be comparing himself to or name checking a dead artist whose work “Dustheads” recently sold for an unprecedented $48 million.

However, even before the Christie’s auction and Magna Carta… this year seemed set to be the year of the Jean-Michel Basquiat name drop. Signposted by a T-shirt range from Uni-Qlo, contextualising the designs of the seminal ‘80s artist into ready to wear apparel, and surprisingly beaten to the punch by Macklemore’s intention to make what he saw as a direct lineage rather explicit on the song “10000 Hours”, Basquiat seems very much in vogue right now. Carter refers to him over several tracks, with complicit lines such as “It ain’t hard to tell / I’m the new Jean-Michel” that are, honestly, pretty hard to agree with, especially when you consider Rick Rubin’s earlier testament; Carter’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, or pushing at the definitions of his art-form, as Basquiat did.

Suffice to say, Magna Carta Holy Grail isn’t in the same headspace as West’s Yeezus. It’s traditionalist, and that’s something you could largely place down to the involvement of a Timbaland, who this year, seems to be constantly striving to assert his own relevance, both with this album and The 20/20 Experience. Yet, as Ian Cohen rightly points out, “Jay and Timberlake are doing everything in their power not to offend the money people” too, which sets them far apart from a confrontational, if contradictory, West. As Jeff Weiss wrote in his Yeezus review for MTV Hive, “Whether you love it or hate it, you have to respect its fearlessness and raw power. If it ends up making hip-hop and pop music more adventurous and weird, then it’s flaws will seem trivial over time.”

That’s definitely not what Carter has achieved with Magna Carta… and I’d venture as far to guess that he knows it. Take for example the fact that both albums reference Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit”, West appropriating it lyrically on “New Slaves” as well as sampling the Nina Simone rendition on “Blood on the Leaves” whereas Carter makes a strong lyrical reference in “Oceans” with the following line: “On the holiday playing "Strange Fruit” / If I'mma make it to a billi I can't take the same route”. It’s up there. There’s nothing bad about it. But following on from West’s incredibly high profile usage, it kind of lacks the punch it would have, say, six months ago. 

Unlike Magna Carta Holy Grail, Yeezus is, to cite blogger Son Raw, “important: in a year where Daft Punk dropped a cheesy dad rock record and Timberlake earned acclaim for 4th rate soul, Kanye actually succeeded at releasing a major record that’s pissing people off.” Though West has more than his fair supply of lyrical goofballs, it really is important, whilst an album with Carter forcing stilted references to Miley Cyrus' twerking just definitely isn’t.

Stream the Frank Ocean-featuring "Oceans" below. 

 

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