By Gary Suarez
Back in 2011, two of hip-hop’s biggest stars came together for the kind of collaborative album that most fanatics could only have dreamed of. Yet Watch The Throne was no mere rap reverie, with Jay-Z and Kanye West pairing up like never before. While both artists vibed well with each other from track to track, the record definitely benefited from some healthy competition between the icon and his protégé-turned-peer. Unsurprisingly, Watch The Throne went platinum and, nearly two years later, rap radio still resonates with staples like “Ni**as In Paris” and “No Church In The Wild.”
Of course, such an album raised the proverbial stakes for both of their respective solo follow-ups, and 2013 quickly turned into a rap battle ground when, just two days before the release of Kanye’s feverishly hyped Yeezus, a commercial aired during Game 5 of the NBA Finals revealing details regarding Jay-Z’s first full-length since 2009’s The Blueprint 3. Titled Magna Carta… Holy Grail (MCHG), the record had more in common with Kanye’s than merely an ostentatious title and unconventional release strategy. Some saw the announcement as a carefully timed power move towards his former protege, while others considered it complementary and welcome. Either way, and in light of their earlier collusion, the sliver of sunlight separating these albums has all but joined the two together in the minds of critics and fans alike.
Mindful of this, what follows is a side-by-side comparison of MCHG and Yeezus, examining and contrasting the aforementioned similarities between the two with the aim of not merely crowning a winner, but seating the victor at his rightful place on the golden throne.
Most Refined Artistic Sensibilities
After the collection of grandiose grotesqueries that adorned the cover of 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the starkly minimalist approach to Yeezus – essentially a piece of brightly colored tape on a clear CD case — made quite the statement. Prior to the release date, producer Rick Rubin referred in an interview to the minimal nature of the music, yet the near lack of image took that theme to an extreme. Jay-Z’s choice of cover art trumps Kanye’s rather handily, the somewhat mysterious photograph of two stone busts overlaid with redacted text. The artwork was unveiled to the public right next to one of the few surviving copies of the actual Magna Carta. As if that weren’t enough to clinch this, “Picasso Baby,” the second song on MCHG, drops references to no fewer than ten artists and fine art museums.
With contributions from Beyonce, Nas, and Justin Timberlake, MCHG sounds like the best rap album of 2006. Of course, it’s 2013 and the contributions of these high-profile artists are complemented by the more modern likes of Frank Ocean (“Oceans”) and Rick Ross (“F*** With Me You Know I Got It”). Though the album features some beats from today’s hitmakers (Boi-1, the having-a-moment Mike Will Made It), the vast majority of the production was handled by veteran Timbaland and partner Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, who previously worked together on Shock Value II, Chris Cornell‘s Scream, and a handful of joints off The Blueprint 3. Kanye, on the other hand, took a schizophrenic approach on Yeezus, with music attributed to a dizzying assortment of artists both inside and outside hip-hop, including Hudson Mohawke and No I.D. Despite the cluttered credits, there’s something undeniably cool about getting reclusive dance music icons Daft Punk to co-write four out of the ten tracks.
Most Poignant Commentary on Race in America
Though his catalog has frequently featured pointed commentary on serious issues, “New Slaves” might be Kanye’s most political song yet. An often breathless diatribe against consumerism and racial stereotyping, it was polemical soapbox fare that hit way more often than it missed. Other Yeezus cuts like “Black Skinhead” contained similarly bold statements, albeit interspersed with explicit tales of his sexual exploits. Throughout MCHG, Jay-Z just can’t seem to get a socially conscious lyric out of his mouth without following it with something superficial. Had he stayed on topic, “Somewhere in America” could’ve been his “New Slaves,” yet it rapidly devolves into yet another depiction of his cash liquidity that concludes with an unhealthy fixation on twerking pop star Miley Cyrus. Even though it mentions both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., “F.U.T.W.” doesn’t fare much better, particularly when Jay’s shamelessly plugging his brand of cognac.
Finest Example of Conspiracy Theory Baiting
The only thing a true conspiracy theorist loves more than getting the latest tin foil catalog in the mail is when the subject of one of their crackpot notions responds. For much of the first verse on “Heaven,” Jay-Z takes time to address the Illuminati rumors surrounding his continued success. Yet instead of dismissing them outright, he sort of laughs it off before encouraging people to think freely and ask questions. Curiously, he gives voice to another absurd idea, namely that America (presumably the CIA, FBI, or other government agency real or imagined) gave boxer/activist Cassius Clay Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative affliction that Kanye happened to address in arguably more offensive terms during “On Sight.” Conversely, Kanye lets the actions and lifestyle depicted in his music serve the image of the secret society. “I Am A God” might even lead to more conspiracies.
Best Plundering of One’s Own Discography
Plenty of emcees have tried to mimic Jay-Z’s flow, but nobody imitates H.O.V.A. quite like the man himself. On “Somewhere In America,” he revives the “One million two million three million” riff from The Blueprint’s “U Don’t Know” and updates it accordingly. When he’s not doing renditions of Nirvana (“Holy Grail”) and R.E.M. (“Heaven”), or jacking Juvenile‘s “Back That Thang Up” flow (“Part II”), he’s recycling themes, lines and samples (such as The Notorious B.I.G.’s grunt on “Jay-Z Blue”) his fans are exceedingly familiar with. “Part II,” an apparent sequel to his now decade-old “Bonnie & Clyde” duet with Beyonce, extensively references that earlier hit, though the happy couple never go so far as to repeat the famous hook. Kanye, too, can’t help but repeat himself, invoking the old chestnut “I need you right now” from “Stronger” at the end of “On Sight.”
Overall Winner: Jay-Z, Magna Carta… Holy Grail