Hypothesis: when Jay-Z’s reviewers rave about his marketing ploys, the significance of album titles, pro basketball franchises, or shakeups at the RIAA, it’s usually for one reason: they’re lukewarm about what actually matters. Like the music.
Take, for instance, Dan Rys’ review of Magna Carta…Holy Grail. It’s not because of the music, but rather for all of the above (let’s call them the extracurriculars) that Rys, writing for XXL, crowns Jay-Z’s twelfth album “the cultural high water mark of the summer.” Yes, even higher than Yeezus.
With all due respect to XXL, I couldn’t disagree more. It’s clear (once you set aside all things non-musical and just listen) that Jay-Z’s twelfth record can’t touch Kanye’s sixth. Indeed, in half as many albums, Ye has blasted past his Watch the Throne collaborator. I defer to no less an authority than Lou Reed: “It’s not even on the same planet.”
That’s a point worth making. Of course, Jay and Ye are two very different artists with contrasting ambitions. In a way, this is a tale of two Maybachs: on both albums, the rappers find themselves back behind the wheel of their favorite European luxury car, except while Ye throws away the keys on “New Slaves,” we catch Jay cruising in his, bizarrely enough, on “Oceans,” a song about the evils of Columbus and the slave trade. Sorry, Hov, but you missed the boat on conscious rap a long time ago. While Yasiin Bey (a.k.a. Mos Def) volunteers himself to demonstrate the force-feeding procedures at Guantanamo Bay, “Oceans” by comparison lacks self-awareness, with incredibly awkward results.
There are no such slip-ups on Yeezus. And let’s remember: we’re not debating who’s the better rapper, but who’s dropped the better album, and Yeezus, even with an army of collaborators (the liner notes are so dense they could be an Apple terms of service agreement), is a masterpiece of consistency, even on its weakest song: “Hold My Liquor” limps through a hook that confirms Chief Keef is about as literate as his Twitter feed suggests. Yet in spite of this, the song tries its hardest to press ahead: with Justin Vernon’s voice, the hypnotic squeal of feedback, and a mournful chorus of guitars, West meticulously raises a Wailing Wall of sound. The result is some of the bleakest pop music since The Cure’s Pornography.
The same grueling incrementalism is at work in “I’m In It,” in which co-producer Evian Christ reduces a XXX-rated Lynchian dreamscape into howling, scorched earth. Ditto for “Send It Up,” where a house beat curls around a bloodcurdling siren before giving way to an effusive burst of Beenie Man’s “Stop Live in a De Pass,” like the first ray of daylight at the end of the haunted house ride.
You won’t find such subtlety anywhere on M.C.H.G. It’s as though Timbaland, J-Roc, and Pharrell, hearing that Kanye renounced the maximalism of his earlier work, are now jockeying for his spot. If that’s true, they did a damn good job. With acid funk visionary Adrian Younge in tow, the crew shines on “Picasso Baby,” and for the check-the-scoreboard swagger that’s Hov’s specialty, “Tom Ford” doesn’t disappoint either. Yet what breaks the heart are the missed opportunities of the album’s middle section: the clumsy execution of “Oceans,” the drawn-out bridges on “F.U.T.W.” that kill any momentum, the absurd posturing of “Crown,” the unironic philosophizing on “Heaven.”
Fans will listen with nostalgia to “Somewhereinamerica and “BBC,” reminiscent of back when Jay-Z was more of a jokester. But where’s the obvious club track on M.C.H.G.? If you mean anything on the scale of “Big Pimpin’” or “Empire State of Mind,” both genuine pop masterpieces, you won’t find one. Instead, on “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” and “La Familia,” we have Timbaland’s masterful take on Lex Luger. It’s every bit as amazing as you’d expect. And what happens? Jay and Rick Ross completely blow it with performances that raise an important question for hip-hop: if you’re pausing for 3 seconds between bars, does it still count as rapping? It’s closer to rap, perhaps, than Kanye’s all-out singing — of which there’s a lot on Yeezus. But there’s a lot of screaming, too, most chillingly on “I Am a God.” If that’s what godliness sounds like, it certainly doesn’t seem that great, and this level of ambiguity from start to finish makes Yeezus not just polarizing, but compelling.
You can’t chalk Yeezus up to mere hubris: hubris is M.C.H.G., complete with the ignorance of weakness that is its curse. For now, unfortunately, caught up as they are with Jay-Z’s Samsung-fueled spectacle, critics can’t see that the emperor wears no clothes (except for his Tom Ford eyewear). But in the future, when Magna Carta…Holy Grail is ancient history once more, Yeezus will still be with us, and by then they’ll come around.