Young-Ye: How Jay-Z and Kanye West Made the World Watch the Throne (Again) and Saved Hip-Hop in the Process (Food for Thought)
For the better part of the last 2 weeks, I was convinced the sibling-like rivalry between Jay-Z and Kanye West had reached epic (and perhaps unseemly) proportions. How else could you explain the 2 dropping albums within 3 weeks of one another with Jay-Z seemingly stepping on little brother Kanye’s shine 2 days before Kanye’s release date with one of the most brilliant launches of an album in recent history? It seemed Jay was even pulling another “Chris Martin” by inviting Rick Rubin to his party right after Rubin swooped in to save the day for Kanye. However, after spending some time with Jay’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, I’m starting to believe the 2 might have just pulled the ultimate okey doke and (knowingly) served up the greatest 1-2 punch in hip-hop history. Each album was set up in unconventional but similar ways, and neither album can be fully appreciated without the other. In fact, like Yin & Yang, they complete each other…You be the judge, but here are some things to consider as you form your opinion:
1. Titles: Is it coincidental that both Hov and Yeezy picked titles that have religious undertones AND statements of self-grandiosity? The title Yeezus clearly makes a bold and incendiary proclamation. Kanye seems to be comparing himself to Jesus, presumably in part due to the persecution he has endured over the years (George, Taylor, Kim…). Jay’s title is a BIT subtler, yet similarly soaked in largesse. He is likening himself to the Magna Carta (Magna Carter…), one of the most important documents in Western political history, and the Holy Grail, suggested by some to contain the blood of Christ. So…Kanye is Yeezus and Hov (the father) carries the blood of…But, wait. Before the Illuminati rumors soar to new levels, let’s look at the titles together in a different way. Both Kanye and Jay are masters of double entendres. If Kanye is proclaiming himself to be Yeezus then maybe it’s not all about persecution. Jesus also made a sacrifice. So what was Ye’s sacrifice? As we wrote earlier, with Yeezus, Kanye completely disregarded any pretense of making a conventional hip-hop album. He potentially sacrificed sales, airplay and likely even fans to put out something he believed to be true art, presumably in part to elevate the genre. Similarly, if decoded differently, Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail title also carries an implication of sacrifice—or giving back. While the Magna Carta is a revered historical document, it is also one of the first to place clear and significant limitations on a king. Perhaps in choosing the first half of the title, Jay-Z is acknowledging his limitations—or at least self-awareness that he should not go unchecked. Additionally, there are multiple views of what the Holy Grail is. Certain scholars believe it was not a chalice that held Christ’s blood but instead, a serving dish, one of which may have been used to serve the Last Supper. So, this tempered Jay-Z (Magna Carter) is serving sounds and messages that he believes the hip-hop nation (and the rest of the world) need to hear. When taken together under these different interpretations, each has delivered an album that aspires to take hip-hop to a different level.
2. Subject Matter: Another similarity and complementary aspect of Yeezus and MCHG is the fact that both Jay and Ye put out the realest albums of their respective careers (yeah, I said it). For Kanye, while 808 & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy both gave unfiltered access to his psyche, each was sonically polished in a veneer (autotune and lush orchestration, respectively) that softened and covered the underlying emotion. That protective skin was ripped away on Yeezus. In fact, Kanye strived to make Yeezus as musically spare as possible, hence the last minute importation of Rubin who specializes in stripping away unnecessary fat. What’s left on Yeezus is raw unbridled emotion, stream of consciousness and even vulgarity. It’s Kanye’s purest “I don’t give a f*ck” album. For Jay, both Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint struck the most autobiographical chords about the elusive MC’s checkered past, but he is way too guarded and intelligent to give away too much, especially if it could implicate him criminally (hence the reason he opted to put out Decoded instead of the tell-all authorized biography he initially commissioned Dream Hampton to write). MCHG, however, finds Jay in a different space. As the title and marketing campaign for the album suggest, he is a king and plays by #newrules—his rules. This results in him becoming more braggadocio than ever about his money, cars, lifestyle and woman—much to the detraction of his critics. But, what do you expect?? Jay-Z is closer to being a billionaire than a single digit millionaire. He also is married to a woman that is pretty much universally regarded as one of the most beautiful and talented on the planet. The lifestyle of which he speaks IS his reality. The private jet-speak is far more authentic than his occasional slips back into slick talk about “the life” on MCHG. Authenticity, however is not the only thing that unites Kanye and Jay in subject matter on these projects. Each also has more than his fair share of social commentary on his album (Oceans, Crowns and F.U.T.W. for Jay, and New Slaves and Black Skinhead for Kanye), though it may take a few listens to catch some of the deeper lyrics. The lyrical social symmetry they achieved on Watch the Throne (No Church in the Wild, Murder to Excellence and Made in America) spilled over to their subsequent solo projects. Coincidence?
3. The Beats: The tracks on Yeezus and MCHG are the clearest manifestation of the Yin-Yang nature of the projects. Again, Kanye took a MAJOR left turn musically with Yeezus. Few do lush and intricate arrangements better than Kanye in hip-hop (dude has violins on damn near half his catalog), yet he is minimalist to say the least on Yeezus and many sounds he does include on the project could be described as…noise (On Sight, Send It Up). Many songs are without melody and often don’t have bass lines. MCHG, by contrast, is a very sonically conventional hip-hop album. From the outset, Picasso leads with a funky bass line and hard drums and melody is ever-present throughout the album (cure the aforementioned blazing Mrs. Carter on Part II). Despite, the stark difference in musical direction, however, each album is distinctly hip-hop (and this is where I’ve evolved with respect to Yeezus—even in the course of writing this piece). Jay’s album needs no explanation. He brought in some of the best hip-hop sonic architects in the game (Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell) and they did what they do—laid down a thunderous sonic landscape fitting of a hip-hop king. Kanye also turned to a master hip-hop craftsman, Rick Rubin, and Rubin did what he has done since his earliest work with LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys—he put together a collection of stripped down, aggressive and radical beats that emphasized equally rebellious lyrics. Isn’t that the foundation of hip-hop?
4. The Rollout: When Jay-Z released a 3-minute short film during Game 6 of the most-watched NBA Finals in a decade to announce the imminent arrival of MCHG, it threatened to overshadow the fact that Yeezus was dropping in 2 days. Yet, just 2 weeks prior to the Samsung commercial heard ‘round the world, Kanye West had been lauded for one of the most imaginative launch campaigns in years—projecting visuals for New Slaves, the first release from Yeezus, on buildings in more than 60 locations globally. It’s a testament to just how short our attention spans have become that we don’t recognize both marketing campaigns as equally brilliant and effective at achieving their goal—making the pop culture world aware that something BIG was coming. Once again, Jay’s approach was ostensibly more conventional (a TV commercial) and Ye gravitated toward the artsy (literally using buildings as his canvas) but each exhibited a flair for the moment that hip-hop had never seen before and may not see for a long time thereafter. Similarly, contrary to the standard approach of leaking multiple songs from an album/mixtape in the weeks leading up to its release (a method perfected by Mr. West for MBDTF with his Good Fridays campaign), each also released no radio singles, no internet leaks, nor any videos ahead of his album. Be clear. These rollout campaigns were 2 sides of the same rare and unorthodox coin.
5. The Impact: “Can’t leave rap alone, the game needs me.” Whether you’re a Kanye fan, a Jay-fan, a fan of both or neither, hip-hop needed these 2 releases. June 16th was a hip-hop Super Tuesday for one reason only: Kanye West. While Mac Miller, Statik Selektah and Kid Tsunami put quality numbers on the board (and I’m not talking sales), Yeezus was the measuring stick against which all releases were measured. And, while J. Cole put out an incredible album on the same date and almost got Ye sales-wise, let’s not forget he moved his album UP just to be in the conversation with Ye. Similarly, what Jay-Z did to the Internets on July 4th is nothing short of amazing. If you were on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, email or any other meaningful form of web communication between the hours of 12am and 2am you could not avoid the Jay-Z takeover. In fact, the swirl actually crashed the very Samsung app that created the commotion…Whether you like these artists/albums or not, there has not been so much energy around hip-hop culture in a long time. That applies commercially (6/23 was the first time since 2006 that 3 hip-hop albums debuted atop the Billboard album charts, followed by Wale’s #1 debut on 6/30 and a guaranteed additional #1 album from Jay in the next week) and conversationally (check Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, USA Today, the LA Times, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly…). For a genre that has been proclaimed dead more times than it has been celebrated for being alive, and one that was recently Trapped and lost to EDM, that is a gift that cannot be measured.
Only 2 years ago, Jay and Ye told the world they were The Throne. Is it so hard to believe these 2 kings may have united to resurrect hip-hop and write its #new rules? You be the judge…