Album: Kanye West – Yeezus
Label: Def Jam, 2013
Album: Jay-Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail
Label: Roc Nation, 2013
They may have both shared the throne but this July has seen Jay Z and Kanye West pit themselves against each other in a duel of albums. Kanye was first to drop his veritable atom bomb of a record, Yeezus, in late June. Jay Z choosing to reply on Independence Day – ironic for what is such an unoriginal album, although traditional might be a nicer way of putting it.
The contrast between these two mammoth CDs is obvious from about 5 seconds in to each opening track. Yeezus erupts with ‘On Sight’ and its techno glitchery. Immediately the innovation of this record is apparent. His last album might have been a dark fantasy, but Kanye‘s clearly found the basement in his rabbit hole. Turn over to Magna Carta Holy Grail – don’t worry I won’t forget to take issue with the most pretentious title of the 21st century – and we’re welcomed with some overly familiar piano chords and Justin Timberlake’s dulcet tones, in ‘Holy Grail’. This decidedly poor song isn’t even redeemed by the use of the chorus from Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ which surely must have cost a minor fortune. Jay Z fails to capture any of his past lyrical genius, relying on name dropping and quotation in a vain attempt to seem clever. ‘Picasso Baby’ starts of promisingly with a thundering old school bass line, but again it’s Jay Z himself that’s lets the song down. He spends more time making that overly-enthusiastic wanking noise than actually rapping.
“Frankly, Magna Carter looks like a poor attempt at an album for 2013, even without the looming presence of Yeezus”
Back on planet Yeezus the filth continues with ‘Black Skinhead’. Snippets of screams distorted into an earphone busting riff. It’s from here on out, that not only does Kanye continue his musical advantage, but his lyrics seem to have matured into a perfect mix of surrealism, wit, and controversy. By the time he recites ‘I Am A God’, you’re pretty much ready to believe it and give him the “damn croissants”. This is not an easy listening album, but that doesn’t mean you don’t savour every second. Jay Z might well have Frank Ocean appearing yet again on one of the worst tracks on the album ‘Oceans’. Yet Kanye has Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon), who delivers a much more emotional touch in several key moments across Yeezus. His eerily, reverbed vocals especially effective on standout song ‘Hold My Liquor’, conveying a very real sense of emotion utterly absent from Magna Carta, also contrasting perfectly with the ragga ferocity in ‘I’m On it’.
Jay Z makes a stride into the trap realm with the catchy and subtly future sounding, ‘Tom Ford’. It houses the best MDMA (molly) reference so far this year. As you delve further into Magna Carta Holy Grail an issue of stagnating formula begins to arise. Song after song features a household name, but goes nowhere. Sample. Rap. Sample. Break. Rap. Over and over again. Frankly it looks like a poor attempt at an album for 2013, even without the looming presence of Yeezus. Even Beyoncé sounds decidedly average on ‘Part II’. It takes the divine influence of ‘Heaven’ to resurrect this record. Jay Z back on form lyrically, with a touch of REM thrown in for the hell of it, this is the peak of the album apart from ‘Jay Z Blue’. A tribute to his child, the song is reminiscent of Jay Z’s early rawness in its brutal honesty. For all the hype however, Magna Carta Holy Grail never really stood a chance against the tirade of Thomas Bangalter (Daft Punk) produced filth that is Yeezus. Nina Simone is even thrown in the mix on the subtle ‘Blood On The Leaves’. Album closer, ‘Bound 2’ makes smart use of an annoyingly catchy, little sample. It’s a perfect conclusion, with the production much lighter in tone than the rest of the record. It sits awkwardly on the ears, as they’re still very much on edge considering the last nine tracks.
Critics might claim that you can’t compare these two records. Jay Z has produced a ‘rap album’ and Kayne’s is newwave-industrial-avant-punk-rap-hiphop. It doesn’t matter. They’re the two biggest names in Hip Hop and/or Rap. They both knew that by releasing albums in a similar window there would be comparisons. The definitive answer is Yeezus takes the Holy Grail every time. Jay Z may well have become the first artist to receive a platinum rating before general release, but if you ask me, selling out to Samsung is cheating. He needs to give Rubin a call next time.