The protégé and the mentor: ‘Yeezus’ vs. ‘Magna Carta…Holy Grail’

Jay-Z edge Kanye in summer albums matchup


I don’t think anyone – Kanye West included – really cared when his album “Yeezus” came out. There was little-to-no build up; indeed, unless you followed Kanye West on Twitter, you probably didn’t have so much as a clue when the album would be released. And as for the CD, just look at it:

That looks extremely generic. It doesn’t look any different from a bootleg album, and pretty much the only reassurance that the case doesn’t house some Japanese body-horror abomination is that it’s in the music isle. It doesn’t help that the “actual” album artwork  looks like gold vomit.¹ Which may be why album sales went down the toilet the week after release.

Magna Carta…Holy Grail,” on the other hand, has this:

Not entirely sure why “Jay-Z” is censored, but the artwork – two male Roman statues – is much more interesting than the “Yeezus’’ presentation. While the album may not hearken back to the old masters or otherwise be super-artsy (which, as it turns out, it doesn’t – probably the only mainstream rapper to do so would be RZA), at the very least it promises something epic, and even if it doesn’t fulfill its implicit promise, it piques your interest enough that you’ll likely buy the album.

Jay-Z also didn’t release any singles beforehand, but he did send the lyrics before the album was released, advertised it during the Game 5 NBA finals, and downloaded the album to a million buyers’ phones for free, three days before the album hit stores. So the question is, who did it better?

1. “On Sight”: The “co-”Daft Punk-produced intro sounds like a vaguely musical static, and while it won’t please everyone, it’s not any worse than dubstep – but the instrumental lasts for half a minute longer than it needs to (‘Ye’s fire-alarm caterwauling at the end of his verse doesn’t help), and while our host does get in a few good one-liners, the lyrics as a whole aren’t very memorable. Not a good way to start an album, or a good song in genetal, but it should be a decent hit in the clubs. (Not as much as Daft Punk’s new single – there’s a reason Colbert named it the Song of the Summer).

2. “Black Skinhead”: Now this is more like it! The second Daft Punk entry is really fantastic with its 11 P.M. march instrumental, and Kanye is much more focused lyrically, especially with a killer first verse and a good chorus (the social commentary doesn’t go anywhere, though). It’d probably see more radio play if it weren’t for the third verse, which is both weaker and more offensive. [Though for the record, it’s 300 Spartans, not Romans.]

3. “I Am a God”: The Daft-Punk/West beat isn’t bad, though this is more dubstep than I’d like; I wish Kanye had used the reggae instrumental in the intro throughout. Kanye’s first verse is pretty good, but it’s too short (one minute of a 3:52 song), especially since the second verse is half-hearted and stops with 1:18 left in the song, for no real reason. Only worth hearing the one time, since most of the time is utterly wasted on the intro/outro/yelling as opposed to, you know, actual lyrics.

4. “New Slaves”: Kanye’s at his best when he’s talking about social issues (for example, see “Jesus Walks” and “Murder to Excellence”), and this song is no exception, as his lyricism on this song, aside from a few second-verse hiccups, is the tightest thus far on the album, and he raises a good point about the CCA and imprisonment. It’s too bad the music he uses for his verse doesn’t fit at all, being more apropos to Atlanta after dark than social commentary; it doesn’t even get good until he and Frank Ocean duet at the end. There is a bilingual bonus at the end from Hungary’s Omega; it’s worth checking out.

5. “Hold My Liquor”: The instrumental is pretty good with its atmosphere and guitar riffs, but I don’t get much out of this song beside ‘Ye’s character being a drunk. While his actual lyrics are only a minute and Chief Keef’s hook is terrible, the last one-and-a-half minutes have an instrumental swirl interesting enough to almost absolve the song – key word “almost” – but I can’t see why the musical swirl at the end didn’t have lyrics (he didn’t have any problems with that arrangement on his 2005 single “Gone.”

6. “I’m in It”: Delivered competently enough – even with a co-star who has too much songtime and a weird Soundwave voice for the first verse, but no one needed to hear Kanye say “uh” in front of his lines. That last part is even worse in context – while the song is about lovemaking, the context is not in the least romantic. Seventh-graders, pretend this song doesn’t exist. Everyone else, just pretend the music for the first verse is on a loop, and try not to vomit.

7. “Blood on the Leaves”: I’m of two minds when it comes to this song. On the one hand, I absolutely love Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” and while sampling the horns from an electronic hip-hop duo seems sacrilegious given “Strange Fruit’s” subject matter, ‘Ye manages to make it work (Auto-Tuning Simone’s lyrics, not so much). The beat also allows Kanye to change lyrical structure from pre-song confessional to vaguely introductive pop-song to lyrically tight invective directed at Kim Kardashian, something that I think we all can get behind.

That having been said: SERIOUSLY, KANYE?!? You have a socially conscious song earlier on the album, and you got an anti-lynching song sample cleared (one assumes), yet you think that “New Slaves” would be better served by what sounds like a “N—as in Paris” outtake bred with “Jay-Z does the robot?” You even mention “blood on the leaves” in the lyrics, the least you could do is throw in 30-second sample. Not that Simone’s song is wasted here – it definitely isn’t – but did anyone really need the second-to-last verse, the one where you drop the F- and N-bombs three and seven times, respectively? And was there a reason you couldn’t use the beat for “Hold My Liquor” for this song, and this beat for “New Slaves?” You could even switch my suggestion around – “New Slaves” with Track #5’s beat, “Blood on the Leaves” as is (sans Auto-Tune), and the Track #4 instrumental pantsless, on the couch, while Kanye West tells Aunt Kardashian to get bent.

8. “Guilt Trip”: Kanye’s verses aren’t lasting more than a minute in song that are four times as long, and his lyrics here degrade into weak punchlines for the second half, even though Kanye feels emotionally invested in the song. The beat sounds like an arcade version of “Fly Like an Eagle,” though there’s enough of a piano melody, as well as a late switch to violins, that ends up elevating the beat from “average” to “pretty good.” Oh, and Kid Cudi does the outro…he’s OK, I guess, but not really remarkable.

9. “Send It Up” (feat. King Louie): I have no idea who King Louie is, but he sounds bored out of his mind, and his lyrics are only competent without really saying everything. Kanye’s verse is better and more enthusiastic, but still not really good, yet he still gets less time than his weaker guest star. The West/Daft Punk beat is a cacophonous, industrial fire siren loop – which I didn’t mind, but it can get grating after awhile.

10. “Bound 2” (feat. Charlie Wilson): This is pretty much the only song that sounds like 2005 Kanye, which leaves the reader with a case of musical whiplash (not helped by the beat going static when Chuck Wilson does the chorus). The lyrics are appreciable to good, and unlike many of the songs on this album, it actually picks up in the second verse. The biggest problem with the song is the looping; while pleasant, I’d be easier to listen to if the “Uh-huh, honey” only popped up at the end of a verse, rather than awkwardly rearing its head midverse; actually, it gets annoying quickly. That said, not bad.

Overall: Yeah, I don’t see why critics are liking this album. It does have a consistent electronic sound, and the two tracks that don’t have don’t affect the atmosphere that much (in “Bound 2’s” case, it’s because it’s the last track), but only half the songs’ beats can be called “pretty good.” The album is only 40 minutes, yet Kanye West usually raps for less than half (about a minute or two) of most songs, which is both pointlessly lazy – you still have three to four minutes left, why aren’t you doing anything? – and makes the album feel much longer than it has to. I give it a 5 out of 10 (passable, but only a few songs are worth hearing more than once). RECOMMENDATIONS: “Black Skinhead” (as dance music), “New Slaves” (acapella for Kanye’s lyrics), “Hold My Liquor” and “Guilt Trip” (instrumentals only, though you can ignore the latter’s lyrics), “Blood on the Leaves”
Jay-Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail

1. “Holy Grail”: The opening track starts out decent enough, with a soulful Justin Timberlake kicking it off with a verse and hook about his former girlfriend … which is weird, because only Jay-Z’s first verse really deals with girl trouble [the second is about fame’s drawbacks]. Not bad, and cohesive even across three beat switches, though Jay-Z’s bookends are kind of week – “uhhs” in the front, n-bombs in the back.

2. “Picasso Baby”: This is exactly how a summer single should sound; the Timbaland beat is both active and laid-back, and while Jay-Z’s completely braggadocio until the last verse (which switches to a rolling guitar lick to show he means business), Jay-Z can actually pull it off, since his lyrical coasting is still pretty good. (For the record, I have seen his “Picasso Baby” performance video, and it’s interesting, but I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. It seems more like something the RZA would do.) For artistic style, however, Jay-Z isn’t really hip-hop’s Pablo Picasso; you’re thinking of (or should be, anyway) this guy, and more specifically, this album

3. “Tom Ford”: While both this and the previous song have the same producers, Timbaland and Texas’ J-Roc, this sounds more like a club song – specifically, an ATL strip – than a radio single. Alas, Jay-Z’s lyrics are not that good; they fall prey to what can be called “pop music syndrome,” where musicians, especially rappers, seem to think lyrical quality and popularity are inversely related, and respond accordingly, and it has the same problem of too little content most of the songs on Yeezus have. This song sucked.

4. “F—WithMeYouKnowIGotIt” (feat. Rick Ross): After an introduction by the late Pimp C, Rick Ross (who I discussed in the Life is Good review) drops a verse that technically exists, but the only proof for that is a one-line-for-two-bars structure that seems intent on turning the already-drawling [but still good] Dirty South beat into frozen molasses. Jay-Z drops a 50-second one-verse wonder that completely blows Ross’ verse out of the water…which is pretty good for a guest appearance.³

5. “Oceans” (feat. Frank Ocean, fittingly enough): The marine beat is a little busy, but in a good way, and Jay-Z doesn’t disappoint here at one of his rare socially conscious songs (i.e., oceans = triangular slave trade). Pretty good, though the “Strange Fruit” reference at this point only reminds me how much better use Carter’s sometime-producer could have put it to for “New Slaves,” even if we’re not talking the same versions.

6. “F.U.T.W. [F— Up The/This World]”: Hey, remember that time period (March 9, 1997 to November 14, 2003) where Jay-Z was unquestionably considered the best pop-rapper alive? Yeah, this song will remind you of that.

7. “Somewhereinamerica”: The jazzy Hit-Boy beat immediately and rightfully captures your attention, but Jay-Z’s insisting on adding “uhh” in front of every one of his lines disrupts the flow; it would still be decent, had not noted Nas fan Stephen Colbert, presumably miffed that God’s Son went uncredited on “BBC,” replaced Jay-Z mid-verse to awe at first-grader math and reminding us that “somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is twerkin.’” (I had no idea he could throw his voice that well. And I know for a fact that there’s a missing third act consisting almost entirely of “-izzles”). By all means you should download the instrumental, but it needs to be given to someone (like, say, Nas?) who does it justice.

8. “Crown”: “Tom Ford,” but with (marginally) better lyrics. Completely expendable.

9. “Heaven”: Easily the best song on the album, and will serve as a key piece of evidence in deciding whether or not Jay-Z is bigger than Jesus.

10. “Versus”: Basically a skit with rapping, and OK as such. I do have to agree that most rappers’ albums aren’t as good as Reasonable Doubt, though.

11. “Part II (On the Run)”: This features Jay-Z’s wife, who’s more prominent on the song than he is. The beat is pretty good, but the couple’s performance is just serviceable, and Beyonce sounds kind of apathetic.

12. “Beach is Better”: The worse skit of the two. But hey, at least it’s short.

13. “BBC” (feat. Nas): Now, personally I feel Nas is overall a better rapper than Jay-Z, but he doesn’t do as well on here as he usually does, probably because the two cover different subject matter and have different flows (read: he generally stinks at pop songs). That having been said, this song was really fun, and a veritable summer anthem.

14. “Jay-Z Blue”: Now I can see why Jay-Z “has to make the song cry,” as the beat isn’t exactly the right fit (which isn’t saying that it’s bad or even ill-fitted); and, truth be told, he’s never been able to sound very emotional (check “D’Evils” and “Song Cry” if you don’t believe me). I liked the third verse best, especially since it didn’t revert to an awkward three-bar structure.

15. “La Familia”: This song exists, yet the only thing I can tell you is that Jay-Z copies Rick Ross’ “flow” on Track #4.

16. “Nickels and Dimes”: This song is pretty nice: The lyrics play like a less apprehensive and hardened version of “D’evils,” and the subdued instrumental is nice as well. This would be a pretty good way to end an album, but…

17. “Open Letter” (bonus track): …it’s a good thing Jay-Z released his lyrics before the actual album, as this song would’ve been better if his flow was smoother. (In his defense, most if not all of his songs are freestyles, and this could have been done after a marathon recording session).

Overall: “Magna Carta…Holy Grail” isn’t as cohesive as Yeezus, but it’s generally much better. While on a track-by-track basis the album is just a few more hits than misses, there’s a lower volume of trashcompared to Yeezus: Take away the minute-long skits, the worst songs on the album (“Tom Ford,” “Crown,” “La Familia”), and treat “Somewhereinamerica” as a joke, and you still have 45 minutes of OK-to-phenomenal songs. The bad songs may stink, but the good songs are really good, and the average songs on here are still holistically better than the better songs on Yeezus (except for “Blood on the Leaves”). If you have to buy one of the albums, your money would be better spent on Jay-Z’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail. 7/10 (good; worth checking out).

RECOMMENDATIONS: “Picasso Baby,” “Oceans,” “F.U.T.W.”, “Somewhereinamerica” (instrumental only), “Heaven,” “BBC,” “Jay-Z Blue,” “Nickels and Dimes”

1. Actually, the artwork is a golden head being rent in two, if you can make it out. But the album sticker blurs the best clue to that, so the point still stands.

2.”I wanted to do what I wanted to do. No once could stop me cause I did it how I wanted. Cause yo, if I wanted to write something down that you wouldn’t understand, yo, I’ma do it. I’m the first one that did it and made songs that made no sense to nobody. That’s me.” – Ghostface Killah, on why he says such crap as “spiced-out Calvin Coolidge” and “Scooby snack Jurassic plastic gas booby trap.” Mind you, he doesn’t usually blurt out gibberish, and he is a pretty coherent storyteller.

3. (As it turns out, this was what was actually going to happen; Rick Ross was going to use it for his album “Mastermind” before Jay-Z decided to take it.)