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Glorified swag with Kanye and Jay Z

Published: August 23, 2013
Section: Opinions

As the summer of 2013 ran its course, the music world exploded with huge new albums, singles, concert tours, deaths and lawsuits. Amid all the drama, however, one conversation in particular has risen above all: the comparison of new releases by Jay Z and Kanye West, two of the biggest names in hip-hop today.

Jay Z has been at the top of the genre since 2009’s “The Blueprint III” reignited the fire that started with “The Black Album” of 2003. In comparison, Kanye only truly gained similar success in 2010 after the release of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” brought him out of the darkness created by his “808s and Heartbreak” of 2008. In 2011, the world learned that Jay Z and Kanye view each other as equals, thanks to their collaborative “Watch The Throne.”

It is only natural to compare Kanye’s newest album, “Yeezus,” to Jay Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail.” Now that the world has been able to digest these releases, it is time to beg the ultimate question: who dropped the better album?

Several years ago, both rappers began to advertise themselves as self-proclaimed deities. The artists reveal their shared obsession with classical and religious themes in Kanye’s “Power” video, set at the pearly gates, his side project “Cruel Summer,” and also in the angelic, gold album artwork for the collaborative “Watch the Throne.” “Yeezus” and “Magna Carta Holy Grail” continue this trend, suggesting that humility is not encouraged at this level of hip-hop.

Considering the directness of the title “Yeezus,” the album is visually quite plain. The blank CD is packaged in a clear, plastic case decorated with one red square. On the contrary, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” a less glaringly named record, is decorated with images harkening back to ancient Greece and Rome. While Jay Z’s more graceful title places him in a poetic light, Kanye West prides himself on his directness. It appears, however, that both albums suggest the arrival of similar, ferociously confident, religious musical epics. Thematically, both “Yeezus” and “Magna Carta” discuss superstardom in a divine light, but the releases could not be more different.

“Yeezus,” which hit the record stores on June 18, is by far West’s most innovative album to date. The rapper and his production team, headed by Rick Rubin (who was also involved with “Magna Carta”) composed “Yeezus” with a stripped-down approach. The album could probably be released without any vocals as a solely instrumental record reminiscent of a cross between Daft Punk, Nine Inch Nails and Crystal Castles. The beats hold their own far more than Kanye’s raps.

Daft Punk themselves produced the record’s first track, “On Sight,” which starts with frantic synthesizer warbling before dropping into the edgy, keyboard-driven beat. About a minute and a half later, though, Kanye screams curses just as the beat abruptly changes to resemble swirling, psychedelic indie music for ten seconds before returning to the initial electronica. It is evident that West refuses to abide by any rules, simply unleashing his anger accompanied only by a few snares and synthesizers. His lyricism in the first track alone is candid and obnoxious, sporting cheap, tactless, Lil Wayne-worthy punchlines such as “We get this b*tch shakin’ like Parkinson’s,” and “One last announcement: no sports bra, let’s keep it bouncing.” “On Sight” warns listeners that they will be in for one wild ride.

Luckily, the beats remain stripped-down and interesting throughout the remainder of the record. The lyrics, however, continue to sound rushed, cocky and disagreeable. Kanye reaches the point of no return on the third track, “I Am a God (feat. God)” when he interrupts the perfectly subtle bass line by repeating “I am a god” over and over again. If Kanye had even tried to establish some lyrical integrity and soul, he might have had an incredible album. The creativity of the album’s music is negated by the sloppy and pretentious lyricism.

Jay Z is just as sure of himself on his new album as his protégé, though he shows it with a little more class. While Kanye strayed as far as possible from his familiar sound, Jay Z stood strong by his world-renowned swagger on Magna Carta, busting out 16 recognizably Jay Z tracks. “Holy Grail (feat. Justin Timberlake)” opens the record as properly as “On Sight” opens “Yeezus.” The song leads with a dark piano hook written by longtime Jay Z collaborator Timbaland, and a wailing feature by Justin Timberlake before dropping into a classic rap beat. The song is exactly what one might expect from the Brooklyn-bred MC, which is a general trend for the album. “Magna Carta” is filled with wonderful beats, powerful hooks and swagger-filled lines, highlighted by “Holy Grail,” “Oceans (feat. Frank Ocean),” “Picasso Baby,” “Tom Ford,” “Heaven” and “Nickels and Dimes.”

“Oceans” is soulful tune about racism that gently but dramatically brings to light the deep pain caused by slavery and prejudice, unlike “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” on “Yeezus” which also touch on the same topic. Kanye merely frustrates listeners with his angry tone, but Jay Z pushes for sympathy and understanding, telling a more sorrowful narrative. After “Holy Grail (feat Justin Timberlake),” “Oceans” is probably the strongest song, though “Picasso Baby” comes close, brought down only by its more materialistic lyricism about wealth and ambition.

That’s really what makes “Magna Carta” imperfect. The album’s lyricism becomes redundant at times, jumping back and forth between Jay Z’s wealth, superstar status and godlike appeal. On “Crown,” the rapper even stoops as low as Kanye, declaring, “You’re in the presence of a king/Scratch that you’re in the presence of a god.”

“Yeezus” is simply Kanye West’s ego on absolute fire. It’s more a piece of performance art about how great he is, whereas “Magna Carta” is a commercial rap album ready for distribution.

Neither album is perfect. What the final judgment comes down to is the ease of listening and that award goes to Jay Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail.” While the instrumentation of “Yeezus” achieves feats that few other artists could hope to near, the album is unorganized. Though “Magna Carta” is no perfect album, it is consistent, filled with 16 rap tracks that sound like Jay Z. The listener experiences no struggle when listening. Jay Z doesn’t try to be something that he is not. On the contrary, he tries to glorify all that he is with more swagger than anyone else in the game.