World War Jay Z

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Jay-Z has ascended all the barriers that rap stars fall into.  He hangs out with the president, performs at Carnegie Hall, and writes best selling books that legitimize the entire genre.  He’s married to the queen of pop and has sired the most important musical heir in the history of music.  He is the embodiment of the american dream, a rags to riches story set in the 21st century.  He’s not a business man, he’s a business, man.  J. Hova has evolved beyond the rap game, so why does he keep making music?  With Magna Carta Holy Grail, his 13th number one album (only The Beatles have more), Jay-Z pushes his case for relevancy.

Many people don’t like Jay-Z.  Even though his reputation as the G.O.A.T. has been cemented in recent years, he’s been written off as a has-been.  Rap has always been a young man’s game and it’s hard to rap with hunger when you’ve accomplished everything.  As Andre 3000 says, “I used to be a way better writer and a rapper when I used to want a black Karmann Ghia.”  The more common critique of Jay-Z, and the most popular dismissal of this album and his recent work, is his success is alienating.  Rappers have always boasted about material wealth, but Jigga takes it to a whole other level.  Popping bottles on a yacht is one thing, but going ham at the auction isn’t resonant at all.  Where other rappers are fun, Jay-Z is smug and elitist.  I’m not sure why the 1% raps have become so stigmatized in the critical world for Hov but for every other rapper it’s ok.  The lightning rod for this album has been the infamous Samsung marketing deal.  He sold a million copies of Magna Carta to Samsung who gave it away for free to the first million people who downloaded an exclusive app.  A lot of people were offended by the corporate synergy that Jay-Z represented, how he was co-opting the extensive internet culture that Hip Hop had developed in the past decade, and how he was gaming the system.  And that’s what all the reviews zeroed in on, how Jay-Z had become out of touch with the common man and that his album and the way it was sold exemplifies that.

Magna Carta Holy Grail isn’t a great album, but it is a fun one.  In the rush to defame the album, everyone missed the good parts.  Timbaland handles the majority of the production and boy does he do a good job.  Timbaland had been in a rut for a while and it looks like 2013 is his reawakening.  He constructs mini pop kaleidoscopes for Hov to fall into.  The beats all have an ambition to them.  The plodding keys of “Picasso Baby” transform into swirling guitars and “F.U.T.W.” alternates between shimmers of piano and floating horns.  Other guest producers add on to the luxurious soundscape that Timbaland sets.  Boi-1da’s “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” broods and swirls while Rick Ross stomps around in probably his best appearance of the year, and Mike Will Made It’s “Beach Is Better” only lasts for a minute but has enough power to destroy the world (seriously, if Jay-Z is smart he’ll put out a 5 minute remix with a new verse from him, and add in Kanye and 2 Chainz.  Track of the year).  And standout “Somewhere In America,” courtesy of Hit-Boy is the best track that never appeared on the Great Gatsby soundtrack, all swing and jive.

The album that warrants comparison to Magna Carta isn’t from Kanye or any other rapper; it’s Timbaland’s other baby The 20/20 Experience.  Timbo started his bid for MVP this year with Justin Timberlake’s comeback album and there’s a lot of similarities.  Album statements over singles, “grown-up” sophisticated pop music, unusual track times.   Jay-Z and JT are working together, on tour together, have features on each others albums, and they’re both trying very hard to sell a classy image that they like art and wear tuxedos.  If there’s any general theme on Magna Carta, it’s this image.  Jay-Z really likes Picasso and Basquiat.  He doesn’t pop molly, he rocks Tom Ford suits.  He wants people to let him be great.  Lyrically, the album doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it just synthesizes elements of his past two records.  Jigga combines the The Blueprint 3’s rap chart assimilation with Watch The Throne‘s Horatio Alger tale.  He’s either thoughtfully reflecting on his fame and fortune, or reveling in it.

There are deep moments.  Jay-Z contemplates how far he’s made it compared to his ancestors while Frank Ocean serenades him on “Oceans.”  “Jay Z Blue” is a letter to his daughter and doesn’t shy away from his fears of being a father.  But the thing that’s been downplayed about Hov is his ability to change up the flow and have fun, and he does that more on this album than any of his other late period releases.  He didn’t become famous because he could rap pound for pound like Nas; it was his flow and versatility, his ability to hop on trends right at the moment they teetered over into popular consciousness.  “Tom Ford” does just that, hopping on a EDM jacking “Molly” beat while undermining the current popularity of the form at the same time.  Using a song’s structure to juxtapose a message is something that other rappers do too (even underground favorites like Freddie Gibbs and Danny Brown), but I don’t care about the purpose.  I like how Jay stretches out the words in the chorus, how he growls and you can hear his face scrunch up when he talks about how everyone is sweet.  I like Beyonce, instead of having a credited normal boring singing part, simply swags out over the chorus echoing her husbands sentiments.  Yes Jay-Z has lost a step, yes he’s not as good as he once was, yes he adds in a few too many “uhs” to fill pauses, but he still is miles above other mainstream rappers.  And it’s fun to hear him use his skills to have fun.  And he still flexes when he wants to.  “Heaven” is the best track on the album, where he combines his playful delivery with a more in depth topic.  He confronts the illuminati discourse surrounding him and scoffs it away, smoking hashish with his fellowship while everyone points fingers at him.  “These are not 16’s these are verses from the bible, tell the preacher he’s a preacher, I’m a motherfuckin prophet, smoke a tree of knowledge.”  Just nasty.

 Magna Carta Holy Grail isn’t great.  For all the high points of the album, there are a lot of moments where it feels stuffy and boring.  It’s so frustrating to hear Beyonce and Justin Timberlake, the two best pop singers of their generation, used for such maudlin tracks like “On The Run (Part II)” and “Holy Grail.”  There’s no cohesion to the album.  It doesn’t have Watch The Throne‘s grandeur, The Blueprint 3‘s commercial power, American Gangster’s story concept, or even Kingdom Come‘s gimmick.  I suppose that’s why everyone latched on to the Samsung deal; it was the only thing to hold on to.  But this is just a regular album that certainly didn’t deserve the scorn that has been piled on it as of late.  As Hov says himself “Even my old fans like ‘old man just stop,’ I could if I would but I can’t I’m hot.”  Just listen and enjoy what you can, because somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerking and Jigga man will be performing at the MoMA.

All Praise To Yeezus And The Rap-lic Church

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Kanye West is the most influential artist of the 21st century.  It’s not even up to debate.  Every album launches a brand new paradigm that the entire musical world slowly follows.  And this was established before the new decade.  Since then he’s created his magnum opus, leveled the playing field between him and Jay-Z, and fashioned the best possible soundscape for 2 Chainz to drink champagne on an airplane.  And now there’s this, his confusing, short album that acts as a middle finger to everyone who’s followed him since day one.  And the whole time I was listening to Yeezus, I was just thinking “Holy shit, is Kanye in the top 5 of all time?”

Yeezus is a powerful album and one that demands attention.  Even before I reached an opinion on it, I was awed by the energy that courses through it.  It sounds like nothing in his career, hell it’s a reach for the whole genre (and yes there were some groups experimenting with this sound but people who listen to Kanye don’t listen to those guys).  There’s an electronic vibe on the album.  It’s as if he took the auto-tune ideas of 808’s & Heartbreak and fed them black kryptonite.  Sometimes it sounds like a deconstruction of the stadium-rap that he’s nearly perfected with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne, keeping all the power but with a minimalist edge.  It seems to be the antithesis of the chipmunk soul of Kanye’s origins, as if we’re watching him being burned by lava and transformed into a soulless metallic rap Darth Vader (and Jay-Z is screaming “YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BRING BALANCE TO RAP, NOT DESTROY IT!“)  Yeezus does sound sterile at times, shiny and hollow.  There’s not much that can prepare you for the glitchy nintendo breakdown of “On Sight,” which made me park my car to make sure my system hadn’t exploded.  It’s jarring, and it’s only something that Kanye could have done.

There’s a lot to be said about the electronic overhaul Yeezy has done with his sound.  Industrial metal, witch-house, Euro-dubstep all play a part in Yeezus.  This has two effects.  It connects Kanye with the techno history of Chicago, in a different avenue than his soul samples used to.  But more interestingly, it’s Kanye’s reflection of Chicago right now and the bleakness of the Drill scene.  Remember, Kanye West has been decrying the poor living situation in his hometown since “Jesus Walks,” and the mechanical violence of Yeezus can be seen as complementary to what young producers like Young Chop are doing in the Chi right now.  Chief Keef and King L, two stars of the scene, make appearances and fit right into the dark void of the album.

Yeezus realizes the brute strength of these sounds.  Kanye wields every individual sound like a sledgehammer, and with the help of such producers like Daft Punk, Hudson Mohawke, and Rick Rubin, has been able to create a soundtrack that pounds the listener at every opportunity.  Even more impressive is his utilization of voices.  He’s like a conductor, bringing in a new instrument every so often but always keeping it distinct.  Who else could pair the mumble of Chief Keef with the angelic Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on “Hold My Liquor,”  or use a Jamaican patois so powerfully on “I’m In It.”  Whether it’s a lifeless soul sample or a high pitched scream, Kanye finds power in the solitude of these sounds, which makes Yeezus a minimal recording as compared to his orchestral achievements of the past where he piled on as many voices as he could.

Of course the most powerful voice is Yeezy’s itself.  Kanye has evolved from being a lower-level producer MC into a rapper worthy of his own beats.  Much has been made out of the lyrics on the album, how they were wrote very quickly and that shows in their simplicity, but it’s all classic ‘Ye.  The obvious punchlines, the way he changes how a word sounds for emphasis (got more niggas off than COCH-A-RANE), and the incisive dashes into the beat, they’re all what people have come to love or hate about Kanye.  Whether he’s demanding croissants or rocking Chewbacca fur, that’s Ye.  But what is special here is how strong his voice itself is.  Not many rappers could ride a terrain as jagged as Yeezus, but Kanye has morphed his voice from the awkward delivery of his earlier years into a deafening HUNHHHHHHH!  The way he repeats his lines, just a bit stronger each time, gives me chills.  Hearing him work himself into a rage on “New Slaves,” screaming about what he plans to do to your Hampton wife is exhilarating.

But there is something problematic about the blatant misogyny that runs through Yeezus and it’s been the most lambasted part of the album.   For a while I’ve been thinking about he’s using his sexuality as a blunt object, deigned to offend the listener just like the sounds of the album.  But beneath his alienating comparisons between his sexual advances and the civil rights movement, there are some of the most resonant love stories of his career.  Yeezus shows Kanye in his element, dealing with love and lust, and poignantly displaying his fears of settling down.  He captures the duality of love, being completely in control but losing it at the same time, the aggressiveness of lovemaking and the fragility when it’s over.  On “Hold My Liquor,” he loves how his girl cares for him sober or drunk, happy or hungover, but her aunt tells her he’s bogus.  “I’m In It,” a storming stripclub anthem from Hell, finds him ruminating how he has “the kids and the wife life, but can’t wake up from the night life.”  You can hear his heart breaking through the autotune as he sings “let’s take it back to the first party, when you tried your first molly” on “Blood On The Leaves.”   It’s a tale of nostalgia and despair that’s on par with the youthful drug indulgences of Springsteen or the Hold Steady.  When “Bound 2” plays at the very end of the album, it’s as if Kanye’s coming home after a long night of drinking.  It’s the old Kanye, sobered up, sampling soul records but he’s hungover so they’re a little choppy (“B-B-B-B-Bounddddddd to falllll in loveeeeeee”), about to make his case to his significant other.   He’s seething with irritation.  She’s in the club ordering champagne but still looks thirsty, rocking Forever 21 but just turned thirty.  She complains even on vacation, dutty whining around all these Jamaicans.  So when Ye realizes that “one good girl is worth a thousand bitches,” it’s heartwarming.  Maybe they can still make it to the church steps.

I like Yeezus.  It’s not for everybody.  It’s disruptive and offensive and I played it for my mom once and it was a huge mistake.  There are abrupt beat changes, odd outros, and a moment where Kanye sounds like Napoleon Dynamite and calls himself God.  I’m pretty sure Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t talking about a girl’s breasts when he said “Free at last!” and I don’t think Nina Simone would appreciate the connection made between lynching and paying alimony.  But when you’re in love (especially with Kim Kardashian), you make stupid mistakes.  I think Yeezus ranks real high in his discography.   For the record I’d have to say my favorite albums are:

  1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
  2. The College Dropout
  3. Yeezus
  4. Watch The Throne (with Jay-Z)
  5. Graduation
  6. 808’s And Heartbreak
  7. Late Registration

That’s one of the greatest discographies in hip hop and you could argue literally any single one of those albums for the number one spot.  That’s just my preference.  But the connecting thread through all of them is the propelling motion into the future and the boundaries that have been shattered in their wake.  Now just watch the rest of the rap game slowly start speaking Swaghili.

The Fourth And Fireworks: LA’s Winning Streak

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There’s been a lot happening in the music world lately, and I’m sure you’ve heard of some big name albums dropped recently by some big name people.  I know the internet has the attention span of an infant, but stay tuned and those reviews will be coming.  I prefer to let the albums marinate for a little and then form an opinion rather than blurt out snap judgments.  Rushed reviews aren’t helpful and there is no reason to compromise the music for some artificial deadline.  Meanwhile, while everybody’s watching the throne, don’t forget about all the other great music that’s happening.

I recently reviewed Problem’s new mixtape The Separation over at Passion Of The Weiss, one of the best music sites around.  You can read that here.  I’m very proud of the review (I got to mention Steph Curry) and hopefully more work at other places will follow.  Problem is an LA rapper who’s been bubbling for a while and looks like he’s finally breaking out.  He’s one of the most fun rappers around and he’s already dropped two great projects this year.

LA stays owning the summer and more great music has been released.  Two of DJ Mustard’s R&B collaborators have put out projects in the last week.  Ty Dolla $ign shines in Beach House 2, saying very foul things in a very sweet manner.  He recently signed to Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang imprint, and his features show the rise in stature as Wiz, Juicy J, and others show up.  Wiz is having a great year too, but that’s a different topic altogether.

For a special independence day treat, ratchet singer Tee Flii linked up for a mixtape ENTIRELY produced by MVP DJ Mustard.  Get Fireworks and go do dumb things.  I love the R&B explosion of the last few years.  Almost every rap crew has their own resident singer, and the new R&B has this lyrical quality that’s completely informed by hip hop sensibilities.  Frank Ocean could easily be a rapper, he just happens to sing well.  Either way, it’s nice that the new R&B can get down and dirty and doesn’t have to be so beautiful and ethereal.  As much as I love abstract allegories, sometimes I need to hear marching orders to start twerking.  It is the summer after all.

Crowning A Queen: The Mrs. Carter Show

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Beyonce Knowles-Carter is a superstar in an era where that kind of thing doesn’t exist anymore.  In the wild world of the internet, pop stars with longevity are unheard of.  You are as popular as your last single, as long as your last viral video.  Yet Beyonce comes from the pop boom of the 90’s and has managed to cement her legacy with early incredible singles, and then protect it with incredible media savvy.  Her only peer in this regard is Justin Timberlake, who also arose out of the boy band craze of the 90’s to turn into an adult superstar.  But where Justin seemed to rely on marketing gimmicks and production connections to sell his latest album, Beyonce only needs herself.  When she performed at the Superbowl last year, it was an event.  Facebook blew up.  You remember, you were there.  It was the first time it seemed like the halftime show was bigger than the game.  The power went out so the players didn’t have to follow her act.  That show marked her ascendance to the Queendom of Pop; I remember thinking afterwards that this must have been what it was like to see Michael Jackson in the 80’s.  Someone so huge, so universally beloved, yet with the talent and chops to back it up.  Her tour that she announced that same day as the Superbowl is the biggest most extravagant victory lap ever taken.  Bow down.

What pushed her into legend status was her album 4released two years ago and what she’s still touring under.  4 is an incredible achievement, an album in a landscape where there are nothing but singles.  When Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry, and the rest of the girls on the charts were chasing that EDM money and trying to out-weird each other, Bey brought R&B back.  She focused more on songwriting than hooks, on emotion rather than catchphrases.  She connected herself to the lineage of soul singers she was brought up on and yet added enough quirk to pave the way for the PBR&B successes of guys like Frank Ocean and Miguel.  JT’s new The 40/40 Experience tried to have the same effect as 4, but his spaced-out prog-pop can’t match the restrained power that Beyonce put in her work. And the album captures what’s so special about Beyonce.  Sexy without being slutty.  Strong without being scary.  Happily married but still independent.  Stanky but so fresh and so clean.

Her tour captures all that and more.  I wasn’t prepared for the level of showmanship and spectacle that I witnessed.  There were three different parts to the show: singer-songwriter, pop star, rock star.  She was either singing by herself with minimal accompaniment, singing while dancing with all backup dancers and light show according her, or singing backed by a full (awesome) band, complete with horns and the girls whose guitar shot sparks at the Superbowl.  There were breathtaking moments.  After pulling off the lounge singer act of playing “1+1” on top of a piano, she flew across the stadium on a wire.  She walked through fire during “Naughty Girl” (which I probably enjoyed way more than any of the girls there).  But my favorite moments were with the band, who beefed up all her songs with stabs from the horn section, pushing her pop into stadium conquering music without sacrificing any of the joy of the original material.  “Freakum Dress” was transformed into a hard rock freakout and “I Care” was punctuated by psychedelic guitar solos.  Every great artist needs to have a great live show and great live shows require some tweaking to the material.  She pulled all her songs into places I had no idea could go.  She mashed up The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” with “If I Were A Boy,”  segwayed into the classic “Shout” on “Single Ladies,” channeled the funk breaks of James Brown on “Why Don’t You Love Me” and, my personal favorite, played “Diva” on top of the beat for G.O.O.D. Music’s “Clique” and turned the song into a chugging BANGER.  There aren’t many people who could pull that off.

Above all, Beyonce was an incredible performer who can command an audience of that size.  There’s not really anything I’ve seen that can match it.  Let’s be real about the demographics of the concert; it was about 70% girls, 30% gay guys, 9% boyfriends/fathers, and then me.  But seeing the concert, you get why she has such a rabid fanbase.  She’s absolutely charming as she passed the mic around the audience to sing “TO THE LEFT TO THE LEFT” or “BRING THE BEAT IN” on “Irreplaceable” and “Love On Top.”  She genuinely enjoys performing for her fans and there were plenty moments of back and forth repartee between her and the crowd.  And then she can switch into thug mode, strut around with a swagger that gangsta rappers wish they had, and stare down the crowd until the cheering has reached an appropriate level.  Seeing a concert where everyone there loves the artist and the music is one of the most satisfying things in the genre.  Whether it’s a stadium full of fans or a tiny pub with only diehards, being able to share that experience with someone who cares just as much as you is one of the reasons we invest so much into music in the first place.  When Beyonce opened up her last song of the night, a medley of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” which turned into “Halo,” the only comparison I have is watching Bruce Springsteen turn an entire arena into church as he mourned the loss of his band members.

She has a new album coming out and details are scarce.  She only played one of her new songs, “Grown Woman,” which she’s debuted in her commercials.  Her music seems to reflect the confidence and a (hopefully hip hop) swag that comes with a victory lap of this magnitude.  Either way, I’m excited.  It’s not often you get to watch a pop star in her prime.  The old queen is dead, long live the queen.