The summer of 2013 has seen two titans of the hip hop world release albums a mere week apart: Kanye West’s Yeezus and Jay Z’s Magna Carta. Holy Grail was eagerly anticipated, especially after the success of the Watch the Throne collaboration album and tour. Unless you were living in the deepest, darkest hole known to man, it is unlikely you did not hear N*ggas in Paris. However both artists took new directions in their summer albums.
Yeezus was an effort to right the wrongs of the Auto-Tune darkness of 2008’s ‘808s & Heartbreak. However, as a man who once described himself as ‘a black new wave artist’ there are still obvious influences of Kanye’s insatiable desire to be at the front of fashion and culture. Black Skinhead is heavily influenced by Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People, which may give an idea into the ominous feel to the track. It is clear Kanye’s glory days of Late Registration and The College Dropout are distant memories. Black Skinhead has unimaginative lyrics and priority is clearly given to the beat. Ultimately, it will be cast alongside Love Lockdown as opposed to classics like Touch the Sky and Gold Digger. Yet Kanye does gives a brief show of his brilliance in Bound 2 which is reminiscent of such tracks, in which he samples Bound, by soul group Ponderosa Twins Plus One. This is a more soulful track which will delight most of his fans. Unfortunately this album will be most remembered for the deplorable line, “Put my fist in her like the civil rights sign”, successfully mangling the sample of Nina Simone’s tale of lynching in Strange Fruit. Kanye has clearly revolutionised the music industry and Yeezus is bold and tight in some places – however it is noticeable that lyrically it leaves a lot to be desired.
Magna Carta Holy Grail has not been written with the same shock intended as Yeezus. The production side is handled by artists like Timbaland, Pharrell and Swizz Beatz. The album mostly falls between the synthesized, futuristic beats of Watch The Throne and cut-up rock riffs that have been a trait of Jay-Z’s work as far back as The Blueprint. The chorus of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is mixed into Holy Grail, and the refrain from REM’s Losing My Religion appears in Heaven. Nevertheless there is evidence to suggest that this mega-rich rap mogul has grown up since hits like 99 Problems, as on Picasso Baby he shows off his appreciation for art – referencing Rothko, Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He even declares that “I don’t pop molly/I rock Tom Ford” – why take mind altering drugs when you can wear high end suits? Many have probably heard the title track featuring Justin Timberlake, yet Oceans„ featuring Frank Ocean is one of the most understated tracks of the year with an R&B feel which may be a near future Top 10.
If you’re looking for that modern day classic these albums sadly don’t make the cut – you’re better off with Killer Mike and El-P’s Run The Jewels, or Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap. At this stage, both artists resemble hip-hop Springsteens or Dylans; old souls dispensing wisdom through their forum.