Sometimes, when Kanye West, Jay-Z, Beyonce and Frank Ocean love each other very much, they form a self-referential and very profitable psychosexual corporation and produce an album. That album was 2011’s Watch the Throne. Since that album, Jay and Kanye have become fathers, Ocean publicly came out and Beyonce’s stardom has exploded again and again into unthinkable magnitude. All of that is to be expected of the brightest stars of hip-hop and R&B, and anyone with eyes could predict that between Kimye and the Carters, there would be beautiful children. The genuine surprise is that Watch the Throne had children.
Conceived in different studios under separate auspices, both Magna Carta Holy Grail and Yeezus are the offspring of that two-year-old collaboration. They are a pair of mismatched twins saying the same thing in different voices, neither outshining their mother album.
Their human fathers both came to these albums with ambition. Yeezus was leaked and released first and impressed many with how sharply it converged from Kanye’s earlier work. The tracks are not melodic, not danceable and not playful in the least. The aesthetic is stripped, minimalist and even grungy in places. Announcing itself with a naked jewel case, the CD boasts very philosophical and political tracks, like “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves.” In previous albums, Kanye has always used his bombast and grandstanding to defend his own crippling insecurities. On Yeezus, he comes perilously close to actually addressing them. The aesthetic is raw, but so is the man.
Magna Carta Holy Grail is also very different from Jay-Z’s catalog up to this point. There is little here of the symphonic sardonic of “Empire State of Mind” or “D.O.A.” off of his last solo album, The Blueprint 3. Jay is clearly dealing with his age and responsibilities in a more stark fashion, reflecting that he didn’t learn to be a father from his own father and obsessing over the minutiae of his daughter’s life. However, it’s almost as if he’s compartmentalizing his doubts into the edgier tracks. When Beyonce drops in for “Part II (On the Run),” the result is an embattled but idealized version of events where it’s the three of them against the world, and his doubt does not enter. Disappointingly, the man who wrote “Death of Auto-Tune” and his genuinely talented wife turn in a schmaltzy, overprocessed wannabe single. Jay and Ocean do a cleaner job on “Oceans,” a deeper narrative song about history and diaspora and a quick mention of the painter Basquiat, whom Jay collects. There is one quick rearview mirror moment of the Jay-Z of the past with all his swagger and quick unthinking wordplay on “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” the real standout of the album, featuring Rick Ross. The feel of the whole album is contemplative and transitional, as if Jay is ready to move on to his next chapter.
The telling thing about Jay and Kanye, about these two albums, about the state of hip-hop, is where they overlap. Both albums spend a fair amount of time rhapsodizing on the emptiness of conspicuous consumption, which may be said to be the cardinal sin of both artists. Both concern themselves with fatherhood, with religion, with power. Both scoff at themselves in the way they get to all these things.
After Watch the Throne, it was tempting to rank these two artists as equals, but they’re headed in different directions, and that’s clear in their latest work. On Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay-Z sounds like a man coming to terms with his life, maybe looking for the next phase of his art. On Yeezus, Kanye West sounds like he may finally be growing up.
Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].