This summer the gods of rap have descended to earth. Jay-Z released his 12th solo album, Magna Carta Holy Grail on July 4, while Kanye West released his sixth solo album Yeezus on June 18. Longtime collaborators and friends, their 2011 album Watch the Throne went platinum with seven singles (including "Power," "No Church in the Wild," and "N***s in Paris") and earned seven Grammy nominations. Now Kanye and his "Big Brother" have released competing albums, and it looks like the little brother may be the one on top. And it's all because he claims he doesn't want to be.
Why people are responding so disparately to the new albums of Jay and Ye, worshipping at the altar of Yeezus rather than Jayhova? Because the debate is not about the music at all. It's about how the Jay-Z is trying to sell his album to the public, while Kanye is trying to express himself, without worrying about how the album will sell.
Kanye has clearly tried to create an anti-commercial album in Yeezus. It is against what the music executives want and what pop music and Top 40 radio demand. But he doesn't care. Ye frequently goes on rants about the music business, fame, and how both can go f*ck themselves. We know Kanye loves attention more than most, however with singles from Yeezus like "Black Skinhead," it's easy to see that he's trying to accomplish something. That something is certainly not critical acclaim. Pitchfork's review says of Yeezus, "In a way, Yeezus is the panicked sound of that ensuing free-fall, a rush of angst and despair with absolutely nothing left to lose."
Meanwhile, Jay-Z has a lot to lose. He seems to be selling out at every turn promoting Magna Carta Holy Grail, announcing his album drop via a Samsung ad during the NBA finals, gathering collaborators like Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, and Nas, and even placing Magna Carta Holy Grail next to one of the only copies of the actual Magna Carta in England. And this is all because he functions as a businessman first; but fans always seemed to relate to and love his material, even though we've been acutely aware that HOVA's recent album drops have been extremely well-orchestrated corporate collaborations. With MCHG, though, it's almost like he's too rich and he's done too well for us to relate. Pitchfork's review calls the album "weirdly distant," showcasing a "celebration of unlimited financial privilege and power" that few "will relate to … in a meaningful way."
Unlike Kanye's 2008 solo effort 808s and Heartbreak which to him was deeply personal, but lacked the critical acclaim he thought it deserved, Kanye's work on Yeezus is angry, chaotic, and indifferent to Grammy nominations, which makes his fans appreciate and revere his material. So even though we probably won't listen to Yeezus tracks in the car, or add them to a Pregame Playlist like those on Graduation or College Dropout, this summer we will pray to the god of Yeezus, while Jay prays to the god of commercialism.