Your musical comfort zone, the genres and artists you regularly turn to depending on your mood or occasion is by no means constant, but in my case has never included much in the way of Rap. While I enjoy the occasional burst, I've never actually got round to buying a full album and so this pair of reviews comes from an outsider's perspective on what I reckon are the two biggest mainstream rap releases of the year: Yeezus by Kanye West and Magna Carta Holy Grail from Jay-Z. Having enjoyed their collaborations on Watch The Throne and holding a particular soft spot for 99 Problems; this is my first foray deeper into both their works after which I'll emerge, hopefully unscathed and eager for more! Enjoy!
Part 1: Jay Z - Magna Carta... Holy Grail
'I just can't crack your code,' croons collaborater Justin Timberlake and during a melancholic, doom laden introduction it rings true before the eventually track drops into a heady mixture featuring Nirvana references and an angry reflection on fame from Jay Z. But there's something undeniably catchy about the Holy Grail that develops through the groovy basslines and sharp synths of Picasso Baby. Yet even sounds that would sit perfectly well on a Crystal Castles anthem, Tom Ford fails to maintain the energy levels and where Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit brims with potential with a dark, layered beat, the minimalism shown elsewhere in the track cancels this out.
Frank Ocean's contribution on Oceans highlights a return to form, a rich track that swells into something rather special, proving that opulent over engineering suits Mr. Z rather well. The demand to 'let me be great' on the next track proves that if nothing else, the self promotion and extolling of his wealth feels much more sincere when married to expansive soundtracks, for although the piano riff on somewhereinamerica sounds a little messy overlaying the rest of the beat, the orchestral flourish at the end is beautifully done. Crown, sculpted around a plethora of subterennean frequencies, occasional choir vocals and staccato arps sounds more like a dramatic soundscape than a conventional song.
Heaven continues a good run of form, despite a wierd choice of Middle Eastern influences and references to 'bowing to your highness', which you can only think is a subtle reference to Jay Z himself, before a particularly peculiar interlude emerges in the form of Versus. His duet with wife Beyonce, while probably a neccesary inclusion feels wierdly downbeat, though the result is no shocker, showcasing her considerable talent in providing passion to every syllable. It's a ballad but far less cheesy than you'd expect and all the better for it!
Second interlude, Beach is Better features enough hook to be a full song, ending far too soon while the pseudofunky grooves of BBC feel contrite by comparison and Jay Z Blue, a melting pot of unimaginative (at least to my mind) title, tribal drums and a grinding feel, saved only by some excellent sample choices and a late surge in energy. La Familia brings a little of the groove back, along with some gorgeous arcade synth samples in places and a topical reference (at least for fan's of Russell Howard's Good News), before the album closes in spectacular style with Nickels and Dimes.
Seductive instrumentals, a catchy set of drums and unusual samples all help this feel epic in scope and a culmination of all the various little things eluded to during the rest of the album. Some gorgeous, conscious lyrics hark back to Jay Z's roots and finishes things off nicely. So as a whole album, I reckon it's rather good. Although it misfires occasionally, the general musical themes tie most of it together, leaving a dark, emotional core in amongst the synthetic textures. I'd love to be able to break down the lyrics word for word but sadly I'm not an expert on the slang!
As a first timer to this rap game, I certainly won't be hanging up my skinny jeans just yet, but as an album it's fairly impressive, if occasionally a little long. But the bombastic nature of Mr Carter means it probably wouldn't happen any other way!