The One Thing We Learned From Jay-Z and Kanye's New Albums

Two things need to be said upfront: this is not a music review comparing Magna Carta… Holy Grail to Yeezus, and this writer is a big fan of Kanye West. There. Having said that, the two biggest rap releases this year serve as an interesting examination of artists, both seemingly at the top of their game, maximizing their highly-developed talents to totally different effect.

When Watch the Throne was released, Jay-Z was coming off a lackluster effort (for him) while Kanye had the album-of-2010 classic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy under his belt. More than that, every album released by West suddenly had the feel of an event, like a song we’d listen to 20 years from now was one or two tracks away. In contrast, Jay’s business acumen felt like it had seeped into his music, with everything calculated to establish his brand and numerous business ventures.

While West was re-establishing the limits of what rap could say and sound like through his own impulsive, instinctual talent (and samples!), Jay was splitting his time signing Kevin Durant to his sports agency, helping 2K Sports develop NBA 2K13, and creating his signature “Jay-Z Blue” car color for GMC.

People knew Kanye was coming out with a “dark” album months in advance and excitement for the project steadily grew. Jay-Z announces through a three-minute Samsung commercial, premiered during game three of the NBA Finals, that Magna Carta… Holy Grail is coming out in two weeks on July 4.

No one expected it, which is rare enough for a product like Magna Carta… Holy Grail, to be completely under the radar with Jay-Z, Pharrell, Timbaland, Rick Rubin, and Swizz Beatz associated with it. Add to that the Twitter-verse we live in, with leaks and updates streaming in seconds, and it’s impressive the project stayed silent for as long as it did. Jay-Z has proved time and again that he’s not just a businessman, but a Business, man, and I wonder why not whet people’s appetites with some “leaked” studio shot of Jay and Pharrell collaborating, or some ticking clock gimmick like Justin Timberlake did with his 20/20 Experience. Not even musical recluses Daft Punk could stop themselves from releasing teasers months in advance of Random Access Memories. Just the fact that Jay-Z has something new coming out would pique people’s interest. But he didn’t, or couldn’t, because he needed to manufacture the same significance Kanye’s album(s) inherently project.

You can’t hide who you are and Jay, for better or worse, is more business mogul than rapper now. A Samsung-sponsored commercial unexpectedly announcing an album during the NBA Finals is shrewd and efficient, and that’s Jay. But it does not have the same urgency or effect as Kanye’s guerrilla promotions of Yeezus, which consisted almost entirely of vans rolling up, blasting music, and advertising on the side of buildings.  

Yes, Jay-Z will enter into next week as the #1 artist on the Billboard 200 with an already-platinum record thanks to his deal with Samsung. Yes, Yeezus was #1 on the Billboard 200 but Kanye’s lowest opening ever. Where Jay-Z shows creativity in finding new ways to release his music, Kanye shows creativity in his music, and neither endeavor is “more important” to rap. What’s most important is that we have two hard-working artists giving us what we want, just in their own, specific way. 

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Stephen Roper

English/Media Studies double major (with honors) and former sportswriter, English teacher, ex-pat.

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