JAY-Z Goes Kanye

TL;DR Haiku Review:

“Hova airs issues, introspective at Kanye, that’d be so Kanye”

It isn’t worth going deep on what everybody has already said about Jay-Z’s new album: it’s personal, it’s arresting, and a revelation.  It’s not that I would disagree with those assessments.  Jay-Z, like many hip-hop artists of a certain vintage, have struggled with being honest and genuinely introspective.

Yes, Jay-Z already released introspective tracks with personal lyrics.  (See: the Blueprint I for a few examples).  Those tracks, while they cannot be discounted, were often undercut by the very next song.  That has been a consistent crticisim of mainstream hip-hop artists.

However, 4:44 is (ironically) more about Yeezy than Jay-Z.  If we are being honest, Jay’s later-career albums have been more about protecting a legacy, how great it is to be him specifically, being rich, and would these lesser rappers stop taking shots at the King.  This approach worked for radio play and for generating singles about how great Jay-Z is.

It took a true iconoclast like Kanye West to pull mainstream hip-hop out of the well-worn tropes that have characterized (and plagued) the genre (again focusing on the mainstream only) since the late 1990’s.  You know the tropes: (1) I’m rich, (2) I’m real (haven’t forgotten where I’ve come from), (3) I’m great (WAY better than the rappers that I passively aggressively reference), (4) “M.O.B.” etc.  And who else, besides Jay-Z, is a bigger symbol of mainstream hip-hop post 1997?

4:44 is leaner and  devoid of hooks or gimics.  I believe Jay’s relationship with Kanye has slowly changed his music for the better because it pushed him creatively.  (You can hear the beginnings of this with “Watch the Throne.” Jay-Z was outshined by Kanye, hands down, even if he did creep outside of his MC comfort zone more.) This slow evolution brings us to 2017 where Jay-Z is comfortable enough to move beyond his need to assure everyone that Jay-Z was beyond reproach.

Jay-Z may or may not admit it, but “4:44” probably wouldn’t be but for his relationship with Kanye.  Sure, they obviously have experienced a personal fall out.  Sure, a lot of that fall out can probably be attributed to Yeezy’s tortured genius.  Nevertheless, could anyone see “Kill Jay-Z” coming without Kanye?  Forget about the creative dissing of other rappers and Eric Benet, its Jay-Z’s metaphorical self-immolation on 4:44 that stands out.  Now, magazines and the internet are praising Jay for being real, for being honest, for being raw, for being self-aware.  If those writers were being honest, they are praising Jay for putting out a Kanye record.

What would I recommend?  I would defintely buy and/or stream this album.  Unlike some of Jay-Z’s more recent solo work, this album will stick to your ribs.

 

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Better Late Than Never: 22, A Million by Bon Iver

TL;DR Haiku Review:

“Kanye influenced, it might be the best last year, it’s in the layers”

It might be over soon“:

Released late last year (2016), Bon Iver’s latest album 22, A Million deserves more than a passing listen.  Apparently, the tracks were recorded over a five-year period, which makes the achievement of putting together a combination of songs together that feel like they could have been written during a single moment impressive.

What strikes me about this album is that after a few listens (it is only 34 minutes from end-to-end) is the emotional force the songs have.  Yes, this album has been described as “stripped down” but I would caution against conflating sparse instrumentation with stripping down a song because it gives short shrift to the detailed layers in this album.

Bon Iver AKA Justin Vernon, with clear influence from his work with the great Kanye West, creates grandiose song arrangements by layering vocals, using auto-tune, and other sounds to create emotionally complex results.  (Note: There is a good way to use Auto-Tune despite all of the awful evidence to the contrary.  Kanye’s 808’s and Heartbreak and Bon Iver’s “Lost in the Woods” are prime examples).  Look no further than “22 (OVER SooN),” “8(circle),” or “666” for evidence of the Yeezus influence.  As much as I know some people hate Kanye, I don’t.  I can’t comment on what it’s like to hang out with him, but there is no doubt that he is supremely gifted at creating music.  Kanye’s influence only adds to the growth of Vernon’s music on this album.  If I am being honest, s

And here, Kanye’s influence only adds to the growth of Vernon’s music.  If I am being honest, some of the songs on Bon Iver’s previous albums had to be skipped because they were boring.  That isn’t a problem with 22, A Million.  If anything, this album leaves the listener wanting more.

What I have and haven’t held“:

One of the stand-out tracks on this album deserves its own separate discussion. In my opinion, you will be hard-pressed to find a better song than “8(circle).”  The horn arrangements complement the vocal layers and the simple beat until about three minutes into the song.  As the song progresses, it amplifies and jumps into a fantastic vocal layer bridge before reaching a climax at the end.  It’s a perfect example of how a song should be arranged and how to use vocals as more than just part of a song.  I can’t lie, I am envious and jealous because I could not do this myself.

No that’s not how that’s supposed to feel

I cannot imagine my feelings on this album have been left unclear.  Yes, this is one of the best albums of 2016 (might be my personal favorite) and everyone should try it.  This is no genre-record, so you don’t have to be any kind of specific fan to enjoy this music.  That’s what makes it great, it is unique in sound, but creates a universally relatable emotional appeal.  I’m upset at myself for missing Bon Iver in Northern California recently.