You might have heard of this one. Rap's two biggest names, Jay-Z and Kanye West, team together to create what is probably the most anticipated album of 2011 in the mainstream music world.
Let's do this.
The cover: Right off the bat, I'm both impressed and annoyed. In the past ten years rap and hip-hop album covers have been getting progressively more creative; the 90s were an abyss of same-faced albums with excess and cheese oozing from every corner. But I really like this one--oooh, so shiny! And not a single face of an artist in sight! I like that. Although it does remind me a little too much of a TBN set. The annoying part is that Jay and Kanye have massive egos, and already it's rubbing me the wrong way: The gold of the cover obviously is supposed to impress majesty upon us (along with the title, duh), and the designs look like a tacky palace decoration. I imagine they got this directly from the wall of Kim Jon Ill's commode. Right next to the solid gold bidet.
01. No Church in the Wild
After five seconds, I already love it. The album starts with no rap shouts, synth blasts, or heavy bass. It's an understated, lurching repeated guitar line that is both subtle and menacing. Jay's rapping is collected and smooth, and Kanye sounds even better. I'm impressed that Jay references Plato and the idea that what we value might make something holy instead of it having any inherent holiness. This dovetails with the song's overall idea: In the wild world of "real" living (especially in the 'hood, maybe?), is there any real holiness or church? It's a huge contrast to the God shout-outs of Grammy-receiving rappers. Kanye gives a great mental image of the girl with "two tattoos" with ideas directly in contrast to the church's message. I love this song, and love that it is about more than the status quo braggadocio bullshit we often hear. That being said, I am irritated by "Hova" comparing himself and Kanye with the holy trinity.
Oh yeah, and Frank Ocean sings. He sounds smooth, as always. Eh, nothing special. And what's this interesting little musical tag-on at the end? I reeeeally like it - the sound is great, like an old movie score recording. I am assuming they will be revisiting this theme in full later on the album and it will be featured on a full track. 5 stars.
02. Lift Off
Jay, Kanye, and BEYONCE all in the same song?! Surely this will be epic and the jam of the summer, right? Like Crazy in Love 2, yeah? It seems like they were going for it - with zooming sound effects, booming brass, and this "lift off" idea, it's like they were banking on this to be the single, except...it's kind of boring. Beyonce's voice is amazing as usual, but it's almost like she's a robot. Doesn't move me at all. And it's not really about anything. Standout lyric? "...shit is making my dick soft." Really. Every time I hear this, I cringe. 2.5 stars.
03. Niggas in Paris
Now this is more like it. Immediately I love this almost minimalist beat and the Blades of Glory sample. The "ball so hard muthafuckas wanna fine me" slowed down line is incredibly catchy. Even though the song seems to be bragging about the jet-setting ways of hip-hop stars (oh oh can I really be just like you two oh pretty please?), in this case I don't really care. Such a great beat, and I can even look past the misogynism when Kanye demands that a potential marriage mate prove her worth on her knees in a bathroom stall (grrr). Okay, those are the low points, but when the song switches to the huge, quaking ending complete with choral backing where Kanye threatens "don't let me get in my zone," I actually believe it. This is the epic that I've been waiting for, and this might be my favorite track on the album. 5 stars.
Interesting single choice. Not as punchy as I would expect for a radio single, but I approve. An impeccable sample choice, and they give respect by naming the song after the artist (Otis Redding). Yeah, more of the "I'm the best" stuff, but there are some great rhymes here--Kanye makes the "other other Benz" line sound funny instead of bratty, says he "made Jesus walk so [he'll] never go to hell", and writes his "curses in cursive." All clever and smile-inducing, and they don't get old. Jay, you'd better step it up. Yeezy is outrapping you. 4 stars.
05. Gotta Have It
Another great sample, a nice beat, a pleasant song. I like this little Middle-Eastern/Eastern European sounding flutey riff a lot. Typical rich-guy rap. I kind of love the way it starts with Kanye sounding like he's saying lololol (even though he claims White America is trying to "assassinate [his] character" ...please) and the "racks on racks on racks on racks" rhyming here (add in "Maybachs" and "blacks"). Ya know, this is a really short song. Good. Keep 'em short and sweet, and no one gets bored. No real chorus either, so well done again. 4 stars.
06. New Day
A nice, chill, car-ride beat backed by simple piano chords. A lament from two incredibly rich mega-stars about how they're sad that their (fictional future) sons won't have an easy life. Really. Okay, maybe that's oversimplifying it. What works well here is that 1) It's not about these two telling each other that they are the most wonderful creations on God's earth, 2) It serves to highlight mistakes that the two feel they've made that they wouldn't want their offspring to repeat, and 3) It is good insight into why money and fame don't equate to happiness. Pretty simple, pretty sweet. 4 stars.
Agh! There's that tantalizing bit of woodwinds and beats! This had better turn into the track-of-the-year later in the album.
07. That's My Bitch
Immediately turned off by the title, with the assumption of possession and masculine posturing. Let's see what the whole track is like. Let's see here...Kanye's verse...yup, yup. More of the same. Jay-Z's verse...yup, pretty much, except he's actually talking about [his wife] Beyonce openly, including saying, "Now shoo children, stop looking at her tits/Get ya own dog, ya heard? That's my bitch." Yeah. Anything redeemable here? Well, the production is pretty good, and the hand-drum percussion behind the beat is pretty cool. Also, Jay urges the inclusion of beautiful minorities in the canon of historically famous hot chicks. 2.5 stars (down from 3 for lyrical content).
08. Welcome to the Jungle
Skip-step, skip-step. A song about how hard it is in the urbanconcretejunglehoodghetto. About the only line I really like in this song is that in the intro: I asked her where she wanna be when she 25/She turned around and looked at me and said “alive”. I think that sentiment is more powerful than the rest of the song put together. Interestingly, it is probably a quote from the Outkast song "Da Art of Storytellin" (I got that from rapgenius.com). 3 stars
09. Who Gon Stop Me
Meant to be played loud - the full beat pours down and booms behind the repeated 'Who Gon Stop' sample. Bob your head, NOW. And it only gets better. The words are arbitrary (and mostly worthless, really, in this track--more drugs and posturing), but the alarms sound off until the end cuts off like a closing curtain. 4 stars.
10. Murder to Excellence
"314 soldiers died in Iraq/509 died in Chicago"
"In the past if you picture events like a black tie/What the last thing you expect to see, black guys?/What’s the life expectancy for black guys?/The system’s working effectively, that’s why!"
Memorable and actually poignant. Too bad the music is relatively generic. 3 stars.
11. Made in America
Here we go! A quaint little inventive electric beat, perfect for the reflective 'where I came from' theme running through the song. This album needs this breath of groovy air right here. Would have been an appropriate and well-chosen album closer. 4 stars.
12. Why I Love You
A sweeping, grand musical statement that closes the non-"bonus track"-version well. The lyrics start out well with Jay's verses giving some great destruction imagery, but it quickly returns to making king, throne, and God metaphors. Yes, we understand that you are the greatest rapper of all time ever and you fly around in a solid gold hovercraft and cure cancer with your touch. Side note: I find it funny that this includes the verse "Me or the money, what you loyal to?" Money and possessions are so worshipped in hip-hop culture that I can't help but smirk at the indignation of Ye and J. What did you think would happen? You think we're here for your charming personalities? Did you think your lawyers and business partners were going to treat you ethically? Really? That seems a little naive to me. Still, even though at one level it bothers me, I like the last line, where they interplay Jesus's famous "forgive them for they know not what they do" line, and they trade off, like, every other word. It sounds cool. 4 stars.
****note: end of the regular album and beginning of the "bonus tracks"****
13. Illest Motherfucker Alive
Okay, I don't understand the extended silence at the beginning of this track. At first I thought it was an error, and even googled around to see if I had a weird pre-release copy. Nope, apparently the three-minute silence at the beginning of the track is meant to show us that we are now moving into the BONUS ZONE. It's like a secret track in reverse. But stupider. Too harsh? Here comes the little musical tag we've seen a few times earlier in the album...is it time for the ultimate track now?! Are we ready for the musical foreshadowing to be fulfilled?!?! Oh, no, I guess it's stopping. Okay, so the song starts and I love the ridiculous "1985 white Lamborghini Countach, 2 of 'em" comment at the beginning. It's so much excess that it's funny. Maybe that's the point of the materialism and arrogance ad nauseum--it's meant to beat us senseless until we start to ignore it. I mean, what do I expect? Look at the title of the song. You know what it's going to be about. It sounds good and it's pretty fun, I guess. It has a dirty crunk/Southern lean with the superfast cymbal hits in the back, in a good way. The chorus in the back almost sounds comical at the end on the high notes, like a parody, but I am a sucker for orchestration and chorus, even when it's a little cheesy. 3 stars.
In case you didn't know, HAM stands for "Hard As a Motherfucker." Yes, it seems a bit redundant after the title of the track before it. Let's listen: Oooh, we've got an electronic Tron feel starting out, then more crunk cymbols...then more quasi-operatic-silly choral singing in the back...okay, more boasting, no surprise there...whoah! The chorus just got huge. All of a sudden we're in the middle of a really melodramatic opera, and I like it. Then on to Jay's verses...whoah, lots of bad words. These guys sound really angry in this song. More opera. Haha, now it's straight opera with no rapping or beats! Okay, back to the beats. Wow, this in really overdone. It's kind of what I was hoping for with this album, honestly. This track is so over-the-top and aggressive, so why do I like it so much? I think it just works in that way, like it would be great for background fighting music. Yeah. 4 stars.
Over a surprisingly relaxed beat (a welcome and pleasant change after the ALL CAPS feel of the last track), Jay and Kanye rap dexterously. Some of the best rapping on the album, and it's about how some of the most successful musicians in the world right now got that way. It's really another excuse to talk about money, but we'll let that pass for the moment. Jay does a neat little number-motif in the first verse, and Kanye...raps. He sounds great, really. The best part is the chorus: "The night is young/what the fuck you wanna do?" There is a lot of optimism and confidence in that statement, and doubles as a picture of the lives of these guys: They are young and still have a world of opportunity ahead of them *or* they are incredibly rich and powerful and have the freedom to do whatever they feel like doing in this moment. 4 stars.
16. The Joy
Why do they waste the final spot on the album with this song? Languid and dull, where I think it's supposed to sound sexy and relaxed. The only redeeming parts are the Curtis Mayfield sample and this line: "I never understood planned parenthood/Cause I never met nobody plan to be a parent in the hood." Clever, and hits on a real issue. Too bad it's not elaborated on. 2 stars.
The Final Word: Overall, a very strong album. I definitely would recommend it. Strong beats, very little filler, good rapping (I have to give the upper hand to Kanye on this one), and excellent track ordering. My unending hip-hop complaint is the same with this album: The boring cliched arrogance is on display here. Especially in the case of these two, it can really border on unrelatability after a while because it is so centered on vast amounts of wealth. I'd love more of what we see on No Church in the Wild and New Day: Songs about actual interesting ideas. Also, where the hell was my track that uses that little repeated musical tag featured on a bunch of the songs? What was the point of that? What a wasted opportunity.
Standout Tracks: Niggas in Paris, Made in America.