Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP 2

[Legacy Content]

Release Date: November 5, 2013

Holy Crap! Of the rap records I’ve listened to this year, this is the one I had the lowest expectations for. When Yeezy and Jay have failed me – and I’m just not on that Macklemore tip – the champ comes back to reclaim his title belt. Who’d have thought that the most old school rapper in  the game would be the white guy from Detroit?

In my estimation, Jay Z has become a bit soft. He may talk a big game and, yeah, I wouldn’t want to cross him. But his previous claim I’m not a businessman/I’m a business, man has proven itself untrue. As I mentioned before, it seems like Kanye just wants to prove himself to himself, a battle he’ll never win. Meanwhile, everybody acts like they forgot about Dre. So here stands Marshall Mathers who (it feels like) makes music because he enjoys doing it and is looking for a healthy outlet for his aggression. He stays out of the news and lives his life as a 41-year-old (!) artist on his own terms.

His last album Recovery (2010) was a revelation and featured some of his best work up until that point. His verses on “No Love” (even though the track featured Lil Wayne) were nothing short of brilliant. “Love the Way You Lie” reached a level of popularity up there with “Lose Yourself”. He could have called it quits and ended his career on top. Instead, he took 3 years to craft a new masterpiece.

The album opens with “Bad Guy”, a sequel to the mega-hit “Stan” from the original Marshall Mathers LP. On it, the rapper portrays Stan’s brother exacting revenge on Eminem for dissing his brother. It’s an aggressive kick off to an aggressive record and at multiple times there are distinct shades of Dr. Dre in the vocals. The female vocal on the opener lacks the iconic nature of Dido’s work on its predecessor. That tone, however, is really prevalent on track 6, “Legacy”.

There are insane samples all over this album beginning with the 1968 track “Time of the Season” by The Zombies on “Rhyme or Reason”. While the lyrics seem directed at Shady’s absent father, there are a number of references to Jay-Z sprinkled throughout. Plus, he wraps as Yoda!?!? Another classic sample is on “Love Game” (featuring Kendrick Lamar) which is layered over the 1965 hit “The Game of Love” by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders.

The singles, “Survival” and “Berzerk” have a great intensity while still being mainstream-oriented. It feels, however, that they lack the same emotional depth as other songs on the record. The third single, however, is on its own level. What can I say about “Rap God” that hasn’t already been said? Lyrically, it maybe isn’t the strongest piece, but it showcases the performer as being in a class by himself. (For the uninitiated, Em raps 95 words in 15 seconds as part of the 6+ minute long track.)

Disclaimer: Cursing in this video has been edited out. Still contains offensive content.

Finally, perhaps the best track on the album is its penultimate, “Headlights” (featuring Nate Ruess of .fun). It’s rare that you hear an artist disavow their own work, but Marshall does just that here. Saying that in his younger days he maybe didn’t think things through before he said them and that his 2005 song “Cleaning Out My Closet” he went a little too far, he claims that he no longer performs the song and cringes when it comes on the radio. He gives us the deepest of looks into his personal life and childhood painting most vivid pictures of being kicked out of his house, seeing his brother get taken away by CPS, and regretting that his daughters don’t know their grandmother. He doesn’t erase all that he’s gone through, but he displays an understanding of why things were the way they were.

I’ve never been a raving fan of Eminem. The content can be a little too much for me. Still, I have mad respect for what he can do and how he does it. It’s easy to find unapologetic artists in any genre, but most of them don’t have the skills to back it up. Whether it’s “Guilty Conscience” (1999), “The Way I Am” (2000), “Lose Yourself” (2002), “Won’t Back Down” (2010), or “Rhyme or Reason” (2013) the man just keeps innovating and pushing himself and coming back stronger than before.

Jay-Z: Magna Carta Holy Grail

Release Date: July 9, 2013

In any game, there are at least 3 ways to play:

  1. Fear of Losing – Play it safe, don’t rustle any feathers, just survive.
  2. Fear of Never Winning – Put it all on the line, take strategic risks, if it fails then it’s all over.
  3. No Fear of Ever Losing – Freedom to take creative artistic risks, but maybe lose that drive that propelled the former models.

There are very few who are immune to eventually arriving at model #3, given significant success at stage #2.

I began listening to Jay-Z at that stage 2 breakthrough moment on his near-flawless The Blueprintalbum. He’d had some success to that point within the genre, but The Blueprint propelled him into pop culture and marked the beginning of his rise to “mogul” status. That was an all-or-nothing, go big or go home, leave it all on the court effort. It pushed the limits of the genre and had cross-over appeal but still had a street relevance and relied on Jay doing what he does best – spitting the best flow in the game.

I simply can’t hate on that transition to the No Fear model. I’m proud for artists to achieve that status where they have creative artistic freedom. But for Jay, “rapper” has become one of many hyphenates in his title. Gone are the days of relying on the success of the album. If the album fails, he has nothing to worry about other than some bad press. In my opinion, it is that desperate dependence that fuels an artist and propels them to greatness. When that is gone, sometimes the heart leaves the process.

On Magna Carta… Holy Grail, Hov stretches his legs in terms of artistic creativity while still doing what he does best, better than most everyone out there. Sonically, the album feels like a blend of The Black Album and The Blueprint 3– both of which had their high points and definitely surpassed the lackluster albums that came between them. Jay’s delivery is on point. The failure, to me, is in content – and it isn’t even fair to call that a failure. He’s being true to himself, it’s just that his self has become so distanced from where he once was.

The lead track, “Holy Grail” features Justin Timberlake beautifully oozing heartache. Some folks want to harangue artists for whining about the difficulties that come with celebrity – “I got haters in the paper / photo-shoots from paparazzi / can’t even take my daughter for a walk”. Strangely, I have some sympathy for this. Did they ask for success? Sure. Are they hoping for fame? Yes. But celebrities are people, too, and they do deserve the freedom to live real lives. I think that the track wins, not for shining a light on the plight of the artist in the spotlight, but for calling out the public for being here today, gone tomorrow.

To me, none of the other tracks are really stand-out, break through tracks. The production lacks the familiarity of The Blueprint (i.e. the old samples that Kanye West brought to it). I don’t know what to expect from track to track, which keeps me on edge and keeps me from just enjoying it. When Jay references the past or pays homage to his early work, it just feels like he is clowning himself. When he tells me I “can’t knock the hustle”, I just think “you haven’t had to hustle in the last 10 years.”

What made those early records great (and much of rap music for that matter) was/is its aspirational quality. It was all about a vision of success and a yearning, striving, never-say-die attitude to achieving that dream. It was the music of the everyman. Now, to hear the music that comes once that dream has been fulfilled is, in a way, very alienating. We’ve gone from saying “I want a bad ass car/house/champagne” to name checking brands and designers that are so expensive even rich people haven’t heard of them.

Like I said earlier, he’s being true to himself and that’s great. But I have to think that to hear him go out and play “Hard Knock Life” today would almost feel like karaoke – and that’s a bit sad to me. So I have to go back to the JT duet and (in a way) sympathize, because I have to believe that it really is lonely at the top.

Kanye West: Yeezus

Release Date: June 18, 2013

With what I intend to write here, I feel the need to begin by asserting my credibility. I’ve been a Kanye fan since I first heard the second single off his debut record, “All Falls Down“. I wore that record (College Dropout) out. Honestly, I was a fan even before that owing to his extensive production work on Jay-Z‘s magnum opus The Blueprint. I’ve traveled with Kanye through five albums now and have watched him evolve as an artist and celebrity. While I love the freshness of his early stuff, I still think that 808s is his masterwork on all levels: from production, to lyrics, to his much-maligned performance. Dark Twisted Fantasy has its place and brings us to where we are today, but I think that it is ret-conned somewhat in light of West’s latest, Yeezus.

I’ve stuck up for ‘Ye for the last few years. I easily overlooked the Taylor Swift incident when many didn’t – and still haven’t. I’ve mostly ignored the Kardashian mess. I’ve gone to bat for the man when people around me have looked to put him down. I’ve always said “this is an artist, perhaps overwhelmed by the celebrity that his art has garnered for him. Cut him some slack.” One could draw a close parallel to the fall-from-grace story of John Mayer. The big difference is, Mayer realized his mistakes and didn’t make a big deal about convincing everyone of his new leaf. He just quietly packed up and left town, waited a while, put out a phenomenal record, and went back to being quiet.

Yeezy has been his own worst enemy by attempt to be his own most vocal proponent.

Warning: this record is not for the faint of heart, sensitive of hearing, or easily offended. But even if you pass all of those criteria, I’m not sure that this record is really for anyone, period. It is cacophonous and vulgar to such a degree that even the successful elements are tarnished. West has suggested that this is a piece of art and that he is a master artist. I never want to be one to question an artists integrity in creating their art, but I have to say that I hear something entirely different… but I’ll get to that.

Here’s the deal. As far as artistry is concerned, Kanye is among the best. His delivery (solely a matter of opinion) is one of my favorites. His marketing – while self-aggrandizing – is often brilliant. Here, however, he seems to have run out of anything insightful to say and is resorting to the lesser-value content that permeates the genre. (Rick Rubin even attests to the late-stage songwriting.) He’s one of the best in the business, but this is him simply not living up to his potential… but, again, I’ll get to that.

The album opens promisingly enough in the first 57 seconds of “On Sight” before West loses the plot and eventually lets Daft Punk solo their way out of the song. The entirety of “New Slaves” is visionary. “Blood on the Leaves” is a return to the greatness of 808s, with a hint of Late Registration. There’s something to “Guilt Trip” in that it takes that 808s mentality but allows Kanye to do what he does best, simple, straight-up rap.

Warning: Obviously, this is partially editted for TV, but the content is still strong.

Over an above all of this, I just hear a guy who is deeply hurting and unwilling to admit it.

We all know that Kanye was deeply effected by his mother’s death. This devastation was clearly evident on 808s and Heartbreak. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy re-introduced a rapping West, reborn. The themes were darker and the approach was far more aggressive. Gone were the playful days of The College Dropout. On Yeezus, he asks us to receive this latest work as a piece of minimalist art from the Steve Jobs of music. All I can hear is a guy who hasn’t fully exorcised his demons and is at a place of moral and creative bankruptcy who has to keep creating, but has nothing more to give.

He wants us to believe that he doesn’t care what anyone thinks, yet he can’t survive without our validation

I’m going to use my platform to tell people that they’re not being fair. Anytime I’ve had a big thing that’s ever pierced and cut across the Internet, it was a fight for justice. Justice. – Kanye West,  New York Times interview 6/11/13

I think that there is room here to compare to Eminem‘s Recovery. In much the same way, Mathers came out and said, “I don’t care what you think,” delivered (arguably) the best album of his career, and then went back to doing his own thing. There was no convincing needed. The work spoke for itself.

‘Ye’s need for validation – for the sake of “Justice”, or any other reason – will always keep him from reaching his greatest heights. I still believe that he has great art in him, but he needs to  take a cue from John Mayer and really accept himself before he asks us to do so.

I always welcome feedback; on this particular piece, I’ll even come right out and ask for it. I’d love to hear what you think of this record and how far off base you think I am.

Jay-Z: The Blueprint

Release Date: September 11, 2001 (I didn’t realize that until I wrote this review.)

I took one performance to change my view of rap music. Prior to it, I was probably “ambivalent” at best. Then I watched Jay-Z on MTV unplugged, complete with The Roots, a string quartet, and backup singers.I was impressed throughout the program that Jay was able to edit himself and keep the program fit for TV. About halfway through “Song Cry” my ears perked as I noticed him start to let a little bit of language slip. And then I saw this transcendent moment of a songwriter being exposed on the stage in the same way you might see a guy with a guitar in a coffee shop. And in that moment I realized that rap artists are artists indeed and that their music has meaning. When I finally got to dig into the song more it cemented itself as one of my all-time favorite tracks.

I’ll admit: I may be biased due to the fact that this is the first rap record that I was really exposed to. That being said, I think it’s the best rap record ever. (There’s a pretty vocal contingent that wants to say that Illmatic is the greatest ever, but I just can’t even get past the first track on that album. And I may still be biased since Jay takes Nas to school on The Blueprint.) Every rapper tries to claim that they are the best in the business but few can back it up. Many records claim to be the blueprint (even Jay-Z tried to claim it twice after this) but this is the only one that lives up to the title. In fact, it appears on numerous year’s best, decade’s best, and even all time greatest albums lists. It’s a very big statement, but I would nearly say that it is to rap music what Pet Sounds is to Rock and Roll.

With 15 tracks (2 “hidden”) only 2 are flat out duds – “Hola Hovito” and “All I Need”. The rest of the album is a master’s class in songwriting.

The album begins with an homage to Slick Rick (“The Ruler’s Back”) followed by the aforementioned beatdown of NAS and several others (“Takeover”). Probably the most well-known track on the album (and arguably the track the validated and launched the career of Kanye West) is the West-produced “Izzo (H.O.V.A)” a semi-biographical story with a phenomenal hook. Another Yeezy-produced gem is “Heart of the City” where Hova laments the way things have changed in the ghetto and in rap music.

I’ve spoken before (twice now, even) about my love of The Temptations and David Ruffin so it should come as no surprise that the album-track “Never Change” which samples Ruffin is one of my personal favorites. Another deep track “Renegade” – written by, produced by, and featuring Eminem – is likewise great, if you can handle Eminem. In my opinion, it is one of Em’s best performances in his entire catalog as far as intensity and delivery is concerned, though the lyric is quite harsh.

I like both versions of “Girls, Girls, Girls” (Track 3 and Hidden Track 2). I’m not 100% certain where I land on which one is better, they both have their own spin. It’s exciting and intriguing to me to hear two different versions of the same concept but with completely different lyrics, beats, samples, and producers. This contradiction highlights the collaborative artistic nature of hiphop music and the influence that the producer has on the artist.

PS – Spin Magazine posted a Jay-Z Remix album this week that had an amazing re-work of “Song Cry” [explicit].

Kanye West: 808s and Heartbreak

Release Date: Nov 24, 2008

Before you tune me out, hear me out. I know it’s Kanye. I know you probably hate him. Let me dissuade you of your preconceptions for but a moment. You’re probably saying, “But Ryan, I just hate that hip hop/rap nonsense!” This isn’t rap. “Well, I don’t want to hear all that foul language and misogyny.” There are ZERO curse words and if comparing a woman to the titular character of an 80’s action film about a police officer who becomes a robot is misogyny, well, you’ll have to make your own mind up on that…

These are the songs of a broken-hearted man, or if the cover image is any indication, a deflated man. A guy who rose up too quick and missed out on some of the more important things. Of course, he did go on to steal the stage from Taylor Swift and impregnate Kim Kardashian, but let’s try to focus on this album. Ok? At this point, his mother had just died and his long-time fiancee had just left him. He retreated to Hawaii and created this masterpiece.

This is absolutely one of my favorite records. It is so unlike anything else he had done up to that point. Artists in general and rappers in particular have to put on something of a characterization of themselves. Every now and then, you’ll see that get stripped away and usually only for a moment or two. Here, Yeezy gives us almost an hour of real talk.

The thumping opening of “Say You Will” is brilliant. It’s sparse, it’s tense, it’s painful. I knew that I was really in for something different when “Welcome to Heartbreak” presented an unheard-before picture of self-loathing and personal emptiness. Chased the good life all my life long / Look back on my life and my life gone / where did I go wrong. This is not rap music. You’ve heard “Heartless” and countless covers of it (William Fitzsimmons’ is the best) and you’ve probably heard “Love Lockdown” (Pentatonix killed this one on The Sing Off) so I won’t spend any more time on those tracks.

My favorite track on the record is “Robocop” mainly because it is lyrically so absurd but still relevant. Basically, his girl is watching his every move and it’s driving him crazy. The best part is the subtle robotic sounds in chorus. His vocal is mostly unprocessed and just very endearing. The whole track is fairly childish and playful which makes it fun. The “L.A. girl” tag at the end is hilariously layered over the string section.

If there’s a “miss” on this record, it’s the final track “Pinocchio Story (Freestyle Live from Singapore)”. If Kanye is going to sing, he needs the AutoTune. The track itself is rambling and dis-jointed, meanwhile the recording is just terrible. I don’t really know why it was even included.

So, there’s your 6th grade persuasive argument essay. All I’m saying is, even if you don’t like the guy, give this record a chance. If you don’t want to support him then listen to it on Spotify and he’ll only get 1/32 of a cent for each song played.