Tomorrow, Jay-Z will release Magna Carta Holy Grail, which comes just three weeks after Kanye West’s Yeezus. Both new LPs are the first solo albums to be released by those artists since they worked together on Watch The Throne, one of 2011’s finest hip-hop records. In the two years since their massive collaboration, Kanye West and Jay-Z have ventured in entirely opposite directions. And the results — one commanding immense critical acclaim and the other continuing his commercial dominance — couldn’t be further apart. Given their common starting point, it’s interesting to note just how different things have become for the two illustrious rappers.
Let’s start with West, who perhaps more than ever before is creating music primarily for himself. On Yeezus, the Chicago-bred rapper has presented a visceral, raw, and minimalistic album that sheds his former us-against-them mentality. It’s uncharted territory for him as he stripped away the operatic embellishments or grandiose pretenses from his past albums. Simply put: The music suggests that West doesn’t care what anyone thinks anymore.
“You know, even a Kanye West has compromised,” West recently admitted in a rare interview with The New York Times‘ Jon Caramanica about his past music, including 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Sometimes you don’t even know when you’re being compromised till after the fact, and that’s what you regret.”
Instead, he drastically changed things up and now refuses to look back in the rear-view mirror. For evidence of that, look no further than Yeezus‘s cover. There is no album artwork. Nor was there a strategic promotional plan. You couldn’t even pre-order the record. Why should he have hyped a song premiere on a website, much less with any media outlet, when he opted to project his own image onto dozens of buildings across the world for the sake of doing it? Moreover, he performed two previously unheard songs on Saturday Night Live with little-to-no warning, including the austere and brilliant “New Slaves,” a commanding not-for-TV diatribe that arguably stands among the most important performances of 2013.
He’s managed to cast aside nearly all aspersions in order to adopt a no-frills, no-holds-barred method to his madness. “This album is about giving … no fucks at all,” he half-joked last month at an exclusive listening party.
West built it all up in the final weeks leading up to the highly rumored release date. Given the fact that hardly anyone knew about the album’s status as the June 18 release approached, every single factoid that leaked sparked a debate across the Internet and beyond. It was that secrecy — and West’s relative apathy — that captivated fans and critics alike.
“Honestly at this point when I listen to radio, that ain’t where I wanna be no more,” West said in between songs during his Governor’s Ball performance. “Honestly at this point, I could give a fuck about selling a million records.”
Meanwhile, Jay-Z simply sold one million copies of Magna Carta Holy Grail to Samsung, the Korean mega-corporation worth more than $200 billion, before the album even hit shelves. The surprise announcement — revealed in a behind-the-scenes commercial during the NBA Playoffs — was less gripping than West’s ever-heightening drama, but was arguably more effective.
Where West has asserted his anti-corporatism throughout Yeezus, most notably on “New Slaves” as he’s throwing away his Maybach keys and maintaining his autonomy, Jay-Z’s fully tucked in bed with an international conglomeration. And he embraces the fact that he’s putting out a sponsored record. The hip-hop mogul has no qualms about treating his art as a commodity as it’s something he’s done it time and time again in his career.
But Jay’s acts of selling out have almost never been met with widespread disdain, because of his trendsetting ways as an entrepreneurial rapper, which is an art in and of itself. He’s building an empire — and people love him for his empire state of mind. “His value is his live show, his catalog, and his brand, and his ability to do deals with Samsung and Robinson Cano,” Andy Greenwald said on a recent Hollywood Prospectus podcast.
West can’t afford to travel down a similar path toward a singular goal. He’s seemingly unable to build career capital. West remains at his best when defying expectations, which is a blessing and a curse. No other rapper commands the kind of attention Yeezy does for his creative process, but it comes at the cost of essentially blowing up his progress and starting over with each and every record. That undoubtedly gets him noticed, and with good reason. It’s also far more self-destructive than anything Jay-Z ever endured.
Yeezus executive producer Rick Rubin described it best when it comes to West’s approach. In a recent Daily Beast profile, Rubin described the race against the clock and the stress involved along the way of making his latest album. But West seems to purposely back himself into corners, forcing himself to fight insurmountable odds at every turn, making each win all the more impressive. That’s a mesmerizing myth from afar to say the least, let alone from where Rubin sits.
“I liked what I heard, but it was a little difficult — after just coming from the Kanye sessions — to listen to Jay’s album, because they’re so different,” Rubin told XXL about hearing Magna Carta Holy Grail. “[Yeezus left me] in a very alternative and progressive headspace, and Jay’s record is a more traditional hip-hop record.”
Sure, Jay-Z may be the more conventional rapper at this point of his career — but it works in terms of his commercial success (hell, the RIAA will even conform to his standards!). Kanye West doesn’t really need to worry about his sales, given Yeezus managed to move 327,000 copies on its way to becoming the third best debut sales week this year. Yet it marked the least amount of release-week records sold in West’s entire career. Jay-Z, as he humblebragged in a recent tweet, effectively went platinum with Magna Carta Holy Grail before the album was even announced.
Both West and Jay-Z will exit this summer having reached new rungs in their respective careers. It’s fascinating to see them defy conventions in their own unique ways. At the same time, however, they’re both reinforcing their already-established legacies: as a creative stalwart and a savvy entertainment mogul, respectively. It makes you really wonder — after all the mythmaking and event marking — whether that was always the plan from the get go. And whether all the hype actually ever mattered.