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While Little Brother experiments, Big Brother sticks to the blueprint
on July 9, 2013
Jay-Z and Kanye West are two of the closest collaborators in music and have dropped arguably the two marquee hip-hop releases of the summer. It's astounding then how diametrically opposed the two albums are, not only in sound but also in underlying philosophy. Kanye's is a minimalist, industrial work with almost no marketing campaign, seemingly entirely unconcerned with sales. Meanwhile, Jay-Z has given us among the most commercial albums of our time ("platinum before release") with Samsung as his benefactor. He leans heavily on his tried and true muses for lyrics and the usual suspects for beats, but he manages to grow just enough to keep himself above the fray. If Yeezus left you out in the cold, MCHG is chicken soup for the hip-hop soul.
All the themes you'd expect from a Jay-Z album are here: His rags to riches story, throwbacks to his days of selling drugs, his loyalty to his roots, jabs at his detractors, his absentee father, his young family. All are in rare form. The lyrics remain potent and when his skill lags his swagger and presence buoy the track. What other rapper could grunt his way through a third of a track and make it work? (see: Versus).
But amidst of all of the expected are the bits of growth that showcase an evolution sometimes unexpected from the genre. While rappers often flaunt their philanthropy, Jay anticipates giving without recognition ("The purest form of giving is anonymous to anonymous/ We gon' make it there, I promise this.") Whereas so much rap is concerned with the trials of fame, Jay-Z dismisses the minor annoyances of celebrity ("This ___ ain't work/ This is light work/ Camera snapping, my eyes hurt/ ______ dying back where I was birthed.") Where Jay-Z has often been guarded about his private life, he offers up his worst fears on "Jay-Z Blue," rapping "I'm starin' at her prayin' that things don't get ugly/ I'm stuck in that old cycle like wife leaves hubby/ ____ joint custody/ I need a joint right now just that thought alone ____s with me." He even broaches faith, subtly weaving a little philosophy into his standard fare, "Question religion, question it all...Ya'll religion creates division like my Maybach partition." These lines may seem insignificant, but it's these little flashes that have defined Jay-Z over the years. They're subliminal bits of sincerity that push a genre oft-maligned for its immaturity.
The album isn't perfect. As usual, the collaboration with Mrs. Carter is the low point. But there are enough tough beats and catchy hooks here to keep Miley twerkin' through the summer. MCHG may not explore the possibilities of rap sonically, in the way that Yeezus does, but it is the logical next lyrical and emotional step for Jay-Z. Whether he's starting a sports agency, sitting with Presidents or injecting a bit of maturity into a genre that sometimes needs some prodding, in some ways, Jay-Z doing the unexpected has become entirely expected.