I woke dreading the prospect of listening to Yeezus again. Kanye West's new album is awful. Most critics disagree with me on this point; Pitchfork gave Yeezus a 9.5, and Steven Hyden called it the best album of 2013 during the first week of July. Such enthusiasm is presumably due to the album's exciting new sound. Yeezus sounds radically different from most contemporary hip-hop, in the same way that the cat vomiting a bird sounds different from a bird.
That makes Yeezus the opposite of Jay-Z's recent album/cell phone marketing strategy Magna Carta Holy Grail. Where Yeezus is desperately experimental, MCHG is calculated to sell raps. It is not quite old-school; "Tom Ford" is basically a trap jam, and "Somewhereinamerica" is built around a saxophone sample conspicuously reminiscent of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop." Still, Magna Carta Holy Grail is as conventional as Yeezus is avant-garde.
And yet they are eerily similar. Kanye and Hov are deep into their respective careers. Magna Carta Holy Grail is Jay-Z's 12th solo album; Yeezus is Kanye's sixth, and the two have Watch the Throne together. Both of them are insanely rich celebrities. Their two albums, released a month apart, address the question of what a rapper does when he has basically done everything.
Jay-Z decided to do it again. He continues to rap about the socially condemned spectacle of a black man spending a lot of money, over the clean drums and orchestral samples that got him there. Magna Carta is the work of a disengaged craftsman—not bad by any means, but kind of boring.
Yeezus, by comparison, is the work of a personality desperate to be somehow more loved. It tries so hard to blow our minds that it numbs them. "How much do I not give a fuck?" Kanye raps on the opening track, before proceeding to give us every single fuck he can think of for the next 40 minutes. Philip Glass never made silence sound so good.
Neither of these albums by established masters of hip-hop deviates from the lyrical form an inch. Kanye abandons some of his signature slant rhymes for such nuanced lines as "I am a god / even though I'm a man of God," but mostly it's casual sex and Lamborghinis. Jay-Z has a Lambo, too, but is married to Beyoncé. He sticks to the lyrical conceit that he pioneered and Kanye caricatured. Yeezus and Magna Carta Holy Grail sound different, but they say the same thing.