Anyone who’s followed hip-hop in the last decade would be hard-pressed to name two stellar talents less likely to play nicely with others than Jay-Z and Kanye West. The former has granted plenty of valuable cameos to others through the years, but as far as album-length collaborations go, all you have to do is recall the two “Best of Both Worlds” joints with R. Kelly, if you can stomach the thought. As for Kanye, beyond the infamous egotism and public tantrums, the idiosyncrasies that are his biggest strength also are a curse that make him a square peg unlikely to fit in anybody else’s hole, at least not for long.
This isn’t to say that that ’Ye and his mentor didn’t try to make this project work, even if it did originate in a corporate marketing meeting rather than out of any real desire to finish work they never completed after “The Blueprint” but before “The College Dropout” catapulted Chicago’s favorite son to a level of superstardom almost as great as Jigga’s.
The two don’t just alternate verses; sometimes, they trade rhymes line for line, and the merger of those familiar styles is both smoother than you’d expect and more exciting—not unlike unearthing a previously unheard duet between Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger at the height of their powers. But you also get the impression that neither stepped forward to edit the other, or to keep his partner on track, separating the b.s. from the brilliance.
The lyrical missteps and musical distractions are way too aggravating and too numerous to carry the day throughout these 16 overly long tracks (if we count the bonus cuts).
The all-star producers, including the RZA, DJ Premier, the Neptunes, and Swizz Beats, often try too hard to make their marks with big, epic backings that can make Kanye at his most indulgent sound subtle. In these settings, guest vocals from Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, and Otis Redding (from beyond the grave, of course) come as a relief, rather than a welcome addition.
The frequent bursts of sexism are below both of these gentlemen. But the biggest problem is that, after priming us for a consideration on the big theme of what it means to have achieved the throne of stardom—and, indeed, what hip-hop itself means as an art form in 2011—Jay-Z and Kanye too often resort to empty boasting about how rich and powerful they are.
Big deal, so what, we’ve heard all of that before.
“I guess I got my swagger back,” Kanye shouts at one point, interrupting Jay-Z mid-rhyme, and that’s not a good thing—at least not if you think that he’s always been best when he’s been at his most human and vulnerable. Rhymes like this do not count: “Prince William ain’t do it right if you ask me/’Cause if I was him I would have married Kate and Ashley/What’s Gucci, my nigga?/What’s Louie, my killa?... Got my niggas in Paris/And they going gorillas!”
“I don’t even know what that means,” a sober voice interjects in “Niggas in Paris.” But then Jay comes back with even more self-aggrandizing blather: “Ball so hard mutha----as wanna fine me.”
Toss-offs like those make it hard to buy the attempted sincerity of the Redding track, “Otis,” or the contemplation of black-on-black murder, “Murder to Excellence,” which starts out as a serious condemnation of an American crisis (“It’s a war going on outside we ain’t safe from/I feel the pain in my city wherever I go,” Kanye raps. “Three hundred fourteen soldiers died in Iraq/Five hundred nine died in Chicago”) before Jay seems to posit yet more materialism and pop-culture posing as a solution (“It’s a celebration of black excellence/Black tie, black Maybachs/Black excellence, opulence, decadence/ Tuxes next to the president, I’m present/I dress in Dries and other boutique stores in Paris/In sheepskin coats, I silence the lamb/Do you know who I am Clarice?”).
Worst of all, though, is the Ocean-powered “Made in America,” a very Kanye-like musing on family (by Jay) coupled with very Jay-like boasts about business dominance (from Kanye) all decorated with utterly gratuitous name-checks of “sweet king Martin, sweet queen Coretta, sweet king Malcolm... sweet baby Jesus.”
Are the stars saying that those black activists are the American dream that they and we should aspire to? Or are they saying that what they’ve done in hip-hop is the equal? “I don’t even know what that means.” Indeed, and from two artists this significant, that’s a big disappointment.
On the four-star scale: 1.5 STARS