Monthly Archives: July 2013
Jay Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail
It’s been four years since (the newly un-hyphenated) Jay Z’s last record—his longest ever gap between albums—but it feels like he never went away. Mostly because he hasn’t. For one, he’s a celebrity in his own right, half of the nation’s foremost power couple, the “business, man” with an empire beyond hip-hop. And then, it also feels like there hasn’t been a single major rap release in the last half-decade without at least one track he’s guested on, never mind Watch The Throne, his collaborative record with Kanye West, which spawned one of the most popular singles of 2012. In one sense, the five years between records (and the birth of his daughter, Blue Ivy) should have given Jay a lot to mull over, perhaps pressing him to try something new, either lyrically or musically. On the other hand, Hov really, really likes to rap about how rich he is, and when something like that becomes second nature, it can be hard to get unstuck from that rut.
So, he attempts to split the difference with Magna Carta…Holy Grail, a record frustratingly at odds with what it wants to be. Surely, as the album’s title and artwork imply, Jay uses high art as his muse here, and while its too conventional an album to suggest that Jay was trying to come up with a gallery piece himself, he certainly meant this to be some sort of departure, an event record that warranted his live performance at the MoMA. He’ll namecheck Mark Rothko and the Tate Modern, and interpolate Nirvana and R.E.M. lyrics as hooks, mixing and mashing popular and fine art in a way that seems like he’s commenting on the state of pop culture, but it really just provides a backdrop to his usual boasts. And that’s one of the major problems with Magna Carta: For all its posturing as some sort of statement record, this is really just Hov treading water. Not that this is always a bad thing. Jay Z is still a clever writer and a versatile MC, so even if he’s a bit set in his ways, his experience in the rags-to-riches-on-riches field means he can string together effortless material like “Picasso Baby” and “Tom Ford,” tracks that are distinctive enough to keep the album chugging along, yet not strong enough to gun for the career highlight reel. Unsurprisingly, the moments where Jay and his producers Timbaland and J-Roc push themselves tend to be the best tracks, or at least the most interesting ones. “Holy Grail” features a wonderful turn by Justin Timberlake against an cool, easygoing beat; “Jay Z Blue” finds the new father anxiously adjusting to a different lifestyle; he’s plainspoken about shunning religion on the uneasy “Heaven,” and the loose, fun “BBC” feels like a live group freestyle what with the overlapping vocals and asides.
But if “BBC” is a standout, it’s not just because of its quality, it’s because most of Magna Carta…Holy Grail suffers from Jay Z’s performance. If he was really trying something new with this record, it would follow that he’d sound passionate and revitalized, but Jay has rarely sounded less compelling or involved on record. He still has the flow but the energy is all but drained, and it hangs the already-thin material out to dry. At 59 minutes, it’s already a shorter album than many contemporary mainstream rap records, but at times, the sluggish pace can make it feel considerably longer. Prior to its release, Jay Z made a deal with Samsung to pre-release this record exclusively for Samsung phone users, spawning a massive ad campaign of online ads and guerrilla marketing. That’s sort of fitting: For all its artistic aspirations and inspirations, Magna Carta…Holy Grail feels much more ephemeral and disposable than anything worthy of museum preservation.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
It’s a funny thing: Daft Punk are seen as legends today, a universally acclaimed and enormously influential duo that brought house, electro-funk and disco crashing back into the mainstream, spawning all sorts of imitators and admirers from across many genres. But that wasn’t always the case. Electronic aficionados always boosted the band, but the public and even some critics weren’t so convinced of the Frenchmen’s greatness at first. Of course, time was nothing but kind to Homework and Discovery (not so much Human After All because no one was kind to that one to begin with), and eight years later, after they drummed up a decent Tron soundtrack, after Kanye introduced the youngsters to the duo via his sample on “Stronger,” Daft Punk finally returned from the ether, masks and all. When they released Random Access Memories in late spring of 2013, it was the first time they dropped a record as bona fide, four-quadrant rock stars. That newfound status, plus the long gap since their last studio album, virtually ensured that the album would be a dizzying, grandly ambitious listen, and surely enough, RAM is Daft Punk’s most expansive, conceptual music yet. It’s also some of their best.
As the first single, “Get Lucky,” indicates with its disco stomp and slick Nile Rodgers guitar riff, this album is all about paying tribute to some of Daft Punk’s more vintage inspirations. That means ’80s pop, Eurodisco and early electronic dance music run rampant through the album, feeding off each other in a way that sounds unabashedly retro but unusually modern. Perhaps that last bit shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering that Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have been making the old sound new for years, yet this is their first attempt at deliberately stamping a date on the music they create, so it’s all the more impressive. Nowhere can this be seen better than on the album’s centerpiece, “Giorgio by Moroder.” As Giorgio Moroder explains his origins as a producer, Daft Punk lay a funky beat that eventually explodes into a swooshing synthesizer epic, a lovely testament to Moroder’s lasting influence on the dance music scene. This affectionate hero worship also brings a level of sincerity and warmth to the record, lending intimacy to the proceedings and grounding the songs no matter how outsized the productions. What remains remarkable about RAM—well, aside from the often exceptional songwriting and productions—is how it never settles for simple nostalgia: No matter how indebted to influences they are, “Get Lucky” and its sister track, “Lose Yourself To Dance,” are some of the best pop songs of 2013 because they sound so fresh and inventive.
As backwards-looking as the record is, Daft Punk are still trying out sounds and approaches that they’ve never committed to tape before, so part of that liveliness is due to a sense of exploration. Some of this has to do with the special guest turns: Yes, Giorgio Moroder, but also great turns from Pharrell Williams, a typically chipper Panda Bear on “Doin’ It Right” and Julian Casablancas, who shows up for the brooding, new-wave “Instant Crush,” which is good enough to make you wonder how much better Comedown Machine would have been if Daft Punk produced it. But most of the gleeful invention of RAM comes from how the duo play with structure and style, which reveals an unexpected influence—prog-rock. Take something like “Touch,” which shifts from unsettling, alien atmospherics to a touching Paul Williams ballad to a lavish disco cut to a spacy, psychedelic number and back again. It’s at once deeply felt and out of left field, more so than most anything else in their oeuvre. And when tracks like that are placed alongside catchy dance jams, songs that blend the orchestral and the synthetic, softly exhaling sobbing-robot pop and the interstellar-overdrive-cum-campy-sci-fi-soundtrack of “Contact,” all of the sudden, RAM has more in common with the high-concept, ambitious records of Pink Floyd and Genesis than groups like Air. True, none of this is ever quite as challenging as prog, but it certainly shares prog’s fascination with major statements, grandiose arrangements and over-the-top theatricality. Of course, since the most major statement being made here is “DANCE!,” it’s much more immediately satisfying. And “immediately satisfying” is the name of the game here, because even though Random Access Memories is too singular in Daft Punk’s catalogue to be considered quintessential, it’s their most accessible and one of their most rewarding.