Like it or not, 2011’s collaboration Watch the Throne forever linked the greatest rapper of all time with his #1 protege Kanye West, and just two years on, that moment looks more and more emblematic of hip hop’s schizophrenic nature in the twenty-teens: On one side of the coin you have Ye, the rock star, brilliant but primitive, raging at his freak nature and expanding the boundaries of the genre, while Jay-Z is the CEO, the party starter, complex but commercial, building an empire that will hopefully last long after he’s gone.
As the last survivors of hip-hop’s cultural war, however, these two are also competitors — it’s no coincidence that Magna Carta… Holy Grail was released within a fortnight of Yeezus. But where the restless and reactionary Kanye spun off in a challenging new direction, Jay’s return to the throne is practically an R&B album, albeit a hard one, one whose central theme is life as a family man, albeit one of the world’s richest and most powerful. Kanye enlisted Daft Punk and Chief Keef to stay fresh, but Jay’s sticking with last decade’s hitmakers Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. The result is downtempo and moody: it works well with Jigga’s reflective flow, but ballin’ it isn’t, quite.
Worse than Grail’s lack of sonic audacity is the familiarity of Jay’s boasting; when he’s not fretting over the future of his dreamworld, he’s reclaiming a victory he won long ago. When he claims he’s an asshole, it’s only to find a rhyme with “Picasso,” and he drops back on his million-preorders statistic way too often, as if he were somehow insecure about his reign. When it comes to the big statements about What It All Means, Shawn Carter is outstripped for the first time by his entourage — Justin tells his arm candy “You’d steal the food right out my mouth / And I’d watch you eat it,” while Frank Ocean’s slave ship metaphor on “Oceans” outstrips the master immediately. Ironically, playing the don under fire from a bunch of young bloods might have been compelling enough to keep him relevant, but he’s so big at this point, his decay isn’t even tragic. Two sides of hip hop? Make that the two sides of America.
Innovation: 54. Tim hasn’t come up with any new ideas, either, and the more interesting Mike Dean and Pharrell Williams tracks are buried in the playlist.
Integrity: 62. When Hov used to fall off, it was from trying something new.
One of the consistently redeeming features of American popular music is how it mutates with complete indifference to the status quo — or used to before capitalism spun wildly out of control. letlive. (stylized with the lower case and the punctuation) is an underground post-hardcore band who came into their own a few years ago by picking up the mantle of smart emo left behind by bands like Thursday and At The Drive In. But mixed into their style is also some thick strains of radio-friendly emo, punkcore scream, and even rap-rock. This is a crew that gets compared to ATDI, Deftones, and Linkin Park with equal frequency, and that deep aggro bench makes them simultaneously more compelling and more focused than their peers. To make a historically democratic approach like this work, you’d have to be focused.
Like lots of similar bands from the last decade, letlive. seem to have been forever mutated by the general political and social shitstorm of that decade, however; having perfected their sound on 2010’s Fake History, they’ve since sharpened it into a weapon, the primary one in a sonic assault not just on mainstream ears but mainstream assumptions. That last album was fairly generic in its romantic obsessions, but now lead singer Jason Aalon Butler seems to have lost his faith in God and love at the same time, and you can therefore read The Blackest Beautiful as either an emo album about a faithless lover or a hardcore album about a faithless orthodoxy. More than likely, given the sheer force and honesty of their attack, it’s a new kind of progressive punk hybrid about both.
Innovation: 75. A patchwork of ideas, but it completely obliterates the notion of what divides pop from rock.
Integrity: 82. You have to really mean shit like this or it gets silly real quick.