Kanye West has spent the past few months railing against corporations and the constraints of the boardroom. Meanwhile, Jay-Z has presumably spent the same period of time cooking up marketing strategies with the suits at Samsung. Both will release new albums over the next month, though each is clearly doing so at very different places in their respective career arcs.
First, consider Yeezus, West's latest snarling missive, an album full of vitriol and vices (and no official singles). In just about every conceivable way — from the loading-dock listening sessions and lack of a pre-order to songs like "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead" — West has seemed determined to make it an exclusive thing, a piece of art that cannot be confined by the constraints of commercialism or comprehended by the casual listener.
It is a willfully difficult work, from an artist who, by his own admission, is willfully difficult by default (in his fascinating New York Times interview, West described himself as "forever the 35-year-old 5-year-old"). In some ways, it seems like Kanye doesn't want you to enjoy Yeezus at all; instead, he's decided to make you feel his pain, see the world through his eyes. That defiant attitude extends beyond the music, too, touching everything from Yeezus' anti-marketing campaign to the fact that it doesn't even come with a proper album cover. In that regard, then, it's the most defining work of West's career; his most unapologetic album. He's the enfant terrible of hip hop (well, either him or Chief Keef), and fans be damned, this one's for him.
On the other hand, there's Jay's Magna Carta Holy Grail, which was unveiled via an elaborate (and, one can assume, incredibly expensive) three-minute spot aired during halftime of the NBA Finals. It's coming July 4, though, in a rather inspired bit of corporate synergy, the first million copies will be made available early, to users of Samsung's Galaxy III, S4 and Note II devices.
It's not like Jay hasn't partnered with companies to promote his music in the past — Budweiser helped hype Kingdom Come in 2006 — but this seems like a particularly massive stroke: not just a way to rush-release a hotly anticipated album, but do so in direct collaboration with a corporation (Samsung reportedly purchased those million copies of Magna Carta at $5 a pop), rather unabashedly so. If you think Jay was conflicted about the deal in any way, well, remember his famous line from back in the day: "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man."
It's ironic that he spit that lyric on a remix of West's "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," because with Magna Carta, Jay proves just how large the chasm is between he and 'Ye really has become. I'm not talking personally — after all, it's clear that West still considers HOV to be his mentor, and, by all accounts, the two remain fast friends — but rather, professionally. Ignore the marketing campaign behind the album, and focus, instead, on that NBA Finals commercial: the mood was jovial, the thrill of watching Jay screw around in the studio with producer pals Timbaland, Pharrell, Swizz Beatz and Rick Rubin was palpable.
If Yeezus is meant to be exclusive, well, Magna Carta is the polar opposite. It's seems to be an incredibly inclusive album, one meant to be enjoyed by the masses (of course, said masses with Samsung phones get to enjoy it a few days early). If Kanye West is the tortured artiste, Jay-Z is the grand ambassador of good times; he wants to welcome you to his party, and Black Skinheads probably aren't invited.
To be fair, it's been apparent for a few years now that Kanye and Jay are walking very different paths — just look at the roles each of them played on Watch The Throne — yet never have those differences been more apparent than in the lead-up to their respective albums. Yet despite all that, it's clear that Yeezus and Magna Carta, both aim to push hip-hop to new places, be it gallery spaces or Galaxy phones ... and, really, that's what great artists always strive to do, even if they do so in wildly dissimilar ways. Who benefits? The fans. And phone owners. And, most of all, hip hop. After all, what other genre can play host to two massive, magnanimous stars, each operating at opposite ends of the same spectrum? It's inevitable evolution, and it's fascinating. The artist and the business man, together, even though they're miles apart.