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Rap Round-Robin

An underdog challenger steals the moment from two hip-hop titans.

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Three rap albums — the Personal Statement, the Commercial Blockbuster, and the Underdog Challenger — walk onto the internet. Okay, there's no joke here, just shorthand for the music of the moment, in triplicate: Kanye West's Yeezus, Jay-Z's Magna Carta ... Holy Grail, and El-P & Killer Mike's Run the Jewels.

Yeezus
Maybe it's because my Twitter-feed is so sports-dude-oriented, but there was a disconnect between the reflexive, immediate day-of-leak hype for Yeezus and the prickly work of art I finally encountered at the achingly late date of one day after it hit retailers. The album's misogyny and boastfulness might be frat-party-ready, but what of a distorted, often angry sound that's more electro boom-blip than traditional boom-bap and seemingly indebted to experimental rappers Death Grips? How many exultant bros picked up on the not one but two songs referencing the 1930s lynching song/poem "Strange Fruit?"

For all the awe it inspired, I've settled into an appreciation of Yeezus as an interesting, lesser addition to Kanye West's discography. I hear it now as less a breakthrough or reinvention than a continuation of West's previous solo album, the similarly confrontational and self-absorbed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. As with the earlier Late Registration/Graduation combo, West has followed a masterpiece with a less-essential companion piece.

But that's in the context of West's own history. There's a reason he's the most significant commercial pop artist working, even — no, well — beyond his big brother Jay-Z. The tribal thump and looped jungle screams that open "Black Skinhead" is as provocative a snatch of music as heard this year and probably beyond the ken of West's influences. "New Slaves" sounds like The College Dropout morphing into MBDTF, commentary on family civil rights history, modern racism, and consumerism devolving into personal psychosis.

West aggressively burnishes his asshole credentials. "I'm In It" references the movement in the crassest manner he can dream up. And when he comes back to "Strange Fruit" again with "Blood on the Leaves," West lets the chorus roll in the service of his own perceived sexual persecution.

Magna Carta ... Holy Grail
Where Yeezus is intentionally problematic, it at least gives you something you may feel compelled to wrestle with. Magna Carta ... Holy Grail, by comparison, just sort of floats by. Where Yeezus says its piece in 10 songs and roughly 40 minutes and Run the Jewels gets by in an even tidier 10 songs/33 minutes, MCHG swells to an appropriately bloated 16 songs in 55 minutes. That's no crime given long-established CD-age album lengths, but it's a slog in the context of its sharper, more pointed counterparts.

And it's made more so by the music itself: Always professional and only occasionally inspired, MCHG is a catalog and expression of Jay-Z's reach. A blockbuster in conception, marketed and sold in an of-the-zeitgeist manner in that content delivery trumps content, the result is a good album less exciting than its Mt. Rushmore of Rap Producers Just Hanging Out With Hova commercials

It opens strong, with Justin Timberlake giving a particularly committed guest turn on the grave, stately "Holy Grail." But it doesn't take long for the album's lone apparent artistic purpose to reveal itself: a more lavish continuation of Watch the Throne's high-end name-dropping, which is now as much about what the artist appreciates as what he owns. The de rigueur references to Nas, Biggie, UGK, and Sinatra now expanded to Nirvana, R.E.M., and Johnny Cash, Basquiat and Picasso, Koons and Kubrick.

If West's calling cards are musical and conceptual, Jay-Z's card is primarily vocal — a conversational flow that suggests spontaneity. This is why the rare past moments that convey interest in other lives stand out so much: His Iraq War protest on "Beware of the Boys." His breakdown of reparations and deflated hoop dreams on "Izzo." His underdog exhortations on "Hard Knock Life" and "So Ghetto." There's not much of that here. "Oceans" glances at the political. "Jay Z Blue" contemplates fatherhood, to only mildly interesting effect. And he's been listening to "Strange Fruit" too, though he doesn't try to make much of it.

Jay-Z has apparently labeled MCHG his fourth best album, not faint praise given the scope and quality of his discography. I'd say that's a little generous but also a refreshingly realistic assessment.

Run the Jewels
Released online for free — no promotional strings attached — in the days between Yeezus and MCHG, Run the Jewels is a second partnership between rapper/producer El-P and mic master Killer Mike. In the context of this particular rap moment, the duo come on like Clubber Lang to Jay-Z & His Army of Producers' Rocky/Apollo Creed routine.

On last year's R.A.P. Music, Mike rapped, "We some money-hungry wolves and we down to eat the rich." He was ostensibly talking about bankers, corporate pirates, and other villains. But he could also have been talking about Jay-Z and Kanye West. Any doubts are dispelled here on "Sea Legs," where Mike declares himself "the killer of kings and fools" on the way to asserting "there will be no respect for thrones."

A self-described "slang pope," El-P's rat-a-tat-tat flow pales next to Mike's more limber, more charismatic, and more plainspoken style, but he makes for a strong vocal sidekick that lets Mike's verses and lines breathe and land with more impact, while the relentless funk production evokes rap's late-'80s golden age without feeling purely nostalgic. The result? The surprise winner in this rap round-robin.

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