Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Jay Z Kanye West [extended]

  • Reasonable Doubt [Roc-A-Fella/Priority, 1996] A-
  • In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 [Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 1997] **
  • Vol. 2 . . . Hard Nock Life [Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 1998] ***
  • Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter [Roc-A-Fella, 1999] A
  • The Dynasty: Roc La Familia [Def Jam, 2000] B
  • The Blueprint [Roc-A-Fella, 2001] A-
  • Unplugged [Roc-A-Fella, 2001] ***
  • The Blueprint 2 [Roc-A-Fella, 2002] *
  • The Best of Both Worlds [Jive/Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2002] **
  • The Black Album [Roc-A-Fella, 2003] A
  • The College Dropout [Roc-A-Fella, 2004] A
  • Collision Course [Warner Bros./Machine Shop/Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/MTV, 2004] Dud
  • Late Registration [Roc-A-Fella, 2005] A+
  • Kingdom Come [Roc-A-Fella, 2006] ***
  • Can't Tell Me Nothing [no label, 2007] ***
  • Graduation [Roc-A-Fella, 2007] A-
  • American Gangster [Roc-A-Fella, 2007] *
  • 808s & Heartbreak [Roc-A-Fella, 2008] A-
  • The Blueprint 3 [The Null Corporation, 2009] A-
  • My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [Roc-A-Fella, 2010] A
  • Watch the Throne [Roc-A-Fella, 2011] A-
  • Yeezus [Def Jam, 2013] ***
  • Magna Carta Holy Grail [Roc-A-Fella, 2013] B+
  • The Life of Pablo [Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music, 2016] A-
  • 4:44 [Roc Nation/UMG, 2017] A-
  • Kids See Ghosts [G.O.O.D. Music EP, 2018] A-
  • Ye [G.O.O.D. Music EP, 2018] *

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt [Roc-A-Fella/Priority, 1996]
Designed for the hip-hop cognoscenti and street aesthetes who still swear he never topped it, his self-financed debut album is richer than any outsider could have known, and benefits from everything we'vesince learned about the minor crack baron who put his money where his mouth was. You can hear him marshalling a discipline known to few rappers and many crack barons, and that asceticism undercuts the intrinsic delight of his rhymes--not once does he let go like Biggie spitting his viciously funny little "Shoot your daughter in the calf muscle." He's so set on proving how hard he is that his idea of a hook is the piano loop Premier runs behind the magnificent "D'Evils." Once he became a rap baron he could afford less austere producers. A-

Jay-Z: In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 [Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 1997]
arrogant yet diffident, ruthless yet cute--a scary original ("[Always Be My] Sunshine," "Real Niggaz") **

Jay-Z: Vol. 2 . . . Hard Nock Life [Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 1998]
meet Keybmaster Swizz Beats, the missing link between Charles Strouse and Too Short ("Hard Knock Life," "If I Should Die") ***

Jay-Z: Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter [Roc-A-Fella, 1999]
Sean Carter isn't the first crime-linked hitmaker with a penchant for kicking broads out of bed at 6:15 in the morning. Frank Sinatra beat him to it. Right, Sinatra never boasted about his own callousness--not publicly, in song--and that's a big difference. Jay-Z has too many units tied up in playing the now-a-rapper-now-a-thug "reality" game with his customers, thugs and fantasists both, and only when he lets the token Amil talk back for a verse does he make room for female reality. But he goes for a rugged, expansive vigor, nailing both come-fly-with-me cosmopolitanism and the hunger for excitement that's turned gangster hangouts into musical hotbeds from Buenos Aires to Kansas City. You don't expect a song called "Big Pimpin' " to sound as if the tracks were recorded in Cairo. This one does. A

Jay-Z: The Dynasty: Roc La Familia [Def Jam, 2000]
His arrogance is earned, but that doesn't make it interesting, especially since his whine isn't--the same habit of childish self-pity that generated cognitive dissonance when he was coming up on the snazziest swizzbeats in the kingdom is annoying pathology with knockoff protégés sending in productions by cellular. And wouldn't Memphis Bleek be more, I dunno, affecting contributing a few answering-machine cameos, from upstate maybe? Right, "Jigga" 's still got "skills." So does LL Cool J, whose more accomplished record means nothing to nobody. This is a major falloff, a lazy cash-in no matter who won't admit it. B

Jay-Z: The Blueprint [Roc-A-Fella, 2001]
What is it pigs like Jigga say as they spread your legs and accuse you of wanting their money? Lay back and enjoy it? Assuming you don't believe this album is great art or reparation for chattel slavery, that's the way it is with Jay-Z's power pop. His flow is fluent, sure. But his confidence reigns supreme. Likewise his hooks, whether purchased, hired, or just what he was feeling at the time, and his rhymes, whose deepest cleverness is in their apparent effortlessness. Like Star Wars or Windows 95, he unlocks the gate to a luxurious passivity that may not be good for you in the long run but does the trick at the time. A-

Jay-Z: Unplugged [Roc-A-Fella, 2001]
"Jay-Z's poetry reading"--pronounced "rea-in" not because it's more ghetto but because it's more childish ("Song Cry," "Izzo [H.O.V.A.]"); ***

Jay-Z: The Blueprint 2 [Roc-A-Fella, 2002]
anyone who samples Paul Anka when he wanted Frank is no longer Jehovah and will never be the Chairman of the Board ("U Don't Know [Remix]," "Poppin' Tags") *

R. Kelly & Jay-Z: The Best of Both Worlds [Jive/Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2002]
Jay all unrepentant swagger, R. his wheedling yes-man ("The Best of Both Worlds," "P***y") **

Jay-Z: The Black Album [Roc-A-Fella, 2003]
History has vindicated this album. On a meticulously hyped valedictory no one believed would be his actual farewell, the fanfares, ovations, maternal reminiscences, and vamp-till-ready shout-outs were overblown at best. But on an album where the biggest rapper of all time announces that he's the biggest rapper of all time, they're prophetic. Bitch about Kingdom Come and American Gangster if you must, but not The Blueprint 3 or Watch the Throne, and not his label presidency, amassed fortune, or close personal relationship with Warren Buffett. He's got a right to celebrate his autobiography in rhyme because he's on track to become a personage who dwarfs any mere rapper, and not only can he hire the best help dark green can buy, he can make it sing. Tracks four through nine enlist Kanye West, the Neptunes, Timbaland, 9th Wonder, Eminem, and Rick Rubin. Each one sounds different, each one means different, and each one kills. I'm also touched when "Justify My Thug" tag-teams Madonna and Run-D.M.C. Hova if you hear me. A

Kanye West: The College Dropout [Roc-A-Fella, 2004]
What is the fuss about his contradictions? The main difference between him and most hip hop journalists is his money. They'd buy the Benz--so would I, Volvos don't last as long--and probably the gold too. They'd say anything to get laid. They accept the economic rationale of dealing and dig music of dubious moral value. Yet at the same time they do their bit for racial righteousness and know full well how much they need the "single black female addicted to retail." On Easter Sunday, some of them even believe in Jesus Christ. But none of them are as clever or as funny as Kanye West, and these days I'm not so sure about Eminem either. West came up as a beatmaster, but his Alicia Keys and Talib Kweli hits are pretty bland, and neither his voice nor his flow could lead anyone into sin. So he'd better conceptualize, and he does. Not only does he create a unique role model, that role model is dangerous--his arguments against education are as market-targeted as other rappers' arguments for thug life. Don't do what he says, kids, and don't do what he does, because you can't. Just stay in school. Really. I mean it. A

Jay-Z/Linkin Park: Collision Course [Warner Bros./Machine Shop/Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/MTV, 2004] Dud

Kanye West: Late Registration [Roc-A-Fella, 2005]
See: Growing by Degrees. A+

Jay-Z: Kingdom Come [Roc-A-Fella, 2006]
The pleasures of going legit ("Minority Report," "30 Something"). ***

Kanye West: Can't Tell Me Nothing [no label, 2007]
Get this while you can from the mixtape man no matter how much of it is destined for the real album (Kanye West, "Can't Tell Me Nothing"; Bentley Feat. Pimp-C and Lil' Wayne, "C.O.L.O.U.R.S"). ***

Kanye West: Graduation [Roc-A-Fella, 2007]
Rank this minor success with hooky background music like 50 Cent's The Massacre--no deeper than Coldplay when you pull out the measuring stick, but a lot smarter. Compared to 50's, the hooks are pretty pricey. Yeezy loves designer labels and procures for himself the finest fromage--Elton John to Steely Dan to Daft Punk softening us up for gay cult hero Labi Siffre, like that. He self-indulges throughout--not just by expanding at length on his skimpily rationalized fascination with his own fame, but with little stuff like his failure to convert "this"-"crib"-"shit"-"live"-"serious" into a rhyme or "at bay at a distance" into an idiom. Nevertheless, every single track offers up its momentary pleasures--choruses that make you say yeah on songs you've already found wanting, confessional details and emotional aperçus on an album that still reduces to quality product when they're over. A-

Jay-Z: American Gangster [Roc-A-Fella, 2007]
Jay-Z, that's a brand name, like Pepsi, that's a brand name--he stands behind it, he guarantees it, even if you don't know him any more than you know the chairman of Universal Music ("Blue Magic," "Say Hello"). *

Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak [Roc-A-Fella, 2008]
Altogether as slow, sad-ass and self-involved as reported, this is a breakup album there's no reason to like except that it's brilliant. It has its own dark sound and its own engaging tunes, and although West couldn't hit the notes without Auto-Tune, his decision to robotize as well as pitch-correct his voice both undercuts his self-importance and adds physical reality to tales of alienated fame that might otherwise be pure pity parties. The second half the songs start to slip, but they come rushing back with the Lil Wayne ditty and the only track here about what's really bringing him down: not the loss of his girlfriend but the death of his mother, during cosmetic surgery that somewhere not too deep down he's sure traces all too directly to his alienated fame. A-

Jay-Z: The Blueprint 3 [The Null Corporation, 2009]
For a record consisting almost entirely of boasts about being the best, the ex-prexy's official comeback--and also, let it be noted, his inaugural project with or is it for his new corporate partner--is fairly superb. He brings it off because he is the best, because he's documented more achievements than most bigmouths, and because he holds chits for miles. Not only are chief beatmakers Timbaland and Kanye West co-equals, he's gotten A work out of them--cf. Timbo's sample-free spirals on the atypically unbraggadocious "Venus Vs. Mars" and the atypically staccato clap-for-'em West designs for "A Star Is Born." Both are buried mid-disc, just where you'd think Jay would be sneaking in the weak s---. None of that here--though you have a right to think he's coming on too strong. A-

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [Roc-A-Fella, 2010]
Arrogance per se has never been Yeezy's problem--he has every right to think he's more talented than Nas, Taylor Swift, or me. His problem is that he has no gift for it. Not only is he radically insecure, he didn't come up on the get-it-while-you-can fatalism that armors gangstas street, showbiz, and in between. Cannily and candidly, he acknowledges this on "Monster," where he knows perfectly well that his "profit profit" bling-and-sex brag is about to get blown away by padrone Jay-Z's "All I see is these n****z I made millionaires/Millin' about" and pink-haired Nicki Minaj's "bitch from Sri Lanka"-"Willy Wonka"-"watch the queen conquer" trifecta. Cataloguing the perks of power he sounds as geeky as Mark Zuckerberg, and because grandiosity doesn't suit him deep down, the sonic luxuries of this world-beating return to form have no shot at the grace of The Collede Dropout or Late Registration. But because he's shrewd and large, he knows how to use his profits profits to induce Jay-Z, Pusha T, the RZA, Swizz Beats, and his boy Prince CyHi to admit and indeed complain that the whole deal is "f***in' ridiculous." "Power" doesn't establish his potency and "Gorgeous" isn't quite. But "Hell of a Life"? "I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most"? That's his heart, his message, the reason he's so major. It's also why he goes out on a righteous, wacked-out 90-second diatribe by a Gil Scott-Heron so young he hasn't gotten into cocaine--hasn't even signed to a major label. A

Watch the Throne [Roc-A-Fella, 2011]
The three minutes of silence that rope off the first 12 songs signify that those songs constitute a unity and the deluxe edition's four bonus tracks are too much. Soon, as if on signal, two matched operatic choruses take the project's regal grandiosity over the top. But nowhere else does this gorgeous show of power trigger your gag reflex; in fact, the echoing grunts and swooping oohs of the Pete Rock-produced, Curtis Mayfield-keyed 16th track would have provided a hell of a regular-album finale with no loss of unity whatsoever. The only question is whether these guys' regal glory is of any intrinsic interest to those of us who regard power as something to speak truth to, and the answer is hell yeah, because it's been forever since stars of this magnitude were also so dominant artistically. Predictably, Jay's power is more interesting than Ye's, which was funnier and sicker on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Think the patron's proximity made the protegee nervous? Think the patron figured it would? I do. A-

Kanye West: Yeezus [Def Jam, 2013]
Sign spotted on church in the wild: Death Grips--Be Like Them ("New Slaves," "Hold My Liquor") ***

Jay-Z: Magna Carta Holy Grail [Roc-A-Fella, 2013]
After too many plays, this holding action won me over. Deeper than catchy, Timbaland's music is the precondition on an album that pits Basquiat against Blue--black man as artistic rebel versus black man as family stalwart. But the breakthrough only came when I started grinning every time I heard him advise his daughter regarding the Basquiat in his kitchen: "Lean on the shit, Blue, you own it." And though later he swears, "I love my niggas more than my own blood," nowhere is black more beautiful than in the person of his own wife: "Sleep every night with Mona Lisa/The modern version with better features." In short, family wins both times. Give it up to the one where Beyonce pledges gangsta devotion and, best of all, the one where the would-be billionaire looks back at the betrayals of his own departed head of family with something that feels like dread. B+

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo [Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music, 2016]
In this ever-changing world in which we live in, I can't swear my 18-track DL is the same as yours, and should there materialize a CD with a pretty cover and a credits booklet, I will buy one with my own money. But for all the chatter about this hypefest's mutability, I doubt any "final" will be different enough to merit a second review. I just don't have time to untangle West's "creative process" with so many lesser artists' creative products ready to go, and neither do you. C'mon--his genius isn't about his famous fame or his stalled fashion sideline. His genius is musical--production chops above all, plus the flow fools once mocked. And musically, The Life of Pablo is a backslid Christian's anti-Yeezus. Dark Twisted Fantasy's synesthetic layering subsumed 808s's electropop miniaturism enabled Watch the Throne's coronation boomeranged to the sacriligeous provocation my man Big Ghost summed up as "I KNOW YALL LOVE TURKEY BUT YALL EVER TRIED MONGOOSE?" The Life of Pablo is turkey--West's latest course correction, wittingly casual and easy on the ears. Unlike Yeezus, it won't top many 2016 lists--it's too blatantly imperfect, too flagrantly unfocused. But that's also its charm, and I prefer it. The opening parlay of "I'm tryna keep my faith" and "Same problem my father had" hints at contrition. Hedged hedges distance-or-don't the porn boasts he can't kick. His kids breach the narrative like that uppity Blue. His sweetest hook tops Bajan superstar with Jamaican sister. Kendrick gets his chance to bookend Chance and all but falls down. The pseudo-freestyle meta-wink "I Love Kanye" is a narcissist's "We Don't Care" and almost as funny. The sour-grapes self-examination morphs into a pseudo-outlet track. So right, there's a lot here. But right, it's no masterpiece. Get over it. It'll do you good. A-

Jay-Z: 4:44 [Roc Nation/UMG, 2017]
At its frequent peaks, this unusual album nails the understated mastery it's going for--the calm candor of a titan with plenty to own up to hence plenty to teach. He's so discreet you may not notice that he can still outrhyme the small fry--"fuck with me"-"cutlery"-"butlers be"-"hustlers be," say, all parsing as "The Story of OJ." But clever's not his program. From the subtle beats No I.D. builds from Sean Carter's all-time playlist, he means to pretend he's just talking to us, nowhere more than in the painfully detailed "4:44" a.k.a. "I Apologize" a.k.a. "I suck at love." But just as "4:44" resorts for no discernible reason to an "I cut off my nose to spite my face," "The Story of OJ" is marred by a pun on "Dumbo" that's funny twice max and very nearly wrecked by the deplorable "You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?" The answer, in case you were wondering: "credit." Which is an OK principle--Jay-Z isn't the only rap elder advising youngbloods to buy property instead of Lambos. But there are plenty of similar lapses on an album where "Legacy" celebrates his money, some of it secured by other people's artworks, rather than his art. He's teaching black capitalism, not weighing every word much less manning up and learning to love. Compared to white capitalism, I'll take it. But unlike learning to love, it has plenty of downside. A-

Kanye West and Kid Cudi: Kids See Ghosts [G.O.O.D. Music EP, 2018]
What's best about this trifle isn't that the big man and his protege acknowledge their madness, with West shitcanning his meds while Cudi turns into such a rehab nut that the five-minute focus track "Reborn" repeats the mantra "I'm movin' forward" 53 times." Instead, what's best is that they fool around like male bonders should--"Feel the Love"'s vocal rat-a-tats, "Fourth Dimension"'s Louis Prima sample, "Kids See Ghosts"'s nursery rhyme in waiting, "Freeee"'s long guttural E's. So its closest brush with wisdom is political rather than therapeutic: Yasiin Bey a/k/a Mos Def envisioning "Civilization without society / Power and wealth with nobility / Stability without stasis / Spaces and places." A-

Kanye West: Ye [G.O.O.D. Music EP, 2018]
The assiest moment in his half-assed attempt to make asshattery germane again is when he claims #MeToo for his foggy fat self, and if it's also the catchiest, fuck you if you can't take a joke--her too ("All Mine," "Yikes") *