M.I.A. – “Matangi”

(Photo Credit: 514blog.com)

Grade: C

Key Tracks: “Bad Girls,” “Bring the Noize”

There’s a line between controversial art for the sake of making statements and helping causes, and controversial art just for the sake of controversy. There’s a reason we follow Banksy’s every move, and there’s a reason why we left Marilyn Manson by the wayside many years ago. This is a line M.I.A. has been straddling for years, landing on both sides. And that’s just what this album does – it falls on both sides. Some tracks are musically abrasive and/or lyrically riotous. Others fall into the “we really need to do something” type of (l)ac(k)tivism. It’s a mess, and the amount of what works to what doesn’t is probably even.

The first real song on the album (after an intro), the title track, starts with a long segment of M.I.A. just naming countries of the world. There doesn’t even seem to be any point – Canada gets included. Canada doesn’t really have any of the problems M.I.A. is usually rapping about. Many of the tracks feel less resilient, they’re not calls to action but just recognition of the world’s problems. So they seem prodding and controversial, but they have nowhere to go. Also, given some unexpected problems I’ll get to, some of her references are just outdated. “Y.A.L.A” is the biggest example – one of the better songs, a direct response to Drake’s “YOLO” phenomenon, but it’s a phenomenon that’s already dead and has already been spoofed (by the Lonely Island).

Musically, the album is ambitious, maybe even to a fault. Beats drop away, volumes and tempos fluctuate wildly. It’s abrasive, and although it suffers from too many ideas, the ideas she had on paper were definitely successful. The album’s early tracks, and “Y.A.L.A” and “Bring the Noize,” even lack rhythms at times, jumping wildly from idea to idea. And with M.I.A. rapping over all of it, it’s a glorified mess, one that’s a lot more practiced and perfected than it sounds. “Matangi” doesn’t hold the tone, though, there’s a lot of more relative conventional songs that kill any kind of flow the album has. The last few songs sputter to a mediocre finish. Two duets with The Weeknd are wasted on boring songs (the first of which, as I was also wrapped up in an article on “Better Call Saul,” I forgot I was listening to). The better songs musically are able to grab current EDM and dance trends and turn them over into very original, often loud tracks. It’s inconsistent and sometimes boring, but the tracks that work musically are quite a marvel.

The faults of the record aren’t necessarily M.I.A.’s fault – she started recording the album in 2010. It was originally supposed to be released last December, before Interscope shelved it for being too upbeat (can you imagine?). So the album’s frustrating delays don’t help the quality (and it’s something to keep in mind when listening). Also, in a moment that falls way, way on the wrong side of the controversy for a cause vs. controversy for controversy debate is M.I.A. working with Wikileaks leader/convicted molester Julian Assange. Assange helped her write the album’s dumbest song, “aTENTion.” It all feels like a plea for, ugh, attention, with no real artistic merit. And that’s reflective of the album – it’s listenable, some songs are great, but it’s so inconsistent and groan-worthy that it just can’t stand up to her earlier work.

-By Andrew McNally  (Post #100!)

Jay-Z – “Magna Carta Holy Grail”

Photo Credit: hypetrak.com

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Jay Z Blue,” “Oceans”

“Watch the Throne,” the rap experiment from Jay-Z and Kanye West in 2011 must have left a mark on both performers. Both Jay and Kanye released albums this summer that showed growth and change as performers. But where Kanye’s “Yeezus” was a tormented work of introspective loyalty and political consciousness, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is just an album of basic beats and repetitive lyrics about Jay-Z’s wealth. Jay-Z is said to be worth about $500 million alone, plus the wealth of his equally-famous wife, Beyonce. His ‘change’ is a further disconnect from his own fans, where his constant rapping about European vacation destinations sounds more like bragging to an audience than typical lyrical boasts. Rap & hip-hop is typically a young man’s game, and with Jay’s 43 years bringing him twelve platinum albums and partial ownerships in a nightclub chain and a professional basketball team, he is officially too far into the entrepreneurial world to sound fresh and real in the hip-hop world.

The album is not all bad. “Part II (On the Run)” features typically amazing work from Beyonce, and “BBC” is a fun song because of it’s guest spots: Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Nas, Pharrell, and Swizz Beatz. “Jay Z Blue” is a brutally honest song about his daughter, and how he fears comparisons to his own father who was never around but for very different reasons. And “Oceans” features a well-placed guest spot from Frank Ocean, on a song about the film “Ocean’s 11″ being a metaphor for Jay’s accumulation of wealth.

Some tracks are just bad. The opener “Holy Grail” which also features Timberlake, is a bombastic call for receiving a legendary status, as Jay and JT channel Kurt Cobain and harmonize on an amended version of the chorus to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Not only does it sound bad, and not only does Jay already have the legendary status that he is attempting to claim to himself, but it is that kind of fame that led Cobain to suicide in the first place. The song is a dramatic misreading of Nirvana. “Somewhere in America” is the album’s worst track. Hova raps about how he’s good at math because he can count his money and than randomly mentions Miley Cyrus twerking. The song sounds like Jay freestyling a joke song in the studio and adding serious beats to it to make it a real track.

Other than the feeble Nirvana reference, there are some delightfully surprising references and soundclips on the album. Sinatra and Johnny Cash get reworkings that work much better than Cobain’s. M.I.A. and R.E.M. also get references. The most surprising, and haunting, is a soundclip from “Mommie Dearest” that leads in to “Jay Z Blue.” Where the album has some interesting references and clips, it is lacking in guest spots. A majority of the songs are just Jay-Z, and with the repetitive lyrics, it starts to get pretty old pretty quickly. Overall, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is a very safe album that takes no chances whatsoever and sounds disconnected and pointless because of it. Hova is just too far out of reality to relate to any listener besides those that already appear on the money-drenched album.

One final note: the album was famously released to Samsung Galaxy users a week ahead of time. This irked me in two ways. As a Galaxy user who downloaded the album, I had to sign away the rights to all of my personal privacy in order to get the album. I’m personally expecting a bodyguard to show up at my door soon after I publish this and question why I didn’t like the album. With the NSA leaks and Hova’s past songs against privacy concerns, this didn’t even make sense. Also, I didn’t even get the album until Saturday, something like four days after I was supposed to, which almost negated the point entirely. Even then, the app died twice throughout playing the album. The album is already platinum and Jay already has millions because of it, but at what cost to his fans?

In conclusion, here’s a screenshot from the commercial that advertised the album that accurately sums up the problems:

Jay-Z is, at the end of the day, an adult father. And at the end of the day, this was an album that was advertised on television.

-By Andrew McNally