We’re nearing the end of 2019, and that’s when music streaming service Spotify reveals to its users their year in review. They tell you all the exciting things about your listening habits, like what songs you listened to most and which artists you discovered. I look forward to it every year.
Spotify also gives you playlists of the songs you listened to most in previous years, and those, too, are fun to go back and explore. This year, in the process of exploring my history in music, I realized that two of the biggest names in hip-hop are hitting the same points about life’s issues — but they’re approaching them very differently.
Those big names, of course, are Jay-Z and Kanye West. In 2017, Jay-Z released the album 4:44, which went platinum and had multiple hits on it. In the album, Jay-Z explores some topics he hadn’t always discussed in his prior music, most notably, his infidelity and how that affected his wife, Beyonce, and his family.
I think it’s interesting to contrast the topics and the ways Jay-Z approaches them with what we’re witnessing with Kanye West. The two of them were once friends and released (a great) album together, Watch the Throne, but they’ve had wildly divergent paths since that 2011 record.
They’re both at the top of the hip-hop pyramid of success, but they look radically different — Jay-Z is engaged in everything from the NFL to business ventures challenging Spotify and Apple Music, while Kanye West just released his new Jesus is King album, has Sunday Services everywhere, and is remaking his entire business from the bottom up, basing everything in the United States, according to NBC News.
Jay-Z’s rough patch was, like most things at his level of success, extremely public. Footage leaked in May 2014 of Solange Knowles, Beyonce’s sister, attacking Jay-Z in an elevator. Everyone at the time thought it was about Jay-Z cheating on Beyonce. And we got a window into that relationship in Jay-Z’s title song, “4:44,” where he talked about letting his wife and family down.
He leads off in the song: “Look, I apologize, often womanize / Took for my child to be born / See through a woman’s eyes / Took for these natural twins to believe in miracles / Took me too long for this song.”
It’s Jay-Z at his most contrite, looking at his life, his actions, and the impact of his works. The most heartbreaking of this song is the ending, though, when he says: “And if my children knew, I don’t even know what I would do / If they ain’t look at me the same / I would prob’ly die with all the shame.”
But after that album, he and Beyonce were back to singing and rapping about how incredible their love was in 2018’s Everything is Love. Craig Jenkins, a critic at Vulture, put it best: the records the two of them cut solo, and their subsequent project together, allowed the world to see two people working out their marriage in real-time. Jenkins summed it up by saying:
The overarching message of the album is not so much that squirreling away expensive things can save us. It’s more of a promise that love will. Work, therapy, compromise, and collaboration saved the Carters.
The focus in Jay-Z’s songs through this time was wholly on his wife and family and correcting his actions. That’s admirable. But it’s interesting to compare that to Kanye West, who has had his own struggles for years. He’s struggled with breakdowns after his mother died, from pornography creating a separation between him and his wife to a host of other public scandals.
And while he sees the individuals issues that need correcting, he also sees a broader change that needs to happen. On the track, “Hands On,” on Jesus is King, West says: “Told God last time on life / Told the devil that I’m going on a strike / Told the devil when I see him, on sight / I’ve been working for you my whole life.”
The theme from Kanye isn’t just one of personal accountability, but freedom. And not just individual freedom — Kanye wants freedom from everything. In “Selah,” he hammers out the bars: “Won’t be in bondage to any man / John 8:33 / We the descendants of Abraham / Ye should be made free / John 8:36 / To whom the Son set free is free indeed / He saved a wretch like me.”
And in the song “Closed on Sunday,” he says: “Follow Jesus, listen and obey / No more livin’ for the culture, we nobody’s slave.”
Kanye West is singing about more than working through the ups and downs of marriage. He’s rapping about changing the entire culture. Whereas Jay-Z and Beyonce monetized their pain and struggles as a means of advancing their careers, Kanye is throwing everything to the side for something new.
The most common reply to Kanye is that he’s not for real, and everything is a staged act. And that’s certainly possible. He even says so in “Hands On:”
Nothing worse than a hypocrite / Change, he ain’t really different / He ain’t even try to get permission / Ask for advice and they dissed him / Said I’m finna do a gospel album / What have you been hearin’ from the Christians? / They’ll be the first one to judge me / Make it feel like nobody love me.
And he’s right — there’s not much worse than a hypocrite. Kanye has approached this openly and transparently.
He’s not hiding his struggles or his failures, nor is he shielding himself from the criticism. He’s meeting it head-on and working to change the culture he helped create. And if Kanye is fake, what does that say about the marital success of the Carters? Why are we only questioning Kanye on realness?
Jay-Z and Beyonce returned to their cultural corners and worked to continue and build the empires they’ve created. It’d be something if they started seeing the world like Kanye and used that cultural cache to shift things.
Rap and hip-hop have come a long way, from being cultural outsiders to one of the — if not the — driving musical genres in American society. There’s a lot of power there that Kanye West is uncorking. It’d be nice to see that spread to others like Jay-Z and Beyonce.