Do You Actually Like the New Kanye Record?

Brand has finally trumped art in the world of pop music.

I noticed something disturbing during a recent trip to my neighborhood grocery store. As I stepped up to the check-out line, I heard music. This wasn’t the pumped-in lite-jazz versions of classic rock and soul over the loudspeaker. It was Kanye West’s new album, Yeezus. The delivery system was the clerk’s smartphone, which he’d turned into a mobile stereo, converting aisle two into a bumpin’ club, minus the strobes and cover charge.

Normally, hearing some Kayne at Super Fresh would be a welcome change from the instrumental versions of The Eagles or Donna Summer that make food shopping a more miserable exercise than it already is. The kid’s phone wasn’t loud; if you weren’t in his line, you wouldn’t hear it. But it sounded like the song was “New Slaves,” in which Kanye says “fuck” (no surprise), makes repeated angry references to fellatio (somewhat surprising) and drops n-bombs like Django Unchained (least surprising of all).

My first thought was, “Perhaps a manager should tell this kid to only play the clean versions of songs he’s probably illegally downloaded or gets for free on YouTube.” That’s a product of me, in my late 30s, being someone who still occasionally buys physical CDs and who sometimes catches himself thinking, “These kids today!” and mentally shaking a fist in the air. My second thought, and the one that’s lasted with me a week later, is this: That music really sucked.

Maybe this sounds like I’ve entered a premature curmudgeonly old-man phase — “today’s music ain’t like it was when I was growing up!” That may be true, to some degree. The critics aren’t on my side, either. Yeezus posts an 85 out of 100 on, based on 42 reviews, only one of which was negative. But I grew up with hip-hop. I own and appreciate Kanye’s earlier work, though it gets harder every month to separate the Kardashian-impregnating, leather-kilt-wearing, Taylor-Swift-ambushing, criminally-cruel baby-naming narcissist from his music.

I wonder if these critics are reacting positively to Yeezus for two reasons: It’s radically different and the artist is culturally important. Compare Kanye’s new album to the latest by the only hip-hop figure who’s bigger than Yeezy himself — Jay Z, whose Magna Carta… Holy Grail earned a paltry 58 on Metacritic. In Kanye’s defense, he swung for the fences in making something that doesn’t sound like anything else you’d hear on Power 99 FM; no one’s calling “Black Skinhead” the roll-down-your-windows summer jam of 2013. Maybe it’s not fun to listen to, but at least it’s challenging; Jay Z’s album falls short on both ambition and greatness.

Also disappointing is Justin Timberlake’s latest, The 20/20 Experience, which debuted to a week’s worth of Jimmy Fallon appearances and countless TV ads. As of June 30, it was the only album to sell more than 2 million copies this year. It’s also his weakest effort to date, with songs that meander on about two minutes longer than they should. For the price of a car payment or your monthly student loan bill, you can still get a pair of tickets to the Jay Z/J.T. show on August 13 at Citizen’s Bank Park and hope they play their old jams.

What all three of these artists have in common is their success as brands. In an excellent article earlier this month, New York magazine explored the business of being Jay Z, and sometimes you wonder if there’s any room for “rapper” on his crowded business card. Timberlake was shameless in his cross-promotional push for The 20/20 Experience — a buzzy video directed by David Fincher, endorsements with Bud Light and Target, helping re-launch MySpace. Love him or hate him, Kanye’s presence in pop culture is impossible to escape (though this is the album I wish we’d get to hear).

As Jay Z says, “I’m not a businessman/I’m a business, man.” In today’s music industry, the brand is more important than the art. Track sequencing is rendered meaningless by buying (or stealing) singles. Album covers are afterthoughts. You’re more likely to check out the new Jay Z record if it’s tied to a line of limited-edition Reeboks and a social-media scavenger hunt. Of course, critics (and old folks) fretted over something similar in the video age of the ’80s, when Madonna was kissing a black dude in a church and Motley Crue was dressing like both women and Satanists on MTV. But videos were artistic expressions; cross-promos for light beer and Twitter marketing are not.

If I see that kid at Super Fresh again, I’m going to ask him if he honestly likes Yeezus as music, not as an extension of the Kanye brand. Maybe he’ll surprise me with his answer. Maybe I’ll end up asking him to crank it up.