Is Black Thought > Kanye?
It's tempting to boil it down to that simple critical equation after both Roots rapper Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and Kanye West released new music on Friday.
Both Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 (Human Re Sources *** 1/2) and ye (G.O.O.D. Music / Def Jam **) clock in at under 25 minutes, though the former is identified as an EP and the latter calls itself an album.
Needless to say, West's has gotten more attention. The rapper-producer and famous person — he'll be on Celebrity Family Feud with wife Kim Kardashian and family on ABC on Sunday — has been notifying the world for weeks that his first album since 2016's The Life of Pablo was coming.
He's commanded plenty of attention, whether praising President Trump or suggesting that the 400 years of slavery African Americans endured might have been "a choice" in an infamous TMZ interview. Many fans "cancelled" or worried over the rapper, who says he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder last year at age 39.
Musically, the concerns have turned out to be justified: ye is the weakest and least significant album West has made in a career that — no matter what the haters say — has for the most part been illustrious.
It's one of several seven-song albums the rapper has made in Wyoming in the last year, including Daytona by Pusha-T. Three more are coming, including a collaboration with Kid Cudi, and production jobs for Nas and R&B singer Teyana Taylor.
The tight, fiery Daytona proved West hasn't entirely lost his touch. But ye makes it seems like he's giving his best beats away: It's slipshod in comparison. And it continues a disheartening trend of releasing music that feels unfinished that began with Pablo.
The album feels less than whole, not to mention thrown together at the last minute. West had a version completed at the time of the TMZ interview. He trashed those songs and started over. He shot the album cover, with the phrase "I hate being bipolar its awesome" scrawled across the Grand Teton mountains, on the way to his record release party last week.
Ye steers clear of #MAGA territory, though West does lamely boast: "Could have Naomi Campbell, and still might want me a Stormy Daniels" on "All Mine."
There's more misogyny, as in "Yikes," where he brings up the #MeToo movement in reference to mogul Russell Simmons to wonder "what if that happened to me, too?" On the spoken opener "I Thought About Killing You," West seems to be borrowing ideas from early Eminem, going to his dark side as he fantasizes about murdering his wife. Later, he thanks Kardashian for putting up with him on "Wouldn't Leave."
The album does get better, with the most effective track being "Ghost Town," which employs the rapper's old buddy John Legend, plus Kid Cudi and North Jersey singer-rapper 070 Shake.
Nevertheless, West can't help but shoot himself in the foot. On "No Mistakes," he wastes a rich R&B hook sung by Charlie Wilson, and this straight talking verse: "I got dirt on my boots, I got white in my beard / I had debt on my books, it's been a shaky year." He follows those good lines with a proudly dumb one: "I don't take advice from people less successful than me."
Of course, West has always been a narcissist. In 2007, he held forth on his own bullheadedness on the great "Can't Tell Me Nothing": "I had a dream I could buy my way into heaven, when I awoke spent that on a necklace / Told God I'd be back in a second, man it's so hard not to act reckless."
Back then, declarations of irrationality and self-sabotage made the fabulously talented rap star come off as human and likable. But a decade down the road, whether due to the isolation that comes with fame, he's almost completely lost track of the complexity that used to make him so compelling. Now, he just seems like a jerk.
Streams of Thought is the polar opposite of ye. While West traffics in self absorption, Black Thought is all about craftsmanship and respect for the art form.
>> READ MORE: Roots Picnic ends early due to weather
And an amazing lack of ego. As was on display at the Roots Picnic at Festival Pier on Saturday, Black Thought is a rapper whose verbal and rhythmic skills trump all comers. That was apparent in his midafternoon Live Mixtape session as well as the 10-minute freestyle that turned out to be the entirety of the Roots set when the festival got shut down by rain. But in the 25 years the Roots have been recording, Black Thought has — remarkably — never put out a solo album, always contributing to the band's vision as a whole instead. "The Roots brand always has to be maintained," he told NPR last week, explaining that although Streams of Thought is the first of a series of EPs, "none of this is my solo album. It's just a chance to see me in a different light doing a different thing."
Streams of Thought is a five-song tour de force, a stunningly dense set produced by DJ 9th Wonder. Starting with the opening "Twofifteen," the gruff rapper represents Philly, referencing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sarah Vaughan, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Cesar Chavez, and Kerry James Marshall.
And, oh, yeah, also Kanye West, as in this internally rhymed verse about keeping your eyes on the prize in celebrating black achievements working toward overcoming America's history of racism: "You gossip on Jay and Beyoncé or Kim and Kanye, but keep rising to the top, what my mind say / Picture my daughter drinkin' water with a sign say 'For colored girls,' I ain't talkin' Ntozake Shange."
There's not as much that needs to be said about Streams of Thought as there is about ye, because there's not nearly so much backstory going on. Suffice it to say it's a master class in verbal dexterity and old-school hip-hop values that does give in to braggadocio, but only when it's been earned. "Bartender, one Casamigos and lime," the 46-year-old emcee orders up in "Dostoyevsky." "I'm celebrating gracefully, getting better with time."
Indeed he is. And along with demonstrating his poetic skill, Black Thought engages fruitfully with a world of ideas outside his own head in ways that could be instructive for West, whose world seems smaller with each subsequent release. Is Black Thought greater than Kanye? This time out, it's not even close.