Magna Carta Holy Grail and Yeezus have arrived; somehow, Jay-Z’s album has the better production, and Kanye’s has the better lyrics.
In any case, one of the most polarizing aspects of the former work is how it uses Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the opening track, “Holy Grail.” Between verses, Justin Timberlake sings “and we all just entertainers / and we’re stupid and contagious.” (The track is below.) Fans and observers have called it both genius and blasphemy, while critics have used phrases like “beyond triple corny” and suggested Jay-Z’s never really engaged with Kurt Cobain’s work.
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Similar criticisms emerge whenever any hip-hop act quotes Nirvana, including Atmosphere, whom Pitchfork called out for marring “a sacred cow” when they similarly channeled “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on 2001’s Lucy Ford. Yet it also demonstrates that Nirvana has significantly impacted hip-hop, something most people wouldn’t have predicted, and that the impact has been quite enduring. (There’s even an up-and-coming rapper named Kirko Bangz.)
Prior to Cobain’s death, L.A. underground fixtures 3MG sampled “Heart Shaped Box” for their landmark classic “Sunsprayed”. Over a decade later, Texas MC Trae the Truth rhymed over “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the height of the “Party Like a Rock Star” trend. David Banner played the song during an on-stage breakdown in 2005.
“Holy Grail” also summons the Kurt Cobain martyr narrative: that of a tortured artist forced to become a spectacle for public consumption. For other rappers, this ushers in thoughts of suicide: “Take me away, like a bullet from Kurt Cobain,” pleads The Game in “My Life.” “Now it’s suicidal, just like Nirvana,” says Ice Cube on “Natural Born Killaz.”But this is not how Jay spins it. He’s always been about carrying the load: he did that so hopefully you won’t have to go through that. (You know, riches, admiration, Beyonce.) Plus, it’s Timberlake singing here, and it’s the actual “Teen Spirit” hook; given the cost of publishing rates these days, he’s the only one who can afford it. Elsewhere on Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay quotes from R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” Of course, he also mentions Miley Cyrus twerking, but he’s often used time-sensitive lines that go stale quickly. (See the “planking” reference on Watch the Throne and Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life‘s mention of Keenan Ivory Wayans’ short lived late night talk show.) And yeah he bungled the zeitgeist on Kingdom Come when he bragged about never having been on MySpace, but for the most part remains a perpetually hip and cool 45-year-old.
The biggest problem with Jay’s use of Nirvana? He got the sentiment entirely backwards. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” decried — or at the very least mocked — corporate intrusions into youth culture, and to make it part of an album released as a promotional tie-in for a phone company (strictly for the artist’s profit) is dopey at best. Let’s just hope Jay’s interest in Nirvana doesn’t become as overbearing as his love of mentioning Basquiat.