Another Blog Post About Kanye West

November 12, 2008 at 11:38 pm (Music)

Kanye’s latest album, 808s and Heartbreaks, has been a leaky, leaky ship. For reference, here are all the holes:

Love Lockdown

Heartless (here’s a video with good animation)

Tell Everybody That You Know (ft. Lil Wayne)

Streetlights

Amazing (ft. Yung Jeezy)

Robocop

Coldest Night

Besides those tracks, though, this is an album with some deep context. To get the most out of what it means, you can’t just hit play and listen to it, which is both its fault and its strength.

Kanye West has been a big deal in hip hop ever since he first hit the scene with Jay-Z’s initial Blueprint. With an ear for classic and obscure soul samples, he even spearheaded a trend in modern production to chip up voices instead of chop them down. More importantly, though, he really expanded how musically involved a hip hop producer can be in making beats. The first song proper on College Dropout (“We Don’t Care”) has strings, feminine vocals popping in for rhythmic and melody assistance, and heavy drums. A saxophone comes in occasionally. All of this sounds like it should come off as a bloated, overproduced mess, but each element is introduced slowly shifting the musical focus through his verses, and it sounds like elegant adornment. The children’s choir comes in the first chorus, and on the second a female singer comes in, a subtle crescendo. The rest of the songs don’t relent this richly composed hip hop soul.

It’s hard to imagine hip hop culture, or even popular culture, nowadays without the influence of West. At once bringing a sense of class and elegance to hip hop that was sorely lacking (he did show up on tv shows wearing polo shirts, and has started to give fashion advice on his blog). More than through his image, he also greatly expanded the possible topics that a mainstream rapper could rhyme about. From the gospel themes of “Jesus Walks” and “Spaceship” to the blatant emotions of “Roses”, to his inescapable fashion hunger, he became a pop star because he wanted to rhyme about different things. And even when he does rap about selling drugs and quitting college, he does so as one instrument among saxophones, strings, and acoustic guitar. The man who lovingly patched together these spectacular sounds surely deserves a break from criticism if what comes from his mouth doesn’t measure to his tapping on a sampler pad, right?

And he’s been testing us ever since. As a hidden and emerging theme, his songs have gotten more blatantly emotional (from Late Registration’s stellar “Roses” to Graduation’s very adequate “Big Brother” to this entire album), and his public appearances have become even more egotistical. After Late Reg was released, West said he would ‘really have a problem” if he didn’t win the Album of the Year”, he held up his performance at Bonaroo for two hours because of Pearl Jam elongated their set, and this is his cover for the Rolling Stone a couple years ago:

More so than most rap artists, which is saying a lot, potential fans have been hostile to him because of his ego much more than his actual music. I can imagine people not liking his work on College Dropout and Late Registration, but I can’t imagine people being offended by it. Now, if someone’s demanding that you see it as the best music of the year, hands-down-now-give-me-my-Grammy-bitches, that’s another matter: it’s still sogged with interludes and lapses into emotional emptiness, but the musical tapestry before could sustain any interest if the words could not.

Now, with the release of all of his new songs, that vanity no longer restricts itself to press releases and television shows, but to the musical composition of each. On all of them, an indistinct breakup informs Kanye’s, pause while I gasp, singing, which is the main instrumental crux for all of these songs. Not a sweeping melody articulated with heavy percussion, not a soulful female singer: Kanye West’s untrained voice.

Luckily, he has an auto-tune to cover up any of his singing deficiencies. T-Pain has been able to make a career out of singing innocuously and spicing it up the same way every time, and now Kanye tries to make an album out of it, but here, both his singing and light vocal harmonies are woefully wrong-headed.

I’m a fan of vocal harmonies, I really am. Making noise from the mouth can produce some of the most unmediated emotion. Literally, a person uses their own breath to produce sound, altering tongue and lips to form different syllables, opening up the diaphragm for more volume and intensity, jumping up and down to make a forceful vibrato, there are many possibilities for art using the human voice. It’s the closest thing to immediate musicality without formal knowledge next to percussion, banging on the table in front of you. And when this sheer, unadulterated musicality begins to shimmer in harmony? Beautiful.

I’m also a fan of effects on vocals. Just shifting a little bit of reverb can give it the impression of a much more open space, and applying some modulation can make a human voice warmly psychedelic. Messing with equalizers can make a familiar instrument sound completely foreign and out of place. It can give music such personality and affect that would otherwise be impossible.

You might notice that both of these normal uses of vocals and technology are completely different than how they are employed by Mr. West.

Instead of focusing on the organic creaks and cracks of a voice that can make it a powerful instrument, he distorts it every time. I don’t even see how it could be a good effect once (hear how, when Kanye holds a note, it wavers apprehensively in imitation or distortion of vibrato), but much less over an album? Instead of making it bigger, it all sounds so tiny and synthesized, like an 8-bit video game character finally emoting. The hip hop producer, formerly lyricizing through soul samples tucked away in the hooks of songs comes up with lyrics that sound like hooks and soundbites, not quite written for depth, but damn full of power. The problem with relying on power, is that the might and gravity can become annoying if they never stop. Lost love and its attendant anger and depression are literally all he sings about. And to illustrate his agony, he uses metaphors like “Coldest Night” and “Robocop”. Stuff that might sound great as a sample around aloof rhymesters, but next to melodramatic pop? Blunt and persistent.

(Okay,  you got me, there’s an exception to the blandness: on “Amazing”, he compares the crowd’s approval to his girlfriend’s and comes to a sad embracing of the audience. Which provides a great first verse, but it all leads back to a bunch of people liking Kanye, and the hook is (four times) “it’s amazing”. It has the chance for poetry but shies away after it accomplishes vivid imagery).

All this talk about poor vocals overshadows discussion of its music because every other effect gets crowded out. Streetlights has a muted melody bubbling beneath the surface, and “Tell Everybody You Know” has an astounding string arrangement giving a little brightness and baroqueness to the heavy, laborious beat under it. “Amazing” (again an exception) has chilling found sounds (are they birds cawing?) instantly making the beat creepy when they interrupt the chorus. Yung Jeezy’s confrontational voice (sigh) even makes the song an unsettling urban cavort, despite its fake choirs and even faker synths trying their darnedest to make the beat as boring as possible.

There’s very little else to praise. Every song here has pianos playing minor chord progressions. Every song has slow and laborious beats with distorted drums. A lot of songs have synths just a little bit fuller than 8-bit (the emergence of the 16-bit wave?). Every song has Kanye West’s auto-tune voice atop all its attempts at being interesting pieces of music.

If West is making a bad move for the critics by embracing popular hip hop trends like auto-tune and Lil Wayne, he’s making an even worse move for his popular audience. Everyone I’ve heard listening to these songs wonders where the rapping went. Graduation was a moment of transition for most of these people. He started collaborating with Lil Wayne and T-Payne (I wonder if they planned that rhyme for freestyling purposes?) instead of the fading underground stars gracing his earlier albums as guests on Graduation, but here his stuff is just so bizarrely different superficially that it can’t appeal to any similar base as his prior music besides Kanye fans themselves. I don’t see this as commercial music.

At this point, it’s important to note Kanye’s crossover appeal. This is the man who produced for both Jay-Z and Common, two rappers who completely differed on ethical stances (Jay-Z from “Moment of Clarity”: “Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like common sense/but i did five mil, and i ain’t been rhyming like common since”. Two purposefully divergent artists. And in each case, he brought out the best. Whether he co-produced “Be” or produced nearly all of the singles from “Blueprint”, he could bridge the gap, revealing the smooth hustler in Common or the mighty but conscious rapper in Jay-Z, making both a little more human. And now, he’s set out to bridge the gap from pop to hip hop, naming his absolutely pop statement after the instrument that gave hip hop its style in the early eighties: the 808 drum machine. Pop made from the foundation of hip hop.

But as much as he’s been a crossover artist of absolute magnitude, he’s never been a populist artist. He’s been popular, but he’s never catered to a crowd. From “The Good Life”: “Like 50 said, go ahead and switch your style up/ and if they hate, then let ‘em hate and watch the money pile up.” He’s occupied the narrow space in between critics of more independent music and the suburban white kid bumping his beats though subwoofers: he goes for the grammy, for accolades and musical innovation of popular styles, and he’s been able to rattle trunks along the way. His audience has always been in between independent and mainstream hip hop (as nebulous as those terms are, he came to encompass both), bringing the grandeur and money to independent and unconventional stylistic evolution to the mainstream.

Here, Kanye West’s songs seem much less aware of their audience than any million album selling artist has any right to: they’re cathartic at the expense of their artistry. I can’t imagine anyone listening to these songs and actually relating to the emotions in them. Although the released songs all have terrible lyrics, one chorus in particular sticks out: he calls his girlfriend a Robocop, for four times in a row (also, during that song, he just stops singing and lets the song end after the normal transition. A lot of other songs here aren’t written out to the very end, too). Along these lines, his feature guests have awesome lines:

Yung Jeezy: “I’m trying to watch my sodium, I got high blood pressure”

and Lil Wayne: “You think your shit don’t stink, but you’re Miss P. U.”

I may be being overly harsh here. A year ago, his mother died, and his fiancé broke off their engagement, leading up to this album’s creation. I honestly think that Kanye really, really likes his work here. It has an emotional dimension at which his prior work has only hinted, and I’m sure that the process of making the album was therapeutic. But therapy for the artist does not often translate into delight for the audience. With all its formal deficiencies and surprisingly simple song composition (just listen to how many samples he squeezed into his first two albums for a comparison), I feel a lot more sympathy for Kanye the musician than Kanye the heartbroken, trying to please every type of musical fan from hip hop to pop to house, all while completely exposing himself.

It’s depressing to see a spastic jolt of creativity in hip hop dial down his eccentricities and love of detail when making an album, but it’s at least an admirable effort: when he failed, it was such a personally motivated, and artistically challenging work. Hopefully, he doesn’t return to this style, but it’s worthwhile to know that, along with rising rap star Lil Wayne who freestyles every one of his verses and can’t  be bothered to revise them, there’s one rap artist trying to be a person instead of being a product, but still trying somehow to appeal to everyone.

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1 Comment

  1. Disclaimer: I’m a hip hop head who uses samples for his beats « Psychopomp & Circumstance said,

    […] from what makes hip hop so awesome and adopt more respected song forms (and why have all my former idols have been disappointing me lately!?!). First, he stopped sampling nearly as much and started […]

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