Monday, September 24, 2007

The Kanye Minute:

I'm mad late, but fuck it, I just made this blog last week. And since this record has been talked about to death, I'm going to try and bypass anything weighty, which would just suck in comparison to the other analysis's anyway.

Essentially, its much more interesting to dissect hip-hop albums than a lot of other genres or sub-genres, since with those you're limited to rockist virtues of sound, theory, production, whatever lyrics are deemed "good", and its role or importance. Now, I absolutely hate the "rockist" perspective of music, especially the name, and I tend to gravitate towards the pop school of reviewing and criticism, since its not limiting, despite tending to favor hooks and marketability over quality and treading a line into musical gossip. Lucky for other people who detest Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Maximum Rock n Roll, Revolver and Spin magazine for the evils they represent, hip-hop and electronica provide alternative avenues and interpretations of records.

The hip-hop avenue is sort of a like a weird hybrid of the perspectives, minus the ignorant obsessions with somehow equating live instrumentations as being more important than good songs, and plus 80's/90's hip-hop tenets (or elements, if you're KRS-One), the various aspects of turntablism and sampling/sound collage, and an urge to be famous and rich without being viewed as a sellout. It tends to both allow more freedom for interpretation and analysis, yet at once be confining to the purposely alienating and clandestine nature of loving rap. Only metal and rap have those qualities to the cultures and fanbases, which might explain why merging the two more often than not is a horrible idea.

(Hopefully later when I have more time, on I can expound on this idea, but for now a lot is implied.)

This is the default when dealing with rap albums. Figuring out what lines and inflections were ripped from earlier songs, and from what era (80's for Mos Def, 00's for Kanye), possible subliminals, meanings, intents, allusions, disses, interpolations, etc. Its odd for me to do this for every hip-hop record I've ever listened to since a)Lyrics are completely secondary to the music for me and b)This sort of complete dissection of music only gets done for albums with some sort of importance. I've never sat down with a Kings Of Leon record and really gave two thoughts to whatever Caleb Followill was howling about, but I have spent a good year and a half trying to figure out if the first two verses in "Nutmeg" means anything. (It doesn't.)

So I could've cared less about the frothy whorehouse of promotion that was Kanye vs. 50. For one, I completely dismiss the ideas of "hip-hop vs rap" or "real hip-hop". Anyone who has read or seen interviews with 80's cats, especially Rakim, knows they were into the same shit as the guys who made records the last 15 years, its just they didn't think of it, or just couldn't at the time since rap was so much on the same outrageous entertainer trip as everyone else in the 80's. Example: Rakim LOVES G-Unit. People's beacon of Golden Era greatness fiends for generic pop rap. He probably got a tear from those songs with Joe. Rakim and all the other guys who fell off or are on a smaller scale of late love head and slutty women and liquor and weed just as much as everyone else. People forget how grimy the 80's were in cities and that those dudes are arguably tougher than anyone rapping now. They all lived through and saw some hard shit, as evidenced by my favorite part of Fade to Black, when Q-Tip and Jay are reminiscing about the crack game in the 80's and how it was awful then in the streets but things are not that bad now, yet there's a lot more records about it.

All hip-hop is mainstream unless it sells beneath gold status, and even then its pretty damn popular, so the debate is moot and transgressive to me. Its idealistic to separate records based on how similar it is to Native Tongues. That shit is ALTERNATIVE, in the purist sense of the word. That sound wasn't a norm, no matter how relatively popular it got. 50 Cent is more hip-hop than Common. Shit, Tony Yayo is more hip-hop than Common. Therefore, I could give a shit about some supposed meaning behind the battle. Lupe Fiasco will never sell, Little Brother aren't any good, Common sucks, the Roots fell off, Mos Def fell off and is dangerously close to becoming Wyclef Jean, and Talib Kweli can only muster the ability to be decent, at his best. Kanye's win just mean 50 Cent will become more interesting in the coming weeks, that's all. And that's all I want from 50, anyway, to entertain me. It's all I want from Wayne, too, and all that you were supposed to take from ODB (rip).

Also, Kanye was going to win in the annals of critics and fans regardless. Everyone is aware at this point that his records will be good, so the sales battle is more of a Vegas-style distraction.

But on the topic of the record itself, I have to say, this is one of those times where I wrote a record off too soon. I was underwhelmed by the first two singles, so much so that I didn't download the record until the other week when "The Good Life" premiered and I was convinced. Now I absolutely love "Stronger", and I realized that the album, after three listens, grew on me a lot. "Good Morning" starts the album as it should, as both a declaration and song, where there's something so confident in ending every verse with a "Good Morning." Its declarative and reminds me of the "You already know what it is" looks youtube rappers give, except more weary and serious. The thing about Graduation is it feels a lot like College Dropout, which is a plus, since all the flaws in Late Registration discussed on No Trivia I agreed with. That celebratory unabashed Morehouse university sound that permeates most of Kanye's stuff is there (College hip-hop should be a genre), along with the odd adoption on 12 of the tracks of the big synths that got popularized in the last year and a half on the Rich Boy record and by Timbaland.

Now, on that, I've always noticed that since the bread-and-butter of producers and industry songwriters is being able to have quick turn-overs and adapt to new trends. Most people don't acknowledge this, but in composition of songs and melodies, there are clear differences in both halves in ever decade since the 20's. You'll never hear 60's rock basslines or melodies today, both because they're out of vogue and that it'd just come off as simulacrum and not be that good or authentic sounding. This is why since 2002 hip-hop based R&B became a real genre, the incestuous nature of everyone copying a new sound for profit in pop. Same thing with the synths in hip-hop of late. I think its cool, though I'm more surprised that so few people thought to make it such a strong melodic force on records. Now, I'm actually worried its going to get played out too quickly and ruined, since both hipster electronica and rap are relying heavily on the buzz synths since it gives such quick gratification. The very thing happened with soul samples; it became too easy and less and less special. Though I understand this, I'm still shocked that Timbaland has essentially been repackaging done-to-death electronica staples into pop. I love it, because I can finally listen to the radio again, and I can be jarred at by the trance and electro goodness of "Ice Box" and "SexyBack" at a time when fucking DAUGHTRY goes platinum.

On Graduation, its an interesting hybrid of that College Dropout feeling and these synths that either awash melody lines like T.I. (which, by the way, got away with ripping off "Hey Joe" without anyone noticing somehow) or Rich Boy, or serve as Purple-Rain era horn stabs. Sometimes I feel that its way too easy, especially "Stronger", since though it works and thats what matters, the descending synth lines based on the Daft Punk vocal line are too obvious. I could've produced "Stronger"."I Wonder" reminds me of Pharell, because most relaxed Neptunes productions have the exact same ascending melody, whether in the instrumentation or Pharell's voice, especially on the first N.E.R.D. record and these tend to be the Neptunes songs I like most or aged most gracefully. "Drunk and Hot Girls" grew on me quickly, more for Mos' bridge which is gorgeous, and the only track I didn't like was "Homecoming", simply because Chris Martin's voice was totally wrong for the track and that the track just sounded like a Be B-side, anyway.

There was a thread on where someone basically brought up the rarity of a hip-hop artists (I'd argue ALL artists, but especially rare in rap) making three great albums, lest in a row. Among a small list that includes Ghostface, Boogie Down Productions and a few more, Kanye did that, and it seems like he does it easily. Lyrically, I haven't found much to get into past College Dropout, which was full of great lines that were a bit more sparse on Late Registration and almost absent on here for me, save for "Good Morning", "I Wonder", "Big Brother", and "Everything I Am". Everything else feels like Queens of the Stone Age-style place-holding for great music, which is fine with me but for a rap album, can be a bit of a let down. But the fact that "Flashing Lights" completely wrecks me (Kanye seems to have a tendency to cast hook singers with soulful yet bored voices, which works well when he does it) and that I dig 12 tracks means I'll probably get the record. Oh, and the best line I've heard on any record this year for its ability to pack in so much meaning without being preachy:

"Just last year Chicago had over 600 caskets/Man killing some wack shit/Oh I forgot...except when niggas is rappin'"

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