Friday, December 19, 2008

For Your Consideration: Kanye West

OK, so I've been kind of skeptical of 808s & Heartbreak: I didn't like the singles very much, I'm not a huge fan of the voice-run-through-the-computer thing, and I was ready to believe that Kanye had made a big mistake singing and not rapping for an entire album. But this morning (mostly because Via Chicago kept pestering me to buy it) I finally got a copy, and as I've walked around the city being sprayed in the face by hail and freezing rain all day it's been playing in a loop on my iPod. Since the weather is still awful and I don't plan to be going outside again all night, I thought I'd settle in and give my initial impressions of the album.

I actually like it a lot so far, much more than I was expecting to. It's funny that it's the album we kept bringing up in those discussions about The End of the Album, because in my judgement it's the very definition of "Album" in the sense that the songs were clearly written to go together, and are stronger when heard in relation to each other than when heard alone. Even the single "Heartless"--which has really left me cold when I've heard it by itself--sounds much better when you hear it after the first two songs have brought you under the weird, icy spell Kanye is trying to create.

As I was listening to this today I reflected a couple of times that I hadn't heard a new album that made me feel this creeped out and isolated from the other people on the street since maybe Kid A. (That's largely meant as a compliment) One of the criticisms of this album has been that it sounds more like a collection of sketches than of fully realized songs, but I don't think that gives Kanye enough credit. He made a very deliberate choice to use stripped down, cold, computerized arrangements, and this album wouldn't have the same effect at all if it was filled with his trademark lush, warm, richly harmonic beats. He brilliantly casts a mood over the listener of isolation, sadness, and regret, and even the computerized vocals add to that sensation: he rarely grants you even the human connection of listening to another person's voice without some kind of mechanized effect twisting the sound.

The album definitely isn't flawless start to finish (I don't know how to feel about the bizarre "Robocop" for example), and I certainly hope that 808s & Heartbreak will turn out to be an interesting interlude before he goes back to rapping and making hip hop beats again. But after only a few listens, I also think there's a lot to admire here, and there is reason to hope that the experience of testing his limits and making this very different sort of music will inform his future work and help him grow as an artist.

Kanye West is one of the defining artists of his generation, and I probably should have given him more benefit of the doubt from the get go.


texplush said...

[sound of me throwing up]

Quinapalus said...

Wow, screw you dude.

texplush said...

I was throwing up at the music, Q, not your well thought out and genuine prose.

drischord said...

I agree with Tex. While Quinapalus is a music critic bar none, nothing he could write on Kanye's behalf could make this record anything more than mediocre. (And I need to make it clear-- I have only heard a handful of songs off of this.)

I'm treading into choppy waters here, so call me out if I'm wrong, Q...

Kanye has never been a standout as a rapper per se. He CERTAINLY isn't a standout as a singer. His gift comes as an impeccable producer. That's why, for me, Late Registration was such a phenomenal record. In fact, I think I had it as my #1 album of 2005 if memory serves. Either that or #2. (It also helped that Jon Brion was his co-producer.)

This album has almost no redeeming production values. Unless you're into autotune and drum machines that sound like they came from Radio Shack. If I want to hear sine-wave synthesizers, nonexistent musicality, and and out-of-tune vocals, why do I need Kanye West? Why not just find a middle schooler?

I have to tiptoe about the lyrics. His mother died and that's awful. I'll never challenge a thing he says on her behalf. But from what I can tell, he's mostly bitching about some ex-girlfriend. If the lyrics were great, it would redeem the mediocrity of everything else on here. But they aren't that great.

Basically, I'll summarize with a paraphrase of what Eric's brother Alex said about Chinese Democracy: If this record was released by some anonymous rapper, would you even give it the time of day? Now, admittedly I thought that Alex was WAY off about Chinese Democracy and you may feel the same way about this record, Q.

But I know how I feel: Not only would I write this off it were made by some no-name rapper, I'm writing it off right now-- even though it was created by the guy who made my favorite album of 2005.

Eric said...

I actually used that exact argument when Alex was jamming to the new Kanye album the same week that G n R's album did. (BTW, time may be ultimately be kind to Chinese Democracy but right now the media line on it is how much of a failure it was. Query whether that could have been avoided had Axl and the gang done even one interview or made one appearance in support of it. Idiot.). On the other hand, the other night we were in a club and both Love Lockdown and Heartless came on over the course of the night and in that context, they suddenly worked much better than I ever could have thought. I also think you can't just treat it as an album that was made by some anonymous MC because there's something compelling about an artist who is enormously, immensely successful doing the Thing He Does. But he then makes something completely outside his comfort zone that he is, by all accounts, kind of bad at. It does make it more of an honest piece of art. It's like when Shaq made his rap album.

Quinapalus said...

Well, this is a side point, but I don't necessarily agree with the critical consensus that he's a terrible rapper. Certainly, he's not the very best, but as producer/rappers go, he's probably a better rapper than, say, Dr. Dre, and I think his rapping has an earnest charm that I personally really like.

Look, this probably partly comes down to a matter of taste...many people would say he used really cheap and minimal recording techniques and it sounds terrible next to his other stuff...I'd say he used really cheap and minimal recording techniques and did something amazing with them that nobody else could do.

And I don't think he's using his mother's death as some kind of excuse here...the album isn't even about her, though one could guess that her death is partly what put him in the depressive state from which this record resulted. But it's an album about regret and lost love, and I think it functions very well at folding you into an isolated, painful mood as he mediatates on those subjects. If nothing else I certainly agree with Eric that he went out of his comfort zone and tried to create a challenging, honest piece of art...though I also don't think it deserves to be compared to Shaq rapping.

Via Chicago said...

I find the response to this album totally fascinating. I think a lot of folk (Tex, I'm looking at you) are bringing an excessive amount of baggage and personal negative bias to this thing. Many of the reviews I've read have been more focused on Kanye the Superstar Personality and the Auto-Tune than the actual album that's before us. I think a lot of people can't get over those 2 things and just listen to it.

Personally, I love this and (spoiler!) it WILL be on my top 10. To answer Drischord's question about being released anonymously - I don't know if I would be aware of it. But I generally don't love Kanye, this is the only CD of his I've ever actually bought, and I am happy with it. Now, I am of course not a hip hop fan, so I don't have any concerns about him not rapping enough, straying from what he does, etc. What fascinates me about this album is two things: 1. Yes, the production. I love the use of very minimal instrumentation and open spaces to create this rich atmosphere. 2. The cohesive album-ness - we've talked about this topic a lot, but I think this is more of a start to finish ALBUM than anything else to come out this year. Including Chinese Democracy.

In the end, I think Q's Kid A comparison is apt. It's a huge artist who normally makes these big, sprawling sounds tuning it down and becoming introspective to see what happens. My friend Ben also compared it to Beck's Mutations/Sea Change output - when he takes a break from making the Odelay style sound he can do so well to play around with something else - something more honest and (yes) less artifical. And maybe that's just something that really appeals to me in artists, as I'll take Mutations over Odelay any day of the week, and I'll take this over any other Kanye.