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Archive for September, 2007

Ecstatic Truth: The ‘Only Built For Cuban Linx 2′ Advertisement

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The image above is from Floodwatch by way of Unkut. When I saw this ad/teaser/whatever I got really excited for reasons I’ll describe in a moment but what I initially did was connect it to this quote from Shots Ring Out’s article:

“Gloss is dead…Well, mostly. This would seem to effect rap more than anything. The rock kids are fine with a DIY aesthetic (or a faux DIY asthetic). Maybe crossover stars like Timberlake (or even Kanye) can get away with big budget affairs as they will get enough exposure to justify the cost. Everybody else needs to realize that shooting it with a cell phone and uploading it to YouTube is good enough.”

I’m not excited about ‘Cuban Linx 2′; I never even think of it because I really don’t think it will be anything more than “okay” and while this ad doesn’t get me excited about the album it does get me excited about, well, this ad and that’s enough for now.

The simplicity and low-budget-ness of the ad have the effect that a glossy, well-lit, maybe even kinda photo-shopped image just can’t. It looks like it was shot on the floor of a High School or something and has this great florescent-lights-from-above flare that a certain kind of obsessive “professional” would avoid or remove in post-production. There’s way too much cocaine and although we know (or assume) real coke isn’t used in video shoots, there’s a certain charm to how much and just how fake this cocaine looks. It doesn’t matter if it’s fake because we know it’s a posed picture and the ad wisely doesn’t waste it’s time trying to to achieve realism, it’s just real because of it’s messy, simplicity. Part of the simplicity is it’s use of cliches. The cocaine, the guns, the hoodies, it is all familiar but rendered in a way that is real and palpable and works within expectations without becoming a tested-with-an-audience PRODUCT.

Because this is an ad for Raekwon it gets bonus points because we know Raekwon could easily make a conventional, mainstream-looking “attractive” poster and get away with it. However, it’s also worth noting that there’s just something really genius about this image and design and I feel it extends beyond the DIY or “faux-DIY” aesthetic discussed by Shots Ring Out. If I saw this nailed to a lightpole in Baltimore it would pique my interest just as well (probably more, actually). I say that because this isn’t just a famous rapper “going back” and co-opting a low-budget style, it’s done with the same kind of cohesive but ugly genius that Wu Tang have honed since the beginning. The ‘C.R.E.A.M’ video isn’t just a cool low-budget video (the way ‘Protect Ya Neck’ is), ‘C.R.E.A.M’ uses the low-budget feeling to its complete advantage; it becomes it’s own, like style and not just “the best we could for a couple grand”.

Popular music and all popular art is inevitably tied to money and as a result, that “D.I.Y” sense, that acceptance of sloppiness, and messiness is a negative. It’s a ruse to keep weird people, people who don’t play the game (like Wu Tang) out- but occasionally, as Wu Tang’s 90s popularity suggested, this aesthetic breaks through. In a way, stuff like Soulja Boy and his Youtube popularity is a similar breakthrough Soulja Boy uses the Youtube aesthetic of his generation just as this ad uses a real location and uses people (is the coke-covered guy Rae? I can’t tell) that have some connection to that location, but still poses them without totally losing that sense of reality. It plays the corporate game of giving a specific audience exactly what they expect but unlike most corporate product, it gives the audience a little more than escape or fiction.

It also makes me think of many early 90s Southern rap covers more than it does 90s East Coast designs. The cover of ‘Mr. Scarface is Back’ in particular, in its ability to create a scene that is obviously staged but through well-wrought detail, feels even more real than maybe, an actual crime photo of a deal gone wrong. German movie director Werner Herzog called it “ecstatic truth”: “ecstatic truth…is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization” (301). Herzog is famous for taking his professional film crew and actors to some real-life crazy location and you know, making a movie. The truth, the reality is there in the location but he’s still altering it because he’s constructing some kind of fictional movie around it. Even if he uses “non-professional” actors, as in you know, he uses real Peruvians as the natives of Peru, they are in a movie, they are acting. So, there’s some weird unreality to the reality? Does that make sense?

This isn’t just fiction, staged and fake, there’s something weird going on. This little ad isn’t documentary real, it isn’t Hollywood staged, it falls somewhere in between and in a way, outside of that. It’s the same thing you get on the “skits” peppered throughout the classic Wu Tang albums, those snippets of conversation and argument, some of which are clearly just recorded conversations and some of which are ridiculously well-acted scenes and a few of which strive for some conventional, Hollywood sense of acting and melodrama but never fully embrace any of those distinctions.

-Cronin, Paul, ed. ‘Herzog on Herzog’. London: Faber & Faber, 2002.

Written by Brandon

September 29th, 2007 at 9:48 pm

Posted in Raekwon, Wu Tang

New Biographical Dictionary of Rap Entry: Big L by Kevin Earley

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Sorry for the lack of entries this week, I should have one up later today. For now, here’s Kevin Earley’s entry on Big L. He sent it a few weeks ago and somehow, I thought I already posted it…also, I did the discography for it, so if there are any notable mixtapes, compilations, etc. missing, tell me.

“Big L exemplifies the gritty, punchline heavy battle raps mastered by his mentor, Lord Finesse. The recent trend of New York rappers aiming to “Bring New York Back” (in particular Papoose) with flurries of mixtapes and freestyles, seem to follow in the blueprint that Big L left. Big L is the logical progression of Lord Finesse’s style into the early and late Nineties. As a part of the legendary D.I.T.C. crew, Big L seemed poised to conquer mainstream rap, as rumors of Roc-a-fella signings whirled about before his tragic murder in 1999…”

I also was thinking that since it has gone beyond entries only by me, there’s no need for the entries to be about different rappers every time. I mean, for now with there being only a couple of entries, it seems weird to have “doubles” but ideally, it would just be a mess of super-subjective mini-essays on rappers, so over-lapping is fine.

Written by Brandon

September 28th, 2007 at 4:01 am

How Big Is Your World? Some Good New-ish Rap Songs

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-Playaz Circle featuring Lil Wayne – ‘Duffle Bag Boy’
Click here to watch the video for ‘Duffle Bag Boy’.

I could talk about the beat, I could talk about Playaz Circle’s ridiculous enthusiasm, but it’s Lil Wayne that makes ‘Duffle Bag Boy’. He doesn’t even rap, he just croons the chorus but I think I may prefer Wayne the singer (I’ve read about his Whitney Houston covers when performing live). What Wayne does on ‘Duffle Bag Boy’ is repeat the chorus with the same amount of chaos and fun as he does on his freestyles, croaking, crooning, and squeaking it out, a little different every time. It’s a typical music “trick” (deliver the chorus with increased passion each time) found on plenty of rock and soul songs but less on rap and pop songs. On rap and pop, the chorus following each verse is either repeated to sound as close to one another as possible, or the same chorus is pasted in, giving the song a symmetry between verses that makes it go down even easier. Wayne makes no such attempt at symmetry on ‘Duffle Bag Boy’ with the hook/taunt “Now go and getcha money little duffle bag boy” sounding and feeling different depending on his delivery. He sounds mocking on one chorus, forceful (as if he were ordering someone around) on another, and like it’s his last, dying words on the other.

It’s also long-as-shit for a hook, especially in the ad-lib crazy world of rap radio: “If I don’t do nothin’ I’m a ball/I’m countin’ all day like a clock on the wall/Now go and getcha money little duffle bag boy/Get Money!/Now, I ain’t never ran from a nigga/And I damn sure ain’t about to pick today to start runnin”. He even throws in that “Get money” ad-lib almost as an after-thought and not you know, the basis for a fucking song. Also, having a respected rapper sing the hook is a good idea for maintaining the balance of the song. There’s no awkward jump from “street” raps to Akon or female R & B singer and then back again.

And finally, add this song’s video to a growing list of great Southern rap videos that eschew narrative for a realistic but still exciting “day in the life…” or “here’s a few hours in the life of…” structure. ‘Stay Fly’ and ‘Throw Some Ds’ being the best ones…This one isn’t half-bad either- rapping in front of a ‘Stop N Shop’? That’s so good! Just one more way that the mindless anti-Southern rap types miss the point. With rap as big and grotesque as it now is, it is a political act to rap in front of a gas station.

-Median – ‘How Big Is Your World’
Click here to download ‘How Big Is Your World’.

This beat for Justus League rapper Median is a great example of 9th Wonder’s impressive production abilities. 9th really does get too much shit, undoubtedly his sticking to an archaic program like Fruity Loops and using soul samples that anybody could make into something awesome is cheap, but he’s one of the few “Underground” producers that actually produces. By produces, I mean he doesn’t just chop samples and organize them into beats, but does these little things that your ears may not even realize are happening but make you fall in love with a song. On ‘How Big Is Your World?’, it’s that slight change-up on those snares at the end of the measure or or the way he pulls that single-note pulse sound that echoes throughout into the forefront for the chorus and then drops it back into the warm, 70s soul haze for the verses. The thing that really made me go crazy about this song, production-wise, was that weird, crumbling, bassline that sounds like it’s both nimble and quick but being played by a guy wearing gardening gloves or something…plenty of producers can chop a good sample or make a hot loop, but most don’t waste their time with perfect mixing and other subtle details.

The song is an appeal for cognizance in the form of a non-judgmental but challenging question “How big is your world?” and ultimately, a song about self-reflection and moderation. Who are you affecting and how? Have you considered the consequences? The first line of the song, is the kind of too-easy to mock “concious” rap lyricism (“a tree died for me to scribe on this looseleaf”) but it’s also a microscopic understanding of one’s effect on the world and kind of loaded because fuck, you can’t not write on paper, so it goes beyond blame or prevention and into inevitability.

He sort of continues this sense of making rappers think of their effect on the world, be it the tree that made the paper bound in their notebook or the self-involved beefing that is so pervasive in rap, contrasting it with world events that you know, actually matter: “World trade terror/Now that’s true beef”. There’s a sincerity that begins with that smart demand for self-reflection and continues as the song bounces between the personal and the political and really does conflate the two. Median’s mother seems to be the (sorry) median where the person and political meet, as his voice quivers impassioned when he describes her living situation (“Now we got killers where my Momma be”) or her fucked-up working conditions (“Tryna get my mom out the factory job/Arthritis in her hands be makin’ her wrists throb”). It’s clear that she functions as a working-class everywoman as much as Median just giving you some affecting autobiography. I immediately thought of my retired Grandmother who still has arthritis because organizing greeting cards in Rite-Aids for 30 years sucks ass and Hallmark gave her a pretty shitty retirement plan.

Median also does the Kanye West thing that is quickly devolving into cliche, hinting at one’s flaws but I find them moving and real nonetheless. When he admits he was basically too busy “trying to find a freak” to concern himself with world politics, I’ll buy it. His half-joke about the other side of his personality, the “the one you’ve seen if [he's] ever played your ass” too is real without sounding forced. Those assertions too come across better because of Median’s flow which has a little of Lupe Fiasco’s “well-spoken but SASSY” style to it but is also quieter and more modest.

-Three-Six Mafia – ‘Like Money’
Click here to download ‘Like Money’.

With all the talk of Kanye or Timbo’s futuristic production, DJ Paul and Juicy J drop a beat as “next-level” as anything on ‘Graduation’ or ‘Futuresex’. The high-pitched scratching, catchy guitar riff, and to-be-expected hyper-complex drums programming that counters and complements itself, are all forced through this oppressive layer of flange and echo that destroys anything you listen to before or after it. Dig those clipped “drums” that coincide with DJ Paul’s “I look-I look”. I say “drums” and not drums because I don’t even think that’s any kind of conventional percussion, it’s like they threw some of Ben Burtt’s ‘Star Wars’ sound effects into the ol’ MPC and went crazy. I don’t think any rap group out there can match Three Six’s integrity. Dudes win an Oscar, get a reality show, and still make songs that sound like this. You know that crazy outro freak-out on ‘Doe Boy Fresh’? Well that’s what this whole song sounds like.

These guys sure do have a funny way of selling-out. Juicy J’s verse about doing coke and being paranoid is great as usual and really sort of off-sets one’s expectations of the song about money, from guys who really seem to be getting paid now that they have an Oscar. I’m not saying it’s some Kanye-ish “money doesn’t make everything great” statement but I’m not saying it isn’t either. What pushes Three Six above so many other Southern party-rappers (besides their production) is how weird and disinterested in being cool they are. Outdated slang, weird-uncool chants (“just look at me dummy”??)…you get a real sense of who these guys are and how they speak and think through their music.

There’s also a version with The Game on it that I think will show up on the album but I haven’t fucked with it because this version is too good.

-Bruce Springsteen – ‘Radio Nowhere’
Clickhere to watch the video for ‘Radio Nowhere’.

Not a rap song but I won’t front- I like this song. “The Boss” along with probably U2 and Led Zeppelin, are responsible for my general contempt for “rock n’roll” and inability to ever fully embrace it. In the past few years, I’ve grown something of an affinity for Springsteen and repeatedly tried to get into his music. I’ll hear a song, seek out the album and quickly grow tired of his forced accents, condescending idealization of the working-class, and E-Street overproduction…I dunno, Springsteen is just kind of a goon be it his all-American rocker phase or his poor man’s Dylan phase that elitist fans cite when jokes are made about “Clarence”…

So, funny I’d enjoy this song because it’s sort of this old-man rocker that even focuses on the theme of radio’s demise and goofily invokes America (“the last lone American night”) but the guitars totally do it for me. It reminds me of The Replacements or something, that kind of uplifting but depressed sound; it’s got a good tone which is important on a rock song. Springsteen also totally sells the song, delivering it with enough passion to match the guitars, those fucking guitars! You know it’s a good riff and a good tone when it’s able to recover the song after a saxophone solo!

When he sings “I just wanna hear some rhythm” it’s desperate, like Michael Stipe ‘Country Feedback’ “I need this” desperate but it’s not you know, pathetically desperate more like, “Godammit, I wanna hear this, right now” which to me is easier to relate to; it’s the same hard-ass vulnerability of Weezy’s “I ain’t never ran from a nigga/And I damn sure ain’t about to pick today to start runnin”- BUT…If all Brucio wants to hear is “some rhythm” then why doesn’t he just Crank Dat Soulja Boy?

or crank dat Ryu?
or (my favorite) crank dat Lion King?
or, I know he’s getting up there in age, so maybe he should crank dat Grandpa?

Written by Brandon

September 24th, 2007 at 6:35 am

Ja Rule Week Part One: Ja & the Gays…*

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Last Friday, SOHH reported a story about Ja Rule saying some goofy homophobic shit in an interview with ‘Complex’ magazine and GLAAD responding with “a statement” condemning Ja’s words. According to the article, Ja Rule was asked about the issue of “degrading” images and lyrics in rap and he responded with this:“Lets talk about all these f–king shows that they have on MTV that is promoting homosexuality, that my kids can’t watch this sh-t…Dating shows that’s showing two guys or two girls in mid-afternoon. Let’s talk about s–t like that! If that’s not f–king up America, I don’t know what is.” Although Ja Rule goes a little far in suggesting that some dudes making out on MTV is “fucking up America” he sort of has a point. If we’re going to play any kind of game of “morals” be those “morals” send gays to hell or respect everyone regardless of sexual preference, it actually is kind of fucked-up that MTV shows debaucherous dating shows. And even though Ja was on some Imus-ian deflection type shit, he makes a good point about the many, many other aspects of popular culture that offend and go unchecked while hip-hop takes all the heat. The fact that GLAAD even responded to Ja Rule shows the way every special interest group jumps on the “hip-hop hate” bandwagon for some quick publicity. It is even more glaringly opportunistic because it’s a small quote in some stupid magazine from a guy no one takes seriously as a rapper, let alone as any kind of valid social or political commentator.

GLAAD’s exploitation of rap controversy is additionally problematic because so much ire is now spit at the minority group whose political protest playbook GLAAD and others stole whole pages from…There’s a quote from Ishmael Reed in the 1992 preface to Eldridge Cleaver’s ‘Soul On Ice’ that sums this maneuver up quite well: “women and gays…have placed their oppression front and center and have even made villains of the former black male machos who fantasized a revolution (while borrowing their strategies)” (8). That is to say, GLAAD uses the same kind of scare-mongering, racism, and phobia of black culture that those partially responsible for GLAAD being able to advance their cause, once opposed!

Additionally, Ja Rule’s statement (and GLAAD’s response) shows the way the right and the left employ the same tactics to silence those that threaten their values. GLAAD, like O’Reilly or Paula Zahn or many others, play the censorship game, scapegoating those they disagree with on some high-minded moral ground even as they scoff and speak-out against other groups that censor and scapegoat on some high-minded moral ground. I know, I know, two men making out on television isn’t quite the same as the “objectification” found in ‘Tip Drill’ but it’s really only “different” in terms of what one deems offensive or morally/ethically “wrong”. The only thing that both sides can agree upon is that rap music is an evil, horrible thing. Like the right and much of the left, GLAAD focuses upon the controversy more than actual progress. Notice how Kanye West’s comments on homophobia were not invoked in reference to this recent, negative incident in rap. In this little article from GLAAD’s website from the time of Kanye’s positive comments, they are still primarily framed within “the fallout” he received, not any of the potential good his statements may have done. Reactionary groups like GLAAD not only thrive on these moronic statements, they seek them out and in this case, additionally find a connection to the rap controversy that is sure to get people talking.

*Just kidding about the Ja Rule week…

-Reed, Ishmael. Preface. ‘Soul on Ice’ by Eldridge Cleaver. New York: Delta TP, 1992. 1-11.

Written by Brandon

September 21st, 2007 at 5:14 am

Posted in Ja Rule, NO HOMO

Kanye West Week Part Eleven: Big Brother

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A commenter on Tom Breihan’s Ten Favorite Moments on ‘Graduation’ said “I liked “Big Brother” until I read a review comparing Toomp’s track to that music you hear during the end credits after you beat the final boss on a japanese fighting game. Now I can’t listen to it again.”, which you know is an accurate description of the song (I’m just not sure why that makes one not able to listen to it ever again). The corny but awesome fan-fare-ish melody of the synths which sound like they are on some kind of “rock guitar” setting, with more plodding, non-”banger”-ish drums, that just keeps going sounds both minor and epic (like a video game victory). It even has the looped feeling of an end music of a video game where it only really ends when you finally hit the POWER button your system, which is sort of how it feels when the beat (and the album) ends anticlimactically. It is odd to end on a song about Jay-Z but even more so because the song sort of just suddenly ends, too abruptly. Maybe even put some kind of cheap phaser on the final notes of the end or an echo or even one of those retarded/great “It’s ya boy!” screams from Jay? Dunno, it just needs something…

I’m sure I’m in part, forcing this interpretation of the song but it really does sound like something of a requiem for Jay-Z. For the millionth time, Kanye is first and foremost a rap fan and so the song is both in honor of Jay-Z but does seem to address his possible falling-off and the less glamorous, assholey part of his personality. Any rap fan can make a connection between his apparent ripping-off of Kanye’s Coldplay idea and those stolen Camp Lo beats. The acknowledgment that Jay “used to be Dame’s…brother” too, expresses a rap-nerd’s disappointment with the dissolution of the Roc as much as it is a personal disappointment for Kanye because he knew the people involved. There are also those lines about how Jay under-estimated Kanye, through a weird Basketball metaphor, with Beanie Sigel’s style being “more of a slam-dunk”, and I can’t help but read that as a sly statement on Jay’s rather questionable abilities to run a label. I mean, I love Beanie Sigel and yeah, in a way, in like 2003, Kanye would seem equally unprepared for stardom, but it seems like everybody except for Jay knew Beanie Sigel wasn’t going to carry “tha Roc” on his shoulders.

But even as Kanye throws some criticisms at his big brother, he takes on plenty of the blame, and through it all, the rap fan’s image of Jay-Z remains untouched. Even when he’s going at “the Presidito” these little rap-nerd Jay-isms interrupt as if the idealized Jay can never be totally erased. See, Kanye mentioning the ‘Blueprint’ track ‘Hola Hovito’ or when he says “By the Black Album, I was blackin’ out” mimicking Jay’s flow from ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’ when Jay says “Dropped the Black album then I backed out, as the best rapper alive”…also, ‘Hola Hovito’ and ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’ are both Timbaland productions, who of course, worked on parts of ‘Graduation’ and is really the other producer with equal amounts rap “cred” and pop appeal. That, along with those references to No I.D show a deference to other musicians and influences: “”At the Grammys I said I inspired me/But my Big Brother who I always tried to be.” It’s all pretty modest for such a “big-headed” rapper, no?

Just using such a self-deprecating metaphor as the little brother/big brother relationship is something very few rappers would ever do. 50 Cent of course, took the chance to mock it on ‘106 & Park’ and he should have because it’s like embarassingly lame…but that’s also why it’s so affecting; it’s real. The little brother comparison works when it comes to Kanye portraying himself as the egomaniac he can certainly be. Notice the way he mocks his own high-pitched voice and over-excitement when he describes thinking he was going to perform at the ‘Fade to Black’ show (“I’m like YEAH YEAH we gonna be there”) and then comes another scene described, wherein Kanye is the punchline: “Not only did I not get a chance to spit it/Carlene(?) told me I could buy two tickets.”

The song ends on a sincere, “lesson” from Uncle Kanye (“So, here’s a few words from Kid Brother/If you admire somebody you should go ahead and tell em/People never get the flowers while they can still smell em”) but that doesn’t negate the more conflicted aspects of the song. If the song weren’t supposed to be sort of complex or conflicted, he wouldn’t have set up the “kid brother/big brother” dynamic because what relationship is more complicated than one between siblings? The song does not only honor Jay-Z and honestly credit him with helping Kanye’s career, but it also airs some shit out and it’s sort of bouncing back and forth between those two, which probably reflects more accurately Kanye’s relationship with “Young Hov”.

Yep…so that’s the end of “Kanye West Week”. Check back on Friday for back-to-normal entries. Thanks for reading and thanks to all the people leaving smart comments, I usually have more time to respond, so my apologies.-brandon

Written by Brandon

September 19th, 2007 at 4:34 pm

Posted in Kanye West

Kanye West Week Part Ten: Homecoming

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BRANDON and his friend JESSE, heard North on I-95 towards Newark, DE. ‘Homecoming’ plays in the background.

JESSE: I wonder what inspired that “Fireworks over Lake Michigan” line-

BRANDON: It’s like a, uh, memory, like probably a memory from growing up in Chicago.

JESSE: Yeah, but it just sounds odd, like it’s so specific, like he has some attachment to it-

BRANDON: Like it’s some kind of secret, like he got some great blowjob there once or something?

JESSE: Uh, no…

A few moments of silence. Jesse thinks and then speaks-

JESSE: Like it’s some special memory to him, that holds a lot of significance to him.

That strange mix of specificity and obscurity defines the lyrical approach on ‘Graduation’. One gets the sense throughout that Kanye is alluding to stuff way deeper than he leads on- like he’s stopping short of revealing some really secret, emotional stuff. I think it’s the “universal” aspect everyone refers to in reviews but for the most part, it just requires digging or thinking a little deeper; Kanye just doesn’t come out and say everything. Of course, if you’re me, maybe that’s great because it allows me to make mountains out of molehills, who knows?

The point is ‘Graduation’ feels intimate even if it’s a little less detail oriented than previous Kanye albums. Maybe it’s the lack of guests and the tight borderline underwhelming tracklisting and Kanye’s conversational anti-flow, but it all just feels like a friend talking to you. While noun-is-a-women metaphor is common in rap, I think Kanye uses it particularly well here as the song feels as if it is as much about an old relationship as it is about his hometown. It’s an obvious homage to Common’s ‘Used to Love H.E.R’ (even down to a line that unnecessarily makes the song’s point explicit) but in that song, you never get a sense that about a girl on any non-metaphorical level. And that’s fine because Common’s talking about rap but ‘Homecoming’ while obviously about Chicago, has certain lines that move out of the mildly clever metaphor. As I said here:

“Homecoming’ [is]… sad, legitimately affecting, particularly the “do you think about me now and then?” part of the chorus. That’s like deep and moving on like this ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ holy shit we’re-all-so-connected-in-this-fucked-up-world and that’s both scary and touching kind of way… like when you see some old girlfriend or something after like five years and now she’s got like this Tara Reid bar-slut voice but somehow you still kind of have the same feelings for her or something? You know, real crazy human feelings type shit which I think everybody has about their hometown too.”

Also, many are bothered by the illogical choice of Chris Martin to reminisce about Chicago, him being NOT FROM CHICAGO and all- but I don’t think that matters too much. I see the point but it actually pulls the song away from its hometown specificity and into more, universal feelings of longing…

I don’t see any samples credited on this song so I guess it’s an original but it sounds like it’s based on something. I know about the earlier version of the song from the ‘College Dropout’ days but not that either. I thought the piano was sampled from some kind of old, live recording because if you listen closely, under the piano, there’s this looping of crowd noise: Is it a Coldplay live sample or something? I’m not even bragging here but I’ve only heard Coldplay’s singles so I’d have no idea if this is based on one of their songs.

Written by Brandon

September 18th, 2007 at 3:32 pm

Posted in Kanye West

Kanye West Week Part Nine: Everything I Am & The Glory

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With so many rappers and rap listeners concerned with varying ideals of purity be it “realness” or “lyricism” or even what constitutes something as “hip-hop”, Kanye delivers a song that merges the “is” and “isn’t” parts of his brain. The song could easily come off as corny or even cloying (the beat comes close to doing that), ‘Everything I Am’ is one of the most effective and sincere tracks on ‘Graduation’. While his mixture of braggadocio and “sincerity” can sometimes come off as formulaic, Kanye sounds genuinely pained on this song. I talked yesterday about how Kanye seems to understand that he might just have a fate to suffer rather than a destiny to fulfil and this song gives in to that powerlessness. He is defined as much by the choices he’s made as the choices he hasn’t made.

Starting with the beat, Kanye jokes “Common passed on this beat/I made it to a jam” which means that perhaps the most heartfelt and honest song on ‘Graduation’ came in part by chance. Had Common used this beat, perhaps Kanye would not have been moved to write the lyrics. When the verse begins, a list of things Kanye is not appear and they are delivered with a mix of acceptance and sadness. While some of his “admissions” on say, ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ feel as though he’s using his flaws as a point of pride, here they seem to hurt. He doesn’t need to grimace in a music video or deliver the lines in an faux-important slow-flow to make it clear that he does feel regret and frustration. The slower flow actually works on these songs anyway, because the beat is slow but also because it’s the song where I feel okay if it sounds like Kanye’s trying to talk to me. He sounds as if he’s conversing. When he makes a quick joke about Blackstreet, his inflection changes like you’re hanging out with him and making Teddy Riley jokes: “Remember him from Blackstreet?/He was black as the street was-”.

The second verse is the expected acknowledgment of “haters” but he really does sound frustrated and even saddened by the criticisms. When he begins listing the awards he has to say “goodbye” to, it’s not a backwards way of bragging about how rebellious he is, nor is it a list of regrets; it’s acceptance. Those awards were once his but he’s gone beyond them, not surpassed them, just the real Kanye West doesn’t just make ‘Jesus Walks’ or just work with Jon Brion, he also raps about getting head, acts like a total jerkoff, and dresses like “a hipster”.

The third verse opens with a sort of obnoxious back-patting (“I know that people wouldn’t usually rap this…”) but I also see it as an appropriate qualifier before his self-righteous rant. Yes, in one way he’s saying “I’m about to say some shit other rappers wouldn’t say” but in another way, I think it downplays the self-importance by acknowledging it. Before I say something really pretentious, I’ll generally say “I know this is pretentious but…” and it’s certainly not trying to be some sort of backwards patting myself on the back type shit. He also just sounds sort of resigned and saddened by the reality of “600 caskets” and phrasing it by saying “Man, killin’s some wack shit” is better than a deeper or more profound, political comment. It’s an appeal to the heart rather: “Do you know what it’s like when people is passin?”

The Glory
About uh, 35 seconds into this song this ridiculous bassline comes in and doesn’t give up until the song ends. Seriously. Go listen to it right now. It reminds me of the bassline to ‘Have You Seen Your Mother Baby’ by the Rolling Stones in its ability to go totally unnoticed or unacknowledged but once you hear it, I mean HEAR it, it sort of just spins you in circles it’s so fucking awesome.

‘The Glory’ might be the best track on ‘Graduation’, Kanye seems happy to rap on it, not at all resigned, but he still gives you real talk. It also depends on simpler production techniques, sped-up vocals, letting the beat drop-out, short string stabs, simple backing vocals, it’s great. The electronics that pop-in at the end too, are earned and used effectively.

I talked about it before, but Kanye’s anti-legacy lines “I guess after I live/I wanna be compared to Big/Anyone, Big L, Big Pun or Notorious” resonate in a world of rappers calling themselves “the best rapper alive” or “King of the South” or whatever. Kanye’s use of qualifiers in his lyrics is an easy but effective strategy in connecting with his audience. Although many people probably don’t even notice it, those additional, conversational words (“I guess”) make the rapper much more accessible. It makes his over-confidence go-down easier and it also removes a certain heart-on-the-sleeve cuteness that begins to shine through on his third album full of self-conscious lyrics.

Written by Brandon

September 18th, 2007 at 5:01 am

Posted in Kanye West

Kanye West Week Part Eight: Flashing Lights

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Kanye, for some reason or another, keeps referring to Justin Timberlake as his main competition, and ‘Flashing Lights’ reminds me the most of ‘Futuresex’ track. The monotone Dwele chorus kinda sounds like Timbaland, in its ability to be initially awkward but slowly grind its way into your head and there’s of course, those house music-y synths. I’ve admitted to never being a huge fan of Timbo’s production, it’s always seemed too digestibly “weird” and stream-lined, while Kanye’s version is a lot less perfectionistic. Don’t get me wrong, ‘Graduation’ sounds clean and sparkly, but it’s still full of weird ideas that precariously balance between sounding good and sounding pretty goofy. That’s of course, the precipice on which Kanye pretty much permanently resides; it’s why I like him. ‘Flashing Lights’ sounds like a Kanye version of Timbaland beat, so it’s a less sloppier, more awkward, and more organic.

Those synths could’ve come from Timbo’s hard-drive but Kanye makes them stumble all over one another giving them this kind of staccato, unmelodic, evil sound. Then, atop it, you get this really simple Dilla-ish beat; it’s just two sounds a light smack and a louder smack over and over. The echo on the drums sounds particularly raw and real, as if it wasn’t the result of added in-studio echo but maybe actually recorded somewhere that naturally creates that echo? It’s really crazy-sounding. Somewhere in the background there also seem to be some really simple like from an 808 “claps” that, like the synths, seems less like a melody than the same sound just played a bunch of times in a row, like rudimentary playing. The rather pretentious strings are made well, less pretentious because the surrounding music is so simple and immediate but still, they rub me the wrong way a bit. Pretty much anything that bothers me or feels off about ‘Graduation’ is the stuff that reminds me of ‘Late Registration’.

For all of the talk of this being Kanye’s “fame” album, he really doesn’t do that much whining on it. It’s fun and all to be one more douchebag complaining about celebrities complaining about fame but nothing on ‘Graduation’ seems particularly obnoxious. Most of his issues are the same as they were since ‘College Dropout’ but they seem to be at times, enhanced or made more explicit by being famous. The end of the first verse notes the existence of the paparazzi but Kanye’s sort of the punchline there. The entire verse is sort of this classic comedy set-up. As he describes being with some chick that is dancing for him and just as he’s about to…FLASH. Even his line where he goes “I’m a celebrity tired of the paparazzi” is filtered through some willfully stupid line: “Man I hate these niggas more than a Nazi.”

The next verse is sort of the flipside of the first verse. In the first Kanye is cynical about the girl (“She don’t believe in shootin’ stars/But she believe in shoes and cars”) and she’s primarily presented as a girl he’ll bang, but in the second, he’s misses the girl (“Sweetheart we hardly talk”). Whether it’s supposed to be the same girl or a girl he actually respects isn’t the point, but the change in tone occurs over and over. He conflates all of his views on a subject into a single song and so “She in the mirror dancin so sleazy/Why can’t life always be this easy” becomes in the second verse, “If somebody would’ve told me a year ago/It was gonna get this difficult”. Again, cynics can dismiss it as a lot of whining, but I find his delivery and lines, a mix of (once again) goofy punchlines and sincere emotion (“like Martin with no Gina”) very affecting. The verse again ends with Kanye in a vulnerable position asking the girl to come back!

I’ve been trying to articulate Kanye’s relationship to fame on ‘Graduation’ and I think to any thinking listener, it’s clearly an album about how fame has a lot of messed-up aspects. At the same time as articulating those ideas, Kanye is incredibly deferential to his fame and influences. It seems more like Kanye once felt as though he had a destiny to fulfil and now, he has a fate to suffer.

The key phrase in the chorus of ‘Flashing Lights’ is “this far”. This far, as in maybe just maybe “too far”, which is a phrase not often used by popular or “hip” figures in pop-culture because it suggests the existence of excess, of there being too much of something. It’s an ethical statement and a warning. In the first verse it refers to the girl who somehow took it “this far”. I get the impression that Kanye is connecting his enjoyment of her “dancing so sleazy” to maybe her leaving or cheating on him? Maybe it’s just how far she went when they had sex. In the second verse, it refers to his fame with some implicit ‘Juicy’ connection (“…never thought that hip-hop would take it this far”), but it could also be Kanye’s own fuck-ups which are addressed on plenty of songs.

Rafi of OhWord has some really good comments on Thad Clark’s interesting entry and in one of them, he says: “Kanye speaks his mind and has ended up playing the role of a hip-hop conscience. Not a “conscious” rapper which nobody will listen to but a “conscience” one which on occasion everyone hears.” Dwele’s “this far” is not only bragging with a basis in Biggie’s classic oft-quoted line but I think an acknowledgment of stuff going out of control and why that is you know, not a good thing…

Written by Brandon

September 18th, 2007 at 1:52 am

Posted in Kanye West

Kanye West Week Part Seven: Barry Bonds & Drunk and Hot Girls

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Barry Bonds
The beat for ‘Barry Bonds’ produced by Nottz and co-produced by Kanye is ridiculous. It sort of reminds me of Black Moon or something, blunted and dusty but still immediate. It’s really the only conventional “hip-hop” beat on ‘Graduation’ but still injected with the futuristic sound that defines the album. It’s a shame Lil Wayne dropped such a turd of a verse, but what are you gonna do?

Others mentioned it when this song leaked, but Wayne’s little digression about Ronald Reagan is pretty great: “I’m all about the Franklins, Lincolns and Reagans/Whenever they make them/I shall hate them, oops/I meant have them.” It is the kind of subtle critique that makes me believe in Wayne a little more. It proves he’s a pretty smart and aware guy. Most rappers wouldn’t choose such a loaded and fairly obscure way to poke fun of Neo-Cons. It’s perfect because if anything represents the absurdity of the Neo-Con movement, it’s crookedness, it would be the vague campaign to remove Roosevelt from the dime and replace it with Reagan. Wayne inflates that moronic goal of Neo-Cons by suggesting Reagan might one day show up on a bill.

This song is also the most “hip-hop” on the album because it’s lyrical content is pretty uninspired. It really is in the style of Black Moon or Gang Starr, in the sense of sounding awesome and clever, but not really about much. I mean seriously, how can you excuse someone like Guru and dislike Kanye?! Also, his boasting is tempered by modesty, as usual. Kanye’s half-boast of “Became a hood favorite/I can’t even explain it/I surprise myself too” is one more example of his humility on ‘Graduation’. He sounds like he now realizes he not only doesn’t “deserve” anything but he should feel lucky he’s had any success. On ‘The Glory’, he says, in a tone that sounds more like the excited voice of a rap fan than an egomanical rapper, “the hood loves to listen to Jeezy and Weezy and oh yeah, Yeezy!”

Drunk & Hot Girls
I talked about the many layers of sampling Steely Dan when I discussed ‘Champion’ and Kanye’s sampling of Krautrock group CAN is sort of related. CAN, were a German progressive rock group, who like Steely Dan and many other prog-gers, embraced world music. Unlike the Dan’s facile embrace CAN had a true investment in the world music they co-opted. Their first lead singer was an African-American named Malcolm Mooney, and their second singer (and the one sampled on ‘Drunk & Hot Girls’) was a Japanese guy named Damo Suzuki. The group, being German, experienced American and British rock music but without the context of blues. German folk music was their version of blues, so their rock comes off as weird because it’s missing that key ingredient (the blues). CAN came to reggae the same way they came to rock, a degree removed. They also were into like early electronics and modern composers so they embraced rock’s immediacy. They weren’t trying to make rock sophisticated but because their teachers were sophisticated people like Karlheinz Stockhausen…they also had a sense of humor about appropriation, as they have a series of songs on their odds and sods album ‘Unlimited Edition’ called ‘Ethnological Forgery Series’.

The use of Damo Suzuki’s voice in a style similar to using Chaka Khan’s is clever. I never know what CAN lyrics are, I’ve always assumed they were improvised nonsense, but it’s funny to imagine Kanye listening to ‘Ege Bamyasi’ and thinking whatever Damo said was “drunk and hot girls” and basing a song around it! That fits with the sense of inevitability on the album. ‘Everything I Am’ makes that theme explicit, but just a general understanding that one doesn’t have control over everything, sometimes inspiration comes through a misheard lyric or a beat rejected by another artist (“Common passed on this beat/I made it into a jam”).

The music on ‘Drunk & Hot Girls’ is really nuts, the synths get really heavy and it has all of these different parts, it’s a great piece of music, I just don’t know if it really fits on the album. The song is also very funny and smart, similar to ‘Gold Digger’ in that it can be easily misinterpreted as offensive when it is actually more complicated than that. This is one of the things I like about Kanye and what makes him a pretty brave musician, especially for being as popular as he is: He really doesn’t care what people think. Artie Lange of the Howard Stern Show was on that NPR Snoozefest ‘Fresh Air’ and Terry Gross asked him if they ever worried about their misogynist, racist, and homophobic jokes being “misinterpreted” by the audience. Lange said, the Stern Show is wildly successful because it appeals to really smart people and really dumb people (like Kanye) and that worrying about how the dumb people react is essentially, a waste of time. I think Kanye probably has a similar line of thinking, in the sense that inevitably, someone will misinterpret something you say, by accident or because they want to hear something else, so you just don’t worry about it. This all sounds obvious but I think it’s one of the “lessons” on ‘Graduation’ as suggested on songs like ‘I Wonder’ and ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’.

The Mos Def singing part is great as an explicit counterpoint to the jokes of ‘Drunk and Hot Girls’, as he sings a very empathetic verse about “the human heart” and then ends it with “The dress is tight…/I want you right now!”. Did you happen to read the New York Times review of ‘Graduation’? It’s basically a gross, willful misinterpretation of the album but one line stuck out at me as particularly frustrating. The critic, Jon Pareles, quotes from ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’, quoting some of the more introspective lines and then says “But eventually, [West] decides there’s no need to hold back. ‘Let that Champagne splash, let that man get cash.” That interpretation is one that assumes, that the last line of that verse somehow negates the previous lines. Kanye didn’t “decide” anything there, he’s just tossing out all of his thoughts!

I bring that up because of the Mos Def part of ‘Drunk and Hot Girls’. While the final lines segue back into the song’s harsh but funny sentiment, that doesn’t negate the kinder, sweeter things said before. While Kanye’s slow-flow and futuristic production may not be strictly “hip-hop”, his attitude and understanding of duplicity certainly are. Rap has always been in-the-moment, while looking forward and backward; this is what allows the music to be very offensive but often moral a few moments later. Kanye’s lyrics are temporal in the sense of tracing his thoughts as they come to him, however contradictory.

Written by Brandon

September 16th, 2007 at 8:18 pm

Posted in Kanye West

Kanye West Week Part Six: I Wonder, Good Life, & Can’t Tell Me Nothing

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I Wonder
I’m in numerous debates with friends real and online- about whether this is Kanye’s most humble record (my opinion) or his most vain, celebrity record (everyone else’s opinion). Raymond Cummings’ review for Static Multimedia outlines the “vain, celebrity record” opinion in a way that is never unfair like say, Greg Tate’s completely-retarded review for the Village Voice. I bring this all up because I really don’t know how to reconcile such divergent opinions on ‘Graduation’. Although, I guess it’s nothing new- it reminds me of when I was running around telling people that ‘Late Registration’ basically sucks or when I was running around calling ‘College Dropout’ a masterpiece (which it is). The point is, I’m just hearing something different on this record than most people and it’s not a bit or schtick; I won’t even try to keep up the illusion of being objective here…

‘I Wonder’ is about realizing that you’ll never really articulate your thoughts, opinions, or “dreams” to anyone else. The sampled hook “I wonder, if you know/What it means/to find your dreams come true” again relates to the sense of modesty and use of qualifiers I talked about with ‘Champion’ yesterday. Kanye no longer wants to force anything down your throat and his “wondering” acknowledges the possibility that he’ll never really be understood. He won’t be understood because well, no one is really understood, there’s always some mystery or gap there (that’s why he can only “wonder” if you know what it’s like). It’s been a slow process for Kanye but he seems to really see where he screwed up in the past even as he keeps making the same mistakes. I know that can be written off as gimmicky or played-out but I think it’s pretty much how everyone I’ve ever met acts; trying to do well and does a little better, then fucks up again. Kanye is getting comfortable with the fact that what he does or says will never be fully grasped or understood.

Kanye also can’t be “understood” because he’s something of an insufferable prick and on this song and many others, he really acknowledges it and not in a loose, confessional way but in a harsh, realistically-rendered way. Early in this song he belts-out, not even raps- the lines “You say I think I’m never wrong/You know what? Maybe you’re right!” and before delivering that second line, he pauses for melodramatic effect but also to reflect him stopping, thinking, and then finally being like “fuck, you might be right, I do always think I’m right.” The entire next verse to me, outlines a particularly intense argument with a girlfriend but of course, it doubles as much of media’s perception of Kanye.

When the next verse begins, it’s hard to know if Kanye is talking to someone, adopting the voice of another, or speaking in the third-person. It seems to me, like he’s speaking as an uninvolved third-party to the girlfriend frustrated with Kanye: “You say he gets on your fucking nerves/You hope that he gets what he deserves”. Those lines for me, the way they are delivered in this sort of stilted yelling really sort of hit hard. Maybe it’s because I too get on people’s nerves and am an insufferable prick (no doubt, part of my embrace of Kanye comes from this) and I do shit like get in as many confrontations and arguments in real-life as I do online (I may be a jerk, but I’m the same jerk on and off-line). Back to that “You say I think I’m never wrong” line…ever notice how in just about every debate on here or on other blogs I need to have the last word? That’s not healthy.

I devolve into this subjective, personalization because I just can’t really keep up any facade that I can be objective about Kanye or these songs. Some of them just sort of hit me in way that makes the music not even fun to listen to and just depressing (ultimately, that’s a good thing though). So, following those lines where Kanye speaks about himself as getting on people’s nerves, he seems to jump back into the first-person, as actually being in the argument. He asks “Do you even remember what the issue is?” which is exactly what happens in every argument with a significant other, you’re not even arguing about the inciting issue anymore but bringing up all this other shit. He then follows it up with “You’re just trying to find where the tissue is” which I read as the way in an argument, people will say anything to hurt the other person, go for the insult that will cut your skin (tissue) the deepest. I guess the more conventional reading of it being the other person in the argument is just trying to find a tissue to cry in and not concerned with the argument; either one works- fuck this not a fun song, but it is REAL.

Next Kanye recounts the part of the argument where one or the other storms out and then pathetically returns later: “When you hop back in the car/Drive back to the crib/Run back to their arms”. He then quickly sums up the ugly parts of the argument (“The smokescreens/The chokes and the screams”) and leaves you with the dissatisfied, shitty feeling you get when the argument is over because it was a big waste of time, like “what was the point of that?”: “You ever wonder what it all really mean?”. That’s a well-rendered and realistic verse about what it’s like to argue and the bouncing back of egos and self-esteems involved. It’s just really honest. There’s a line in the otherwise forgettable ‘Bittersweet’ (which has now missed the cut on two consecutive Kanye albums) where he says “I’ll never hit a girl/But I’ll shake the SHIT out of you”, which along with ‘Addiction’ is the kind of honesty that is somehow both universal (seriously, we’ve all shook a girl in an argument, right?) and incredibly confessional.

The final verse is another verse that discusses his ascension from underdog producer and wannabe rapper to a superstar. The verse is palpably joyful because it is contrasted with the previous “argument” verse but it also contains the very things that make Kanye get “on people’s fucking nerves”, the self-mythologizing and the corny joke lines (“How many ladies in the house without a spouse?/Something in your blouse got me feeling so arouse-ed!”). He never lets the listeners or himself off the hook; you can rarely sit down and feel comfortable with a Kanye West song.

In the interest of this Kanye West Week not going out of control and boring every reader (and because it’s way too ambitious to write an essay on every song), I’ve discussed ‘Good Life’ and ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ a lot already. So, I’ve incorporated those previous entries with some random, additional comments.

Good Life
T-Pain quotes lyrics from ‘College Dropout’s ‘School Spirit’: “I’m a get on this TV mama/I’m a break this shit dow-own-” becomes “I’m a get on this TV mama/I’m a put shit dow-own”. On ‘School Spirit’ it was a sort of statement of intent on purpose, for when Kanye DID get on television. In the context of his post-Mega star fame, I see the line as reference to that time he really did get on TV and break/put shit down: “George Bush does not care about black people.” He of course, directly references it on ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ when he talks about being on TV “but talking like it’s just you and me”. That Bush/Television incident has sort of haunted him, as I doubt he regrets it as much as feels a little pissed-off that people didn’t really get his point or at least give him some credit for saying what so many people were thinking. It is a perfect example of the downside of fame or how you know, when you’re on television and quoted constantly, if you’re Kanye and you’re both an honest guy and a jokester this kind of fucks you up. Of course, the song is less about that and more about why he’s thankful for his fame while also not negating the more “normal” aspects of life that make it “good”…

“Good Life’ is a surprise, sampling the strangest part of M.J’s ‘P.Y.T’ and of course, T-Pain, who is really just great all around. I heard ‘I’m Sprung’ on the radio the other day and was thinking about how much he’s already kind of evolved as an artist, fully embracing his Roger Troutman-ness and taking it to another level…you’ve got a good, discerning ear for the great, radio musicians, the way you put Paul Wall on ‘Drive Slow’ or although you didn’t get around to putting him on a song until ‘Late Registration’, you had been repping Cam’ron before most people. Smart, smart, smart. It’s the same as when you used to think it was cool to put Freeway and Mos Def on the same song and in a way, show how they’re kinda similar and also hopefully, introduce fans of one to the other.”

That line “Have you ever popped champagne, while getting brain?/Whipped it out, she said ‘I never seen Snakes on a Plane” is similar to those dyke lines that a lot of listeners seem to groan about. I read a review that mocked Kanye’s use of such an “out-dated” pop cuture reference but of course, that’s the punchline of that line! The line itself is mildly clever and vaguely funny; the joke is “I just referenced ‘Snakes on a Plane”! The dyke lines in ‘Stronger’ are the same way. The comedy comes not in the line but in the fact that he’s using the line for the second time (it pops-up in ‘Late’ from ‘LR’ too). It’s the obnoxious, prankster side of Kanye that sometimes, just can’t resist making a joke…

It’s a song about the being thankful, even deferential to the good-hand one’s been dealt. The girls who have “more ass than the models” and other “minor” but actually major victories. Early in the song Kanye announces “let’s go on a livin’ spree” with the same swagger he might brag about tearing the mall up on a shopping spree. When T-Pain comes in at the end with “It’s the good life/Better than the life I lived/When I thought that I was gonna go crazy”, Kanye positions himself in front of the Vegas skyline for the camera and that image, Kanye in his stupid glasses and fancy tux, performing a song about finally making it in front of a city that embodies “making it” worked better than those goofy angel wings a few years back.

Let’s go back to that line for a bit, “when I thought that I was gonna go crazy”. Going crazy!? I know it’s easy to blow off Kanye’s everyman appeals and blah blah blah, but I think he means and feels it when he refers to the way his pre-fame, less comfortable life really did make him feel crazy. I dunno about you but credit card debt, or that one prick boss, or needing new tires all starts to build-up and I too feel like I’m gonna go crazy…as he says on ‘Champion’, another song tempered with as much sadness as joy: “When it feels like livin’s harder than dying”

Can’t Tell Me Nothing
The transition from ‘The Good Life’ to ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ is one of the few moments on ‘Graduation’ that feels off. Every time ‘The Good Life’ ends I expect ‘Barry Bonds’ to pop-up next and then it doesn’t. As I say below, ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ isn’t a bad song and it benefits from being in the context of an album and not as “Kanye West’s first single from his new highly-anticipated album!” It is perhaps the height of Kanye’s mixing of recent rap trends into his own style.

“With Kanye, one must assume everything he is doing is obsessively planned-out and choreographed so, marketing can’t be ignored. This song is pretty-good but it doesn’t feel like single material. This sounds like a good album cut. Perhaps this is the pre-single single, something that lately, occurs with some frequency… if you’re already a big-name artist, initially, on hype alone, just about anything you release will get attention and airplay so it’s smarter to hold-back on releasing the true hit. With music sales down, it is now necessary to keep that album alive beyond that initial wave of hype. Think of how Beyonce’s album was sort of underwhelming until the third single or how the first Jeezy single was a safe ‘What You Know’ ripoff. Oddly enough, ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ is sort of a ‘What You Know’ ripoff too but I don’t feel like this is going to blow-up and I have a feeling that’s sort of the idea. This puts Kanye’s name out there and hints at what ‘Graduation’ will sound like but he’s not giving it all up. The second single will be the ‘All Falls Down’ or ‘Gold Digger’ of ‘Graduation’.

The Jeezy referencing and the overall Southern sound might also be something of a “marketing” choice, but it’s also an active way to acknowledge the presence and importance of Southern rap. I like the idea of Kanye digging new music instead of actively opposing it; you can just imagine Kanye getting really excited by the production because, although he plays it down in certain ways, he is as much a rap fan as a rapper. His ears seem open to what has happened and what is going on in rap. He probably heard ‘What You Know’ and ‘I Luv It’ and got as excited by Toomp’s crazy synths as all the rap dorks! Kanye’s quick reference to ‘T.R.O.Y’ or those Jeezy ad-libs are fun but like the best Kanye stuff, they aren’t just fun, they have some weight attached. Tossing in those much-derided adlibs is almost an approval of them or at least, a non-condescending acknowledgement that they are now a part of rap. The ‘T.R.O.Y’ line is rap-fan homage but putting it in a song that also references Jeezy is creating a rap timeline rather than some kind of rap bell-curve or something. The reference also has real emotional weight to it, capturing some sliver of the elegiac sense of that Pete and C.L classic: “Your homies lookin’ like “Why God?” when they reminisce over you, my God.”

Kanye’s intentions are good, there are a lot of ideas rushing through ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ and it’s refreshing to hear something with an abundance of ideas on the radio, but the actual execution is a little bumpy. The slow, Jeezy-like rapping fits the beat and makes sense, but Kanye’s lyrics aren’t really up to par. Kanye went through a significant change between ‘College Dropout’ and ‘Late Registration’; he became a much better rapper in technical terms but he got lazy with his lyrics. He depends a lot more on obvious juxtapositions, especially ones between material wealth and spiritual wellness, signifier-less name-brand referencing, and borderline pointless “clever” lines like “If the devil wear Prada/Adam and Eve wear nada”. It isn’t bad and it’s more engaging than a lot of rappers but there’s just something a little empty about it all. I don’t see what it is moving towards. He also tends to list things (“The drama, People suing me”) which takes me back to like, 11th grade creative writing class. Sad girls. Writing like this. Short fragments. Annoying. There’s some good stuff, the Fabolous-like line “Don’t ever fix your lips like collagen/Say something you gonna end up apologin” and the double-parking line, but the overall content seems a little uninspired and the delivery doesn’t help because it’s so slow that you really do end up focusing on the just-sort-of-okay lyrics. I think if Kanye blasted through the lyrics over a faster beat, his lyrical indiscretions wouldn’t stand out so much. Lines like “How you move in a room full of nose/How you stay faithful in a room full of hoes” would take on a certain power and resonance if delivered with more enthusiasm. The slow, enunciated, motivational speaker-style works for Jeezy because Jeezy never tries to be “lyrical” in the least. He sort of doesn’t have another choice in how to rap if he’s going to sound at all presentable. Kanye could run through these lines and they would sort of build and build; he wouldn’t need to affect an “intense” voice to sell them as Jeezy must do.

The beat too, is a little underwhelming, the sample is actually really strong, especially when he lets it play-out at crucial points, but another DJ Toomp synth beat is only cool when you’re not given the option of hearing something better. I mean, Kanye could create something way cooler than this, so I almost feel cheated. Here is where being less famous really does help creativity. If Kanye was still making beats for the Roc or even in his basement, he would hear ‘I Luv It’ and try to copy the sound he liked and it inevitably, would come out sort of weird and original. It would be someone else’s sound filtered through Kanye’s ear and musicality. When he “bit the drums off ‘Xxplosive” it came out weird because Kanye had to work to rip them off, he couldn’t call up Dr. Dre. Why is Kanye afraid to make shit that sounds like his old shit (spoken like a true, reactionary fan, I know)? I sympathize with the want to expand one’s sound and I’d like to think I’d be “okay” with a noble failure but I feel like very few creative ideas come out of these collaborations, it’s more like border-line fusion. I’ve never for a second thought about a Kanye/DJ Toomp collabo and I’m seriously dreading the Chris Martin of Coldplay collabo. Maybe Common should call Chris Martin the new Chris Martin?

Ultimately, the close-scrutiny I’m applying is the result of it being a single. As a song, it’s pretty good and I can imagine certain lines and sonic details (there are some subtle and effective sounds that pop-up if you listen with headphones) creeping up in the context of an album. Kanye, acknowledging some of his awards-show assholisms is interesting, even if it is a bit cloying and although I wish it were less defensive, the lines “I guess money should’ve change him’/I guess I should’ve forgot where I came from” are accurate in that, Kanye gets a lot of shit for sticking it out there. He hasn’t really grown complacent and although some of his “controversial” actions are safe, he certainly didn’t need to go on television and say “George Bush doesn’t like black people”; I still believe that comes from his heart, just like this song, for better and worse I guess.”

The slow, over-dramatic presentation of the lyrics and epic but slow (even plodding) beat benefits from being on the album because the whole album has that kind of ridiculous sincerity.

“Yeah…I like this song. It has some bad lines and stuff but overall it’s really, really, good. Nothing on the radio sounds like this. It’s full and dense; the drums and electronic qualities sound like something off of Jeezy’s ‘The Inspiration’ and it makes me remember what excited me about that album when it came out. There’s an undeniable power to those thick synths; they work like strings only less pretentious and more danceable. There’s plenty to dislike about Jeezy but I appreciate his work ethic and it paid off in that he made a great album with ‘The Inspiration’. He obviously sort of lifted the college stuff from Kanye, calling his albums ‘Thug Motivation 101’ and ‘Thug Motivation 102’ but he also lifted sonic consistency and pacing from Kanye. I know ‘College Dropout’ isn’t the first cohesive rap album but when it came out, it felt like a breath of fresh air and it’s cool that Jeezy feels its influence.”

Written by Brandon

September 14th, 2007 at 9:09 pm

Posted in Kanye West