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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

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