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HOW BIG IS YOUR WORLD?: Good Rap You Maybe Missed In 2008, Pt. 2

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-Devin the Dude featuring L.C “I Can’t Make It Home”

This got a lot of satellite radio play and I guess, was “the single” from the really underwhelming Landing Gear but it still seems slept-on. It’s in-line with all of Devin’s songs, a charming storytelling rap that furthers his scruffy fuck-up persona, but it’s way more palpably depressing. You got through the stoner loneliness anthem of “Doobie Ashtray” because it was kinda funny, had a Primo beat and was called you know, “Doobie Ashtray”, but “I Can’t Make It Home” is just a really fucking sad tale of drunk-driving. And not the fun drunk-driving or even the fun because you might die drunk/drugged driving but just like, a mistake from the beginning and you’re in it until you maybe glide into your driveway crooked or get pulled over; both options have the same odds of becoming reality.

The crooned chorus, the shabby melodrama of it all make the emotions behind it palpable. In some ways, a better illustration of the knowing but not smart enough self-destruction an author of minor victories and epic failures like Richard Yates mined than Sam Mendes’ adaptation of dude’s Revolutionary Road. What’s really devastating about it is how Devin’s so matter-of-fact about it, like a friend telling you what it was like to spend 24 hours in a psych ward or something…wizened and happy because now it’s at least all over.

-Zilla Rocca “The First Order of Business” (Blurry Drones Remix)

“The First Order of Business”, the best song on Bring Me the Head of Zilla Rocca gets remixed and turns the spastic hammering drums of the original into a hurricane of guitars. Sampling the Walkmen, Douglas Martin (Blurry Drones) does an appropriate garage-rock style of production, where there’s nothing fancy, just tried and true production tricks like lowering or raising the volume or slowing it down for a moment here and there…but Zilla doesn’t ever slow down, it’s just punchline after punchline in that great Philly accent he has.

The punchlines though too, carry some weird hard to explain weight that’s beyond “Oh. That was very clever”, although they’re clever too. They sort of resonate because it’s the goofy observations you make with your friends—bad typos in a text message, old-ass actors playing teenagers—or they just gel together, like when he lumps a series of Frank Miller references together and keeps going without pause, giving no time for that “oh shit” moment more self-aggrandizing rappers’ll slow down for. There’s an oddly affecting point where Zilla interrupts the fun rap to say “This was the worst year of my life-“ tells you he “salvaged it”, doesn’t explain why it was bad or how he changed it and keeps going and it’s all the more affecting because of the mystery and sort of hints that whatever that “worst” is fuels his rap fervor.

-Bobby Creekwater “Goodbye”

Was gonna pick “Goodbye” from this EP because I already talked this song up, but it’s not on YouTube and “Not Yet”–and the entire BC Era EP for that matter–deserve as much hype as possible. Guys like Bobby Creekwater, forever in label limbo, will never be a superstar no matter who co-signs their talent, are supposed to be this modest but all too often, their songs all end up about their money, their label, and girls and so, it’s cool that Bobby Creek’s asserting “I won’t forget where I came from”; it really does matter to him.

He also does a clever thing on this track of sort of sounding like over-enunciating Wayne on a verse, a determined pre-uses a thesaurus and figured out meter and got boring T.I on another, and also modestly reminding you that he’s not “T-Pain or Ye”. The beat though here and all of this EP is what makes it: Scrappy strings, crew vocals, some guy crooning somewhere in the background, and then atop it all typical Southern production stuff. The instruments reinforce the song’s feeling of low-to-the-ground loyalty.

-Illa J “Timeless”

I’m glad other people compared this song to D’Angelo because I was afraid that was like blasphemous or some shit, but that’s exactly what it sounds like but more importantly, what it feels like. The heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity of the song and mumbled singing of Dilla’s brother and music that has like, caves of black music history behind it in that piano jazz loop and simple drum beat that’s the root of every hip-hop song and also, a specific kind of stomping minimalism found only on Fantastic Vol. 1.

That I guess, is the “timeless” part of the title as Illa J’s part’s very much concerned with the right now, owning up to his lack of experience in a way that’s not on the defensive but like, “Look, I’m figuring my shit out, calm down”. On this song, Dilla’s legacy aligns with his younger brother’s inexperience perfectly, and the confidence and classic before we even heard it beat lets Illa relax and get real. One of the most intensely personal songs released this year.

I’ll be back after the New Year, have fun and be safe.-brandon

Written by Brandon

December 26th, 2008 at 5:49 am

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HOW BIG IS YOUR WORLD?: Good Rap You Maybe Missed In 2008, Pt. 1

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-Jay Electronica “Extra Extra”

The elegant click-clack swooping strings beat rides out for awhile before Jay comes in and when he does, it’s a jagged mix of brag talk, references to Hollywood space trash like K-Pax and the Star Wars prequels, Christian end-of-days terror-preaching and genuine Elijah Muhammad mathematics.

For cynics or business-minded rap fans (of which there are too many), this mix of so-called “high” and so-called “low” is Jay’s gimmick, his hook–just as Charles Hamilton’s got Sonic the Hedgehog or something—but tracks like “Extra Extra” aren’t hyping a mixtape or his album or anything, they’re additional flashes of brilliance from the only rapper whose lack of a physical album doesn’t make his hype absurd.

-Pete Rock featuring the Lords of the Underground “Best Kept Secret”

Old-ass rappers not sounding too bitter or trying to sound as they did in 1993, just having fun and not giving a fuck-which you know, is sort of exactly what they did in 1993. There’s obviously something inexplicably lasting about 90s New York boom-bap and it’s why something like Il Al Skratch’s Creep Wit Me while less objectively good than Mobb Deep’s The Infamous is still a kinda sorta classic. Boom bap is a hip-hop fan of a certain age’s comfort food, and it’s why guys almost twenty years in the game can still make really good songs like this one.

Scratched snippets of Lords records in their hey-day, the light piano and sci-fi vibes rolling around in the background, the from a flood-damaged record outro, and the “shh…the secret!” hook that’s as raw and catchy as any classic Lords joints, are the smaller moments that keep “Best Kept Secret” on your iPod long after most of Pete’s NY’s Finest got deleted.

-Pastor Troy “My Box Chevy”

Stupidly literal but like so many other car songs, also some weird metaphor for youth and longing and stuff, Pastor Troy’s “My Box Chevy” is really the only halfway happy song on Attitude Adjuster and it’s less happiness, than a memory with some fondness attached to it. The sense of genuine youthful waiting as he delays getting the best rims and wheels out of car nerd indecision and the economic reality of making his car nice, one piece at a time. By the third verse, the car’s complete, the reward, the envy of everyone around him, for better and worse: “…Told them boys/Don’t fuck with me…”.

The close to wailing guitars, Pastor’s chant of “my box Chevy” over and over and over on the chorus, and an eye for touching detail–“bought my Caprice from an old white couple”—though, turn it into one of the more personal and affecting songs of this past year. A perfect example of what can be done inside of genre and convention.

-Three Six Mafia featuring Pimp C and Project Pat “I Got”

This is probably the last year where they’ll be a big, stupid Southern rap party song with Pimp C wheezing on the hook and that’s pretty fucking sad. Sampling “Zombie Nation” or “Kernkraft 400”—I still don’t know which is the band and which is the song title—is a stroke of goofball genius that should’ve gotten someone’s interest.

When “hipster rappers” do junk like this it’s clever or ironic or whatever, when Three Six do it, it’s still considered ignorance? Juicy J and Paul could’ve just made a big stupid club rap song out of a big stupid club song, but they swipe the melody and the feeling of the song and still wrap their skittering drums and synths around it the same way they’d do a Willie Hutch sample. Halfway through, the beat slows down and morphs into some almost classic Three Six John Carpenter shit and it’s pretty incredible. Pimp’s chant goes from soccer hooligan triumphant to angry point out the obvious.

-Nappy Roots “Beads & Braids”

If Nappy Roots had kept up their early 2000s success, they probably wouldn’t be singing a touching, hard-ass exclamation of their friendship and loyalty to one another, but maybe that’s exactly why they aren’t as big as they once were- who knows. Between this song–competitor for rap song of the year–and their palpably uplifting single that didn’t get airplay “Good Day”, Nappy Roots did a cool thing of making reactionary hip-hop that wasn’t obnoxious or knowing at all. They could’ve easily turned their Ellisonian use of black Southern imagery into something goofball once the South got really popular and pretty stupid, but they didn’t, and they don’t even remind you of it, or rather, they remind you by doing instead of saying.

There’s still plenty of self-mythologizing here but a lightly knocking, piano-driven beat and straight, smart but fun rapping that’s ultimately about friends and looking out for one another is really affecting. Especially because the song’s not triumphant but matter of fact with a tinge of sadness, especially that fumbling, super-clean acoustic guitar on the outro.

Written by Brandon

December 25th, 2008 at 4:46 am

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Ripping off Armond White’s end-of-the-year “better than” lists for movies. I twittered my better than album list if you want to check that out…

-Bishop Lamont’s “Grow Up” > B.O.B’s “Generation Lost”

Both are curmudgeonly complaint raps from guys barely established—and co-signed to the point that they’ll never live up to the hype—but Bishop Lamont takes it personal and exposes his frustration in dozens-esque humor and sharp insight, which goes a long way. B.O.B, apes Andre 3k’s above-it-all whimsy, but doesn’t have the decade-plus experience or knowledge to sell it and sounds like a dick.

-Bangladesh’s “A Milli”" > Flying Lotus’ “Robotussin”

Lotus’ remix of “A Milli” is fun and fascinating as a rewrite (he skips over Wayne’s use of the word “faggot”) but it’s still nowhere close to as out-there and uh, “next-level” as the original.

-Lil Wayne’s “Mrs. Officer” > Plies “Bust It Baby”

The dumbest, goofiest rap and bullshit is usually the best. Either a rapper uses the R & B hook for contrast or he just gives-in and goes all the way with it, which Wayne does on “Mrs. Officer”. This is goofy storytelling rap that seems to exist only to Wayne could use the play-on-words kinda joke about “fuck the police”. Wayne’s grinning through this song, Plies meanwhile, is irony-free when he talks about his girlfriend’s nickname (“wet-wet”) and how she “messes up the bed sets”. This is a testament to Wayne’s star status: Even on the crap he more than holds his own.

-Outkast’s “Royal Flush” > Busta Rhymes’ “Don’t Touch Me (Throw The Water on Em)”

Both songs are great and both get the raised-on 90s rap hairs of our arms at full attention, but “Don’t Touch Me”s an invigorating but still depressing attempt to grab at something that’s forever gone. “Royal Flush” is old-man rap that isn’t “mature” but mature, updating and complicating the politics and empathy of old Outkast, but keeping the flow and fun of their early work just as well. Busta sells “Don’t Touch Me”, but you come out of it feeling a little weird because it’s exciting the way say, some aging dudes shirtless and screaming at a football game are exciting: “Wow they’re really going for it and I can respect that but damn…”

-Any Number of Jay Electronica Songs From This Year > Nas’ “Queens Get the Money”

Jay Electronica clearly owes a lot to Nas but here, the influencer becomes the influenced as Nas does his spit spittin-that-real-shit attempt over a Jay-produced piano loop and all you think is, “I wish Jay Electronica just rapped over this”. It’s a sign of internet hype and anti-hype but more importantly, Jay Electronica’s talent that, without a proper album but a mess of incredible songs, the best Nas song in a while doesn’t even need Nasir.

-Jeezy’s “Put On” > Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown”

Kanye’s affecting whine on “Put On” works twice as well because of the contrast. The beat nearly stops, it at least slows down, and Kanye comes for a cry-out and changes the entire mood of the song. “Love Lockdown” slows down and ebbs forward when it’s supposed to and Kanye’s evasive lyrics—but not evasive enough that you don’t know he’s really sad—seem like your sulking friend that won’t just come out and tell you what’s wrong.

-E Major “The Next Episode” > Termanology’s “This Is How We Rock”

Primo’s beat is wasted on Termanology who, despite complaints about hip-hop’s downfall, brings nothing new to the genre himself. Like so many up and comers bitter before they’re allowed to be, Termanology’s whole life comes from rap records. DJ Excel channels Primo for “Next Episode”s beat and E Major turns a song about his love of hip-hop into palpable experience. In the first verse, an LL classic is E’s hip-hop origin (“LL’s “Rock the Bells” was so cold to me”) but two verses later, after some terse but affecting autobiography, “I Need Love” gets a mention because he relates to the emotions and the stone-cold rhymes.

-Rick Ross’ “Here I Am” > TI’s “No Matter What”

Just as the obviously-bullshit Rick Ross became a little more bullshit when pictures of him as a CO popped-up on the internets, “Here I Am” dropped. A sincere, honest song with nary a reference to dealing, namely a celebration of being nice to your girl, it’s the direction Raawwwss should move toward and was accidental damage control. Fraught with relationship realities both touching (“she used to fight with her moms/I sat her down, now she’s tight with her moms”, paying for her college tuition) and bittersweet (“cheated on her but we’re still gonna be together”), it’s realer real-talk than kilo sales and the perfect after a big, dumb rap image fully exposed. TI on the other hand, contrived “No Matter What” as a defiant response to his gun-buying idiocy and comes off cloying and R. Kelly obnoxious.

-Badu’s “Honey” > Everything Else on New Amerykah Pt. 1

The mannered murk of Badu’s album was a total boner-kill after “Honey”, which worked because of contrast–Badu’s singing and almost wailing, 9th Wonder’s beat kept it close to the ground. Approximations of cosmic slop with approximations of throwback all-over-the place singing makes too much sense. “Honey” looked forward and backward and wasn’t too good for the pop single, the rest of this album mistakes homage and muddled politics for a statement.

-Bun B and friends’ “You’re Everything” > TI and company’s “Swagga Like Us”

Running only on the steam of their own egos and fucked-up, wonderfully gross Kanye West beat, posse-cut “Swagga Like Us” sounds good and little more. “You’re Everything”s deceptively simple, with a beat that changes-up every verse to perfectly wrap around each rappers’ voice, and a happy-sad theme that celebrates the South and mourns Pimp C, it’s an understated “posse cut”.

Written by Brandon

December 23rd, 2008 at 5:05 am

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Fresh Cherries From Yakima: Best Baltimore Songs 2008

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Baltimore, my hometown–and the place I’m currently about six hours away from–is like all cities, way more than the stuff “outsiders” know it for: Home of The Wire, crab cakes, murder-rates and blah blah blah. Towson Town Center, a mall in one of the wealthier, douchier parts of the county has a kinda new hipster skate type shop in it and on the dressing room doors are pseudo-graffiti done with marker; one says “Charm City” and one say “Bodymore” both done with the same aplomb.

Art school kids—including members of Bmore-repping Wham City—list their location as “Bodymore, Murdaland” on their blogger profiles and drink National Bohemian (Baltimore’s beer) forties; a kind of novelistic detail of appropriation and misunderstanding: Is anything lamer than a 40 ounce of beer, not malt liquor?

Of course, it’s that stuff too. Every city’s really dumb and that makes it great too. But Baltimore seems really weird or like, especially weird. Or so I’d like to think.

More than the psychedelic vomit crayola Dan Deacon weird, it’s blue collar bars full of rich assholes, poor whites and blacks, and totally-out gay people all bitching about their work day together weird. As weird as lo-fi spastic club music that the hardest, thugged out dudes go buck wild over. As weird as this video shoot I covered in the spring.

The video was unfortunately aborted, but the day in a basement club that was kinda actually nice and Tony Montana garish too was beautiful for the lack of tension as well as the plurality of people just hanging out.

A dude my girlfriend complimented for his De La Soul NIKEs smiled and immediately admitted they were fakes. Baltimore hip-hop stalwart Sonny Brown, who suffered a stroke earlier in the year and was nursing a bum leg, raced around a bar announcing to anyone and no one how hopped-up on Red Bull he was. A couple a skinny Baltimore hipsters were part of the video’s crew. The video’s dancers taught the kids of rappers and hangers-on some simple dance moves. A crew of goofball rappers stopped by a liquor store at noon then circled the block to hit-up the Starbucks at the other end of Charles Street soon after. That’s Baltimore weird. (Click for the songs!)

Written by Brandon

December 22nd, 2008 at 5:47 pm

808s & Heartbreak Week: "Coldest Winter"

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Kanye doesn’t make it easy to take him seriously, but the whole mom dying of plastic surgery thing is genuinely fucked-up and we shouldn’t forget that. While so many famous people talking about their problems seems obnoxious because it’s the same crap we all have to deal with minus the money and girls fame brings you, Kanye’s giving us an actually interesting and rarified peak into celebrity-hood and wrapping it around something that really wouldn’t have happened if he were still some nerd in Chicago making beats.

Mo’ money mo’ problems is something everything can relate to on one level or another and conflicts with girls or those ever-present “haters” too, can be crowbar-ed into the guy that doesn’t like you at your office job or the girl at that party the other night, there’s not really a situation as bizarre as Kanye’s mom’s death that one can actually connect with. At the same time of course, the universal feeling of grief and mourning is there and so each and every listener can touch upon that. Again with the universal/personal reconciliation I discussed in regards to “Paranoid” and “Robocop”.

Perhaps it was that unfortunate fan video that somehow made it onto NahRight, but I’ve started re-thinking the assumption that this is the song about his Mom. I mean, I guess it is, it’s certainly kinder and gentler towards loss than he is on the previous songs and the “winter” aspect implicitly connects it to when his mother died (November, meaning he mourned through Winter) but it really isn’t made explicit at all and he should get some credit for that.

“Coldest Winter” and “Love Lockdown” are sort of the same song or like proper counterparts to one another. They both deal with the in-the-moment very real feeling that you’ll never have or ever want to have feelings for anyone or anything again, one in regards to his break-up, one about the death of his mom. But while there’s some middling feeling of transcendance in those slamming drums or bizarre pterodactyl shrieks, “Coldest Winter” blows up into a sadder desperate cry and it’s continually undercut by those pretty crazy drums that just rip your speakers apart. Even when it veers into “big dramatic ending” stuff that almost every track on 808s goes for, it isn’t given the same time to breathe as it’s all wrapped up in under three minutes. And that’s it. The album’s over. After all that relationship stuff, a final song about his dead moms that never even takes off musically.

Real quick on album bonus track, epilogue or whatever “Pinocchio Story”. It’s at first pretty dumb and in a way, unfortunately spells out what’s already made obvious and laborious on 808s but there’s something undenianbly affecting about it…Kanye rambling to a crowd, not singing, not rapping, and being melodramatic but really honest and forthright too. There’s a point where whining about fame and stuff goes full circle and like, addressing it as Kanye does here becomes brave because you know he knows it’s bullshit to do and he’s like, “fuck it” and doing it anyway.

Written by Brandon

December 17th, 2008 at 4:03 pm

808s & Heartbreak Week: "See You In My Nightmares" featuring Lil Wayne

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This song’s mock triumphant, the synths fart instead of pulse and the regal melody’s pretty absurd; assertive and confident but really stupid too. Lil Wayne’s goofball verse is inarguably pretty terrible, but it’s also pretty funny and if you’re listening hard enough, more forthright and honest than almost anything Kanye says on the album. He’s Kanye’s ugly weirdo demon Id, croaking and joking and saying the same bullshit Kanye’s been saying, but more vulnerable and more like, putting himself out there, not concerned with how stupid he looks or sounds.

Wayne starts off with a series of exclamations and frustrations about a failed relationship that’s really sorta mature (“I really thought we meant it/But now we just repentin/And now we just resentin”) and pathetically forthright and self-destructive (“The clouds in my vision/Look how high I be gettin/And it’s all because of YOU”) and then stupidly funny about it: “You think your ish don’t stink but you are Mrs. P-U”. That’s the same kind of awkward, too hurt to make sense junk that has you comparing your girl to a Robocop.

It isn’t like super-sophisticated or anything, but there’s also some cool wordplay on this song that’s used for actual effect and not the normal, say anything if it sounds clever stuff Kanye and Wayne have been obsessed with for way too long. Numerous reviews of the album have mocked this, but Kanye uses the word “cold” to mean so many things good and bad and in-between that even as he’s clogged up by assholism and genuine emotion, he still has this fairly sophisticated sense of how everything that happens is connected or inextricably tied. Drinks being cold is good here, Kanye being a cold rapper is good, but the next song is “The Coldest Winter” and there’s those numerous references to how cold (as in emotionless) his ex could be. It’s actually less obnoxious than something like, “it’s funny those same wrongs helped me write these songs” but moving towards the same point.

Additionally, switching “fairy tale” (as in, “We were once a fairy tale”) to “this is farewell” in the next line is a good verbal illustration of the unfortunate fall from being in love to out of love. Similarly, Kanye’s two uses of the phrase “that you know”, as in, “that, you know” (now you know) and “tell everybody that you know” isn’t like verbal gymnastics or anything, but works with the whole “I once saw it like this and now the same thing’s this” that most of 808s is working around.

There’s a goofball kind of confidence in this song or maybe it’s like, moronic over-confidence (which would just be another way of saying “swagger”, no?) but again, that fits perfectly because it’s the song where Kanye’s all pissed because his girlfriend cheated on him and that outweighs anything good or bad she or he may have also done and so he has this false wave of confidence flowing through him and it comes out in a song as silly as “See You In My Nightmares”.

You could listen to this song as the flipside of a DJ Khaled song or like, a parody of the confidence and “swagger” of those songs. This is spouting all this tough guy, over it shit, but the beat’s goofy and mocking and still, towards the end, hits some weird form of transcendence where it sounds genuinely triumphant. Of course, that just sets us up for the devastation of “The Coldest Winter”.

Written by Brandon

December 17th, 2008 at 3:46 am

808s & Heartbreak Week: "Bad News"

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It’s fairly clear that this song’s about his ex cheating on him and apparently cheating on him for awhile, but what’s so interesting–although frustrating too–is how Kanye sort of mumbles and rambles around the issue and never confronts it head-on. Whether this was conscious or just the result of Kanye doing his best to deal with something that’s really embarrassing–especially if you’re a guy, a famous guy at that–but even now, even as he makes an album that millions will hear, he can’t totally confront it or like, verbalize it directly.

Most of “Bad News” is clunking along drums, elegant strings, and the occasional synth fart that sounds like a 1UP in Super Mario Brothers or something, and it’s not trying to reflect Kanye’s mood or express what he can’t express in lyrics, it’s sort of this odd extension, the same plodding whirl of interesting and boring bullshit that Kanye’s lyrics are about. That doesn’t justify the song or anything, but it makes it make sense.

The complaint about the song’s length and extended all music outro is more annoying to think about than to actually hear. In the scope of the album, it feels far shorter than two minutes of just music and it’s less indulgent because it actually moves and does things (but doesn’t signify emotions or anything), unlike the beats on Late Registration, where it sounded like Kanye excited to use fancy-pants strings and mellotrons for no other reason than he had access to them. Here, it’s not quite as high-brow which helps and like I said, it’s not some explosion of musical emotion but like, a dive further inside. That Kanye comes out of the other end of this song (and experience) with “See You In My Nightmares”, the song where he formally announces/decides this relationship shit needs to end, makes “Bad News” the soundtrack to those hours, weeks, months, of indecision about whether he should drop this crazy cheating broad or not.

Written by Brandon

December 16th, 2008 at 4:00 am

808s & Heartbreak Week: "Street Lights"

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While 808s at first, seems messy and all over the place–an impulsive, angry bitchfest by one of the few artists that’s popular and selling enough to still get away with such a thing–multiple listens pull out a non-linear but thought-out narrative of his relationship. A relationship that dissolved not long after the death of his mother, a point that West leaves only up to your reading of the gossip pages and album ender “Coldest Winter”. For all its rockist, album concessions, Kanye’s latest doesn’t actually play by anybody’s rules and, like a lot of out-there weirdo, minor masterpieces, it looks and sounds a mess at first.

When the over-production of “Robocop” somehow elegantly fades-out and 808s‘ inertia’s interrupted by “Street Lights”, it sounds arbitrary but it’s not. It’s Kanye finally opening up at the dumbest, weirdest moment to open up: Right after he was just the most full of shit. While the sentiments of this song are affecting and at times, the right mix of simple langauge and quasi-cliche, it’s the music that makes this song so affecting. That moaning electronics that open the song is more affecting than his cornball sincere opening line (“Let me know, do I still have time to grow?”) but Kanye’s done something to the auto-tune so that it vibrates around his vocals. It sounds cool and its inexplicably affecting–by making the vocals even more obvious computerized, it’s sadder, some true Kraftwerk shit–and connects to “we just gonna be enemies” on “Heartless” or “system overload” on “Love Lockdown”, both of which have the same in-the-red effect.

Just as “Robocop” was a merciless, unfeeling, over-produced dick move, “Street Lights” totally goes for it too, it’s just tugging at your heartstrings sad bastard transcendance instead. Twinkling The Natural pianos, post-rock sturm and drang, conversational singing dropping confessional lyrics, and background vocals from Tony Williams and Esthero that push it all along. It’s all really obvious, especially combined with leaving town in a cab imagery/sort of metaphor but it works, which is more important.

Additionally and well, quintessentially Kanye, there’s a great deal of subtlety that support and conflicts with the Explosion in the Sky theatrics of most of the song. That opening electronic wail returns throughout but it’s not quite as whiny when it returns throughout the song and the background vocals, which could easily be over the top melismatic bullshit, are well just that, but they’re kinda hushed at the same time. There’s a point where Esthero coos and Tony Williams does this sexy mumbling soul-singer “mo-o-o-ments…” thing and it’s perfect. One more weird detail to put this song over and make you feel it in your gut or maybe even ruin your day the way all great sad music can ruin your day.

Lyrically, it gets better after the groan-inducing “do I still have time to grow?”. He’s working with the image of “street lights” and the cars as escape to nowhere imagery that can be traced through 50s rock to Springsteen or something like “Fast Car” to hip-hop’s requisite car jams; Kanye’s using the same committed to pathos imagery as Pimp C when Pimp tells you, “still like to get my dick sucked under the street lights” on last year’s “Gravy” or “…as I get swallowed under city lights” from “One Day”.

The assertion “I know my destination, but I’m just not there” is the mix of confidence and half-”I’m a fuck up” confessional, but there’s a personable quality to it when Kanye prefaces it with the word “See”. He’s explaining himself to us or his ex or whoever and the “see,” is the same kind of qualifier he’s been putting in his lyrics since Graduation which adds a level of modesty, but it’s still a bit accusatory, implying that at least he knows his destination, what about you? It’s a more complicated version of the bile he’s been spitting the whole album and it works because Kanye’s at least sort of being real on this track.

Written by Brandon

December 15th, 2008 at 8:10 pm

808s & Heartbreak Week: "Robocop"

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The intro to “Robocop” reminds me of the stumbling drums and movie clip beginning of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”, an 80s art-pop classic about the fucked up fears of love and relationships (the strings are similar too). But then it just goes on some other shit, similar to the Phil Collins nod, it’s a smart attempt to resolve 80s homage with Kanye’s own musical concerns.

This song is defiantly over-produced, there’s at least two too many string melodies, but the way it explodes into ecstatic melodramatic schmaltz for the chorus is like the triumphant scene in old animes like Robotech or G-Force brings it altogether and justifies the overabundance of sounds. Similarly, the end when Kanye drops most of the instruments out and falls back on only the regal strings for his “spoiled little L.A girl” coda is something that wouldn’t have the same power if he’d controlled himself on the other parts of the song.

What’s so great about this song is how Kanye stops sounding sad or upset, there’s a smile in his voice as he mockingly outlines the sequence of events—“who knew she was a drama queen/That’d turn my life to Stephen King’s”—and of course, he keeps comparing her actions to the iconic, emotionless 80s action hero. The song’s just fucking mean and angry and also laughing into the void a bit and that’s why it works. There’s no back and forth between depressed and angry, there’s no sad-sack jusfications of his assholism, he’s just laughing about the whole thing and being a total dick. And it’s brilliant.

There’s also an interesting aspect to the whole thing, especially when his girlfriend cheating comes into the album on “Bad News”, that Kanye was faithful and devoted to her but his past kept coming up. One’s history’s always an issue in a relationship, but while say, it’s weird if some chick I used to do it with is in the same record store or something as me, Kanye’s ex probably had to deal with seeing/hearing about famous or industry people Kanye’d been with, which makes it all the more inescapable.

Mix into this Kanye’s condescension (“there’s some thing she don’t need to know”) and his girlfriend’s clear inability to “drop it” (“yeah, I had her before/but that happened before/You get mad when you know, so just don’t ask me no more”) and it has the same sad, outside forces meets interior psychological fuck-ups that ruins most relationships.

But Kanye, at least for the length of the song, sees it all as a farce—probably the healthiest attitude to have—and so, he says fuck it and goes all out, making a goofy song called “Robocop” and ending it with a really funny and really cruel taunt about how she’s “a spoiled little L.A girl”. This is the knowing side of Kanye as he’s taken it so far that there’s no way he comes out of this song looking like anything but an asshole. The line “You must be jok-ing/Or you are smok-ing” gets me everytime.

And then, we go from the goofball glorious strings of “Robocop” to sad-bastard piano and wailing electronics on “Street Lights” and it’s the aural equivalent of regret for all the prick bullshit he just piled atop his ex one song before.

Written by Brandon

December 12th, 2008 at 5:05 pm

808s & Heartbreak Week: "Paranoid"

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808s is clearly cathartic for Kanye but there’s the odd, uncomfortable (in a good way) sense that this album has all kinds of layers and weirder, more implicit digs at ex-fiancee Alexis. Does anyone else get the feeling the in-the-background talking towards the beginning of “Paranoid” is Kanye and his ex? Some drop of audio he picked up while working on a song or something? Is “Robocop” just a goofball way of calling out his maybe too concerned with the chicks he banged in the past girlfriend or was there some all-out fight between the two where, in the big, dumb heat of the moment Kanye blurted out that she was “like a Robocop”? I’ve made dumber comparisons in a fit of anger.

Whether it is or not, those are the weird things that 808s sounds like it’s hiding all over. And it’s this point too, where the album gets to the universal “personal” of pop: We all do and say real dumb stuff when we’re arguing or fighting with significant others. There are lots of over-the-top love songs and plenty of over-the-top hate songs in pop music, but Kanye’s messing with this rarified perspective that’s both specific to his life and specific to everyone’s lives and focusing on the middle-ground complexities and awkward moments.

“Paranoid” immediately sounds like that Estelle song “American Boy”, if Kanye had produced it instead of Will.I.Am. A monster dance pop song that’s still rough around the edges. The synths fart, the drums whip like a Depeche Mode song, and the “paranoid” doot-doot-doot- synth-line runs underneath it all. Of course, it isn’t a song about paranoia and that’s why the paranoid part gets buried so quick, it’s a song about dealing with a girl who’s paranoid. Kanye invoked Phil Collins a few times in interviews and this song totally starts out like the simplistic rockist sense of atmosphere—play a synth like this=equals paranoia—that you get on something like “In The Air Tonight” and then it just explodes in a house-rap-electro douchebag party jam.

Lyrically though, it shares the weird contempt that musicians like Phil Collins or Don Henley often invoke. It’s a form of misogyny that’s been around way before hip-hop and as I’ve said in a few places now, is far uglier than just saying “bitches ain’t shit”. Again though, Kanye’s sort of playing with that as he bounces between reasonable arguments in the lyrics and condescension in the hook, accusing her of paranoia and talking to her like a child with, “you worry about the wrong things”.

As sissified and emotional as 808s may be, it’s a very male (not masculine) album. That he doesn’t grasp how his girlfriend’s issues with him and his past can’t just be dropped because they’re together, is both romantic and dumbly pragmatic: “All the time you wanna complain about the nights along/So now you’re here with me, show some gratitude, leave the attitude way back at home.”

You can totally see why this relationship didn’t work and there’s the sense that Kanye still doesn’t really get that. Or rather, he probably does at this point but he’s playing off the immediacy of it for the song, That’s why the catchiest song is one of the cruelest.

Written by Brandon

December 12th, 2008 at 4:01 am