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Archive for November, 2010

Kanye West Week: “Dark Fantasy”


“Dark Fantasy” tells listeners what My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is (a ridiculously grand rap epic), and what the album so easily could be (just another hot rap album). Sandwiched between a swelling, orchestral Mike Oldfield-anchored detour, introduced by a mock-elegant Nicki Minaj, there’s a demonic, immediate RZA track that Kanye pretty much slays. Cut all the baroque stuff off this song and you’d be left with a very hot, thrilling album opener. But that isn’t Kanye’s goal here–he’s going for something far more immersive. You’ll get some great-sounding rap, but that isn’t all you’re going to get. Sorry. There are plenty of other rappers (especially right now) that can give you just good rap. And a lot of them wouldn’t exist without Kanye West. He doesn’t have to save hip-hop or fix it. He needs to save himself.

The “Can we get much higher?” samples addresses Kanye’s insatiable desire for fame and attention and the broader, consumptive American attitude that more is better–be it drugs, fame, or money. The Oldfield sample also tells musically aware listeners that MBDTF has prog-rock ambitions. Part of prog’s appeal is it’s silly, overstuffed approach to music-making and Kanye has that in spades. Also, like a lot of those prog-rock maximalists, Kanye’s got a wily, knowing sense of humor about it all. Kanye’s detractors clown themselves when they take him completely serious. He’s aware that this album is ridiculous. He loved the G.O.O.D Friday cover art that rambled on with way too many guests and he got off on the fact that he released an Alejandro Jodorowsky-esque short film on all the major music channels…on a Saturday night.

Nicki Minaj’s intro is similarly grand and silly. She’s doing her impersonation of Tilda Swinton in Velvet Goldmine and maybe referencing David Hemmings’ narration of Rick Wakeman’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (don’t laugh, MBDTF is soaking in prog-rock). Her faux-British accent and the shift from “classy” to grit-teeth insanity, over top of a beat-less soundscape that whirls around in a sea of warm auto-tune (very Disney movie sonic world-building) and then abruptly cuts-off, speaks to one of Kanye’s most pervasive topics: Shit isn’t what you think it is. It might end at any moment. All that glitters is not gold.

Think of well, fairy tales themselves. In their current incarnations, thanks to Disney, they are relatively harsh but redemptive tales for kids. Often though, the source material for these tales are ugly, fucked-up stories. Dark fantasies. The real (original) story of say, “The Little Mermaid” is “far too mean” when you compare it to the 1989 animated classic: “You might think you’ve peeped the scene/You haven’t–the real one’s far too mean.” Nicki’s use of the word “scene,” and the introduction of hip-hop slang like “wack and corny” (she’s talking like a NahRight commenter), extends this sense of “you don’t know what’s actually going on” to modern day celebrity.

“Celebrity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” is a fairly loathsome topic at this point and it made parts of Graduation obnoxious, but here Kanye’s using it as an entry-point into diagnosing a broader, more universal sickness. In the first verse of “Dark Fantasy,” Kanye portrays himself as a rube, pulled in by fame and success (“I fantasized about this back in Chicago,”) and then, he deconstructs his own verses, while he raps them. He drops clever, fun shit-talk (“you ain’t got no fuckin’ Yeezy in your Serato?”) and then explains that the shit-talk is all a shield: “Me found bravery in my bravado.” The baby-talk there is charming and suggests an awareness of his own immaturity. By the end of the first verse though, Kanye hasn’t redeemed himself. He’s surrounded himself with the indulgences of high-end fashion (Phoebe Philo) and sex (“so much head, I woke up to Sleepy Hollow”)..

Verse two returns to the same stuff, Kanye again finding “bravery in [his] bravado” via his delightfully groan-inducing punchlines and then, shifting into a series of “what now?”-type questions. He’s famous and he’s “stopped the ignorance” and “killed the enemies” and he feels just as bad–and maybe even worse. He still has “night demons.” The bridge on “Dark Fantasy” is Kanye’s nightmare: A kids-only (orphans?) seance at a shopping mall that’s devoured by some creatures from hell, amidst a blur of conspicuous consumption. Then, Kanye wakes up and he’s in Paris, one of the world’s most elegant cities. It was only a dream. He’ll get out of bed and go about his day and the fame nightmare begins.

Kanye is writing about what he knows: Being wildly successful is uglier and weirder than you can imagine. Next, he’ll write about everything and everybody else. “Gorgeous” connects his fame and recent media takedowns to institutionalized racism. On “All Of The Lights” he’s inhabiting the voice of an average joe out of control and going through a custody battle. Oddly, “Hell Of A Life” humanizes porn stars, a relatively recent cultural obsession we’re all attracted to and disgusted by in equal parts. In the end, he’s hands the album over to Gil Scott-Heron to ask “who will survive in America?” and the question is really, “will any of us survive in America?”. Realize that Oldfield sample asked, “Can we get much higher?”.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a loose concept album about what it’s like to live in America, a decade into the new millennium, with everything going to shit or at least, really feeling like it’s going to shit. “Can we get much higher?” speaks to the “is America in its Rome phase?” debate that’s been going on at least since Bush sent us into a bunch of wars and helped wreck the economy. The album ends with the rhetorical, “who will survive in America?” MBDTF doesn’t have an answer to any these questions.

Written by Brandon

November 29th, 2010 at 9:30 pm

How Big Is Your World? Los – “Stand The Rain”

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Producer Skarr Akbar (an excellent Baltimore rapper in his own right) does something to New Edition’s “Can You Stand The Rain” so that it sounds like the music to an early 90s after-school special and Los unleashes all his concerns, frustrations, and worries over top of it, on some real Cam’ron “Harlem Streets”-style, tight-lipped sad-sack shit: “When I think of the feeling of seeing my face on a billboard in my own city/I reminisce like, “damn, I got nobody to zone with me.”

Los races through this Shooter highlight, firing off as many references to the minor victories and major tragedies of his life and the way they intertwine (“I’m focused on my vision, but damn I’m missin’ my dogs”), trying to keep up with that sped-up sample, and rapping like his time is running out, which makes sense when you’re a guy once signed to Bad Boy, who’s slowly building himself back up with mixtapes because suddenly, there’s a rap scene getting more and more comfortable with vibrant, on-beat obsessed rhymers again.

The most affecting aspect though, is the way Los bounces over the bad stuff in his life, enough for you to know it’s there, but not enough that it’s dwelled upon in great, street-cred grabbing detail. The line, “I think about our father, callin’ some time” refers to his dad, a high school basketball coach who was tragically murdered (shot in the head) when Los was still in his teens. One more contribution to the always entertaining “rap some serious shit over a corny, sped-up sample” sub-genre for sure.

Written by Brandon

November 29th, 2010 at 5:01 am

Pitchfork: Rihanna – “Only Girl (In The World)”


Wrote about Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In The World)” for Pitchfork. You probably already know this song’s great though, right?

Written by Brandon

November 25th, 2010 at 3:20 am

Posted in Pitchfork, Rihanna

Village Voice, Sound of the City: Interview with Yelawolf


My interview with Yelawolf went up over at “Sound of the City” earlier today. We met up on two separate occasions and talked about a bunch of stuff (monique_r was also there for interview one and got him talking Gummo) and dude was really open and willing to dig-in deep on some stuff, which is always nice. Probably the best interview I’ve done, though I haven’t done that many. Strangely, he had read my “Yelawolf’s Redneck Manifesto” piece and was genuinely moved by it which is a great feeling; to know you got something about an artist right.

Yelawolf began the year with the mixtape Trunk Muzik and he’s wrapping up his 2010 with a major label EP, Trunk Muzik 0-60, out today. Between the internet release of his mixtape and the EP’s arrival in stores, Yelawolf signed to Interscope records, toured with Wiz Khalifa, showed up on “You Ain’t No DJ” off Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot, bored a bunch of Brooklyn Bowl attendees, humped some girls on-stage in celebration of his The Fader cover, and rapped over the Cars’ “I’m Not The One” in a holiday sweater. This interview took place at a hot wings spot in Carrboro, North Carolina in the spring and a tour van a few months later in Greensboro, NC as the Gadsden, Alabama rapper prepped Trunk Muzik 0-60.

Written by Brandon

November 24th, 2010 at 3:31 am

Pitchfork: Star Slinger – “Elisabeth Fraser”

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So, I reviewed this really incredible refix of Cocteau Twins’ “Heaven Or Las Vegas” by UK’s Star Slinger for Pitchfork’s “The Playlist.” You can read it here.

Written by Brandon

November 23rd, 2010 at 6:42 am

Pink Friday Is Good!


Like B.O.B’s The Adventures Of Bobby Ray, Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday is a straight pop album with really great rapping jammed between soaring hooks and sitting on top of the shiny, four-on-the-floor, occasionally emo beats. And it’s that production aspect that explains why Pink Friday is becoming something the internet wants to pretend never happened.

What’s the problem, again? Nicki Minaj doesn’t ignore the rapping side of her talents for that pop sound, she mixes them together, and so, there’s still plenty to appreciate here. When she does employ this very specific type of pop production, it’s towards something a bit more moving and real. Both singles “Your Love,” and “Right Thru Me” are light, electronic dance songs without a whole lot of rapping, but they’re emotional and open–like a smarter, more lived-in version of B.O.B’s livejournal malaise. “Your Love” in particular, is an aggressive and kinder take on the “ride or die” chick rap song and “Right Thru Me” is a lose-all-control breakup song that maintains its composure. These aren’t girly love songs and people suggesting that to be the case are being straight sexist.

Other songs sound like the radio but remain casually subversive via unnecessarily great, really fun rapping: “Check It Out” and “Massive Attack” are highlights of this tenuous approach. Nicki really handles these pop songs well and uses their ridiculous, sensuous immediacy towards something more. Then there are the few rap-pop songs full of specific, touching feelings that occasionally go off-the-rails and find Nicki dropping a C-bomb (“Roman’s Revenge”), tearing apart a beat based around the song from The Breakfast Club (“Blazin”), or composing a rap letter to her old, less fortunate a bit more unstable hard-headedly underground self (“Dear Old Nicki”).

The issue seems to be what Pink Friday merges its rapping with (Billboard pop) and not the simple fact that it isn’t some kind of pedal-to-the-metal rap album. So, Lil B and Tyler can reference Ariel Pink and Kanye can get all baroque and prog-rock-like, but Nicki Minaj can’t pillow her excellent raps with an almost Miley Cyrus sheen and get away with it? This isn’t a question of purity, it’s a lunkheaded bias against the type of impurity she’s enacted and well, you’re just not allowed to mitigate fusion like that.

Written by Brandon

November 18th, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Posted in Nicki Minaj

Independent Weekly: “The Foreign Exchange continues its unmitigated risks on Authenticity

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“Y’all motherfuckers trying to get that Grammy again!” That’s Phonte Coleman—the songwriting, singing and sometimes rapping half of the experimental soul group The Foreign Exchange, impersonating the potential detractors of his group’s new, disarmingly serious record, Authenticity.

Their last album, 2008’s Leave It All Behind, received a Best Urban/ Alternative Performance Grammy nomination for the song “Daykeeper.” Nicolay Rook, the group’s producer, laughs at the all-too-real impersonation, stealing a glance away from the heaping plate of hush puppies in front of him. The duo has again rendezvoused on a Wednesday afternoon in late October, at the Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q restaurant in the little town of Warsaw, off Interstate 40’s Exit 364. The stop is equidistant from Rook’s Wilmington home and Raleigh, where Coleman resides.

Coleman and Rook certainly consider that Grammy nod when they make decisions, but not in the way one might expect. “We’re just doing us, and if [something like a Grammy] comes to us, it comes to us,” Coleman says brashly, “but I’m damn sure not gonna come to it.”

Written by Brandon

November 18th, 2010 at 3:58 am

Slant Magazine: “House Playlist: A Skillz, Kim Ann Foxman, and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart”

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“Creature,” the solo debut from DJ, dance-music savant, and Hercules and Love Affair vocalist Kim Ann Foxman, is an unmitigated techno record, entirely absent of disco’s swing, full of the kind of electronic jamming found on an extended 12″, with a pop song stuck between the deep-house synth workouts. Foxman’s vocals, an ineffable mix of sassy, teflon diva and hyper-sincere, indie-pop chanteuse, sell the song’s creeping eroticism and make it something both menacing and dance-ready and very much a throwback to a time when everything was trying to sound like Inner City’s “Big Fun.” And that’s a really awesome time.

Written by Brandon

November 18th, 2010 at 3:51 am

How Big Is Your World? DJ Class – “Bitch Ass Niggarrrrr”

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(photo by Josh Sisk)

DJ Class’ new track, titled um, “Bitch Ass Niggarrrrr” arrives at an interesting time for club music. Elements of the Baltimore sound have made their way to the radio (from four-on-the-floor pap like Usher’s “O.M.G,” to Waka Flocka Flame’s violent, dance records full of gun-shot percussion and more shouting than rapping) and into art-rap (Kanye’s “All Of The Lights” and Lil B’s “Ride Up” to name two up-to-the-minute examples), but club music itself remains as underground as ever. And if there were a sign that hometown producers are finally sick of trying to court mainstream attention, it would be this convulsive, completely off-putting, weirdly catchy track from Mr. “I’m The Ish” himself. A hybrid of two club classics (Class’ own “Tear Da Club Up” and Scottie B’s “Niggaz Fightin”), featuring an artfully chopped Boondocks sample (shades of Class’ masterful “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” refix) that couldn’t be less radio-friendly (or human friendly for that matter) and some incongruous auto-tune crooning, “Bitch Ass Niggarrrrr” is a harebrained attempt to merge Class’ singular street-pop sensibility with the kind of defiant, anti-social club music that he helped create almost twenty years ago–and it works way better than it really should.

Written by Brandon

November 12th, 2010 at 6:49 am

So Kanye leaked his album, right?


Judging from the glowing Rolling Stone review that arrived yesterday–a major publication wouldn’t release a genuine review of a leak, even in 2010–and the lack of Kanye’s bitch-fit tweets about the leak, this is part of the P.R plan for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s a way for critics to get the album out early enough to start making those thinkpieces and listicles. It side-steps the inevitable leak without damaging the mystique of the album altogether. Also: via “G.O.O.D Friday,” Kanye’s been casually leaking the album and adjusting listeners to the prog-rap epics for a few months now.

The clean version is also a less obnoxious variation on the “for promotional purposes only” audio-stamps that were popular a few years ago but made listening close to impossible. No one can pretend this is really an exclusive or a big deal (“You got the clean version off the internet like the rest of us buddy!”) because it isn’t the entire experience but, it’s not so short that it isn’t enjoyable. It’s the album but it isn’t. Late next week, when the “dirty” version finally does leak because the CD will be pressed by then, it won’t be a big deal anymore because we’ve all heard it. And two weeks from now, when we’re all still wrapping our heads around this masterpiece, many of us will give-in and buy the thing, joining the masses who aren’t all that interested in getting shit early and have never heard of Hulkshare or Mediafire.

Also: Feel free to use the comment section to gush about the album with me.

Written by Brandon

November 10th, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Posted in Kanye West