No Trivia

Archive for December, 2010

Village Voice: “Diddy Goes Back to the Basement”

leave a comment

So yeah, I interviewed Diddy about his ridiculously awesome dance album, Last Train To Paris. We mostly talked about Loose Ends and Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York.

Diddy doesn’t need to make an album like Last Train to Paris. OK: Diddy doesn’t need to do anything, but in particular, no one was looking to the guy for an electro-influenced, house-tinged, avant-r&b concept album about heartbreak. “I wasn’t trying to be vulnerable for the sake of shock, or for the sake of people admiring my vulnerability,” he notes over the phone, one week before the album’s release. Instead, his goal was “to just tell the truth.” On the intro track, backed by progressive house bleeps and bloops, Diddy introduces the record’s harsh conceit: “Love is a motherfucker…”

Written by Brandon

December 15th, 2010 at 3:19 am

Posted in Village Voice

Pitchfork: Top 100 Tracks Of 2010

one comment

Pitchfork’s always fascinating list of the top 100 songs of the year is up. I wrote the ones for “Blessa” by Toro Y Moi, “Over” by Drake, and “Exhibit C” by Jay Electronica.

Written by Brandon

December 14th, 2010 at 7:34 am

Kanye West Week: “Blame Game”


“Blame Game” is an epic battle for the last word, and though Kanye ultimately gets it, via Chris Rock (it’s Kanye’s album after all), he’s made a wise, ultimately even-handed, heavy sigh of a song that perfectly captures the off-the-rails feeling of an argument too loaded and wrapped inside itself to make sense anymore: “Who to blame? You to blame, me to blame.” Producer Kanye’s grabbing for any and every idea he’s got to make this song the immersive experience he intends it to be, and it’s markedly similar to Kanye, the spurned boyfriend, lobbing out every emotion inside his head, in hopes of keeping this argument afloat and the girlfriend right there where he can see her.

There’s that homesick Aphex Twin sample waddling along, John Legend’s restrained hook (between this and his quiet confidence on Wake Up!, he’s back to being interesting), some mournful strings, Kanye’s scatter-brained verses and the damaged vocal effects he’s placed on top of them, and then, a poetry reading, and an outrageous, outro skit featuring Chris Rock. The word “cinematic” is tossed-around in rap sometimes, usually to describe a detail-filled storytelling rap (think, Ghostface’s “Shakey Dog” or Yelawolf’s “Pop The Trunk,” though I’d call them “novelistic” for what it’s worth), but “Blame Game” is cinematic in the sense that it’s a cross-discipline, all-encompassing trip of a song–and in 2010, that kind of maximalist epic is something that only rap can do. Hip-hop’s grab-from-anything, do-whatever approach can stand up and improve upon the sort of ambitious statement music that progressive rock and art rock effectively killed three decades ago. MBDTF makes prog-rap an actually appealing sub-genre, and “Blame Game” in particular, has the kind of broad, silly, serious in-quotes grandiosity that say, My Chemical Romance’s Danger Days, another conceptual epic about America released last month, just doesn’t and can’t have anymore.

As Kanye’s relationship grows more complex and confused with each line, the beat sounds like it’s closer to falling apart. The drums shuffle and then clatter, in sharp contrast to the beauty of Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th,” and Kanye’s raps, loaded up with effects (echoed, screwed, bouncing between the left and right speakers), sound like some malfunctioning S.O.S transmission from space. On the verses, Kanye eschews structure, even allowing his rhymes to fall apart. Verse one is a structured, well-composed, oddly poetic bunch of bars, while verse two is long and winding and pretty much stops making sense halfway through. We get the general picture, but there’s weird asides about his girlfriend’s brother buying coke with his money, paranoid references to abuse, and plenty of Kanye boasting, quickly followed up with wounded confessions. There’s a careening, mealy-mouthed, draft-like approach to the writing here, as he rhymes “you” with “you” and “girl” with “girl” over and over.

This verse, unclear, structurally a mess, but deeply moving, offers up a challenge to Kanye’s detractors, who lob charges of insincerity at Kanye’s ongoing “boast, then bemoan it all” schtick. We’ve all acted exactly like Kanye does here. We’ve all played “the blame game” at some point or another: Screaming then apologizing, whining and then joking, feigning arrogance, and then crumbling up in a ball like the world’s gonna end, all in a matter of minutes.

The third verse, a thoughtful poem that Kanye reads rather than raps, suggests months-later acceptance of the situation. Painful honesty aside, Kanye’s still an entertainer, so he ends “Blame Game” with a cruel joke worthy of 808s & Heartbreaks. Chris Rock voices the average joe that will date Kanye’s much “improved” ex next. This is a very male way to view a break-up: “How did I permanently change this girl and who’s going to get the rewards of it now that I’m outta the picture?” A silly, masculine view of a relationship for sure, but one that most dudes, no matter how evolved or whatever, adopt at some emotional breaking point or another. Though it’s mainly about sexuality here, this is really exactly the same as say, Ghostface on “Wildflower” reminding an ex, “I’m the first nigga that had you watchin’ flicks by Deniro” or some bitter bro in Brooklyn seeing his old girlfriend at some indie rock show and thinking, “Man she wouldn’t even know about Neon Indian if it weren’t for me.”

It would be great if Kanye could look at himself from this perspective (“Amber taught me”), but there’s not a single conflict on MBDTF that’s properly or appropriately resolved. And implicitly, there’s an awareness here, as Kanye’s very much capturing the feeling of being in the middle of a break-up, with lines like, “I’ll call you bitch for short, as a last resort,” doing a kind of A Lover’s Discourse deconstruction of the heartbreak’s cliches. This is not an angry song, but a song about anger and that makes it much more affecting.

Written by Brandon

December 14th, 2010 at 4:32 am

Kanye West Week: “Hell Of A Life”


“Hell Of A Life” is a bizarro inversion of the hundreds of “we love these hoes” rap songs. Rather than focus on sexual prowess and what they can do to him, Kanye presents these kinds of girls as sexual transgressors, brave enough to do and act on the kind of stuff polite, bougie society looks down upon. The third verse is most explicit with this, when Kanye announces “one day, I’m gonna marry a porn star,” and then envisions their awesomely chaotic life together (“nothing to hide, we both screwed the bridesmaid”) and then strangely, imagines trying to take her to an Oscar party, only to be rejected by Oscar de la Renta when it comes to renting a dress. Kanye bitterly asks, “How can they say they live they live wrong/When you ain’t never fucked with the lights on?”

As is often the case, Kanye’s pointing out an obvious but still poignant hypocrisy: Fashion, which sells sex and the body just like porn, which is just as abusive to the females involved in the industry, thumb their nose at the porn industry. That “fucked with the lights on” line, touches back on the hook to “All Of The Lights,” and continues the sub-theme of MBDTF: There’s the world you see and there’s the real world and Kanye’s going to turn all the lights on, de-idealize everything, and give you that real world.

Though Kanye relates and respects porn stars’ honesty, he maintains a distance from them in the song, because he knows he’s too normal and middle-class to truly keep up with them. He’s the fool who dabbles in this thrilling, seedy world of threesomes and day-long sex sessions, and ultimately, takes it too seriously. In verse four, he falls in love: “Got married in the bathroom…honeymoon on the dance floor…got divorced by the end of the night.” Kanyee sings those in-awe-of-porn lines over a menacing church choir, sonically merging the “pussy and religion” of the hook. After that, there’s a strange, outro of sex noises and Kanye breathing heavily, as a metronome clicks. Time is running out for Kanye. He can’t live like this. He’s lost in this shit.

Another reason Kanye’s an outsider, even in the supposedly “free” world of porn is because he’s black. Verse two mostly concerns itself with the hypocritical standards of the porn industry, who value porn stars based on what they will or will not do, and notes that a porn star’s reputation is sullied or at least, changed, if she does anal, a gang bang, or um, black guys. This verse is before verse three, which celebrates the porn star as a Byronic or Nietzschean figure in an increasingly bullshit-ass world, and comes after verse one, which mostly idealizes the porn star’s “bad bitch” qualities. That said, the “don’t do black guys or gang-bangs” rule is more the fault of the industry than the porn star herself.

There’s plenty of speculation about who these lost, love songs are about and ultimately it doesn’t matter, but Amber Rose, is interesting to consider in terms of “Hell Of a Life.” I think it’s about her–or really, it’s about the media’s response to Amber Rose. This song is making the same point as the dinner scene in the Runaway film, in which a group of finely-dressed, black men and women whisper and point at Kanye’s new girlfriend, the Phoenix. Amber Rose, the Phoenix, a porn star, they’re all outside of the norm, and Kanye’s using them to rap a harsh, complex critique on white bourgeoisie values that have defined body type and standards of beauty and sexual morals for centuries. Those are the same values that got Kanye ostracized for speaking his mind on George Bush or Taylor Swift.

One last thing: Think about the weird, hard-rock history running around inside of this song. You have a sample of psych-rockers The Mojo Men and an interpolation of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” Along with the progressive rock samples (Mike Oldfield, King Crimson) and the general proggy attitude of MBDTF, Kanye’s constructing a history of heavy music, grabbing from the acid rock that birthed prog, and the metal that would come out of prog and become the next loud, bombastic genre, and mashing it all together into epic, horrifying hip-hop.

This is also the second song with the word “man” in the title that Kanye’s grabbing from, and like, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” it seems like Kanye would find “Iron Man” painfully relatable. An ignored, ostracized, and eventually vengeful, martyred villain: “Nobody wants him/He just stares the world/Planning his vengeance/That he will soon unfurl.”

Written by Brandon

December 10th, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Kanye West Week: “Runaway”


“Runaway” is the sound of Kanye’s emotional growth trying to catch-up with his artistic growth and well, he’s almost there. Of course, a half-right Kanye West is far more interesting than all-out loathsome asshole Kanye or a neutered nice guy Kanye anyways. The immediately bloggable “let’s have a toast for the douchebags” hook turns the song into a knowing joke (the hook’s ironic, some people don’t seem to realize this) and a disarming confessional (Kanye’s facing the facts: He is a douche). And Pusha T is the asshole here. Kanye raps his confessions and insecurities with a shit-eating grin (he knows he’s awful and cares but doesn’t care and that’s a douche), while Pusha just doesn’t care. He raps the facts to the girl he’s cheated on and the ball’s in her court: “I did it, alright, I admit it/Now pick your next move, you can leave or live with it.”

Pusha continues on though, doing his own damaged form of a seduction, teasing the girl with a future without him (“back to wearin’ knock-offs”), asking her out on a date already (“Let’s talk over mai tais…”), and returning to the transactions she made in dating him, whether she knew it or not (“Every bag, every blouse, every bracelet/Comes with a price tag baby, face it/You should leave if you can’t accept the basics.”). Then once more, he reminds her that there’s plenty of other girls out there (hilariously, “Plenty hoes in the baller nigga’s matrix”) and since he’s already cheated on her, what does he care? Shit man, Pusha makes it sound like he’s doing her the favor. That’s an asshole move.

Kanye’s lyrics here don’t need a close-reading, they’re simple and literal (like 808s & Heartbreaks), but a few lines and observations to speak to Kanye’s growing knowledge of self much better than the “honest” (but not exactly honest) self-helpisms like “I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most.” The dedication to “the jerkoffs/That’ll never take work off,” is Kanye extending his plight to something beyond his own problems and also, something distinctly male: The tendency for men to focus on everything but the real emotional stuff that matters. This is what Pusha T is holding at bay when he explains the implicit contract his girl entered when she started fucking a dude who has a ton of money and can buy her shit. He provides money and material things and that should be enough. Kanye, in that “jerkoffs” aside, is hinting at the understanding that more than all that baller type stuff, it’s nice to just be there for the other person. To not buy bags, blouses, and bracelets, but jesus christ, take a few days off of work and pay attention to the world around you.

There’s also the self-loathing advice for the girls to “runaway as fast as you can,” coupled with the confession, “and I don’t know how I’mma manage/If you just up and leave,” that really puts you inside of Kanye’s nutty, conflicted, needy head. It’s typical argument stuff (“go!…no, don’ go, ever!”) but it’s really effective in conveying how confused he is, and coupled with the three minutes of auto-tuned moaning, it’s pretty scary. When I wrote about 808s & Heartbreaks here, I compared the heavily distorted auto-tune to a “malfunctioning HAL-9000,” and its extended, tedious moaning, as the beautifully simple and elegant beat keeps playing along, is disturbing and darkly funny. It’s like the world’s going on around Kanye as he’s lying on the floor, drooling, tears coming out of his eyes, snot dripping from his nose. There’s absolutely no “need” for this to be stuck on the end of an excellent, clever pop-rap song, but it feels vital and really puts you inside of heartbreak. It’s tedious and annoying and seems like it’ll never end.

Strangely, the last three minutes of “Runaway” have me thinking of this scene from David Gordon Green’s All The Real Girls. Following the break-up of the two main characters, this Mogwai-scored time-lapse montage interrupts the movie. It’s a way to show the world keeps going on, even as the main character’s lives are stopped by heartbreak. “Runaway”s beat is the world, moving along, shifting up and changing, and Kanye’s vocals are the out-of-his-head devastated guy circling the drain.

Written by Brandon

December 7th, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Kanye West Week: “Devil In A New Dress”


Here begins the suite of tricky, intensely personal break-up songs that make up MBTDF’s second half. “Devil In A New Dress” is a marked shift from the first bunch of tracks that all, in one way or another, wrestle with the broader “who will survive in America” question/theme. Here, it’s all relationship raps. 808s & Heartbreak with some hindsight.

Relationship issues were introduced in the first half on “All Of The Lights,” but it was consciously outside of Kanye’s personal experiences and closer to something the average American faced: divorce, jail-time, money issues. On “Devil In A New Dress, “Runaway,” “Hell Of A Life,” and “Blame Game,” Kanye nods to his empathetic “All Of The Lights” raps by filling-in the details of his own chaotic and frustrating love life. Curiously, Kanye doesn’t sequence these break-up songs into a straight-forward narrative, he takes an art-film, out-of-sequence approach to them, to maximize emotional impact. So, we begin at the beginning of the end with “Devil In A New Dress” and we end at the very end with “Blame Game,” but we detour with an odd apologia (“Runaway”) and a bitter, sympathetic defense of ostracized, transgressive women (“Hell Of A Life”).

The first verse of “Devil In A New Dress” is Kanye’s internal thoughts about this girl across the table who won’t fucking talk, and the second verse is Kanye, having mulled over those thoughts (though not for long enough), finally breaking the awkward, over-dinner silence: “Why you standing there with your face screwed up?”?

Notice how much of this song seethes with casual, snarky contempt. The kind of shit you say to someone you liked so much that you know exactly what to say to really fuck them up. There are all kinds of bitter one-liners thrown in there, that toss insults hurled his way right back (“I thought I was the asshole/I guess it’s rubbing off”) and mock the girl’s lack of culture (“that’s Dior Homme not Dior homie”). That last one is especially pointed given the whole Chris Rock “Yeezy taught you well,” skit at the end of “Blame Game.”

There’s also a cynicism in the numerous asides about Satan and Jesus that weren’t there when he rapped about religion on “Jesus Walks.” It’s like he dropped his sympathy for sinning, confused Christians and just thinks they’re straight bullshit. That accusatory “we” to “you” shift in the line, “We love Jesus but you done learned a lot from Satan” is quite telling.

Thanks to the odd vocal snippet from Smokey Robinson’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” that Bink slightly pitch-shifted and Kanye recontextualizes, “Devil In A New Dress” becomes the scene in Citizen Kane where Charles Foster Kane and his wife sit in uncomfortable silence over dinner. Smokey’s sort of ad-lib, “you don’t have to say a word to me this evening” becomes the mondegreen: “Haven’t said a word to me this evening.” Another way to approach “Devil In A New Dress” is as a bitter parody of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” Both songs hinge on uncertainty and the mysteries of the female sex, but where “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is vulnerable and open, “Devil In A New Dress” is bitter and self-involved.

That “haven’t said a word to me this evening” line is perfect because it’s the sort of thing that every guy has thought or uttered at a dissatisfied date, or soon to be ex-girlfriend or wife, but it’s really a sign of male egotism. The observation (which is really just a complaint), is about what the other person isn’t doing and how that’s affecting (in this case), Kanye. This is something he cannot control (another person’s mood) and yet, it’s something he seems tied to, like an umbilical cord: Why isn’t she talking? Why isn’t she verbally expressing her approval to me? Shades of the kind of petulant jealousy on MBDTF reject “Mama’s Boyfriend.”

And then, after an intentionally defeated, dusted interlude that sounds like a chintzy mix of Bloozy fawnk guitar and faux-elegant jazz, Kanye, the bitter boyfriend scowling and bitching from across the table, gains all of his confidence back and rematerializes as Rick Ross, who would never worry about a bitch not speaking. Kanye’s always employed guests on his albums in clever, commentary-packed ways that those artists don’t even grasp, and Rick Ross is used here for his addictive devotion to just making shit up and not even trying to sell it. Ross doesn’t actually sound victorious or swagger-filled (though, “I never needed acceptance from all you outsiders” is brilliant), but he does come across as unflappably, even idiotically confident and that’s the point here. The end of this song is Kanye grasping for some confidence, no matter how unstable or transparent, and finding it in Ross.

Written by Brandon

December 7th, 2010 at 8:51 am

Kanye West Week: “Monster” and “So Appalled”


This is the point where MBDTF gets messy. Two posse cuts back-to-back. Two songs in a row with Jay-Z guest spots. Rick Ross appears on “Monster,” disappears for “So Appalled” and returns on “Devil In A New Dress.” Pusha T raps on “So Appalled,” then, isn’t on “Devil In A New Dress,” and is back for “Runaway.” This kind of wonky sequencing wouldn’t even work on a “good rap songs” mix CD you made for a friend.

Kanye however, is a master of excess and this mid-album mess of guests doesn’t topple MBDTF over, it actually opens the album up a bit. Suddenly, there’s a plethora of voices rapping and commenting on stuff and they’re not being controlled by Kanye, as they are on “All Of The Lights,” or functioning as a simple counterpoint to Kanye’s verses, like Raekwon’s “advice rap” verse on “Gorgeous.” The production gets a little subtler and kinda slaps, and it’s well, fun! For two tracks at least, you’re in a room of people bouncing ideas off one another without Kanye guiding their every move. Kanye doesn’t own “Monster” and “So Appalled” the way he does the rest of the album and on “Monster,” he (and everybody else) completely lose out to Nicki Minaj.

Conceptually, it’s hard to justify “Monster” and “So Appalled” on MBDTF, but they’re a hoot, and due to their sequencing, function as tracks where Kanye steps out of his dark fantasy world and into the real world to rap some hard-ass, hilarious shit with his pals. But these songs are still only relatively fun and open. Both go on for too long and though that’s part of what makes them so enjoyable (you can really just zone out and listen to a flurry of words, cleverly and poorly delivered), it’s hardly necessary, and really, everybody rapping is consumed with paranoia and anger. Kanye and company are either telling you how awesome they are, or how awful everybody else is, and the beats though, vibrant and immediate, are also pretty spare and ominous. These are posse cuts on the defensive. The entire conceit of “So Appalled” is that fame, success, and the riches it brings are inherently absurd.

Maybe the only lines rapped on either of these songs that acknowledge anything outside of the world of rap are Kanye’s last three lines on “So Appalled.” Before handing it over to a particularly ire-filled Jay-Z, Kanye explains, “Niggas is goin’ through real shit man, they outta work/That’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt/That’s why I’d rather spit something that gotta purp.” Right there, you get something of a personal mission statement for MBDTF: Rap with a purpose, counter current trends, and acknowledge a fucked-up world beyond your own bullshit ass problems. Kanye spends the rest of the album doing just that, rapping with purpose, but “Monster” and “So Appalled,” are just Kanye and friends having fun–or as much fun as competitive rappers of varying buzz and success can have.

Written by Brandon

December 3rd, 2010 at 8:12 am

Kanye West Week: “All Of The Lights”


Rather than carry the momentum of “Power” over to “All Of The Lights,” a minute or so of classy piano and cello’s placed between the two songs. It’s an appropriate moment of pause after a song that just sonically portrayed a suicide and it compartmentalizes MBTDF, sectioning off the next group of guest-heavy tracks: “All Of The Lights,” “Monster,” and “So Appalled.” There isn’t a clear narrative to MBTDF, so the interlude isn’t the Kanye character ascending to heaven (or hell) after the suicide or anything, but it is a conventionally beautiful pillow of music on an otherwise ugly-sounding album. Free of samples, or even drums, “All Of The Lights Interlude” is the least “hip-hop” thing Kanye’s composed.

The “joke” of this interlude though, is that it doesn’t prepare listeners for “All Of The Lights” at all. A blur of male vocals (it mostly sounds like Tony Williams and Charlie Wilson) interrupt the Oscar-winning score-sounding interlude and start the real song, which grabs from the least refined, most un-classy urban sound imaginable: Baltimore club music.

While it may sound like this Baltimore boy is committing some strange act of homerism here, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Kanye’s quite familiar with club music. Kanye was on an official a remix of DJ Class’ minor 2009 Baltimore club/pop hit, “I’m The Shit,” even shouting out Baltimore label Unruly Records. The stretching and contracting, high-energy horns are a Baltimore club staple and “All Of The Lights is basically an amalgamation of a few club hits and derivations. It’s one part M.I.A’s “XR2″ (produced by Diplo, no stranger to Bmore club, while other songs on Kala were produced by Baltimore’s Blaq Starr), another part Debonair Samir’s “Samir’s Theme” (which “XR2″ is basically trying to be, and was rapped on by Swizz Beatz for “I’m Cool”), mixed with the aggressive patience of the O.G horn-club classic, “Tear Da Club Up” by DJ Class.

DJ Class – “Tear Da Club Up”

Above is a player so you can hear “Tear Da Club Up” in its full, five-minute glory (no You Tube video features the whole song). The mp3 is from Reggie Reg’s The 9 O’Clock Mix, a fairly popular late 90s mixtape, so you hear another song mixed in towards the end, but it does illustrate the similarities between “All Of The Lights” and “Tear Da Club Up”. Namely, this loping, stretched-out and then stuttering triumphant horn.

Kanye though, adds plenty (arguably too much) flavor to that horn track, turning Baltimore club into a symphony of pop stars, kitchen-sink instrumentation, all bobbing and weaving around an epic but fairly simple dance track. Like the best dance songs, “All Of The Lights” is full of change-ups and slight modifications and it seems like Kanye wanted to treat his vocalists like piece of the song, not “guest spots.” And sure, part of this song is a not-so-quiet boast about the kind of starpower Kanye can dial-up, even for just a few seconds, but all the celebs are being mixed up and down and organized like instruments–and it really works!

The first half of “All Of The Lights” is a Kanye West track featuring Rihanna. Rihanna’s demand to “turn all the lights on” because she wants us all “to see” is a continuation of MBTDF’s sense that things aren’t as they appear. By turning all of the lights on, everything’s exposed for what it really is. Most explicitly, Kanye continues this point on “Hell Of A Life,” when he asks judgmental fashionistas, “How can you say [porn stars] live life wrong? When you never fucked with the lights on?” In typically lewd, clever Kanye fashion, “fucking with the lights on” becomes a metaphor for seeing things as they really are–unadorned, and unmasked.

Two whole verses and Rihanna’s hook a bunch of times go by before the whole thing switches out, and another moaning, strangely affecting Kid Cudi vocal arrives right along with Elton John’s piano for a bridge between “All Of The Lights” featuring Rihanna, and “All Of The Lights” featuring everybody in the world, ever. Once it changes over, Fergie provides an M.I.A-esque rap that’s far more political than anything M.I.A would rap (a nice, touching dose of female-oriented recession rap), and then back to Rihanna, before Tony Williams, John Legend, and maybe The-Dream, Ryan Leslie, and Cudi enter, and then Alicia Keys ends it with the kind of histrionic wail only she can sell and get away with. Somewhere, Elly Jackson from La Roux’s in there too.

In the midst of all this maximalist, beatmaker-as-conductor insanity, and right after the solipsistic “Power,” Kanye delivers some of his most down-to-earth and empathetic raps of his career. His verses on “All Of The Lights” aren’t polite, personal-political nods to people that aren’t Kanye West, he inhabits the voice of a dude whose problems are far more pressing than too much pussy and paparazzi. In the first verse, after a hilariously cruel memoriam to Michael Jackson (“our nigga dead.”), the Narrator races up stairs (the way the horns rise as he sings “I’m headed home, I’m almost there,” is like Odysseus back from sea) after a stint in prison, somehow expecting everything to be normal upon his return. But it isn’t: “To my surprise, a nigga replacing me.” Of course, he beats the shit out of the dude (“I had to take em’ to that ghetto university”).

Verse two continues this movie, and Kanye’s writing here is economic but very affecting and spot-on. The idea of having to meet at a Borders bookstore (so much less classy than Barnes & Noble) because the court’s ordered “public visitation” is funny and pathetic and gets at the degrading pathos that comes with divorce and being a fuck-up male in the American legal system. The Narrator is an abuser, but he’s trying, and this whole sequence of events really pains him because it’s emasculating, and also because he feels powerless in helping his daughter in any way other than handing his dough over to a wife that doesn’t give a fuck about him: “She need a daddy/Baby please, don’t let her grow up in that ghetto university.”

The empathy and complexity of this verse can’t be understated. At the risk of defending abusive husbands and absentee fathers, Kanye makes a quiet case for how and why these guys get to that point. Namely, that often, males are put in positions they never wanted to or expected themselves to be in and before they know it, they’re in jail, then out of jail, convinced shit will be fine. When it isn’t, and they’ve been replaced, they beat the fuck out of the new guy. Now, they’re spending an hour a week with their kid at a fucking Borders until they can prove they’re not a total piece of shit. It’s a rough cycle.

Fergie of all people, continues the empathetic conceit of Kanye’s raps, adopting the voice of a confused, job-less chick: “Unemployment line, credit card declined/Did i mention, I was about to lose my mind?/And was about to do that line?” Just as Kanye’s believable as the abusive, idiotic, means-well, ex-husband, is Fergie believable as a economically irresponsible, drug abuser. Maybe this is the “single black female addicted to retail” of “All Falls Down,” a few years later, with no job or money because the recession hit and credit card companies are a little less kind these days. In the middle of this wailing party track bubbling over with starpower, you get a portrait of two, all-too average American fuck-ups.

Written by Brandon

December 2nd, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Kanye West Week: “Power”

one comment

“Power” isn’t Kanye’s first foray into progressive rock–that’d be “Drunk and Hot Girls,” which samples Can’s “Sing Swan Song”–but this King Crimson-sampling song is the most explicit and thematically consistent. Back when My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was still called Good Ass Job, George Condo’s art for the “Power” single depicted Kanye’s decapitated head, wearing a crown, with a sword sticking out of it. It was a pop-art mash-up of Gentle Giant’s regal cover for The Power & The Glory (both of those are Kanye song titles by the way), the grotesquerie of the cover to Gentle Giant’s self-titled, mixed with Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Not too long after that, we got Condo’s distorted portrait of Kanye–a clear homage to the King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King. What’s the deal here?

Well, imagine that you’re Kanye West and you’re somewhere or another, and you hear King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” What grabs you first is Robert Fripp’s monster riff, with one foot in the psychedelia of the immediate past and the other foot, paving the way for proto-metal. You grit your teeth as Michael Giles’ plodding but funky drums kick-in. Greg Lake’s heavily distorted vocals scream out poetic, apocalyptic lyrics and that “Oh shit!” look shoots across your face. Maybe that “nothing he’s got, he really needs” line hits home and you think, “Hey! I am the 21st Century Schizoid Man! That’s me!” So you sample it, but not the horns or drums like most hip-hop producers, you grab a slab of that riff and the grating vocals and you call the song “Power.”

Like Late Registration’s “Diamonds (From Sierre Leone)” and Graduation’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” “Power,” was the bitch-fit first single from Kanye. With petty digs at Saturday Night Live and the context of that Taylor Swift incident looming in the background, Kanye sent out a big, scary, angry “fuck you” to listeners. He doesn’t find room for regret or apology, the introspection is more like Kanye explaining himself (“This is way too much, I need a moment,” “I just need time alone, with my own thoughts”), and given the abrasive qualities of the track, it marked Kanye’s return from post-VMA exile to announce, “fuck man, I was right all along.”

“Power” isn’t the central track thematically, because MBTDF isn’t solely focused on Kanye West), but it does contains many of the ideas and recurring freakouts of MBDTF. The bitter asides about racism (“In this white man’s world, we the ones chosen”), the desire to return to childhood and to something simpler and innocent (“My child-like creativity, purity, and honesty/ Is honestly being prodded by these grown thoughts”), the whole “bravery in my bravado” thing of following up a confession or honest admission with a ton of shit-talk (the entire third verse), and of course, the overarching theme that eventually, everything’s going to go to shit. “No one man should have all that power,” is like a knowing threat and another way to articulate the “can we get much higher?” theme at the center of MBDTF.

The best part of this song and the part where it isn’t just typical, classic, conflicted Kanye is Dwele’s suicidal coda. Besides being an absurd, awesomely inappropriate reference to Ron Browz’s “Jumping (Out The Window),” it’s an effective and disturbing literalization of the album’s persistent theme: Everything that rises eventually falls. So, we’re given the image of Kanye jumping out of a window to his death, which he calls “beautiful” and declares a relief because he’s “letting everything go.” The suicidal melodrama’s earned because Kanye’s spent the song not apologizing and not confessing his supposed sins, and by the end, he’s got nothing else to do but end it all.

This is pop star melodrama, and it isn’t. There’s enough seething anger on MBDTF to think Kanye really felt like ending it all recently, he’s referenced leaving rap at the height of fame and controversy before (“I romanced the thought of leaving it all behind” from “Gone”), he did make 808s & Heartbreaks, and his rap career began with a near-fatal car accident.

The most despair-filled aspect of “Power” though, comes after the suicide and before the song’s instrumental outro of Rick Wakeman-esque keyboard freakouts, theatrical cackles, and gorgeous piano (it a bittersweet melange of sounds), when Kanye asks, “You got the power to let power go?” Just like “can we get much higher,” it’s a leading question because Kanye already knows the answer. The answer is no.

Written by Brandon

December 2nd, 2010 at 7:55 am

Kanye West Week: “Gorgeous”


Like some deformed, mutant version of a Late Registration song, “Gorgeous” is a baroque but grimy rap track: Fuzzy garage rock guitar, heavily distorted vocals, a guest verse from Raekwon. This odd combination of the mannered and the messy is appropriate for the guy that, according to Complex, was watching porn while he made this masterpiece, and according to Peter Macia of The Fader, uttered this gem: “See, what I like about this is that it’s really beautiful art, but there’s also a bunch of titties.”

So listen closely, underneath the Turtles sample and Mike Dean guitar, there are all these layers of instruments beautifully, organically snapping against one another. “Gorgeous” is just as overproduced as Late Registration, but there’s more tension and counterpoint here, so it never devolves into Jon Brion’s elaborate, Grammy-tugging formula. It still sounds hard, even a bit disconcerting. Kanye and Raekwon’s vocals are sent through a filter that makes them sound like they’re on a crappy cell-phone. The only “clean” aspect of this song is Kid Cudi singing this languid, depressed hook (He’s the Eeyore of rap hooks) that grabs from decades of rap cliches, from “The Message” (“I’m on the edge, so why you playing?”) to “Lose Yourself” (“No more chances if you blow this, you bogus”).

Content-wise, “Gorgeous” is ugly too. A rap-rant about racism, from the all-too common profiling sort, to things specific to Kanye’s rarefied fame. He begins with an eloquent ode to hustling (“all of them fallen, for the love of ballin”), and moves into racial profiling (“Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon”) and wisely, mentions his celebrity to drive the point home: “And at the airport, they check through all my bag and tell me that it’s random.” The airport aside show Kanye’s not immune to this stuff because he’s famous (he returns to this in verse two with “As long as I’m in Polos they think they got me”) and that’s one of the themes of MDBTF: Kanye’s still a black guy in a country and industry that’s still very racist. To raise the stakes, to show he’s not holding back his punches, he ends the verse with a convoluted, Jay Electronica-esque punchline that implies AIDS is a government conspiracy and mixes that with some Booker T. Washington boot-straps, spread the wealth type stuff: “I treat the cash the way the government treat AIDS/I won’t be satisfied til’ all my niggas get it, get it?”

It’s good to hear Kanye rapping about race issues this aggressively, as it’s something he mostly left out of his arsenal around the time he decided Graduation was gonna be stadium rap made for everybody and anybody. Even “Everything I Am,” with it’s touching “man, killing’s some wack shit” verse was more of a Cosby-esque “C’mon people” point than the conspiratorial, angry invective we get here. Getting called a “nigger” by like, twelve year old Taylor Swift fans on Twitter and YouTube will probably remind you of how fucked-up and internalized racism remains and get your blood boiling.

The second verse carries the anger over, but Kanye directs it towards the celebrity-industrial complex. Kanye’s key-line here is, “I thought I chose a field where they couldn’t sack me,” which is a funny way of calling bullshit on all the people that feigned offense when he called out Bush or told everybody Beyonce is better than Taylor Swift. He’s a rapper! He’s going to say some real, offensive shit sometimes. And Kanye is old enough to remember the early 90s when you know, The Chronic was invading the suburbs. So, on some level he realizes how low-stakes his offenses to mainstream media sensibilities really are.

In other ways though, Kanye’s more of a danger than Dre or NWA, because he moves between worlds and can’t be so easily categorized or dismissed. This bothers and scares people. That’s what he’s getting at with that “as long as I’m in a Polo, they think they got me,” line: It’s a game and the minute you don’t play the game, you’re a racist or a nigger or both or you’re going to get your career snatched away from you. Kanye’s comparisons to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are obnoxious and straight rap braggadocio, but he’s onto something in terms of how complex black celebrities are perceived, maligned, and um, sometimes assassinated.

Verse three continues its critique of the industry, but specifically attacks its cruelty, first hinted at in verse two’s couplet: “We make em’ say, ‘ho’ because the game so pimpish/Choke a Southpark writer with a fishstick.” Kanye begins by rapping celebutante diva-isms (“I need more drinks and less lights,”), throws in a lusty reference to a model and then strangely, humanizes the “American apparel girl in just tights”: “She told the director she trying to get into school/He said “take them glasses off and get in the pool.” That’s a darkly funny fit for a David Mamet play. With a simple order, her dreams and desires are tossed away.

Having shown some empathy, Kanye’s moved to confess his own fuck-ups (“It ain’t funny no more, try different jokes!”) and seems reenergized by his admission, so he talks some shit on up and coming, blog-hype rappers (“You blowin’ up? That’s good, fantastic.”). Jay-Z was trying to say the same thing on Blueprint 3’s “A Star Is Born” but Jay’s much more diplomatic than Kanye, so it had no bite. Raekwon ends the song with some wizened advice rap–a nice, temporary antidote to Kanye’s cynicism–and a Mike Dean solo that isn’t exactly cathartic, squonks along half-victorious in the song’s final moments.

Written by Brandon

December 1st, 2010 at 9:04 pm