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Village Voice, Sound of the City: "Jay-Z’s "D.O.A" and the Five Auto-Tuned Songs (Among Many) That Prove Him Wrong"

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“Released late Friday, Jay-Z’s new single, “D.O.A (Death of Auto-Tune),” from the now thoroughly-announced The Blueprint 3, is less a Martin Luther-like cry for hip-hop reformation than an awkward slab of concept rap. The concept: That a new Jay-Z song about rap’s current “lack of aggression” and tight jeans, over a jagged No I.D. beat of choked clarinet and wailing guitar, simply by existing, represents the death of auto-tune.

That’s the idea anyway. Really, the song is just a new way to say “this is that real street shit”–e.g., this is that death of auto-tune shit. It’s a gimmicky song that sets out to destroy Rap & B’s latest gimmick. The stunt is reminiscent of Hip-Hop Is Dead, the rap-killing album by Jay-Z’s good buddy Nas, and Jay’s own American Gangster, which found businessman Jay-Z painted into a corner in which the only way to return to reliable gun-talk was to wrap it around a movie tie-in conceit.

In the two days or so since the song was released, “D.O.A.” hasn’t yet killed the vocal manipulation trend–and it probably won’t, ever. As VIBE’s Sean Fennessey pointed out, HOT97–where the track debuted to the ritual flurry of Funkmaster Flex sound effects–was playing auto-tuned Ron Browz productions within a half hour of letting “D.O.A” out into the world. Can you kill something that parodied itself from its inception? When T-Pain’s collaborating with joke-rappers Lonely Island and um, Death Cab For Cutie have half-jokingly spoken out, you’re late to the game. At this point, the only thing more obnoxious than auto-tune is being categorically opposed to the trend…”

Written by Brandon

June 8th, 2009 at 3:34 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

808s & Heartbreak Week: "Love Lockdown"

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Everything I said here about “Love Lockdown” is still valid and that’s why it’s such a strange song, part of an album. Some points where I no longer agree with myself though are related to the “critic bait” accusation and musical signifying.

The album’s just too bizarre and of it’s own weird, ugly, wonderful genre (I said similar things about Jeezy’s Inspiration) for it to be the the gives Rolling Stone a boner “breakup album” I thought it to be. Musically, whether it’s properly mastered version of the songs, Kanye’s drastic changes since the first version of this hit the internet, or my waning cynicism for 808s, a lot of the musical signifying isn’t there or just plain works.

The pounding drums that starts and end the song are so rich and resonant they doesn’t resemble a heartbeat anymore. The explosions of drums still feels glorious as both a surge of energy and as something that sorta swings and well, let’s get to maybe the best thing on this album: Crazy manipulated female soul samples turned into some primal or from hell or something wail.

I called them “pterodactyl groans” because it reminds me of like some shit in Jurassic Park or something, but who knows what they really are. There’s a fluidity to them that almost sounds like an instrument instead of a voice, or like free jazz sax through auto-tune or some other musical filter, but they sound aching and human too. Did Kanye search out Linda Sharrock and stick her in a cave or something? In a way, this is the twisted twenty-times over extension of Kanye’s earliest foray into vocal manipulation: chipmunk soul.

There’s some connection between the primal howl that announces Jeezy’s return or it’s placement amongst piano and drums at the end of “Lockdown” (again with the using some cool musical effect for a song or two and then moving on) and those African Tribesmen that invande Kanye’s Patrick Batemen abode in the video for “Lockdown”, but fuck if it can be literalized; of course, that’s why it’s so smart.

Leave it to me to turn an obvious American Psycho video homage into something a little more intellectual, but that shot of Kanye in the corner, the stoic tribesmen looking ten feet tall, reminds me of the end of Terrence Malick’s The New World (a movie about devastating heartbreak). The film’s ending montage that slowly unveils Pocahontes’ death (spoiler alert!) and in one jarring cut , goes from the empty bed of Pocahontes, to an Indian in full body-paint sitting like a King in the same room. Who knows what it means, but it just makes sense and’s the point where my eyes tear-up when I watch that movie.

“Lockdown” should be the first track of 808s, a direct address to his ex that sort of introduces all the ideas smart and stupid you’ll hear on the album, but musically, it’s part of the brilliant middle of the album and the logical extension of the ideas of the first four songs. The big loud drums that first showed-up on “Amazing” are here as well, and of course, the defiant pianos, frayed and fuzzy auto-tune, etc. of every track keep weaving through. If there’s a narrative here that’s not fractured and mixed-up, it’s a musical one, as ideas fade in, grow prominent or even transcendant, and then move to the background for another new weird instrumental flourish.

Still, there’s something of a logic to these songs that for whatever reason, I feel a little more like I’m projecting onto the album than usual, but also makes a lot of sense. The first two songs were sad sack self-loathing, “Heartless” is self-loathing but musically and conceptually it’s a little more confident and there and then, “Amazing” is wounded Kanye lashing-out. “Love Lockdown” has the vulnerability of the rest of it, but his ideas about his relationship and his musical ideas gain confidence and focus.

The next two tracks (“Paranoid” and “Robocop”) are the most unsophisticated and least revelatory when it comes to content, but repeated listens make you realize Kanye’s earned the right to be a dick (still, there’s something real awkward about the “bitch I almost married was CRA-ZEEEE!” thesis of the tracks) and musically, they’re perfect. And then, that My Bloody Valentine electronic wail that opens “Streetlights” cuts into “Robocop” and it’s Kanye like, “whoops, I was a real dick there. I know it. I’m trying to figure it out”

So, the narrative’s musical, and the narrative’s emotional, it’s just not linear. More a melange of scenes from a disintegrating almost marriage, snippets of dialogue, wounded douchebag talk, actually wounded talk, personal details, and break-up album cliches mixed up, rearranged, to exhibit Kanye’s sorta evolution from wounded weirdo celebrity to angry wounded ex-boyfriend and then, kinda regretful. And once he gets over it all, there’s “Coldest Winter” and the problematic–there’s that word again–live “freestyle” in which he’s like “Oh yeah! And my mom fucking died in fucking plastic surgery. Man, the world is fucked-up place sometimes.”

Written by Brandon

December 11th, 2008 at 7:04 am

808s & Heartbreak Week: "Amazing" featuring Young Jeezy

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Besides musical reasons why “Amazing” is a success, Kanye’s finally working with a complex concept that’s triumphant, but on the defensive, and fully aware of its absurdity. It’s a song about hiding behind his fame and celebrity to conceal all the ugly personal bullshit he’s going through and using that fame and celebrity as a kind of ultimate dig at his ex. But his languid vocals and obsessive “No matter what, you’ll never take that from me” make it clear that his fame makes him feel awesome but doesn’t protect him and the “I’m famous” bit’s just a ruse. It’s not as overtly harsh, but it comes from the same above-it-all cruelty he affects on “Robocop” during that devastating “spoiled little L.A girl” outro.

There’s some truth there, but its blatantly lashing-out, last chance assholism. It’s “everybody loves the bad guy” in Scarface, the “hero” fucking falling apart, leaning back on his own myth at the point where real-world events are surrounding him and friends, girlfriends, or whatever don’t give a shit about image, myth, or hype anymore.

But “Amazing”s got neither the energy of the last ditch bragging you get from most rappers, and none of the devilish glee of “Robocop”s taunts. It’s this depressed, monotone that’s part super-confident, doesn’t even have to sell you on this shit-talking bullshit anymore for you to buy into it and part, a performance of going through the motions of shit-talking that Kanye himself doesn’t buy into much these days. The rote melody perfectly lines-up with the Danny Elfman-ish haunted house pianos and it sounds great, but Kanye’s unmoved.

Again, auto-tune is hardly something to take issue with on 808s as Kanye twists and turns it all these different ways, from the warmed-over glow on somber tracks, to a kind of resigned vibration around his voice on this song or “Streetlights”–the two songs where he’s the most upfront about what he’s doing and the least full of shit. On 808s, auto-tune’s used more in a pre-digital production style, like old weirdo rock and pop records that wrapped tons of reverb around the vocals or tape manipulated them into some crazy shit.

Jeezy’s verse isn’t particularly great–even when judged by the Jeezy curve for good rapping–but it’s an obvious contrast to Kanye’s depressive boasts, as it’s all rumbling exclamation. One of Kanye’s better qualities, even when he was a young nerdy producer was his rap fandom which led to all kinds of Fantasy Football style pairings of rappers. On “Last Call”, the final track of College Dropout there’s a point where he nerdily talks about how he made one of those Dynasty beats “for DMX” and you vividly imagine rap fan Kanye–the one that cites Chi Ali or Ma$e as favorites alongside Tribe and Dr. Dre–sitting down and making his ideal beat for DMX.

Imagine him sitting there with Mike Dean and NO I.D and whoever else being like, “okay and then all the shit you’ve heard in the previous songs, pianos, overwhelming washes of synths, triumphant insanely catchy hooks are gonna meet up with these crazy click-clacking drums–that’ll be in a couple more of the songs too–and then, they’ll suddenly drop-out–save for these pterodactyl groans–and then Jeezy’ll come in and it’ll be incredible.”

That’s the Kanye that cops to “biting the drums off “Xxplosive”…the deconstructive rap superfan that sees through the sub-genre bullshit and thinks how cool it would be to hear Mos Def and Freeway on a track and then, does it. The guy that uses Ludacris as a goofball counterpoint to Kanye’s self-loathing conscious rap tendencies on “Breathe In, Breathe Out”. Putting Cam’ron over a million-dollar version of the trebly soul he’s been rapping on since forever, etc etc. Kanye knows how to use guests and highlight their abilities (unless it’s Lil Wayne, then who knows what’s going on) and that’s viscerally felt on “Amazing” as everything making-up the beat falls out to announce Jeezy’s arrival. It’s sort of the inverse of “Put On” where the beat slows down for Kanye’s depressed counter-verse; here Jeezy breathes some dumb, hard-ass stuff into a song (and album) that’s could use a bit more of that.

Written by Brandon

December 10th, 2008 at 3:34 am

808s & Heartbreak Week: "Heartless"

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By not being a rap album, 808s highlights everything that’s vital and specific to rap music as a form of expression. Contextualized as the non-rap album from a rapper, it’s nearly impossible to hear each song and not think about how much more interesting and complicated they’d be if the monster hooks had raps between them.

But after living with the album for a couple weeks and really enjoying it, the surprise is that, “Heartless”, the most rap-like song on the album, is one of the least interesting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really good song and probably one of the more like, platonically “good” songs on the album, but in context, it’s the second song in the “Welcome to Heartbreak” to “Streetlights” monster run that makes up the best parts of 808s; neither a highlight or low-light.

Not a surprise that it’s co-produced by No I.D as it’s got boom-bap immediacy, but also this gelled-together musicality. None of the jagged edges of most rap beats but a smooth cohesion, carried along by fluttering pan-pipes or something and a series of defiant piano chords.

The music on 808s either falls into the category of the first two tracks (and “Love Lockdown” and “Bad News”), this interesting but skeletal mix of electronics, or these fully-formed explosions of sound like “Heartless” (and “Paranoid”, “Robocop” “Streetlights”, “See You In My Nightmares” and “Coldest Winter”). That the album’s sequencing begins slow, jumps into warp-speed, and then interrupts this energy for the languid “Bad News” is confusing.

Ultimately, it works or works well enough. Hours on iTunes rearranging the tracks to find a better or more logical order didn’t hide the inherent flaws of the album. There’s too many tracks that introduce the titular heartbreak (like “Heartless”) or present it as if you’re already aware of it from reading Perez Hilton. Although the album’s not conceptual–as I said in my City Paper piece, it’s a context album–there’s the semblance of a narrative to the whole thing but then a song later on the album like “Love Lockdown” plays like a thesis statement that would fit better as an introduction than mid-album track. It’s weird.

Kanye’s protected himself from criticism by saying junk about “expressing himself” or how there’s a beauty to making something in just five minutes, and there is, but it obviously goes both ways. There’s something sloppy and off about 808s that makes it cool, but its not the rough edges that make hip-hop vital, but a half-worked on piece of art, excuse me, “pop art”. In the liberal arts world, it’d be labeled “problematic”.

Rapping though, helps the track and moves it out of the problematic realm and more toward those aforementioned rough edges almost exclusive to hip-hop. If only for the simple fact that rapping requires way more words than more conventional songwriting, the ideas and expressions can bounce off one another and complement or create weird counterpoint. Kanye’s not paring everything down for melodramatic, maximized effect here.

The first line falls back on those much-joked about “cold” similes but it’s followed up by Kanye speaking tough-talk to his girl (“you better watch the way you talkin’ to me yo”). It’s playing with the “contradiction” Kanye’s always played around with, but it’s not being a backpacker with a Benz but the kind of bullshit everyone does when their lovelife’s crumbling: Be an asshole, equal parts wounded and ready to wound.

There’s also an interesting confluence of voices and point of views going on in the song. Seemingly speaking to his ex through the song, other times quoting scenes from their argument, and even jumping into an imagined discussion with a friend about his girl’s chaotic moods: “Why does she be so mad at me for?/Homey I don’t know, she’s hot and cold.”

In a way, “Heartless” is the only pure hint at what 808s could’ve been if Kanye’d made a rap album. But as the album stands, it occupies this weird place of not getting to the rarified weirdo brilliance of 808s’ best tracks or farting out like the album’s worst half-songs.

Written by Brandon

December 9th, 2008 at 4:06 pm