Monday, November 22, 2010
Why do we blog and Tweet and use Facebook? So we can mythologize and idealize ourselves. So we can be obsessed with ourselves in front of everybody. So we can use the vernacular of meme and pop-culture to interpret our feelings. So we can justify our behavior and draw out other people's feelings about us. So we can launch an opinion into the public square and carefully control the extent to which (and the context in which) we take responsibility for it. The only difference between Kanye West and the rest of us is the fact that he has the resources to do this on a gigantic scale in front of not hundreds, but millions of people. He is social-networking writ large. Writ HUGE.
In addition to possessing the resources to do it big, he possesses the imagination to do it compellingly. That he does it it at all makes us hate him, because we see in him an unpleasant portrait of our own insecurities and vanity. That he does it so well makes us love him, because he turns our anxiety into something beautiful.
Just like his previous work, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy displays Kanye's mastery of the pop song. Rock, soul, jazz, and hip-hop all produce art-music and pop songs, and the pop song doesn't vary substantially between genres. The ingredients are easy to spot but difficult to master: a distinct hook that immediately sticks in the listener's mind, a structure and pacing that feel familiar, and an emotional snapshot that is relatable and vivid. If you've never tried, it's easy to believe that writing a durable pop song would be easy, but it requires a skill that few posses. The Gershwins had it. Lennon & McCartney had it. Kanye West has it. And unlike the Beatles (who had to rely on George Martin's expertise) Kanye also excels at the art of the pop record, building on both the innovations of Phil Spector's wall of sound and the careful construction of sample-centric hip-hop. Sampling adapts the appropriation and transmission of the folk tradition to a technology-based and product-centric musical climate, and the up-to-the-minute tabloid specificity employed in Kanye's lyrics connects his music to a certain place, time and culture. His almost-unbearable candor is a populist, if circuitous, examination of a zeitgeist. More than a popsmith, then, Kanye is a folk musician.
I know what you're thinking: "Michael, I'm-a let you finish. Kanye's album is good, but Radiohead made one of the best albums of ALL TIME!" Acknowledged. I'll concede that Radiohead is more consistent and does things Kanye West could never do, but Kanye West also does things Radiohead could never do. Their records are admirably impressionistic, but there is no protagonist. There is only a formless existential crisis moaning through a technocratic nebula.
Meanwhile, Kanye's records give us a champion of sorts, an anti-hero who battles not with political forces or the wiles of nature, but with his own materialism and self-absorption. We have a stake in this battle, because we're fighting it too. We're not afraid of the Karma Police, even if we should be. Instead, we're afraid of the way trivial preoccupations vaporize the potential for meaning in our lives. Kanye West glares so unflinchingly into this vapor one doubts his ability to flinch.
This oblivious/astute gaze is more folly than epiphany, and the albatross of Kanye's public persona tempts us to emphasize the former. That albatross is a part of the show, however. The game he plays with the media (a game equal parts accident and strategy) is referred to numerous times in the lyrics, and Kanye (one of the few rappers to release music under his actual name) is even more self-referential than his peers. He makes it impossible to separate the art from the auteur and easy to confuse the two. (And if we're going to dismiss Kanye on account of his bad behavior, it's time to take another look at Frank Sinatra, John Lennon, Miles Davis, Michael Jackson and Elvis.) People have strong feelings about this guy, but those feelings, ultimately aren't about him. They're about what he represents. Kanye West is an icon of entitlement, luxury, victimhood, adolescent bitterness, self-importance, guilt and disappointment.
Thankfully, all this entitlement, luxury, victimhood, adolescent bitterness, self-importance, guilt and disappointment is wrapped up in pop music that makes you nod your head and grin.
In the coming weeks, you'll be hearing a lot of opinions about this album, all of them as biased and subjective as mine. If you thought people hated Kanye's concept album about millionaire's guilt, just wait until the backlash brought on by the perfect scores Fantasy has been given by every publication under the sun. That stuff hardly matters, though. You've probably already decided to buy this album or decided to avoid it completely. You might already know about the impressive stable of beatmakers who joined Kanye on the production side, or the roster of guest vocalists. If you don't know, you will.
This is an aggressive, ambitious work and Kanye accomplishes a lot with his collaborators (like getting John Legend to sing the MF-word over your kid sister's favorite Aphex Twin track and allowing Nicki Minaj to absolutely steal the show from Jay-Z and Rick Ross during a posse cut). Hooks abound, and I promise you will be listening to "All of the Lights" very loudly as you drive this winter, wishing it was warm enough to roll down your windows.
There are a few missteps: the poor mastering job, the out-of-place vocal effect that diminishes some of Kanye's best rapping so far ("Gorgeous"), the hopelessly misogynist skit with Chris Rock, a lame Black Sabbath parody ("Hell of a Life"), the awkwardly employed King Crimson sample ("Power") and some less-than proficient singing on Kanye's part ("Runaway"). It's also a bit of a let down to see the extent to which Kanye's charming self-deprecation has been replaced with an overload of vulgar hatred.
Those caveats aside, this is still some of the most emotionally-stirring commercial art I've encountered in a while, a widescreen memoir brimming with rage and desperation, encapsulated at one point by this thesis statement, a heartbreaking admission of Kanye's own contagious hubris: "You've been putting up with my shit for way too long... Baby I've got a plan, run away fast as you can." We can't though, and he knows it.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
During a conversation about music while I was substitute teaching, a student told me "I'm going to get into jazz eventually, Mr. Stohrer, probably when I go to college." I told him that is exactly what I had said, and exactly what I did.
As a Prog-rock obsessed teenager, I was no stranger to prolonged instrumental passages and emphasis on technical musicianship, but Jazz was an intimidating stranger. I had Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme and Mingus Ah Um but I sorta had to force myself to choose them over something more instantly satisfying. (Think about how The Decalogue languishes at the bottom of your Netflix queue while seasons of The Office keep getting bumped to the top. You know Kieślowski's masterpiece will ultimately be more satisfying than Dwight Schrute but, ehhh... It's been a long day and you want something easy to get into.) When I put on that jazz I was constantly aware that I was listening to something acclaimed and esoteric that other people had instructed me to like, but to me it was a novelty. All I got from it was mysterious wallpaper.
In college, surrounded by new friends with expansive tastes (not to mention access to the university library and college-town record stores) I was able to get acquainted with this stranger and his gnarled, winding language. By that I don't mean I learned how to name by ear which scale the 'Trane is blowing, and I don't mean I memorized Blue Note session dates and personnel. I just mean I got hip to what those cats were laying down. Dig? My friend Jesse Howell would play me something from The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions and his reactions (mouth agape in astonishment, eyes squinted in overwhelmed laughter) gave me the jazz-bug more than anything before. We traded names: "Have you heard Grant Green?" "Do you like Horace Silver?" We swapped albums: "Take this, you're going to love it." Jazz became the meat in my musical diet and I was a fiend for the robust emotion and wily jubilance jumping from those drumkits and horns. Somewhere along the way, Mingus and Monk became my go-to music for waking up, driving, working out, doing dishes - doing everything. Finally, I sorta had to force myself to listen to Pink Floyd. Rock music didn't leap at me any more, at least not the way Eric Dolphy did. (What if I'd been raised by Beatniks instead of Boomers?) All it took was time, time to get hip to the vernacular.
So here's Madlib, evangelizing connoisseur, dropping the needle on 80 minutes of jazz. With an album cover I desperately want to hang in my kitchen someday, mixing that is more curatorial than technical and a definition of "jazz" that is rightfully inclusive, he's put together a fun mix. Anyone who's been following Yesterdays Universe will know what to expect: clattering, loose grooves and vamping keys. Free-form Sun Ra, a little Art Blakey. I don't recognize most of this stuff. I guess I don't need to.
People still make something of the fact that when On the Corner first came out, no credits were included. "Who's playing that organ? Who's on bass?" Not knowing who plays what separates music from the hero-worship that smothers the simple joy of listening with Mike Portnoy posters from Modern Drummer. Madlib (for different reasons) includes no information, leaving the sleuths to I.D. this tune and that, making us work a little harder than Jesse Howell when he excitedly thrust an Alice Coltrane CD into my hands. Madlib isn't here to guide us through specific discographies, though. He's here to get us hip to the vernacular.
I love that there's no pretense of narrative here, no Ken Burnsing, no attempt to form a coherent (read: simplistic) linear arc. Some of the found-sound folded into the mix informs (like Herbie Hancock explaining how he came to work with Miles Davis) but most of it is Beat poems and comedy records, free from documentary minutiae. There's no canonical through-line, either. We're not hearing played out excerpts from "Take Five" and "So What". This is Advanced jazz. Madlib is spinning stuff your college friends don't know about.
Jazz has an unfortunate reputation as an exception to the rule that pop music is easy to like and understand. This reputation is cemented by The Keepers of Esoterica ("Funk has no place in jazz" they blaspheme) and the Populist No-Thank-Yous alike. (Senior year in high school, I was listening to Bitches Brew for the first time when my mom popped her head into my room and said "Let me know when they're done warming up.") Don't listen to those people. Listen to Madlib.