Monday, June 30, 2014

Everybody's Rocking

Kanye West - "Slow Jamz (Feat. Twista & Jamie Foxx)" (The College Dropout, 2004)

I went through a Kanye West phase a few months back. I realized one day that although I had 808s and Heartbreaks, My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy, and especially Yeezus damn near committed to memory, I really didn't know his first three albums at all. (Fun story: I live with someone for whom Yeezus is one of their favorite albums - even though she's not usually a hip-hop person, for something like six months running that was her default car listening music. So I'm kind of sick of it now.) My excuse is simply that, from my perspective, 2004 was a pretty weak year, in the middle of a pretty weak period for commercial hip-hop.

This isn't any reflection of the what was actually happening in rap, but an admission that for the most part I tend to be an unimaginative hip-hop listener. I can point to The Roots' Tipping Point as one of my favorite albums from that year (I know it might seem strange, but in many ways I prefer The Tipping Point even to Things Fall Apart, even if I also acknowledge that Phrenology is probably the superior album to both). That was the year Madvillainy dropped. Ghostface released the fairly tepid Pretty Toney. Outkast and Jay-Z were still riding high off late-2003 blockbusters. Other than the artists I already followed, what I heard was 50 Cent, G-Unit, and a thousand clones of the same. I worked at the children's residential facility during the height of 50's dominance and that's the dominant memory I have of that era of hip-hop: a bunch of developmentally-challenged and mentally ill children putting pictures of 50 on their walls because he was the best masculine role model a group of disadvantaged orphans could find.

Given that, can you understand how someone with very little investment in contemporaneous hip-hop - and, let's be frank, very white buying habits - could have completely slept on Kanye West? I just wasn't paying attention, but I knew enough about hip-hop history to know that there are few less promising sales pitches than that of a well-respected hitmaker producer deciding to be a rapper and dropping a solo album. (I used to know a guy who was obsessed with Jermaine Dupri, which, you know, I guess there had to be one.) Sure enough The College Dropout spawned a few biggish singles, but nothing that stuck out to me at the time. But instead of putting out a medium-hot album and disappearing (which is how these things often work), he came out with another album a year and a half later, and in the context of a less crowded hip-hop scene this one made a much bigger imprint. This was due in large part to "Gold Digger," which was everywhere for approximately half a year back in the dark days of George W. Bush's second term. But not only was the song itself inescapable, but the controversy following Kanye's (completely justified) outburst at the aforementioned George W. Bush during the Hurricane Katrina television benefit catapulted the man from being a star to being, well, Kanye.

It wasn't possible to ignore Kanye after 2005, but it didn't necessarily follow that I immediately came around. I thought "Gold Digger" was pretty noxious and patently misogynistic (which it still is, to be fair). His follow-up, the similarly-huge Graduation, made the further mistake of sampling Daft Punk on "Stronger," which I dismissed out of hand. he was hitting for the bleachers now - touring with U2 made him want to be a rock star, and he was already playing on a bigger canvas than just about anyone else on the pop music scene at the time. And, all things considered, I would have been perfectly happy to continue ignoring him if he had continued producing ubiquitous pop crossover hits and working with pander-bears like Adam Levine and Chris Martin. But you all know what happened next.

And this, for me, is the embarrassing part, at least in hindsight. There's a stereotype of the male white amateur/semi-pro rock critic (which, never forget, I was for a long time) that I sometimes still find myself falling into - rockism, for lack of a better or less loaded term. I couldn't come around to Kanye until he started producing "interesting" music, i.e., conceptually and musically "weird" in a way that "mere" mainstream hip-hop could never, or only very rarely, be. These were purely knee-jerk responses ingrained by decades of listening to and reading and writing about pop music with a very specific set of cultural blinders. Rock and roll was the dominant paradigm in pop music - or, to put it another way, rock was perceived to be the dominant paradigm in pop music - for so long that many could not recognize when the paradigm had passed.

Because it has passed, and the acknowledgement can't help but come as a bitter pill for anyone who ever bought into the myth of rock and roll as a universal, totalizing cultural force - as opposed to a cultural expression of a very specific time and place in history, primarily championed by a very specific demographic. I've spent a lot of time trying to work past these prejudices over the last few years. Teaching a class on aesthetics over the past year has done a lot for me in terms of breaking some of the most reflexive habits of rockist thinking. The majority of my students don't listen to rock, and furthermore do not have good associations with the genre because of the perception that it is the province of pissy upper-middle-class white people. Which is untrue, but . . . in the year 2014 not not true, either.

When I first heard "Love Lockdown" I immediately knew that this was something really interesting and really different. The individual elements that made up the song were familiar - the minimal Kompakt techno throb, the tribal drums breaking in the middle of the song, Kanye's auto-tuned Sprechgesang - but the way he put them together were new. The raw emotionalism was also novel, at least in the context of mainstream hip-hop waking up from its decades-long superthug hangover. People didn't know how to metabolize this at first - I remember 808s & Heartbreaks received a lot of mixed and confused reviews when it came out. But sure enough, in a year or two everyone wanted to sound like Kanye on "Heartless," and futuristic R&B was the vanguard genre in pop music for a good couple years after.

So I became a Kanye fan, and when My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy hit, it was perfectly calculated to tickle all the old-school rock critic soft spots - ambition, conceptual heft, songs poking up near the ten minute mark, even more of 808s self-excoriating lyrical content. Kanye was obviously making a capital-"S" Statement, no longer aiming for Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt, but Exile on Main Street, Dark Side of the Moon, and Sign O' The Times. And we all ate it up, even if Kanye's commercial fortunes had begun to falter with 808s. Yeezus marked an even greater departure - if My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy had represented the logical apotheosis of all the strains of Kanye's music up to that time, Yeezus was the sound of Kanye throwing everything in the shredder and listening to German techno and Chicago drill. It was Low, Metal Machine Music, and Prince's Black Album all rolled into one. Kanye's still playing the game: in interviews he's made explicit comparisons to Springsteen, calling Yeezus his Nebraska, and likening his forthcoming album to Born in the U.S.A. If he follows through on this promise, his critical dominance will continue apace.

With this context, going back to Kanye's early albums - particularly The College Dropout - was something of a revelation. I had heard the singles but hadn't paid them any attention. If I had bothered to listen to the albums themselves I would have seen that all the most interesting facets of later Kanye - not least of which the aforementioned, cliched "ambition" - was there from the beginning. He had a personal narrative from the start, starting with "Through the Wire" and onto "Jesus Walks," that set him apart from just about everyone else. He was doing something different which stands out even in the context of ten years of subsequent Kanye West music.

But all of that goes under the rubric of hindsight - slotting individual albums into the narrative of a larger career trajectory influenced by the standard artistic precedents that every pop critic carries around in their heads. That's a tempting and in some ways still efficient shorthand for understanding artistic evolution in pop music, but also essentially misleading. Even though Kanye himself would appear to invite these comparisons, they're reductive. He almost certainly does it, at least in part, to flatter the imaginations of music writers: he knows full well that getting the critics on your side is the best way to ensure career longevity, even if sales waver. Yeezus was his worst-selling album by a wide margin, and yet it was also arguably his most discussed.

The point is, Kanye doesn't need the hindsight. He emerged fully-formed, and only those who were willing to dismiss him on the basis of his genre - that is, mainstream, commercial, popular hip-hop - could possibly have missed what was going on. And it's not just the personal storytelling on "Through the Wire," or the ballsy religious turn on "Jesus Walks" - both of which I had heard and gave tacit approval, even if it took me a long time to really appreciate them. No, I think the best song on The College Dropout was also the biggest single, and the most baldly commercial song on the album - "Slow Jamz." (It was technically first released as a Twista song in late 2003, but really, Kanye is in complete control from the very beginning.)

It's a masterpiece of production and composition. It's just over five minutes long but packs in more ideas than most albums. It's a song with no less than three featured artists and a prominent vocal sample from Luther Vandross. (It's been so long since I've paid any attention to early Kanye production that the sped-up Vandross sample sounded for the life of me like a woman's voice. Isn't it amazing how at one time that was his primary gimmick, but you don't even notice it anymore?) Jamie Foxx actually carries the bulk of the song. I was about to say that he sings the chorus, but the funny thing about this song is that it's actually all chorus - there's no standard verse-chorus-verse structure. The whole thing is built on the same repeating loop that escalates into the same descending bass figure like clockwork every ten seconds or so. Even though, technically, the chorus is Foxx's "She wants some Marvin Gaye, some Luther Vandross . . ." section, musically, the chorus is the same as the verse structure. Kanye knows the hook, and he knows not to bury the lede - especially at a time when any misstep could have cost him his nascent career.

Foxx's voice is the glue that holds the song together, with Kanye's verse followed by Twista. (Best Kanye line, obviously: "She's got a white-skinned friend looks like Michael Jackson / Got a dark-skinned friend looks like Michael Jackson.") Everything fits together perfectly: the three vocalists create a sense of place as well as a consistent tone. It feels like a party. This is a club track - but just a bit ironically, it actually has a pretty frenetic beat, contrary to the song's stated purpose of providing a "slow jam." Way back in the late 90s and early 00s, the idea of doing pop crossover hits with hip-hop and R&B elements was a bit controversial - that's one way Ja Rule turned himself into the Richard Gere of hardcore hip-hop, after all. (Well, that and getting on the collected bad side of Eminem, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, and just about every other person in hip-hop.) But Ja Rule actually serves as an object lesson in the way rap has changed in the last decade or so, and how Kanye was instrumental in bringing this change about. The moment Graduation outsold Curtis it was clear that there was a new paradigm, and it no longer mattered if a rapper did R&B crossovers, or slow jams for the ladies, or wore a giant teddy bear costume. Pretty soon it wouldn't matter if rappers sang on their records, or sampled 70s prog rock, or made fantastically indulgent videos with their topless white wives riding a motorcycle in front of a greenscreen. Drake still gets some flack for being soft, but that didn't stop him from having a Wu-Tang posse cut on his last LP.

Musically, "Slow Jamz" is one of Kanye's most complex constructions - the only real peers it has in this regard are "All of the Lights" and "Lost in the World," both off My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy. No one in the world of pop music can do this quite like he can. The fact that he someone avoided getting lost in the wilderness of technique and knew when to step back and punk it up is all the more impressive, considering that the follow-up to My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy could easily have been an even more complex, layered, and demanding work - which is was, but in a completely different way than anything that had preceded it or anyone was expecting.

So, yeah - Kanye is pretty impressive. It took me a while to come around to that, and part of the journey for me was figuring out how to listen past my previous dismissals. "Slow Jamz" is one of the most brilliant songs I've ever heard, and I offer no excuse for taking so long to realize something so obvious.

When I went through my Kanye thing a few months back, I put together a "Best of Kanye" CD-R for listening in the car. This was hard! In just over a decade he has amassed a pretty impressive body of work. I dismissed anything with Adam Levine or Chris Martin, even if they had been popular - sorry, folks. (For what its worth, he doesn't need the crossover gestures anymore - instead of crossing over to pop, pop has essentially crossed over to him.) I didn't find anything on Cruel Summer - a pretty lame disc. But I picked the hits, and the highlights, even though there were a number of close cuts, as you can probably tell. Overall this turned out to be a preternaturally solid disc that stayed in rotation in my automobile for a good few weeks.
Best of West
1. Through the Wire
2. Slow Jamz
3. Jesus Walks
4. Touch the Sky
5. Gold Digger
6. Diamonds from Sierra Leone
7. Can't Tell Me Nothing
8. Stronger
9. Flashing Lights
10. Love Lockdown
11. Heartless
12. Power
13. All of the Lights
14. Runaway
15. Otis (with Jay-Z)
16. Ni**as in Paris (with Jay-Z)
17. New Slaves
18. Bound 2

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