Monday, December 14, 2009
#6 Album of the Decade- Kanye West- The College Dropout (2004) Kanye West feat. Mos Def, Freeway- "Two Words"
#1 Song of the Decade- Kanye West- "Jesus Walks"
#35 Album of the Decade- Kanye West- Late Registration (2005)
Secretly, as I read other writers' fin-de-decade retrospectives, I grow bristly when I see something patently obscure. Although I'll admit that I deal in the same cultural capital they do, and that I have elitist choices sprinkled throughout, there's a nagging part of the critic in me that shudders to admit: art doesn't really matter if it isn't popular.
Combing through alternate takes of b-sides or fighting sleep to finish a Taiwanese chamber piece is alienating, even when it's fun. Most critics, even the self-appointed and undistinguished ones like me, are lonely and anti-social. They articulate things that are ineffable, and they practically beg a reader they will never meet to feel the same emotions that fuel them to write. By becoming better at this process, they only grow apart from the needs of their original audience. That's where that critical-commercial divide comes from. While most people wonder why critics like movies and albums they've never heard of, I wonder why the two groups have anything in common at all.
Elitism, however, is not satisfying. Information has no power if it can't be shared. Music, more than any other type of art, is transcendent in its ability not only to transport, but to unite. Good music doesn't endure because it's unique or influential or even moving. It stands the test of time because it's universal. Not too long ago--the seventies--the most critically-acclaimed art was also the most commercially successful. There's a reason Led Zeppelin is still on the radio and The Godfather is still on TV. In an age of stratified choices for entertainment, it's high time someone united us again.
Not very secretly, Kanye West knows all of this.
That understanding is the reason he does things like, you know, interrupt a teenage girl to rectify the oversights of a banal and inconsequential awards show. It's because he profoundly cares about his legacy. In five years he has shaped a genre of music as much as anyone ever has. Imagine what he might look and sound like in ten more. It's because of that impact that he can just as easily burn out in a year or change music for another forty. Neither of those options would surprise me, which only adds to his immediacy and mystique and ownership of this moment. So forgive him if he thought ol' squinty shouldn't have taken home the Moonman.
Ownership of this moment.
In discussing the best of his work, it is helpful to view West through these two guidelines:
1. Kanye West is historically great because of the breadth of his vision.
2. Kanye West's vision is historically great because of his exactitude in achieving it.
1. Despite its cultural influence, hip-hop is a niche genre in that there are some people who will never consciously listen to it, regardless of how good it is. But a lot of those people end up listening to Kanye West.
His first trick was cross-pollinating an already divided hip-hop audience. The College Dropout's focused songwriting, sense of humor, conscious rap tag-teaming, and boom-bap Tribe throwback beats endeared traditionalist heads, while its underdog spirit, big name co-signs, superficial trappings, and glossy production value convinced the unwashed rap masses. The College Dropout is, as the title suggests, both smart and stupid at the same time. Although it's structured as a conflicted bildingsroman steeped in the dusty soul platters of a misspent youth, Kanye is still trolling Black Planet for bubble-butted chicks at 3:00 AM.
If you want it in elitist shorthand, Kanye West is basically Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both are obsessed with spiritual growth learned through experience, even if that growth has to be filtered through self-reliance. "Whosoever be a man must be a non-conformist" and "that that that that don't kill me can only make me stronger."
It got weirder though. "Gold Digger's" punch-lines and serendipitously topical Ray Charles scratch-up hooked fifteen-year-olds and my mom, and 808s and Heartbreaks (which I was completely wrong about) is being played in a more upscale-than-thou clothing store right now. With each album, West has collected a wider, more divided audience. Not since Michael Jackson has a musician amassed a more diverse and demanding set of fans to please, and the miraculous thing is that he seems to satisfy all of those fans every time.
2. Of West's Big Gulp-sized Graduation, I wrote: "The songs sound like they were made by someone staying up all night by himself, and that's something that can't be faked." While rap has had many Mozarts and Rimbauds and Basquiats, it didn't really have a Stanley Kubrick until Kanye West. The College Dropout is not the tossed-off improvisation, the flash of genius standard that most of hip-hop has set; it's the imperfect work of a perfectionist. On it, West's vocals are curiously high in the mix, there are numerous punch-ins to disguise his poor breath control, the skits are mean-spirited and momentum-sapping, and the puzzling sequencing buries the epochal "Through the Wire" into the final third of the album. Likewise, Late Registration is over-ambitious, uneven bombast.
But you cannot deny that, warts and all, these are the exact records West sought out to make. Each hard snare and bongo roll is hand-crafted, and the intensity of his voice overpowers you, even when it's clumsy and undeveloped on the debut record. On The College Dropout, he's not yet a great rapper. But he's trying so hard, and he cares. He is trying to articulate the ineffable, and he's practically begging the listener to feel the emotions that fueled him to write. He thinks like a critic and embraces contradiction when most of his contemporaries are scared of it.
It should be mentioned that there's a whole other column I could write about my personal response to the music, since I've connected with maybe two or three other musicians in the way I have with West. I know every word of every album, I've written as many words about him as I have about any other pop culture figure, I quit a job in the summer of '04 to catch a show of his in Atlanta, etc. Some other time.
Combine all of these elements, and you have the recipe for why "Jesus Walks" is the defining moment of a career that defined the decade. Constructed around a sample of "Walk with Me" by the ARC Choir, the song's maximalism knows no bounds. It is reported that West layered over 100 overdubs of violins onto the bridge, and one of the track's biggest strengths is how centered it is while still dipping into flourishes, building and receding with the tension that mirrors the entire album.
As overpowering as the lush, militaristic sonic atmosphere is though, the lyrics stand out even more. This is the most assured West sounds on the entire album. It's poignant but not overbearing, and the most telling lines are:
"So here go my single, dog, radio needs this
They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, videotape
But if I talk about God, my record won't get played, huh?
Well if this take away from my spins
Which'll probably take away from my ends
I hope it take away from my sins and bring the day that I'm dreamin' 'bout
Next time I'm in the club everybody screamin' out (Jesus walks)"
It's not enough to make a bold declaration of faith in a mainstream single. He has to make it clear that the vision, as calculated as it is, is not complete until it is embraced by an audience. He's going to be iconoclastic, and you're going to love it. Information that can't be shared is useless. A personal statement will be converted to a public acceptance. He thinks like a critic but acts like the audience. He's conflicted but confident. He's lonely but not alienated. He's elitist and universal.
It was Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson's boy, who wrote:
"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
To which Kanye would have replied, "Best poet of all time! All time!"