LEAVING THE THRONE BEHIND

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My review of WTT came out on Tuesday and while it summed up my basic impressions, there’s only so much one can do in 5 minutes w/ 500 words. Not every album needs more but in this case and honestly, given 2000 words, I don’t think I could have done a better job than what my friends Jon and Hua did for the NY Times and Grantland.com respectively. And I certainly couldn’t have done anything as spot-on and hilarious as what Abe Beame knocked out for Passion of the Weiss.

And here’s the thing: as my review alluded to, the things I loved most about WTT weren’t what was actually on the album but rather, what came around it. This is the most talked-about rap album since, well, Kanye’s last one but having Jay in the mix altered the conversation by introducing a separate set of questions and debates beside “Kanye West: pretentious rapper or most pretentious rapper?”1

The fact that the album was leak-proof – something I literally have not seen happen in 10 years or so – sucked for record stores, especially the independents, all of whom got bypassed in favor of putting more money in Apple’s pocket 2 But I did like how it put everyone on equal footing for once. Maybe it was a slow Sunday night but around 9pm, PST, I was waiting like everyone else, shooting IMs back and forth with friends waiting, checking Twitter feeds to see what folks had to say. Regardless of how overblown this all may have been, it was a genuine collective moment, something that pop music, at its best, should always encourage in whatever fashion it can. Leopold’s in Berkeley (RIP!) used to sell certain albums at midnight too and back when I gave a fuck about release dates (i.e. before I started getting advances, let alone just searching Filestube), I’d book up Durant to cop whatever was dropping that week, knowing that everyone else in line hadn’t heard the album either but we were all about to spend the late night bumping it.

So while I get how exhausting it must be to listen to the echo chamber cacophony around an “event” album like WTT, I still find it more invigorating than trying to swim through two dozen different posts a day on other sites. I’m not knocking their hustle, I’m simply trying to explain why, for a change, I liked the fixation on a single album. And for the same reason, the last few days have included any number of small jousting back and forth with people over the album and I find that kind of a dialogue refreshing since people seem to actually, passionately care about how to frame WTT (maybe I missed it, but that didn’t seem the case over, say, Drake’s album, despite it being a “big deal” commercially speaking).

Quick aside: This is me going into blogger-bitch mode so be warned…at some point, I used to easily get a dozen comments per post and while my readership has remained remarkably steady over the years, the number of comments has dropped off precipitously. And I don’t mean “great post!” comments but people with something substantive to say. Maybe it’s because many readers read Soul Sides via an email RSS feed or some other means but it’s been dispiriting. That said, I don’t want this to come off like a whine and more importantly, I don’t want to feel like my desire to post is contingent on feedback (though I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t real on some level). But I love dialogue and for a while now, that’s been largely absent on the site for reasons I can’t readily explain. Rant over.

Back to WTT: I’ve been talking about all the forces swirling around the album and not the album itself and though my NPR review tried to distill the most important points I wanted to make, there’s only so much nuance you can work into 2.5 minutes of script. So let’s dig deeper:

First off, let me just make what will likely be my most contentious point: I don’t like Kanye’s shift in production over the last 2-3 albums (including WTT). Not only is this so inherently subjective that it may be pointless to even craft an argument around, but for me, it’s a super thin line. One of my favorite songs by Kanye is “Heard ‘Em Say,” and you can already hear the kind of experiments in arrangements and layering that now typify a “Kanye track” albeit, back on Late Registration, these were still relatively nascent tinkerings and Kanye was still closer to “speeding up old soul loops” vs. “remaking French house/techno songs3

But I can only roll with so many songs that feature massive banks of synthesizers, trying to “go big.” And I know it’s hard to say this without getting accused of only being on that “boom bap” tip but again, there’s that fine line. I like the occasional snare hit, cotdamnit, but I don’t expect/want for rappers to pretend like Bob Powers is still in the booth. But with Kanye in particular, he’s taking a very sharp turn away from anything that could otherwise be described as “lean” or “sparse.”

While it’s hard to know how much “co-production” ‘Ye does on various songs, I have to think, for example, that it wasn’t Q-Tip’s idea to combine the following three elements: 1) Assagai drums, 2) “Apache“, 3) those synths. The song isn’t a disaster but I don’t think those wheezing keys add much either. “Otis” might be some “atmospheric shit talking tip” but the shit also bangs in a way that, say “Made In America” doesn’t.

And here’s something that should be both obvious but perhaps not? I’ve always loved hip-hop for how it sounded and not just in terms of beats, but also what a rapper’s voice and delivery sounds like. What’s actually being said – the textual qualities of a song – are pretty low on my list and while it’s easy enough to call out Kanye (in particular) of douche-ry (when he’s not praising himself for it), I could forgive all kinds of shortcomings if something moves me sonically.

Actually, let me really go in here: it surprises me how much people fixate on the lyrics in hip-hop – as text – in a way that seems to divorce it from sonic/vocal affect. I almost never, ever listen to a rap song/album for its “lyrical content” on first (or second or third pass). Most of the time I’m paying attention is because I have to review it and I assume people want to know, “uh, so what are the rappers talking about?” But most times, I’d be just as happy – more actually – to talk about hip-hop as sonic experience, which would include voice and delivery, cadence and timbre, without having to evaluate their writing as if they were penning James Baldwin short stories. That’s not to say I can’t appreciate clever, smart or incisive lyrics – of course that matters – but I’m not interested in an evaluation of a hip-hop that treats the lyrics as text on a page. So in that sense, I both care and don’t care what’s being said; I mostly care about HOW it’s being said. I assume I’m not the only rap fan who feels that way but inevitably, a defense of Kanye is predicated on “but dude is so deep with his tortured introspection, blah blah blah.” I mean…I guess? But I can’t appreciate that when I’m trying to filter his verses through a mountain of synth modules.

One of the things that gets drowned in all that over-production on WTT is how good Jay-Z sounds again…finally. For Mr. Best Flow in the Game, his post-retirement career has seen that flow get really wobbly around the edges. I don’t know who convinced him that his breathy whisper-style was any good but seriously, that needed to be taken out and put down just as badly as his tongue-twiggity delivery back when he and Jaz-O were still cool. But on WTT, Jay sounds…pretty damn good: tight and precise with his rhyme scheme and with the occasional notable quotable. 4 But for me, I think Jay’s voice and delivery are so distinctive, I don’t want to hear a lot of aural clutter getting in the way which is why “Primetime” (one of the few songs Kanye did NOT co-produce) is a better vehicle to appreciate the re-invigorated Jay (and again, the fact that this is a bonus track is telling).

Moreover, after showing the world he can still knock out a string of huge pop hits on Blueprint 3, Jay’s verses on “New Day” and “Made in America” demonstrate why he’s always reached listeners on an emotional level that Kanye – as far as he’s come – still has trouble attaining because that chip on his shoulder is bending his frame out of shape.

None of this is to say that WTT is a bad album and I tried to take pains to say, in the end, WTT is decent and listenable despite whatever flaws I just enumerated. But for purely selfish and perhaps old-fashioned reasons, I was hoping the album was going to be more some “let’s fuck people’s heads up” which is to say, aiming the album to destroy the rest of the hip-hop world instead of trying to be in conversation with, say, Lady Gaga, as a pop artifact. And it was unrealistic of me to think this is where Kanye and Jay-Z would be at in 2011 but I still think that would have been a more ambitious album than trying to make another epic pop album (which is what both men did on their last solo efforts).

And perhaps this qualifier is unnecessary but I’m not trying to convince anyone to roll with me on this. I’ve long since given up the desire to coax people to *listen* the same way I do though I at least hope they can respect where I’m coming from. I’m not mad at people who think WTT is a great album (though I’m ever skeptical of “instant classic” claims since, by its very concept, something is only classic once there’s enough time and circumstance to crown it so; you can’t do it by royal proclamation). As I said earlier, I’m mostly thankful for having had some entertaining and insightful debates with friends and strangers about the album in a way that hasn’t been the case in what feels like a long while.

  1. And don’t get me wrong: I like Kanye. I think the musical world is better for having him in it. But his persona requires new terms since “oversized” seems insufficient.
  2. But I own stock so I’m not really that mad.
  3. Don’t get me wrong – “Why I Love You” was the biggest ear worm on this album for me and that’s largely thanks to how epic the Cassius song sounds.
  4. My favorite: “put some colored girls in the MOMA”.

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