Kanye West + M.I.A.: New and New-ish

Kanye West: Good Life + Big Brother (snippets)
From Graduation (G.O.O.D./Def Jam, 2007)

M.I.A. feat. Afrikan Boy: Hussel (snippet) + Paper Planes
From Kala (Interscope, 2007)

Bonus: M.I.A. feat. Akon: Boyz Remix

True tales: back in the days, when I was a teenager, before I had status and before I had a pageriPhone, you could find the O-Dub listening to hip-hop…by waiting for albums to actually make their release date. (Leopold’s in Berkeley, what up?!) Then, later, when I was writing professionally, I could hope to see an advance a few weeks or months before the album was supposed to drop.

These days, I just wait for stuff to hit the ‘Net. Is this an evolution or devolution?

Either way, I recently reviewed M.I.A.’s album for NPR’s All Things Considered and I never tried to bother Interscope for a copy since it had already leaked onto the Internet weeks before. I didn’t learn this on my own…I found out because my editor hepped me to it. The game done changed.

I raise this for no particular reason except to say that it’s funny that this post, far from being ahead of the curve, is more like me playing catch-up. Kanye’s CD just leaked yesterday but I guarantee that by the day it actually is supposed to drop (9/11), for a segment of the population, it will feel old hat. I don’t mind being slow on the draw but it’s just a bizarre phenom to witness considering how things used to be. Yeah, I sound old.

So yeah…Kanye. Look, I don’t care who wins the whole “50 vs. Kanye” showdown. It’s such a lame beef to have…like Ali and Frazier arguing over who had more endorsement deals. Rappers bragging about their Soundscan numbers? Straight chump. Toy status.

What I do care about is whether either man can put out a half-assed good album. The 50 is still waiting in my in-boxdownload queue but I have been listening to the new Kanye album and here’s the very short review: kind of “eh.” I might upgrade that to a, “better than I initially thought” later though it could just as easily go towards, “mad mediocre.” If nothing else, Graduation feels half-baked and lightweight and that’s a marked surprise coming after what I thought were two surprisingly ambitious albums. Ye’s never going to make my top 10 list of MCs, but his previous track record has shown reserves of wit and passion that you wouldn’t always assume from his public persona (or awkward Entourage cameos).

Speaking of which, I first heard “Good Life” at the end of last Sunday’s episode (Sidney Pollack > Kanye as far as surprise guests go) and what instantly caught me was the “P.Y.T.” loop. I’m not saying Michael Jackson is deserving of redemption but I’m not going to front: “P.Y.T.” was the joint and easily one of my favorite songs off of Thriller. The problem with this song isn’t that it’s so pop-friendly; I’m not mad at that at all. I like some sugary sweets sometime (even if T-Pain’s auto-voco-tuned vocals are far more saccharin than sucarat). But though Ye’s lyrics have never been brain-meltingly dense, “Good Life” is decidedly more inane than even one’s low expectations might anticipate. That goes for practically every song on the album, with the possible exception of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” (which isn’t a tour de force but has more edge to it) and the bizarre car wreck of “Big Brother.”

Maybe it’s fitting that the song is all about Kanye’s relationship with Jay Z since Jay elevated the whole confessional rap schtick to heretofore unseen levels of navel-gazing but “Big Brother” is more than a little uncomfortable to listen to. It’s like sneaking a peak into someone’s diary and instantly regretting it because it’s TMI. The song isn’t intrinsically great on its own – I read someone comparing the track to something you’d hear at the end of a Japanese video game and that’s pretty dead on with those corny synths – but there’s something fascinating about Kanye’s baring-all love letter/passive aggressive slap at Jay. Dude is making Eminem look like an impassive statue in comparison and as a listener, it’s hard to tear yourself away even when you feel like you really should. You think Jay is listening to this somewhere, sunning himself next to Beyonce, wondering, “man, Ye caught some feelings. I might have to hug it out with him.”?

Back to M.I.A.: I know it may seem like I’m clowning her in my review but my point with Kala (as with Arular) is that, as an artist, I think she’s brilliantly creative and compelling. As a demagogue – whether she means to be one or not – I can’t take her sloganeering very seriously. I don’t, per se, disagree with her politics in the abstract, but I find the ways she works in these signifiers of revolution to be a bit cloying. Gunshots work as a sonic effect but as a gesture towards…what? Freedom fighting? Viva la resistance? Most popular culture isn’t capable of sustaining a dialogue about something as complex as violence and global struggle, let alone electronic dance music. I’m only saying.

But that said – cotdamn, I love the sound of this album, especially on a cut as propulsive and infectious as “Paper Planes” (yes, the very song whose chorus I highlight in my review). I find it sonically irresistible, so much so that, if I actually did have guns, I might consider putting them out with my hands up.

Likewise, “Hussel” features one of the best single minutes on the entire album, during the cameo of Afrikan Boy, both because that synth chord that drops in the middle of his intro is on some THX Deep Note immensity plus Afrika Boy’s clipped verses have an intriguing vocal quality to them that constasts with the shrillness of M.I.A.’s own voice.

I also threw on the new remix of “Boyz” feat. Akon. What, T-Pain wasn’t available?