This is a fate that has befallen the best of rappers. We all remember the tragic fate of one Mr. Andre 3000 who wasted the prime of his career doing a bad Prince impression as the Rolling Stone’s of the world sycophantically rushed to praise Outkast for their “visionary” eclecticism. And who can forget the time that Mos Def upon reading a book about the history of rock and roll rushed to reclaim rock music for black artists everywhere by making a legendarily shitty album with his horrific rock band? Not Robert Christgau who inexplicably gave it an A-. Yes, many rappers start to believe they are too good for rap music which is why I was not remotely shocked in the least when Kanye West came down from the mountains and gifted the world latest of these ill-advised abortions with his new song, “Love Lockdown.”
“Love Lockdown” is Kanye’s new single from the upcoming (and awesomely titled) album, “808’s & Heartbreak", and in the tradition of T-Pain and “Lollipop”, it eschews with Kanye’s patented quasi-lyrical sort-of great but sort-of terrible raps for lots of off-key, warbling singing and the magic of auto-tune. The song cryptically alludes to Kanye’s recent break-up with his long-time (beard) fiancee and seems to plod along at a snail’s pace for an inexplicably long four minutes and thirty-one seconds. It seems as if the pain from Kanye’s break-up has forced him to emote his pangs through the therapeutic power of song that only singing like a drunken karaoker can provide. I suppose it’s kind of interesting in the naked emotion that is being laid out by Kanye by attempting to sing but it’s not something that hasn’t been done a thousand times better by soul singers and other much more talented vocalists. I suppose that the best that I can say for it is that it isn’t as a bad as could be and it’s not nearly as atrocious as “Lollipop.”
A lot of ink has been spilled by either people apologizing about it by trying to find meaning in it or outright hating it for Kanye attempting to sing. I personally couldn’t really care less about that. I’m more interested in the conceit and transparency Kanye is going by attempting an obviously pandering left-field move. Great rappers (or in Kanye’s case great artists) who don’t follow the orthodoxy of hip hop’s aesthetics tend to be almost apologetic for their choice of genre and yearn for that mainstream canonization that alludes their genre. There is an almost inferiority complex with great “alternative” rappers who yearn for mainstream acceptance on grander level. Hip Hop because of it’s roots and nature has always been seen as lesser than rock music by serious music critics and thus when it’s time for canonization fails to measure with the greats of rock. You will not find a rap album listed in the top ten albums of all-time by any mainstream music publication. They barely crack the top 50 and if it does it’s usually something historically obvious and with a discernible rock influence like Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys or N.W.A. You do not see records included that rap considers canon like “Illmatic”, “Ready To Die”, or “The Chronic” in any serious top 10 list. This manifest itself in rappers attempting to break away from the norms of hip hop and making a record that panders to rock critics by eschewing traditional influences and going obviously avant-garde as if to scream to critics that not all rappers are dumb, shallow, violent and materialistic. It’s as if these rappers are saying that their music is inherently inferior to other forms and thus it’s imperative that in order to win true respect one needs to change their style. Songs about sex, drugs and rock and roll just aren’t good enough if it’s done with a sampler instead of a guitar.
In Kanye’s case, I suppose we should have seen this coming sooner. Kanye is a man that is deeply (perhaps pathologically) obsessed with awards and adulation and despite being the most critically acclaimed rapper in years, has failed to notch the one true test of mainstream acceptance, the Grammy Award for Best Album Of The Year. While the Grammy’s are largely and have always been irrelevant due to their aging voting body, it does offer a gauge to the level of acceptance a form of music has by the mainstream canon. Hip Hop despite being in existence for nearly forty years now has only one won of those suckers, 2004’s win for Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” (and it certainly did not win because of Speakerboxxx); a record that can be rightly said to be Outkast’s worst (I’m pretending Idlewild didn’t happen) album but perhaps most mainstream accessible due to Andre’s experimental leanings and bad drum and bass reinterpretations of classic jazz records. Kanye wants to win the big one and he might feel that the best chance of this is to ditch rapping and make an “avant-garde” record with lots of auto-tuned singing and rockist musical leanings. I mean last year, “Graduation” was pretty avant-garde in it’s own right but it still was clearly a hip hop record but it lost to a Herbie Hancock record nobody had ever listened to.
What I personally loathe is the Robert Christgau school of ignoring any rap record that dares to have any balls (i.e. any rap record that deals with violence or sex explicitly). Christgau, despite being one of the most influential and important rock critics of all-time, basically has written off the most important genre in music of the last 20 years, gangster rap, and refuses to acknowledge any rap record that follows that formula. To me, this reeks at best out-of-touch elitism and at worst out-right racism of rock critics who loathe the primal explicitness that the best of gangster rap can provide (or as I like to refer to as it’s glorious, transcendent ignorance). I’ve always been drawn to the cathartic pleasures that the music can bring when it’s at it’s best. It has an undeniable appeal even to a kid from the suburbs like me. For sure, “Bitches Ain’t Shit” is misogynist and profoundly ignorant but there’s a quality to it that expresses male frustration towards women that it helps alleviate precisely because of it’s ugly language and subject matter. A song about killing your enemies (even it’s as basest and most crass) appeals to young people because it taps into universal themes that cross class lines like the fantastical desire to blow away with an AK-47 the people that pick on or mistreat you. It’s something that older people who grew up on music that wasn’t as explicit in expressing anger don’t seem to understand. It doesn’t mean it’s a lesser music.
As much as I criticize, Jay-Z, I will always give him dap for not only being the most successful rapper of all-time (at least, in terms of sustaining popularity over a career) but doing it without pandering to mainstream rockist audiences. He’s lived and died by rap and he has done fairly well for himself by being a great lyricist and traditional hip hop artist. Hopefully, Kanye’s new album won’t be filled with “Love Lockdown’s” and he’ll follow his “big brother’s” tradition of continuing to make great “traditional” rap albums. “808’s & Heartbreak” is being billed as Kanye’s break-up album and it would be certainly interesting for rap to have it’s own “Rumors” but if it’s anything like “The Love Below” you can count me out. Perhaps “Love Lockdown is an aberration but I won’t be surprised if the album sucks and Kanye collects a few more Golden statutes, anyway. I love saying I told you so.