"Dedicated To The Winners & The Losers..." - Raekwon


Friday, September 12, 2008

Who Told Kanye West He Was Andre 3000? - A Prayer For Robert Christgau


"What is this a Wilco record? Count me out."

Inevitably, there comes a point in every critically acclaimed rapper’s career where they become so gassed with all of the critical nut-slobbery fevered in their direction that they come to believe that they are too good to actually...you know... rap. When this happens, the rapper inevitably decides to do something completely foolish and ill-advised like learn to play the guitar or make a spoken word album about love with the Last Poets. These records are almost always “partial-birthers” of the highest order and they are almost always fellatied by rockist critics who want to seem down with this “hip hop thing” but don’t want the hassle of having to explain to their friends and family why they are listening to a Heltah Skeltah record in the CD deck of their Toyota Priuses.

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.

33 comments:

Marcus said...

sans his guest appearances, Kanye West is a great rapper

Trey Stone said...

i agree with you about the broader relatable elements in certain gangsta rap, but i think heads tend to swing the whole "too good for rap" issue in the opposite direction. what if they genuinely want to try something else? y'all seem to automatically assume that whenever a rapper does something like this it's to suck up to rock critics. if it's a specific case where it actually seems like that fine, but you seem to be reflexively applying it to any rapper who decides to experiment with other genres.

and yeah there are certain aspects of rap that can be inherently limiting depending on what you're going for. not in a way that makes it inferior to other genres, but obviously most beats are typically four-bar loops, and depending on what effect you want singing may be more expressive. 'course it's true the other way around too, where you can do things stylistically with hip hop that you can't in rock/whatever else.

lastly, i'll give you that the second half of Love Below is an overindulgent mess, but there's no way that's 'Kast's worst album. their first two are maaaaad overrated.

Renato Pagnani said...

Wanting Kanye to make only "traditional rap albums" is just as elitist and dangerous.

tray said...

Christgau wrote a very complimentary (and good) essay on Eminem, who talked about violence and sex quite a bit, and he has reviewed a lot of gangsta rap. Just go to his site, look up N.W.A., Jay, Schooly D, etc. I'm not going to say he knows what he's talking about, but he doesn't ignore the genre.

DocZeus said...

Tray-

Christgau does review gangster rap but he generally writes it off as violent crap or at least he used to. I remember thumbing through an anthology of reviews he did for albums and he gave motherfucking ready to die like a c minus. His opinion may have changed in ten years but he definitely used to hate it.

"Wanting Kanye to make only "traditional rap albums" is just as elitist and dangerous."

Personally, I feel giving Kanye carte blanche to make a shitty experimental rap album is dangerous. We lost Andre 3000 for nearly five years and we are only recently getting him back. We still haven't gotten back Cee-Lo and I doubt we'll ever get Mos Def back. I don't want to lose Kanye to this bullshit. And for the record, I'm referring to a traditional rap album as a rap album that has rapping on it.

quan said...

trey (and renato, sorta)-
Yeah I see what you're saying about not limiting the creative direction of the rapper/artist. But like you say, you gotta take it case-by-case and judge said rapper's intentions case-by-case. Given Kanye's notoriously insatiable need for congratulation, I agree with DocZeus here in seeing the song as rock critic pandering. As opposed to maybe Cee-lo, who's always been pretty weird and seems pretty humble. So when he gets into Gnarls mode (or really, even solo Cee-lo mode), you can believe that he just got bored with rap, not that he stopped for continued critical praise.

Also, you gotta understand this aversion towards non-traditional rap. I mean if rap can't be accepted as what it is by the mainstream (here, meaning mainstream pop-music history), what the fuck is the point?

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

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 forgot Tupac. Speakerboxxx is a great album, way better than Love Below to me. and trey, i think, you are very, very wrong. those fist two albums are great. especially ATLiens.

DocZeus said...

"you forgot Tupac. Speakerboxxx is a great album, way better than Love Below to me."

I agree Tupac is critically hailed by rock critics and often when they do their own canonization of rappers he's overrated but I don't think any of his albums break into any discussion of the greatest albums of all-time even with them.

And yes, Speakerboxxx is way better than the Love Below but I'm suggesting that Speakerboxxx/Love Below was as critically worshipped because of "Hey Ya!" and the rest of the Love Below. It had very little to do with the fact with Big Boi.

And yeah, Trey you are completely nuts if you don't love ATLiens. It's ridiculously good. You might be on to something with Southerplayisticaddilacmuzik, though.

tray said...

Look, I just think if you're going to blog, you ought to know what you're talking about. If you're not positive and all you have to go on is what you vaguely remember seeing when you thumbed through his book, look it up. Christgau's the last guy I'd go to for a review of a rap album. Nevertheless, he actually gave Ready to Die an A- and Life After Death an A. And specifically praises what he calls the 'sex raps.' Now in fairness to you, he was down on Ice Cube, N.W.A., Mobb Deep, and The Chronic when they all came out. 17 years ago, though, you and I might've not gotten Ice Cube either. So I'd give him a pass on that.

DocZeus said...

"Look, I just think if you're going to blog, you ought to know what you're talking about. If you're not positive and all you have to go on is what you vaguely remember seeing when you thumbed through his book, look it up. Christgau's the last guy I'd go to for a review of a rap album. Nevertheless, he actually gave Ready to Die an A- and Life After Death an A. And specifically praises what he calls the 'sex raps.' Now in fairness to you, he was down on Ice Cube, N.W.A., Mobb Deep, and The Chronic when they all came out. 17 years ago, though, you and I might've not gotten Ice Cube either. So I'd give him a pass on that."

I suppose I might be wrong but the book I read he was definitely shitting on a ton of classic rap albums. The Source did change a bunch of their reviews of album awhile back so perhaps I'm being harsh but I don't think I'm making this up out of air. I suppose I owe him an apology if he changed his mind, though.

tray said...

Well like I said, he shits on The Chronic, Cube's first two albums, isn't crazy about G Rap, so you're entitled to say he's a bad rap critic, but this just isn't true:

"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."

Like he just gave that stupid Clipse record an A last year.

DocZeus said...

While I'm not sure Clipse really qualifies as gangster rap (I'm sort of the opinion, there hasn't been a true gangster rap album produced past-94), I see your point.

However, I'm not sure if praising the Clipse proves he's down with rap, the post-We Got It 4 Cheap Clipse are one of those rap groups that rock critics seem to love for whatever reason. I really can't explain why the Tom Breihan's of the world really love them. And I say this as a fan of Hell Hath No Fury.

I do find it weird that he would like the Clipse but shit on Mobb Deep as you say considering I've always considered Clipse to be a futuristic update on the Mobb Deep formula. They both share the same sense of nihilism and passion for dark, brooding beats. It's weird that he'd praise Clipse and then critique Mobb Deep.

tray said...

Well, he only reviewed Murda Muzik. Which I myself would contend is a so-so album. Now, he does throw some criticism their way in his review of Life After Death:

"In short, way more fun and somewhat more moral than the look-ma-no-hands unaccountability promoted by showbiz outlaws from Mobb Deep to Westside Connection."

Which, yeah, misses the whole point. Unaccountability's the complete opposite of what's going on there. (Though he has very nice things to say about Cuban Linx.) But I think his struggle with gangsta rap is one that a lot of intelligent people have, and he at least has tried to engage with the genre.

DocZeus said...

I can't really fault the man for not liking Murda Muzik. It's pretty meh outside of "Quiet Storm" which is really fantastic.

tray said...

You know, this might be blasphemous but I've always felt that Quiet Storm quietly signaled the beginning of P's falloff. (On songs like "Adrenaline" it's way more obvious.) It's subtle, but towards the end of the first verse, when he's talking about building playgrounds for the little dunns, he stops rhyming and his flow starts to sound a little like the totally off-beat drivel we know today. But it is a great song. Though I actually think the best song on the album is Where Ya Heart At. How moving is Hav's verse?

jay (d)eff kay said...

wow. i expected a kanye review. but there's a lot of stuff going on here. positon of rap in the mainstream,self loathing in rap, rockism, jay-z congratulations. Nice. btw, one of the main reasons jay is one of my fave rappers is for specifically one of the reasons alluded to here. he is actually probably the greatest rapper to cross over without completing getting down on his knees, ifyouknowwhatimsaying. uncanny gift for translating his appeal broadly without completing losing his essence. as for kanye, I'd give him the benefit of the doubt after graduation. im fine w/ bloggers tackling the hot topics and aiming for "toldyouso" moments, but its kinda early to say dont you think? also im not totally comfortable when everyone starts overconfidently commenting on the mindspace and intent of artists . like, who are we to say tht cee-lo and andre 3k are only weird or misguided with their crossover attempts whereas kanye's forays into the mainstream are because he's pathologically obsessed w/ adulation and rock critic affirmation? couldn't he be merely obsessed w/ artistic innovation or plain old self indulgence w/ his craft (misguided as they may be)?

DocZeus said...

Tray-

Well, I might agree with you on Prodigy's verse on the Lil Kim remix, I've always felt that Prodigy's verses on the original is the last great lyrical performance he ever had and might be my favorite Prodigy performance ever. His flow is pretty impeccable on that one.

I'm always shocked that DJs always seem to play the Lil Kim remix as opposed to the original whenever you are at a club or a bar that spins hip hop in New York. I always get amped when I hear that bassline start to play and then get immediately disappointed when I hear Lil Kim's voice. In my mind, the original demolishes the remix.

DocZeus said...

And I can't tell if Nas is completely fucking around with us with his infamous verse on "It's Mine" about attending the Barbara Streisand concert and that horrible ass singing on the chorus. It's so bad that it's almost self-parody of his Escobar persona.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

"And I can't tell if Nas is completely fucking around with us with his infamous verse on 'It's Mine'"

i love that verse, it is just such a big "fuck you" to any and everyone. great mic presence, he completely dwarfed hav and p.

tray said...

His verse on Give It Up Fast is pretty bad too.

NickE said...

Couldn't agree more. Like when Andre 3000 came out with Hey Ya, many people were saying they liked them ever since they came out with Ms. Jackson (Stankonia), as if that was their first rap album.

Although I think that Kanye is brilliant and is not just Hip Hop i do see how they mainstream (predominantly white) but a stamp on their brilliance when they tend to move away from the traditional rap songs.

Un.So. said...

1999 Mobb Deep - Where Ya From

Prodigy: "Fuck where you at kid
Its where you from"

2002 - Kool G Rap - Where You At (Feat. Prodigy)

Prodigy: "Dogs, it ain't where you from, it's where you at"


i think these two song reflect how P changed as a rapper/person

Badmon3333 said...

I'm droppin' in waaaay too late on the thread, but Trey Stone (the second commenter that said Outkast's first two albums are 'waaaaay overrated') is smokin' stix, as Coolio might say.

I'll grant him that the first album is not as classic as many others with that label, but 'ATLiens" is still Outkast's best album, to me. It's the one Outkast album I can listen to front-to-back without skipping an ill-conceived beat or a way-too-long skit.

I can fully drink a 128-oz. bottle of Haterade when it comes to Kanye West the Person and maybe even the MC, but it's hard to do the same on Kanye West the Producer.

The problem I think a lot of ultra-creative minds like his run into is that they want to make an album with all kinds of instruments, when they aren't really proficient in them. Much as he'd probably be loathe to admit it, 'Ye had plenty of help from Jon Brion producing "Late Registration," and much of the super-lush production from that album was not present on "Graduation."

Weezy F. Baby wants to learn to play guitar? That's cool. But if he wants to form a Southern rock band, he best get a couple Allman Brothers up in that shit.

I don't know where I was going with that...

Trey Stone said...

ATLiens is just boring to me. i mean 'course i like the title track and it starts out OK, but the idea that it's better than Stankonia, Aquemini or hell any other 'Kast album for that matter tells me that y'all have some weird standard for classic rap that i have yet to understand. do the beats have to be consistently bland or something?

and i think the underrating of Love Below (no way it's a complete disaster unless you're that allergic to anything non-rap)/overrating of Andre's recent comeback (he's about 50-50) comes out of rigid rap purism rather than fairly judging the music

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

no one said ATLiens is better than Aquemini, but to some of us, it's not as boring as you would like to think. the beats are consistent, but they certainly are not bland, especially for 1996.

it's also hard to take someone who loves I Am... seriously.

Trey Stone said...

i never said i loved I Am.... just that i'll take it over most of Nas's albums, especially most of his Stillmatic and after stuff that i think is extremely overrated. really I only like about half of the album, but that half'd rank up with my favorite Nas songs.

with OutKast i just think they're one of those groups that got more sonically creative with time, even though they peaked around Stankonia and got more hit-and-miss with their last two. still i'll take hit-and-miss over consistency that i think's pretty blah.

tray said...

Could un.so elaborate on that? There's nothing I find more interesting than what happened to Prodigy. Like CNN should do an investigative report. Anderson Cooper and Candy Crowley find out the true story: What Happened To Prodigy?! Tonight at 9 ET.

Oh, and I have a new post up.

un.so. aka Universal Soldier said...

i cant write an essay about that (i hope Doc.Zeus will) but i guess his sickle-cell anemia, the jay-z beef and a lack of unity in Queensbridge were the obvious reasons why P fell off, what pisses me off, is that Havoc kept his nose out of the beefs and the fact that they sold out makes for an uncomfortable listen of their earlier albums, listen to Joe Buddens "Blood On The Wall"

tray said...

Yeah, sickle cell or some degenerative mental disease have always been my guesses. Then again, every rapper seems to lose his flow by the age of 35. Maybe it's just diminishing lung capacity with age. Seriously, someone should do a scientific study.

d. b. cooper said...

"no one said ATLiens is better than Aquemini, but to some of us, it's not as boring as you would like to think."

Um, ATLiens is way better than Aquemini. Aquemini is the boring album. ATLiens is equivalent to an album like Midnight Marauders. Aquemini had its moments but, truthfully, ONP was starting to fall off at that point. ATLiens had Ova Tha Wudz, Decatur Psalm, Wheelz of Steel, Elavators, Jazzy Belle. Andre was at his peek. Fronting on ATLiens is like fronting on Cuban Linx or Barack Obama, sure it's been done but you're a dumbass for it.

Trey Stone said...

mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmk

d. b. cooper said...

Trey Stone said...
mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmk


So I've convinced you, I presume.;)

Dart Adams said...

What up, Doc Zeus? Check out Not A Blogger's spot on my blog The Official Marvel Guide To The Bloggerverse:

http://poisonousparagraphs.blogspot.com/2008/09/dart-adams-presents-official-marvel.html

One.