Tag Archives: Kanye West

Kanye West ‘Ye’ – Review

3 Jun

In the background of one of Kanye West’s recent twitter videos, a tv was playing a clip of the wildly popular and somewhat controversial Canadian academic Jorden Peterson, lecturing on the importance of art. Peterson is best known for his instructive guidance videos and books, aimed primarily at young men, but he’s also something of an expert on narcasism and man’s capacity for evil. In one of his many lectures on the subject, Peterson theorises that everyone has great capacity for malevolence, and it’s only when we come to terms with that, admit it, reckon with it and understand it, that we can evolve in to truly good, and successful, human beings. Otherwise we’re doomed to a life of naivety and manipulation.

It sounds like an instruction that Kanye West may have taken to heart. ‘Ye’ (“I believe Ye is the most commonly used word in the bible, and in the bible it means YOU. So I’m you, I’m us, it’s us. The album is a reflection of who we are.”) opens with Kanye admitting ‘The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest. Today I seriously thought about killing you…and I think about killing myself and I love myself way more than I love you so…just say it out loud to see how it feels…sometimes I think bad things, really, really bad things…’ The song continues on like this, as auto-tuned, harmonic mumblings swirl underneath – intense distillations of ideas Kanye has been nibbling at the edges of for years. On this album Kanye is laying his insecurities, anxieties and darkest desires bare for everyone to see. It’s a massive risk. He’s showing us his worst side, as well as him most vulnerable (no easy thing for him one suspects) and asking that we love him as much as he loves himself.

It’s an album largely about mental illness that declares on its cover ‘I hate being bi-polar. It’s awesome’. To my mind at least, ‘Ye’ inhabits some of the contradictions of being bi-polar: it’s at once impulsive, fanatic, impassioned, drained, sad and kind of haunting. It’s an album that sounds incredibly warm yet speaks so coldly. It feels monumental despite being such a slight thing. It’s generous with guest features (most of which are by talented, emotionally grounded young women) despite being such a self centred thesis. If the question is ‘who’s the real Kanye?’ then there are no clear answers on ‘Ye’, except, possibly, they’re all the real Kanye.

From a production standpoint ‘Ye’ is fairly similar to the Kanye produced ‘Daytona’, Pusha T’s recent comeback album. Both are seven tracks, and clock in at just over twenty minutes. Both feature well sourced and creatively manipulated soul samples, carefully articulated beats and minimal bars over spacious backdrops. It’s definitely a refined sound compared to the expansive and diverse ‘Life of Pablo’, and feels more restrained than even ‘Yeezus’ or ‘808s and heartbreaks’. It’s light on hooks (‘Yikes’ might sound like a single if the topics it discusses weren’t so alienating’) but rich in melody and gospel tinged choruses. In these senses it conveys a spirit of love and generosity, even as Kanye pulls away from the listener and doubles down on some of his divisive arguments without really elaborating on them.

Of course It’s impossible to hear ‘Ye’ divorced from the context of his recent behaviour. And he doesn’t want you to. In fact, he refers to his recent controversies frequently, if in no real depth. Those hoping that ‘Ye’ would provide insight or explanation will surely be disappointed, as will those who hoped he might brush over them all together. The most infamous of his recent comments was ‘slavery is a choice’. That provocative comment, here once again brought up on ‘Yikes’, was rightly criticised for being misinformed and unhelpful (despite being ripped from context, with Kanye’s more detailed justification, all but ignored). But this isn’t the first time Kanye has poked and prodded at the subject. ‘Blood on the Leaves’ from 2013’s Yeezus, a song hailed at the time as being a Black Lives Matter anthem, was equally reductive and insensitive for different reasons. It strikes me as odd that some people are only just realising now that Kanye West is a troll. That Kanye says, and does, stupid things. That Kanye can be insensitive. When his vitriol was directed at George Bush (‘George Bush hates black people’) or Taylor Swift (‘I made that bitch famous’) it was brushed off. Now it’s all anyone can talk about.

If this is the first time you’ve found Kanye’s comments problematic, you really haven’t been listening hard enough. Both ‘Yeezus’ and ‘Life of Pablo’ were explicitly misogynistic and racist at points. There were elements of that before as well, but the genius of 2010’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, for example, was in how Kanye wrestled with his ego; painting awful pictures and then stripping and analysing them. It was genuinely mature, conflicted stuff. There was none of that self aware drama on ‘Yeezus’ or ‘Life of Pablo’ and there’s little more of it on ‘Ye’. He just doesn’t seem interested in doing the hard yards necessary to layout nuanced, thoughtful arguments. There is a reason Kanye works so well on Twitter – it’s because he writes the most brilliant sound bites known to man. But that’s all they are, sound bites. Sound bites that don’t stand up to even the most simple scrutiny. And by the time he’s delivered one stinger (‘You know how many girls I took to the titty shop?’) it’s too late, he’s on to the next (‘if you get the ass with it that’s a 50 pop’). when his choice of topic was more trivial (‘Life of Pablo’ was totally apolitical) such an approach was tremendous fun. Here though it’s exhausting and divisive.

‘All Mine’ is the latest in a long line of Hip Hop tracks that demean and objectify women, simply for being women. The track seems to be a defence of infedelity; essentially a boy’s will be boys apology that is never even remotely convincing. It starts crudely with a verse by Ty Dolla $ign, ‘Fuck it up, pussy good, I’m ‘a pipe her up, make her mine’, and hits new levels of depravity when Kanye himself throws down: ‘Let me hit it raw like fuck the outcome / ayy none of us would be here without cum’. This is Kanye at his insufferable worst. ‘All Mine’s vulgarity is brought in to starker contrast by its proximity to ‘Wouldn’t Leave’, where Kanye recounts the aftermath of the ‘slavery is a choice’ comment. There are odd moments of vulnerability here (‘told her she could leave me now but she didn’t leave’ is a really interesting line – has Kanye been deliberately self sabotaging his success and happiness because he feels unworthy?) but the interesting revelation is that Kim’s initial angry reaction to the comment seems to have been ‘you’ gon’ fuck the money up’. Yes, the song is short on genuine understanding and doesn’t present any of its protagonists in a flattering light.

Another song that’s troubling is album closer ‘Violent Crimes’, which explores how Kanye’s understanding of women has changed since he became a father (changed in the ten minutes between this and ‘All Mine’ you mean?), or at least, how he thinks it’s changed. Addressing his daughter, he says ‘now I see women as something to nurture not something to conquer’ before making a tasteless pun about a ménage et trios. Once again, the proximity between the saintly and the sexualised, in a song about his baby daughter, feels creepy, as later when he starts talking about ‘the curves under you dress’, and a boyfriend ‘whooping her ass’ (of course Kanye isn’t the first man to see man to see women as one of two extremes – the Madonna/whore complex is well documented). It’s a pretty weird song, one where I’m sure he means well, but the fact he thinks this is appropriate is as clear a sign as any that his self awareness is currently at an all time low. And once again, his inability to see beyond women’s bodies – extended even to his own daughter, even in a song where he is making big claims about being a changed man – is astonishing.

But before we address the myriad of problems in the music of Kanye West, how about we zoom out a bit and examine the wider cultural problems within Hip Hop. Singling out Kanye in the same week that Pusha T’s equally problematic ‘Daytona’, and AS$P Rocky’s ‘Testing’, received critical acclaim feels unfair. Jay Z has said worse. So have Drake and Eminem. Cardi B and Azelia Banks are no more nuanced or insightful. Even the relatively enlightened Kendrick Lamar’s first number one used ‘bitch’ as the main hook. And they’re just the big hitters; things get a whole lot darker the further you go further down the chain. I’m not excusing Kanye West, simply suggesting that the issues are far deeper than many would care it admit. And anyway, that may be a part of what ‘Ye’ is but that’s not all it is.

In all the noise and chatter, something that has been lost (but is reaffirmed on this album) is that first and foremost in his tweets Kanye has been calling for love and tolerance. ‘Ye’s working title was ‘Love Everyone’. The front cover was supposed to be a photo of the doctor held responsible for the death of Donda West, Kanye’s mother. Forgiveness. Love. Connection. These ideas may not always be explicit in the lyrics but they are present in other ways. I hear it in the way Kanye’s production synthesises his past styles in to one and brings different genres and historical sounds together. I hear it in the diverse collection of guest vocalists who contribute so much for a cause much bigger than themselves individually. I hear it in Kanye’s bruised, hurt vocal tones as he tries, once again, to hit notes always out of his reach, and doesn’t stop trying. ‘Sometimes I take all the shine, talk like I drank all the wine’. He’s still reaching for truth, for love and for freedom of expression. He’s still knocking at doors and breaking down barriers. Still talking about things we don’t want to talk about. When you invest so much in an artist it can be hard to see their work objectively but I would argue that the Kanye of 2018 is no different to the Kanye of 2013, perhaps even the Kanye of 2003. He’s brash, insensitive, funny, daring, inquisitive, emotional, controversial, narcissistic, capable of great genius and capable of the opposite. To slightly misquote the handwritten message on the front cover of Ye: I hate Kanye West. He’s awesome.




Kanye West ‘The Life of Pablo’ – Review

15 Feb

Man I wish I loved the new Kanye West record. Failing that, I wish I hated it. I wish it perplexed me as much as ‘Yeezus’ did. I wish it moved me as much as ‘808s and Heartbreak’ did. And how ever unlikely, I wish it rocked my world as much as ‘College dropout’ did. Those distant days of 2004, when I downloaded the mp3 files of that album on to the school computer and played them on a very old version of real player, feel like a lifetime ago. Kanye’s been able to turn on that very same tap time after time after time, with each subsequent album being a beacon of inspiration. Each one has awoken a sense of discovery and rediscovery in the way only a handful of artists have ever been able to do. The Beatles of course and then Bowie, Neil Young, Dylan, Radiohead, Prince and MJ. Artists defined by reinvention. All those artists powers gradually diminished, although never disappeared. These runs don’t last forever. After ‘John Wesley Harding’ Dylan released ‘Nashville Skyline’, a good record but hardly a classic in the same breath as its predecessor. After ‘Lovesexy’ Prince put out the Batman soundtrack (ok, maybe the dropping off slope was pretty steep for him). After twelve years of restless creativity ‘The Life of Pablo’ signals that Kanye is at this point in his career.

Which is not to say that ‘The Life of Pablo’ is a bad album, far from it, it’s just the first one that doesn’t wear the label ‘classic’. I actually like it a lot more than ‘Yeezus’, it just wont ignite the sameextreme reactions. It isn’t groundbreaking or innovative. It isn’t flawless. It isn’t a work of genius. Initially, It’s hard to see what the album’s unique selling point actually is. It’s the first record in Kanye’s discography that doesn’t immediately convey a new personality. Instead it can be viewed as a compilation of past flavours. Some songs veer towards the minimalist nihilism of ‘Yeezy’ whilst others are minimalist in the more emotionally vulnerable vein of ‘808s and Heartbreaks.’ The album’s length and sonic ambition recalls the opulent grandeur of ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ but in tone it feels much closer to ‘Late Registration’. Then there are the interludes that recall ‘College Dropout’s’ tiresome skits.

It surely would have been better for Kanye to make good on ‘Ultralight Beam’s gospel promise that is curtailed after track two. Otherwise only the feel good ‘Waves’ adds gravitas to Kanye’s argument that ‘The Life of Pablo’ is a gospel album. These songs are without doubt the most interesting new developments on here. But he is an artist prone to greatness, even when he’s as inconsistent and scatterbrained as he is here. ‘The Life of Pablo’ is constantly engaging, even when it provokes negative reactions, and almost always enjoyable at the very least.

As ever Kanye West is the master ringmaster and he’s worked with a stellar army of collaborators. From the heralded (Chance the Rapper, Rick Rubin, Madlib, Andre 3000, Pharrell, Rihanna, The Weeknd) to the more obscure (Donnie Trumpet, Cashmere Cat, Mike Dean, Karriem Riggins). ‘No More Parties in LA’ features Kendrick Lamar, who is undeniably the best rapper in the world right now. Indeed, last year’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is, along with ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, a candidate for the best hip hop album of all time. As soon as Kendrick arrives with his verse he blows everyone else out of the water and Kanye is briefly made to look like an average joe at his own party. When Kanye takes over the mic a couple of minutes in to the song he is reserved, as he is for much of the album. But then he builds up steam and unleashes perhaps the best two minutes of pure rap he’s delivered in many years. It’s like 2004 all over again – he’s funny, dramatic, technically superb and a hurricane of ego, personality and controversy. Everything that’s amazing about Kanye flowers from the crack in the pavement. And then the song ends abruptly. And then ‘Facts’ begins. And then we’re back in 2016.

‘Facts’ is surely the worst thing Kanye has ever put on an album (though not as poor as last year’s shocking ‘All Day’), something that seems to be universally accepted by fans and critics alike. It’s not hard to put your finger on why the song goes so drastically wrong. To start with the beat is bland and the bassline is uncharacteristically cold, un-melodic and un-kanye like. Then there’s the rapping. He’s ripping Drake off and it’s embarrassing. This is Kanye West, he doesn’t need to be Drake. Surely he knows that better than anyone? Then there’s the fact he’s spends four minutes dissing Nike whilst defending Bill Crosby. Something tells me the audience’s empathy will be in short supply. After ‘Facts’ comes ‘Fade’ which features some classic house samples and virtually no Kanye. The song has absolutely nothing to say (about Nike or Bill Cosby or anything). I guess it’s fine. Ok,  It’s a pale version of ‘Yeezus’ closer ‘Bound 2’ but it sounds cool. Then that’s it. The album is over. This three song stretch just about sums up this messy album. Mostly enjoyable, sporadically excellent and, every now and then, utter garbage.

This being a Kanye album, there are moments of controversy. Yesterday I saw a tweet that asked ‘mysogony is not ok, why do we forget our feminism as soon as it comes to Kanye West?’ And it’s a pertinent question. He can defend his use of the word ‘bitch’ all he wants but I don’t buy it. He uses the word as a crutch because he can’t be bothered to think of more syllables. It isn’t ok. Even harder to defend is the way he talks about women generally, like how he casually dismisses Taylor Swift (again!) on ‘Famous’, not to mention how he speaks about his own wife and the women he’s slept with. Everyone must worship at the alter of Kanye. ‘Yeezus’ was the first time his misogyny made me deeply uncomfortable, mainly because his delivery lacked the self awareness and context he had provided on previous albums. His language throughout ‘The Life of Pablo’ is equally jarring and increasingly harder to look past.

One of the great things about ‘808s and Heartbreak’ and ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was that Kanye wrestled with and dissected the wild personality that he had crafted on his first, great trilogy of albums. He sounded self-aware, increasingly confident, mature and willing to unpack that madness and the genius that made him tick. I don’t hear that same conflict on ‘The Life of Pablo’. I hear a man who is quite literally deluded; who brags, who ridicules, who demeans and who often sounds unhinged. ‘Name one genius that ain’t crazy’ he says at one point. I get his message but I’m not sure that’s a get out of jail free card. As on ‘Yeezus’, it’s actually a barrier preventing me from loving this album.

There are other barriers. It feels disappointingly apolitical, which considering what’s going on in America right now, and in the light of recent albums by Kendrick and Run the Jewels Is disappointing. A vague ‘pray for Paris’ is as close as we get to a political message. More crucially, it feels unfinished. Of course Kanye was working on his music right up until the deadline, chopping and changing the track listing as If he was never quite sure of what he was trying to say. This time last year he premiered ‘Wolves’ and called it the opener to the album ‘So Help Me God’. This time last week it was the mellow closer to a suave ten track record called ‘Waves’. Finally it’s been slotted somewhere in the middle of ‘The Life of Pablo’. The tone, sound and content has radically altered so many times but in the end he’s thrown it all at the wall to see what would stick.

It’s perhaps instructive to approach ‘The Life of Pablo’ as Kanye’s White Album – an extended assortment of every style he’s toyed with before, amalgamated in a seemingly random order, and tackled with an unprecedented looseness and freedom of spirt. There are minimalist ballads (‘FML’), jams (freestyles are basically jams right?) pop crowd pleasers (‘Famous’) bizarre interludes (‘Silver Surfer Intermission’) throwaways (‘FACTS’) an avant grade sample (’30 Hours’) and an ambitious multi-part suite (Father Stretch My Hands). It may not pack quite the same punch as that aforementioned classic but then what does?

Kanye once claimed that ‘Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was perfection, well ‘The Life of Pablo, like The White Album before it, is anti-perfection. The very public and and protracted roll out may perhaps have been a ploy to make this anti-perfection strategy super-dooper clear. He is a father now after all, as well as a fashion designer, video game maker (if you do anything today make sure you check out ‘Only One’) and a general ideas man. Who has the time to make a masterpiece anyway? ‘The Life of Pablo’ might not be one but it’s still more interesting, provocative, infuriating and enjoyable than just about anything released since his last album. I may not love it, or hate it, but when it comes to Kanye the middle ground is a pretty fascinating place.



Drake ‘Nothing Was the Same’ – Review

9 Oct

‘Tuscan Leather’ is the most ecstatic song Drake has ever recorded – 6 minutes of delirious beat and samples that are twisted to make it sound like a demented Kanye West production from a decade ago. And it’s dripping with the most unconvincing bravado you can imagine. ‘Comin off the last record, I’m getting 20 million off the record, just off these records, nigga that’s a record.’ As an opening gambit it’s unexpected – Since when has anyone listened to Drake to hear cheap puns and cheaper vanity? ‘I could go an hour on this beat’ – You get the feeling he tried. Luckily about half way through the song things start to unravel in the best possible sense. ‘Not even talking to Nicki, communication is breaking, I dropped the ball on some personal shit, I need to embrace it. I’m honest, I make mistakes, and I’ll be the second to admit it.’ This is more like the Drake we’ve come to expect; funny, self-deprecating, revealing and unflinchingly honest. Although he gets off to a slightly unconvincing start, by the end of ‘Tuscan Leather’, the album’s opening track, he’s completely won you over. It alerts you to the notion that this is his most conflicted album yet.

‘Nothing Was the Same’ is more complicated than ‘Take Care’, although the links with that record are clear. Nothing IS the same exactly, but it’s certainly not a complete reinvention. Drake still places sincerity alongside insincerity and smack-talk alongside heart-talk. He’s not wholly convincing in either department for that reason – he’s too sweet-natured to give good smack talk and he’s too vain and antagonistic to give good heart talk. He’s a rapper with a poet’s heart or a poet with a rapper’s swag. The beauty is that he doesn’t sound at home anywhere. ‘Somewhere between psychotic and iconic – somewhere between I want it and I got it – somewhere between a mistress and commitment’ as he puts it. He’s a unique conundrum in the hip hop community. Utterly relatable – a man who expresses ancient thoughts on love and loss in 21st century Tweet sized sound bites. The writer he reminds me most of is Alex Turner, another dude who writes in memorable, brief fragments rather than extended narratives. Like Turner, Drake is also fond of details; these tunes are dripping with proper nouns, to the point where we can name a dozen of the women who have come in and out of Drake’s life. ‘The one I needed was Courtney from Hooters on Peaches, I’ve always been feeling like she was the piece to complete me. Now she’s engaged to be married.’ Drake wallows in regret all over the record, but we only get glimpses like this here and there. It’s clear that all the bravado is there to compensate for his honesty. Unsurprisingly his swag is merely a disguise for a wounded soul.

Musically the album’s a lot less complicated, although it’s a more difficult listen that the more memorable ‘Take Care’. Drake’s never really been about ear worms – his melodies are often inane and tuneless, his hooks often laughably derivative (see ‘Started From the Bottom’) but instead the music washes over you and creates atmosphere like the best mood records do. Drake is equally fond of old collaborators and new collaborators; Noah Shebib is still there providing the production, and still doing an excellent job of combining post ‘808s and Heartbreaks’ emo with a more muscular beat palate. The first half of the album is a lot tougher and more driven than 90% of ‘Take Care’. It’s the kind of material I expected a superstar in Drake’s league to make before I actually heard his music. As on ‘Take Care’ Drizzy also recruits young British talent to add some innovation. Beat maker in demand Hudson Mohawke adds a ‘Bad’ era Michael Jackson flavour to ‘Contact’ whilst Sampha contributes the most soul stirring moment on the album with his impassioned vocals on ‘Too Much’.

Despite being a fairly progressive hip hop album in many ways, ‘Nothing was the Same’ still feels unfortunately regressive when it comes to terminology, proving some things will never change. Women are still ‘bitches’ or ‘pussy’, men are still ‘niggas’ and the F word is thrown around in a lazy manner designed to fill syllables. For someone with such a command of language Drake is still prone to littering his songs with these boring, offensive clichés. For a man who wears his sensitivity as a medal around his neck along with his other chains, Drake seems to be as insensitive as most other contemporary rappers when it comes to labeling. The album falls into the other predictable hip hop trap of being too long – although in fairness it isn’t anywhere near as indulgent as ‘Take Care’ or many other big hip-hop releases of the last decade.

‘I wanna take it deeper than money, pussy, vacation, and influence a generation lacking in patience. I’ve been dealing with my dad, speaking of lack of patience…’ In this statement we are led back to that central contradiction at the heart of Drake’s records. This is a line brimming with ambition; Drake wants to ‘influence a generation’, he wants to ‘connect’, he still wants ‘money, pussy, vacation’ but he also wants to talk about his dad. Here we see in an instant just how hungry Drake is, not to mention how conflicted he is. This is far from a perfect album but then Drake is far from a perfect human being – he’s often hilariously un-self aware, hypocritical, false and vain. But occasionally he’s revolatory. And it’s still a thrill to hear him slur ‘muthafuckers never loved me.’ He’s got that dirty allure. That’s the beautiful contradiction. Drake’s been exploring this anxiety for a while now and you get the feeling he’ll never truly feel at home anywhere – which suits me just fine.


Kanye West ‘Yeezus’ – Review

24 Jun

‘Yeezus’ arrives in a blank, plastic jewel case. There’s no tracklisting, no cover, just a red sticker keeping the lid sealed. What is the implication? Has Kanye West run out of things to say? If there were a tracklisting, your eyes would be immediately drawn to track three – ‘I am God’. Now, Kanye has a right to be proud of himself, after all he made the best hip album of the past ten years (probably the second and third best as well) but likening himself to God? Even by his infamous standards, that takes things to a whole new level of arrogance. It dispenses with the subtleties and social commentary of his usual ego poetry and In the process undoes a lot of the good work ‘808’s and Heartbreak’ and ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ did in humanizing the caricature. So no, it’s instantly obvious that West is not short of statements to make. Instead, the bare packaging is meant to symbolise the minimalism of the music. In a recent NY Times Interview Kanye went to great lengths to list his influences, mentioning new wave, Peter Saville and Rick Rubin as key touchstones. The point being, Kanye West is still looking for boundaries to cross and doors to slam open. He isn’t God, but he wants that level of control, freedom and power. He wants to be untouchable.

‘On Sight’ opens the album dramatically. The song is built around a digitally distorted Acid-House line that jitters in and out of focus. At one point it collides into a soul sample that seems deliberately placed to disturb what little flow the song has. It also serves to contrast the Old Kanye with the new Kanye. Whereas before the samples were sweet and melodic, this one seems strained and desperate;snatched from its context and placed in a new and strange environment. The song veers to a halt suddenly after only 2 minutes. In both structure and production it has a fairly similar vibe to ‘Ghetto Muzik’ by Outkast – if that song was put in the washing machine or battered with a baseball bat.

Initially startling then, but ultimately it’s not too surprising that he’s gone in this weird, minimalist direction. Anyone who’s followed his career will know that Kanye likes to pull the rug from under your feet as soon as you get comfortable. ‘My beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was quite possibly the most indulgent, extravagant, brilliant Hip Hop album ever made. It was his grand peak. He’d climbed to the top of that particular mountain. It was his ‘Ok Computer. In that sense ‘Yeezus’ is his ‘Kid A’. He’s found a new mountain to climb. But where Radiohead were anxious about their new direction, Kanye is anything but. ‘I’m a monster about to come alive again’ he declares with pure bravado within the first minute.

Before long you realise that a lot of this album is just that. Bravado. Oh, and a lot of noise. At around the ten minute mark you start to wonder if Kanye has spent more time worrying about the bruising sonic soundscape than the raps. Then comes ‘I am God’. From the off it seemed like a bad idea call a song this, but you would hope that being Kanye the lyrics would at least offer some depth, dialogue, insight or even irony. It doesn’t. Over the course of the song he sets himself up as somebody who; doesn’t kiss ass, doesn’t want people to like him, the only rapper who’s been compared to Michael, the man who brought real rap back, a member of the Rat Pack, and yes, God. It’s awfully charmless and conveys a real lack of self-awareness. He used to be arrogant in a naive, funny, youthfully brash way. Here his rhymes are lazy, emotionally distant and completely unstirring. On ‘808 and heartbreak’ and ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ Kanye came over like an egotist in rehab, here he’s like a drug addict who’s relapsed into a new harrowing, futile low.

‘New Slaves’ is track four and it’s where Kanye really starts to up his game. The first verse sees him back at his stunning best, contrasting different types of racism while also commenting on the discrimination his mother lived through. It’s classic Kanye. Even the infantile hook plays like an old ‘College Dropout’ zinger: ‘you see there’s leaders and there’s followers but I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.’ As the song builds so does his anger, until by the end he’s virtually screaming. ‘Fuck you and your corporation!’ he shouts, at the same time fully aware that his own infatuation with big companies is at best difficult at worst hypocritical. On one hand, as he told the NY Times last week, he wants to be the new Steve Jobs, on the other hand he despairs as the world becomes a ‘privately owned prison’. That’s the thing his critics have always missed – yes he’s arrogant to a blinding degree but at his best he embraces the contradictions (which is what makes ‘I am God’ such a failure – it plays right into those critics hands).

From here on in the album is a whole lot more interesting and often temperamental. ‘Hold My liquor’ is like a broken, burnt-out take on the despair of ‘808s and Heartbreak’. He paints broad-strokes images of hungover agony like ‘Waking up on your sofa / When I park my Range Rover / Slightly scratch your Corolla / Okay, I smashed your Corolla.’ A certain sadness carries over the next few tracks as well. ‘I’m In It’ takes a danchall sample and the most traditional hip-hop beat on the album, mixes it in with a Bon Iver hook and lets the melody do the emotional heavy lifting. Album closer ‘Bound 2’ is the most bracing and exposing song on the album. In some ways it’s the most traditionally structured track, with some sugary melodies, memorable rhymes and old-skool soul samples, but it’s stunningly bare and functional. Charlie Wilson falls upon Brenda Lee who falls upon Wee who falls back on Kanye. No real effort is made to smooth samples together, and there’s no real beat to hold the song down. Some of these tracks feel rushed or incomplete but ‘Bound 2’ feels quite deliberate and haunting. After all that earlier bravado, it’s simple and sparse, and fitting that in album’s dying moments he says ‘You know ain’t nobody perfect / and I know I got the worst rep… After all these long ass verses / I’m tired, you tired, Jesus wept’.

At times ‘Yeezus’ is controversial and offensive. What worth in a line like ‘your titties, let ’em out, free at last, thank God almighty, they free at last’, or ‘got asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce’? I still have lots of questions about the album. Is the savage sound really that innovative? Suicide had productions like this a long time ago, and even in the field of Hip Hop there are precedents (Death grips anyone?). It strikes me that because of the album’s initially jarring sonic soundscapes, some people have rather over-estimated the record’s innovations. And although he’s hit upon an arresting sound, this is easily my least favourite Kanye West incarnation to date. It lacks any clear through-line or manifesto. This is not quite his protest album, or his love album, or his break up album or his party album. The minimalist glue can’t quite hold these hit and miss songs together. At its best ‘Yeezus’ is brilliant, at its worst it’s inconsistent, lazy, and tasteless. Despite everything, I can’t stop listening to it! I think this is a Kanye West album that had to be made, and one that will no doubt be remembered as an important step forward. Fascinating as always, slightly more flawed than usual, human afterall – which is far more interesting than being untouchable anyway.


Jay Z and Kanye West ‘Watch the Throne’ – Review

26 Aug

Jay Z and Kanye West are unquestionably the two biggest stars in rap, and possibly the best as well. So surely a collaboration album couldn’t fail? Well in many respects ‘Watch the Throne’ doesn’t fail; It’s a massive, skyscraper sized, gold-plated, stadium ready record, featuring the most expensive samples money can buy and guest appearances from the likes of Beyonce, La Roux and Frank Ocean. Needless to say it shifted nearly a million units in its first week alone.  Both Jay and Kanye’s last solo albums were their biggest and most over the top to date and, in certain respects, this album is even more ambitious and dramatic. So If that’s what you were expecting then ‘Watch the Throne’ is a roaring success, but if you were after something more substantial or exciting then you may well be disappointed.

Whilst ‘Watch the Throne’ is somehow even bigger than ‘The Blueprint III’ or ‘Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy’ it’s more streamlined and less chaotic. In fact it arrives in what can only be described as an understated manner. Opening track ‘No Church in the Wild’ is a slow burner, dominated by a Frank Ocean chorus and a couple of verses from Jay. When Kanye steps in, quite late in the day, he steals the show with a line about how doing cocaine off the body of a black woman makes her look like a zebra. Classic Kanye no doubt, but it’s too little too late to save this song. Beyonce adds a bit of energy to track two, ‘Lift Off’, but for some reason the track fails to “lift off” in truly spectacular fashion. It’s only on first single ‘Otis’ that things really get going. This is a chooooon in which both Jay and Kanye manage to convince you they are the coolest men in the universe whilst unleashing some funny one liners that prove they still know how to have some fun. The antics get wilder on ‘Niggas In Paris’, which is built around a quote from the Will Farrell comedy ‘Blades of Glory’.

However, not all of the album is as ‘chillaxed’, and as it progresses the mood becomes more serious, with themes of race, nationality, wealth and politics becoming central to the conversation. ‘Made It In America’ works in this respect, but ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ and ‘Murder to Excellence’ are considerably less successful. ‘That’s My Bitch’ is a strangely addictive song but it’s strikingly similar to one of the hip hop parodies from Chris Liley’s ‘Angry Boys’ show. The sexist chorus is a just a bit embarrassing, the beat a bit too clinched, and the sample has been used countless times. It’s just far too predictable to work. The album closer ‘Why I Love You’ is also a bit underwhelming – the duo are at their best when they are trading verses, but their solo raps are a bit unmemorable and a bit too familiar a lot of the time.

Part of the appeal of Kanye’s excellent ‘Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy’ was hearing him knock down some of the public perceptions. He revealed a human side that hadn’t been seen before, and his confessionals were fascinating. ‘Watch My Throne’ just reinforces these perceptions; it’s the stereotypical big budget hip hop album and for the most part it’s pretty joyless and arrogant. In fact, I like it when Jay and Kanye cut loose, as on ‘Otis’, but far too often they are trying to get away with meaningless rhymes or straining to be serious, as on ‘Murder to Excellence’. I’m left feeling a bit confused as to what they were trying to achieve – was this meant to be a serious and innovative rap album or was it meant to simply be a chance for Kanye and Jay to let off some steam and have fun? It sounds like they weren’t sure either which has resulted in an inconsistent, incohesive, clichéd and sample heavy mess. From time to time they show why they are the best rappers (and why Kanye is the best hip hop producer) but they do it far too little to make this the classic album it wants to be.


Kanye West ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’

23 Nov

Kanye West  is often drawn to writing about lights – on ‘Graduation’ it was the ‘Flashing Lights’ of the paparazzi that compelled him and repulsed him in equal measure, on ‘808s and heartbreak’ the ‘Street Lights’ flashing reminded him how quickly moments can pass. That song in particular captured the sense of regret and melancholy that haunted Kanye’s last album. On ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ he is once again using lights as metaphors, but not just street lights or flashing lights but ‘All of the Lights’. ‘Cop lights, flashlights, spotlights, strobe lights, street lights, all of the lights, ALL OF THE LIGHTS!’ The song features an assortment of some of the most succesful talents in hip hop and pop – Elton John, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Kid Cudi, La Roux, Bon Iver and John Legend. On this album no expense is spared, the overindulgence mark is passed in the first ten minutes and yet everyone comes out smelling of roses. After making perhaps the best minimalist hip hop album last time round Kanye’s now successfully made the best maximalist one as well.

The samples are eclectic, from The Byrds to King Crimson, Bon Iver to Aphex Twin, and they are used a lot more imaginatively than on previous albums. I’ve always felt Kanye has used his samples far to obviously in the past, sometimes using them as an easy reference point for a feeling he was too lazy to convey in other ways (see ‘Stronger’ or ‘Good Life’) but here the samples are more appropriate, more a part of the whole and they are used in combination with original music, solid beats and some unusual effects. ‘Power’ is a good example of where an unexpected sample (borrowed from ’21st Century Schizoid Man’) is used as a backdrop for some brilliant rhymes.

Kanye’s flow as a rapper is often overlooked,and it is sometimes said that he doesn’t have the natural ability of the likes of Jay Z, Nas, Twista or Eminem, but it seems like now he may have actually embraced that fact. He takes a back seat on a couple of these songs, and often he doesn’t even try to compete with his guests, his rapping style seems to be slower and more considered than before, his verses are certainly more condensed and considered. Because of this I found myself paying more attention to what he is actually saying, and luckily for him what he is saying is much more interesting than how he says it.

If this album shows Kanye has learnt one thing, it’s how to embrace his many contradictions. ‘Lost in the World’ begins with a string of them – ‘you’re my angel, you’re my devil, you’re my heaven, you’re my hell.’ On this album, as much as ever before, Kanye is constantly (but at least now with self-awareness) contradicting himself; on one hand he sees himself as a god but on the other hand he is a constant failure. In the space of just a couple of minutes during the opening track Kanye goes from hedonistic legend (lines include ‘So much head I woke up in sleepy hollow’ and ‘Sex is on fire I’m the king of Leon’) to miserable poet (‘The plan was to drink untill the pain over but what’s worse the pain or the hangover’.)

The three songs that end this record are the most revealing about Kanye’s inner demons; the auto-tune on ‘Lost in the World’ and the downbeat piano that is at the centre of ‘Blame Game’ recalls the sadness of ‘808’s and Heartbreak.’ At the beginning of ‘Blame Game’ he is  heart wrenchingly honest, saying ‘I’d rather argue with you than be with someone else’ and then he pleas for ‘someone to help.’ Gradually though the song devolves into a discussion about sex and ego. ‘I know you aint getting this type of dick from that local dude,’ he claims before adding ‘you should be grateful a nigga like me ever noticed you.’ Whereas Kanye has put out plenty of songs about how great he is and plenty of songs about how sad he is, on this album he is joining the dots between the two emotions. On these tracks it becomes obvious that Kanye’s ego is a mask, a defense mechanism when he gets hurt. Kanye is revealing why he is arrogant and in doing so he is rebranding himself as someone we can relate to, still a giant ego, but a human one.

Sometimes it isn’t so much about how good an album is as an album but how good it is as an event. Have you heard ‘Thriller’ recently? As an album it isn’t a patch on ‘Off The Wall’, it’s six of the best songs ever made strung together by three pretty average ones, it’s classic for many reasons but it’s strength as a start to finish record isn’t one of them. But it was an event – it had killer singles, groundbreaking videos, iconic imagery, there were those incredible live performances, Michael’s much hyped appearances on tv and at awards shows, his bizarre interviews, and an overall aura that people brought into.

Kanye West knows this as well, and he has done his damnedest to make sure that ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ is just as much of an event as ‘Thriller’ was. Of course it never could be, no matter how much he tried – Kanye is a rapper and a producer at the end of the day, not a showman in quite the same way as MJ. Nonetheless this album has been preceded by a string of free downloads, an excellent hit single, a 30 minute ‘short film’ (that is also pretty excellent) a webchat with fans, numerous tv interviews and award show appearances. Kanye has managed to create almost unprecedented hype for this album in a time when people aren’t really getting excited about anything, let alone the fifth Kanye West album in as many years. He has managed to twist his negative public image into something positive and in the process he has created a tide of good will towards him. He has embraced his arrogance, his rashness, and all his other faults and he’s made a pretty spectacular album (event) about it.

I don’t want to go out on a limb and say this is the best hip hop album ever made because, well, I’m not sure that it is – I’m not even sure I prefer it to ‘808s and Heartbreak’ at the moment. But when I compare it to other seminal hip hop albums of recent times it holds up extremely well. This is just as cohesive as ‘The Black Album’ or ‘The Blueprint’, very nearly as experimental as ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’, and much more interesting than ‘The Carter III’. It can’t quite match those albums in some other respects but ‘My Dark Twisted Fantasy’ is still pretty unbeatable in most areas. In many ways this feels like a landmark album; it’s the most epic, artful, ambitious, and captivating  hip hop record in a long time. All things considered Kanye West has achieved exactly what he wanted – he talks and the world listens, he is the best pop star on the planet right now. ‘Something wrong, I hold my head, MJ gone, A Nigga dead!’ Michael Jackson may be dead but his legacy of taking over the world through eccentric pop music lives on in Kanye West.


New from Kanye West

19 Sep

If you aren’t familiar with Kanye’s Good Friday then basically it’s when Kanye West releases a new song from his website every Friday. Simple. Truth be told I’ve been unimpressed by most of the free downloads so far but there have been a couple of good ones most recently. Below are ‘Lord Lord Lord’ and ‘Runaway’, which Kanye will be releasing as his next single. ‘Runaway’ is particularly good, it fuses the emotions Kanye unlocked on his last album with the style of rapping that made him popular to begin with.