Tuesday, November 23, 2010

We Deal In Too Many Externals, Brother: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Preliminary thesis: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye's Station To Station. By which I don't mean to suggest some sort of stripped-down, motorik-heavy funk and soul pastiche. No, I mean that Kanye was obviously coked out of his mind at every stage of this album's development. The proof is in the songs, each its own wellspring of tweaked-out neurosis refracted through the conflicting ambitions of pop music's most shameless drama queen.

Inhibited neural reuptake seeps through the edges of this dark, obsessive, even laborious fifth album, tinging the proceedings with stultifying melancholy (or should I say Mellon Collie?). Even the more traditional beats are ablated and extended to the point of dementia, each piled on with extra echo and guitar blurts and gospel choirs, with West's extended supporting cast of rappers and producers, an impressive collection of egos in their own right, subsumed fully into the service of the auteur's ruminative id. Even the skits sound simultaneously monstrous and oppressive. The songs are longer than those you'd find on an average rap album, and I've already lost count of the number of extended outros, interludes, and otherwise random musical vacillations.

Like West albums before it, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was conceived as a major, game-changing work, and as sometimes happens, the stars aligned and every music critic in America started celebrating the "comeback" of an embattled celebrity, almost in tandem. Pitchfork's 10.0 review, for instance, was just as much about "the Taylor Swift incident" (you know, that thing that neither you nor I nor any actual music fan cares about) and the artist's Twitter feed as it was about the album's "expansive, all-encompassing nature"; meanwhile, Rolling Stone typically extolled the album as sonically diverse enough to attract non-hip-hop heads ("Coasting on heroic levels of dementia, pimping on top of Mount Olympus"--Good lord!). Kanye's genius was affirmed once again and rock mags congratulated themselves on celebrating the virtues of a celebrity in a way that didn't make them sound like, well, pandering to celebrities.

I am not here to complain about the Pitchfork rating (their first perfect grade since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), nor am I interested in inciting backlash. I'm glad that Ryan Dombal was allowed to give something a non-retrospective perfect rating (one unfortunate feature Pitchfork shares with Rolling Stone). I like this album, but if by "10.0" we mean that every single second of its 1:08:34 has to be both perfect and pleasurable, they could have at least docked a .2 for Nicki Minaj's English accent.

What a circus, though! You've got Pusha T (the album's MVP), Rick Ross and Jay-Z as the repeat offenders. Then you have one-verse killers like Minaj, Cy-Hi Da Prince and Raekwon. And, on the back-burner, the RZA, Swizz Beatz, Kid Cudi, John Legend, and, er, Justin Vernon. Elton John pops by for an uncredited piano solo, but unfortunately not on the track with Raekwon, if you were looking for a future "Kiss The Ring"/"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" collab.

I'll go through this track-by-track, but overall I'll say that while this is an improvement over that shitbucket 808's and Heartbreak, what was most problematic about that excrescence of an album is still present in more muted forms here, the presence of autotune being the most serious repeat offender. But Kanye is still a young man, and I don't doubt that these problems could be corrected in the future, and the quality of his albums would increase dramatically. In order for that to happen, I would suggest that Mr. West first a) try pulling his head, if ever so slightly, out of his ass, and b) lay off the coke for a while. Less Ye and Less Yay, in other words.

1. Dark Fantasy
The opening is ominous, and not in a good way--first we get a few seconds of amateur storytelling from British Nicki Minaj, whose "performance" is irritating in a highly visceral, claw-out-your-eyes way. I wasn't impressed with the "Can we get much higher?" opening choir bit either, as I became immediately worried that we were entering Dewey Cox-during-his-Brian Wilson-phase-territory ("I need 10,000 didgeridoos!"). And I hope that massive choirs and the like don't become a staple of every "statement" rap album from here onward. But the beat, when it comes in at 1:07, is an old-school pleasure. My guess is that all praises should be directed toward co-producer The RZA, who's still better than anyone at constructing grimy, motif-oriented beats. As Rae would say, this is that Black Mozart shit.

2. Gorgeous (Feat. Kid Cudi and Raekwon)
Plaintive, wailing slide guitar (is there any other kind?) is the biggest draw of this subdued track, along with Kid Cudi's even more lachrymose singing style. I had more of a problem with Dark Twisted Fantasy on first listen because there didn't seem to be enough bangers, and "Gorgeous" isn't exactly rippling with energy--nevertheless, upon repeated listens, it lives up to its name. Kanye is more of a controlling factor here than he is on most of the other songs, with three verses versus Raekwon's one to his credit (my favorite line is "It's like that y'all/it's like that y'all/I don't really give a fuck about it at all/cause the same people that try to blackball me/forgot about two thing: my black balls"). Raekwon, bless him, ignores what comes before, and just goes on talking about what he does best.

Rockaliser already wrote up this song here, unaware at the time that "POWER" is supposed to be in all-caps and poor Dwele no longer gets a co-credit (more on the craziness of MBDTF's attribution rules later). I'll add that the song sounds even better between "Gorgeous" and "All Of The Lights" than it does as a single--while it does have that "third track, first single" vibe, it's also a departure from any other radio hit he's ever done. Surely "Stronger" and "Gold Digger" never had such fuzzy bass, nor would they deign to sample something like "21st Century Schizoid Man" in such a surprising and (I mean it) delightful way. Don't know why the current SNL cast is the subject of so much of West's ire (particularly in light of his burying the hatchet with George W. Bush). It's hard not to be taken by the song's epic sweep, but as always, be mindful of wack lines such as "Colin Powell's/Austin Powers/Lost in translation with a whole fucking nation/they said I was the obamanation of Obama's nation" etc. etc. UGH.

4. All Of The Lights (Interlude)
Another "10,000 didgeridoos" moment, but at least it's short. It's a piano and string bit meant to introduce the "All Of The Lights" melody. The piano solo is apparently the work of Elton John, who despite, as I understand it, being a pretty famous musician and songwriter, doesn't get a proper credit. I don't understand how the "Feat." attribution works in hip-hop at all, and as we'll see in "All Of The Lights" proper there seem to be no rules to it, perhaps other than that guest rappers get credited, guest singers sometimes get credited, and anyone who plays an instrument doesn't get credited unless they happen to be Carlos Santana (Gorillaz seem to be the exception to this, by the way--if Ike Turner gets a shout-out for his "Every Planet Thinks We're Dead" solo, why not Elton?). Anyway, maybe "All Of The Lights (Interlude)" could direct hip-hop heads to the latest Elton John/Leon Russell Civil War collab The Union.

Just kidding.

5. All Of The Lights
So according to this, "All Of The Lights" has ELEVEN guest stars on it, none of whom I guess were worth the attribution. Rihanna's voice is most prominent amidst the opening horn fanfare, suggesting we are about to be treated to some fairly generic pop-isms until an absolutely frenetic drum track kicks in and absolutely buries the track's remaining ten guest stars. The song, for once, seems to be about someone other than Kanye--our unnamed protagonist becomes so enraged by the death of Michael Jackson that he beats his girl and ends up in federal prison, only to arrange some sort of reconciliation with his daughter at a Borders bookstore after doing his time. The chorus, though, brings it all back to Yeezy's pervasive ego: "All of the lights/street lights/search lights/flash lights," lots of lights. Remember that Kanye already explored this subject to some degree in "Flashing Lights." Are lights supposed to be some sort of extended, intra-album metaphor? No, Kanye would just like to point out to you, again, that he's famous.

6. Monster (Feat. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver)
Finally: a banger, and a next-level one at that. Pity Rick Ross, who really seems to be edging into a great verse for about ten seconds before Kanye interrupts with his momentum-killing "Gossip, gossip, nigga just stop it" hook. But for everyone else involved, "Monster" lives up to its name: the beat is hard, probably the hardest on the album, and also incredibly versatile. Kanye's spits aren't entirely unremarkable, but neither Jay-Z nor Nicki Minaj have a line as bad as that "put that pussy in a sarcophagus," so both of them are a lot easier to listen to. Most critics have extolled the wonders of Ms. Minaj's clownish verse, a grab bag of boastful speechifying, cartoonishly violent imagery, and one notable, transcendent scream. I agree with everyone else that she owns this song--it's too bad everything I've heard so far off her upcoming debut album has been deeply, deeply awful.

7. So Appalled (Feat. Jay-Z, Pusha T, Cy-Hi Da Prince, Swizz Beatz, and the RZA)
It might seem strange that Kanye groups both of the album's large posse cuts together in the middle of the album, but MBDTF has such an extended supporting cast that the entire album could have easily been lost in the mire of extended Pusha T and Jay-Z verses. So, in order: a) Swizz Beatz offers the novel observation that "life can sometimes be ridiculous" and only comes back to repeat that point on two additional occasions, remaining silent otherwise, b) Kanye engages in some amateur Muslim-baiting ("Praises due to the most high Allah/Praises due to the most fly, Prada") and makes an astounding, heretofore unheard of observation about how MTV no longer plays videos, c) Jay-Z, sounding uncharacteristically harried, wonders how to start his verse and declares himself a martyr on par with The Dark Knight's Batman, d) Pusha T talks about drug dealing (another shock) and makes intricate poker references, e) following a Swizz repeat, new kid Cy-Hi Da Prince declares himself "so outrageous" and claims God would be rocking his tunes on His iPod, and f) most disappointingly, RZA is relegated to repeating the non-Swizz Beatz chorus, which is awesome only because RZA is the loudest and angriest-sounding dude on this or any cut. Why not give the man his own verse, Kanye?

8. Devil In A Blue Dress (Feat. Rick Ross)
Could that be...a sped-up soul sample? People forget that this was once Kanye's MO, but "Devil In A Blue Dress" is probably the closest MBDTF comes to the classic Kanye of "Through The Wire" and "Gone." Appropriating a small vocal sample from Smokey Robinson's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Devil In A Blue Dress" is all about the slow build, starting at 2:51, that leads into a Rick Ross verse that is, as far as I know, a career best. The last 2.5 minutes of this song are astonishing in the way layers of tension are added in a grand, Hollywood sort of manner--it's perhaps my favorite part of the record as a whole. Props to Mr. Ross and the "double-headed monster with a mind of its own." I never really got Mr. Ross until now.

9. Runaway (Feat. Pusha T)
The length is epic--9:08 to be exact. So forgive me if I was expecting, based on the hype that this would be a next-level rap record, something like the hip-hop version of "Stairway To Heaven," or anything suitably epic in that regard. But this, the album's second single, is a complete dirge, with one notable exception. Yes, I know that the RZA could plink on the same piano note for a while and still make a beat that sounds great, but this isn't the RZA, and the piano "melody" of "Runaway," if you want to call it that, sounds like the work of a two-year old. I can't tell you how disappointed I was to see Kanye play this song on the VMAs, standing on a platform plinking a few elementary notes on the world's fanciest Fisher Price keyboard. And, on the lyrical side, the self-pity on display here, which would normally be restrictive, ends up being suffocated by Kanye's awful singing. As for the "Stairway" angle, the song ends with an appalling, and I do mean appalling, extended synth-blurt voice solo from Mr. West himself. It is, in terms of quality, the opposite of Jimmy Page's "Stairway" solo. It is so bad. On the other hand, Pusha's verse is great.

10. Hell Of A Life
I don't know why DJ Premier said Kanye was done with electro, since he obviously isn't, but "Hell Of A Life," despite invoking even more decadent rock star bullshit, features some of West's best moments as a rapper and as a producer (it's a great riff, for one). And this is all in spite of the fact that Kanye quotes Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" when he sings "No more drugs for me/pussy and religion is all I need" (as lifestyle sentiments go, I'll take George Clinton's "Don't need no girlfriend/I just need my dope" any day). The ending bit about falling in love with a porn star, getting married in the bathroom, etc. is actually kind of powerful, even for someone extremely, extremely wary of that sort of posturing. But again, all the choirs at the end--not needed.

11. Blame Game (Feat. John Legend)
Some people really seem to like this song, and I'll admit that the idea of using an Aphex Twin sample to engage in similar bouts of vocal and instrumental distortions sounds rife with experimental possibility. "Blame Game" sucks though--you'll just have to trust me on this. The piano sample, for instance, isn't as amateur as "Runaway," but never develops into something that matches the subject's fraught exterior. Between this song and the recent Venture Bros. finale, I think I've reached a point where this sort of adolescent male posturing, as it pertains to acting out towards supposedly unfair former girlfriends, is no longer something I want to hear or think about for a while. As the tension ratchets up and Kanye transforms his voice into a series of guttural, increasingly deepened and distorted accusations, I realized that I was starting to feel sorry for Kanye, in a way: epic self-regard, expressed on such a personal level, is a difficult thing to inflict on others. But then there is that Chris Rock skit, which is only slightly better than (if ten times as long as) the Tracy Morgan skit on Wu-Massacre which I declared to be the worst rap skit in the history of the genre. Again, I realized how vain and disgusting Kanye can be when he really wants to.

12. Lost In The World (Feat. Bon Iver)
Bon Iver is merely the latest representative "indie rocker" brought along to buoy Kanye's cred as a Serious Artist, but his talents, insofar as they actually exist (I am a Bon Iver agnostic, by which I've never been awake long enough to form an opinion), are completely absent when set against this fever-induced autotune nightmare. Christ, I hate autotune. The beat isn't bad amidst the bleatings and loopy vocal patterns that drive me nuts, and Kanye provides a sort-of nice capper to the proceedings, but this sounds like that "MMMM Whatcha saaaay" song whose name I can't actually remember, and repeated listenings confirm: it is awful.

13. Who Will Survive In America
However, I'm actually quite pleased with how Kanye chooses to end proceedings, with an extended sample (over the same "Lost In The World" beat) from a 1970 performance of Gil Scott-Heron reading his poem "Comment #1." Scott-Heron addicts will note here that West is returning a favor--I'm New Here's intro and outro track both sample "Flashing Lights." "Comment #1" is a wonderful poem, one of my favorites (check it here--really worth listening to) but whether or not it works within the context of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy depends on whether you see the album as an Important Statement by a Brilliant, Troubled Artist or as a series of bleatings from a vacuous celebrity setting his Twitter musings to music. Me, I declare myself once again to be agnostic.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Before They Make Me Write

During the rock and roll era, few guitarists played to the acclaim Keith Richards did, with his popular group The Rolling Stones. Below, part of a recently recovered article about the musician. Textual references date it to 2010. The author is unknown.

I am standing at baggage claim with Keith Richards, and he is fuming.

"Fucking unbelievable,” Richards mutters, pulling out his fifth smoke of the morning. “Another fucking greyhound dead at LAX.”

Richards is referring to his dog Boy—named after “the old Muddy Waters tune”—who has passed away on the flight from Heathrow to LAX. Another of Richards’ prized greyhounds, King, died en route to Los Angeles in 1977. The guitarist—then Keith Richard—tells me that the dog’s death led to his decision to quit heroin in 1978.

While we wait for the local animal control to appear, I point out that this account is at odds with his book, “Life,” written with the journalist James Fox, but Richards seems unperturbed. “Right. The book.” He heads towards the door.

On the taxi ride to his hotel, we chat about the project. Richards admits that words—“mostly talking and writing”—aren’t his forte, and that he quit work on the book on several occasions. But he was guided by the conviction that if former Stones bassist Bill Wyman could write a book, Richards could write an equally long one. The book collects the wisdom that the guitarist has gained since starting rock’s most iconic band in 1962, the moss that this Rolling Stone has gathered, all 576 pages of it.

As Richards checks in, the concierge gives him a fax. It look like a child’s drawing, but turns out to be a goof from Mick Jagger. Richards crumples it up and tosses it into a trashcan—an assistant removes it and finds the recycling—and begins to speak about the member of his writing partner of nearly fifty years. These facts are in line with what appears in the book. They are not flattering.

We head immediately for the bar, and Richards has a scotch. Unprodded, he tells me that he wishes his band mates were better drinkers. “Ronnie, he used to be fun, and sometimes he still is, but the rest of them, I don’t know. I’d rather have a pint with the Exchequer than Jazzman,” he says, in an apparent reference to Charlie Watts. His thought is broken by the sight of a coconut above the bar. He allows his left index finger--the index finger that gave us “Satisfaction,” “Brown Sugar,” and “Rough Justice”--to sink into one of the deep crevices that line his face.

“You know, I’m proud of this book. I’ve been through hell, believe me, but I'm still here. Just wish Gram was too."

Life is a book marked by loss. Few people have lost as much as Richards has: friends, lovers, freedom, habits, Rolling Stones guitarists, and great chord progressions conceived while asleep.

At this moment, Richards seems to have lost his energy. He heads up to his suite for a nap--one of the "three or four" he takes on a typical day. He asks an assistant to text Johnny Depp and cancel their dinner plans as he walks away. He leaves me with the tab.

The rest of the article is lost, but the new information about Richards gives a fascinating look into the artist best known for popularizing the bandana.