Meadow Muffins of the Mind

The droppings of some guy's imagination.

Tag: rap

Yeesus

Well, if you are living in a cave – or just emotionally balanced – you probably have not heard that Kanye West is endeavoring to change the world with a life changing record. Of course, West’s last solo record is probably the best rap album in years.  It was an album which took all of the tools that hiphop has collected over time – the complex samples, the beats, the complex beats and turn them into a master opus.  Really it was a celebration of West’s massive (but not without humor) ego – rap’s Led Zeppelin IV (and yes I know it’s not the real name of the album), a sound on such a large canvas that it invited parody without quite getting there.  You do this right, you get Sgt Pepper the album; you do it wrong, you get Sgt Pepper the movie.

There is no doubt that West’s long awaited Yeesus is a weightier work.  We hear a man rapping about slavery (“New Slaves”) and loss (“Blood on the Leaves”) – and the textures of the beats are as complex as ever.  Indeed, many critics have written about the intersection of this album with his own life and fame – the sort of thing which music critics love to do as ersatz “Academic” criticism.  All of these things to me certainly ring true, and West has thrown all of his effort and production expertise into creating some very very sophisticated pieces.  There might be a profound statement on fame or fatherhood here, but what he forgot were the songs.

Really this was the most startling thing.  For the artist who has been arguably the best rapper alive, and certainly the best combination of critical and commercial validation – Yeesus is a surprising misfire at simply chruning out songs which you’d want to listen to. Twisted Fantasy by contrast has all sorts of choices – “Dark Fantasy”, “Monster”, “Power”.  (and some of these songs were 6 minutes long!).  By comparison, from the opening track – Yeesus is work.  For instance, the samples in “New Slaves” and the lyrics are wasted on a staccato, melody-less sort of rhyme.  It’s a put together track that doesn’t go anywhere.  “Blood on the Leaves” does the same as NQ deftly notes, just much too much production without any idea of what is being produced.

When Rick Rubin was brought it to produce the record, Rubin, West – some easy life experience to put some paint by numbers symbolism and heft, this album yearns to be called great.  It is easy to WANT to call it great, and I suspect a lot of the album’s raves are related to this halo effect.  (and the last track, “Bound 2″ is sort of the exception in this album that validates my criticism).  But buying an album requires an investment of some dollar amount and time, and I need more than just intent or symbolism.  A great album has layers, but without the basic top layer the deeper stuff just becomes homework.  On Daft Punk’s recent towering Random Access Memories for instance, the track “Doin it right” is just an autotuned refrain over a fairly simple beat – almost nothing of significance, certainly not compared to anything on Yeesus.  All it is is completely compulsively re-listenable, a standard which Kanye falls well short of far too often here.

Got More Hits Than Sadaharu Oh – Adam Yauch 1964-2012

Yeah, as my buddy hammockrus noted, the death of MCA – and thus the death of the Beastie Boys – hit particular hard last week.  In some ways Michael Jackson kind of broke the seal – of folks who I had a contemporary experience with passing away.  I was discussing this with my buddy T the other day – especially the notion at how the Beastie Boys were just so flippin’ good.  Of course he countered with “What about the Beatles?  Dylan?”  Of course you could say that about the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Prince, Britney Spears (ok, maybe not ALL of them), but that’s not the point.  The Beastie Boys were different, because they were OF my life.  I remember an article about the Beatles I read recently, and one of the comments put it brilliantly:

No one who comes to the Beatles as a completed body of work quite understands what it was like to hear on the radio, for the first time, I Want To Hold Your Hand. It was so obviously different from anything that had come before. All you wanted to do is hear it again. And again. And you wondered — what the heck is that? And then you started to hear about them, and you started to hear a few more songs like She Loves You and All My Loving and Please Please Me and you bought Meet The Beatles and that was it — you were hooked.

That was what the Beastie Boys were to me – though it took until Check Your Head for me to fully GET it.  Indeed, Paul’s Boutique is one of the few truly “ahead of its time albums”, a brilliant commercial failure of which 11 year old me, being such a philistine with music at that point, of the reasons that it failed so.  I knew hip hop of course, but I did not know THIS.  You had the samples and influences – plundering a rich tradition, mashing both true old school and Bob Dylan and even (in “Intergalactic”) themselves.  Sampling is so often lazy – taking an old song and changing very small aspects to repackage it – but the Beasties took it to the sort of rich area that professional DJs like Shadow or Cut Chemist know.  They saw the samples as instruments themselves, and since they started out as rock musicians themselves, they saw it as a complement to the old classic stuff.  In Check Your Head you see that amalgamation of old school hip hop and instrumental rock.

Listening to old Beastie Boys material recently, in addition to the musical stuff mentioned above though, what is striking – and a remnant of the hip hop groups of yore – is what a team sport it was – and how important harmony still was, even if they were rapping?  I mean, other bands the lead singer often is the “front man” and really he or she becomes the identity of the band – Mick Jagger, Gwen Stefani, take your pick – or possibly folks take turns leading (The Eagles).  Of course with the Beastie Boys, it was never a vehicle for Mike or the Adams to become soloists – indeed most of their songs were woven with each guy having a role in the main rhyme and when they came together for the chorus, they supplied vocal diversity.  Yauch of course, provided the bass/baritone voice to go with AdRock’s squealing voice and Mike D’s midrange.  That touch of harmony – yeah not Beach Boys but – elevated the rhyme and helped create their distinctive sound.  It also spoke to the sense of togetherness that the band fostered in each other – you never got the sense that there was a Metallica Some Kind of Monster level of dysfunction there at all.

Of course, all this does is make the Beastie Boys a vestige of my youth, like Michael Jackson or Bon Jovi or whomever.  But of course the Beastie Boys kept evolving, and Yauch in particular was a leader in this.  How many rap artists openly question the implications of their material?  How many not just adopt Eastern religion but live it for real – with the Tibetan freedom concerts and with Tibetan freedom movement in general?  How many become lauded filmmakers?  And how many Jewish anybodys could be prescient enough to understand the second classness of Muslims in America well before most people have caught on?  Adam Yauch remained a creative and thoughtful force throughout the last 30 years, including of course the Beastie Boys continuing to deliver quality material, hip hop and instrumental, right up until his passing.

Adam Yauch lived as he believed – advancing notions of gentleness and compassion and commonwealth.  The Beastie Boys started as a band punk band, evolved into a great rap act and finished as just a great band – one of the few of my childhood who continued to grow and challenge itself.  Yeah they have not been in my conscious musical brain in recent years but when they did something new, I always checked it out, and it was always quality.  My life has been chock full of bands and acts which will go down as being truly great, and the Beastie Boys and MCA will be near the very very top.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

In what has been a canon of bloated, overproduced, pretension – Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy achieves a kind of summer blockbuster sort of perfection.  West plunders the depths of tricks rappers have been using for years.  You want guest stars?  Oh, I’ve got guest stars – I might even guess that West raps at best 50% of the lyrics on this record.  To list the collaborators – Jay-Z, Rick Ross, John Legend, Rihanna, Beyonce to begin the census – would be an invitation to turn this into a 2000 word post.  You want autotune – we know from his last album (the not-for-everybody 808 and Heartbreak) – he cheerfully plays around with it.  The album is chock full of overlong, arena-rock scale tomes … and it is probably the best hip-hop album (and possibly a few other genres) I have heard in a long time, a long time that includes Kanye’s other albums – so this is saying something.

The album opens with the splendid “Dark Fantasy” – whose opening you might have heard during trailers for The Hangover sequel – which uses the gospel choir hook to build up to a pumping throbbing sort of beat, all following a talky beginning that was more evocative of talky rock concept albums like – well, like just about any second half Pink Floyd record.  “Gorgeous”, the second track is a more straightforward rap song, but gets to the six minute mark – where as much time is spent in the developing of the beats and music as is developed in the rapping.  The lyrics throughout are West’s usual mixing of playfulness with anger – he has some gangsta style, but like Snoop Dogg there is some humor underneath, it sure does not feel as menacing as some of the NWA stuff.  “Power” with its chanting, thumping backbeat has an incantation quality that is typical of his music of yore (“Jesus Walks” for instance).  The album peaks in the middle with “Monster” – which might be the best song I’ve heard in a long time, with the lyrics, the incredibly addictive beat, and the groove that takes up damn near the last three minutes of the operation.

The long finishes to tracks is typical in this album.  As mentioned earlier, West is cramming each track here with all of the tools of the trade.  There is autotune, the guest stars (especially one indispensable appearance by Chris Rock when you least expect it), the borrowing of other influences and styles – but none of it is for gratuitous effect.  Or perhaps, ALL of it is for gratuitous effect – there is a definite conscious effort to create a large sound.  In some ways, this work is more of a comparison with 70s rock albums like The Wall or classic Queen or And Justice for All than any real rap analogies.  The songs feel meant to be filling a stadium – Kanye is putting out something to compete in the marketplace of Coldplay or Arcade Fire.  Is it pretentious?  Of course – when is Kanye not?  But who would want it any other way?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 135 other followers