Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Kanye West, Jay-Z, and the duality of modern hip-hop

The divide between Kanye West and Jay-Z is one of the most meaningful things in pop culture at the moment. It may not seem that way because the amount that they work together suggests anything but a legitimate rivalry. However, a further look into the essence of each character represent completely different sides of the hip-hop spectrum, and I think that their relationship says a lot about why as a genre, hip-hop has grown to be so diverse and interesting over the past decade or so. Kanye is intense, emotional, erratic, and easily one of the most controversial figures in pop culture. On the other hand Hov exudes the calm, collected demeanor of a seasoned politician. What is most interesting is how clearly these different personalities come through in the way they rap.

Inherently, these personalities are in my opinion what makes Kanye West the most interesting of the two. Not the most popular, not necessarily the most talented, but the one who intrigues me enough to look deeper into his motivations. I tend not to flaunt my music tastes nowadays but when people start talking about Kanye West, I get pretty passionate. Usually because it's me defending him against the major flow of haterade. Kanye West is raw hip-hop; a culmination of some of the best aspects of the history of the genre. He's also the most compelling musician of my generation, and I will defend that to the end. It sounds like I'm on his dick but I think he's really that good. Every so often I feel like I overhype the quality of his latest solo album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy but then I listen to it again and realize that I was an idiot for ever doubting it. But we'll get there.

I want to start by stating that every single Kanye West album has changed the face of hip-hop music, and by proxy, pop music as a whole. But even before The College Dropout came out in 2004, he was already notorious for being one of the best and most prolific producers in the business. LOOK AT THIS SHIT. But he was just beginning. College Dropout was the first album to unify the underground hip-hop scene and the mainstream. It's rare to find rap music at the time that acted as both poppy and personal. His appeal was universal, and it was so much more than rapping about the excess of the hip-hop lifestyle and the scores of bitches being drowned in cognac or something. Kanye invented nerd rap. It couldn't be more appropriate because at his core, Kanye is a music nerd. No one else in the business has such an understanding of sounds and beats that make his dozens of samples work that well. In fact, you'll be hard pressed to find a Kanye-produced song where the sample is in the wrong place. In the context of all of recorded music, it's quite impressive to find a single sound that embodies the essence of a song. And Kanye does it time after time. Think about Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco, Wale, Childish Gambino, everyone of those artists that fit in the nerd rap niche and it's clear what an impact College Dropout had on them.

In favor of brevity, I'm going to skip over Late Registration because it acts largely as a transition album for Kanye despite being equally, if not more brilliant than Dropout. Graduation is where his influence on modern music comes into play. Think about how fucking big EDM is in the pop charts right now. I would like to posture that the seed of EDM growth originated when Kanye released Stronger. Sampling Daft Punk brought new life into a relatively fading music scene, and look how big of a presence EDM has on popular music today. Over these past few albums Kanye has been inserting darker and darker undertones into his music, most likely because of a major accident that left his jaw wired shut for a while and the passing of his mother. Seriously, listen to Hey Mama and tell me that Kanye has no soul.

808's and Heartbreak is probably Kanye's weakest album, but it ultimately made it cool for rappers to talk about their feelings and introduced flaws in the usually invincible persona of hip-hop stars. Then the Taylor Swift incident happened, which is why I imagine most of the hate on Kanye exists today. What people don't realize is how apologetic he actually was, just not explicitly. Kanye's ego is a manifestation of his hard work. He strives for excellence and usually achieves it. This doesn't make him an asshole inherently, it just makes him misunderstood in the eyes of people who don't know him. In the song "Can't tell me nothing", one of my favorite lines is:

I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny
And what I do? Act more stupidly

He's clearly willing to admit his mistakes and highlight his own vulnerability. People are just too stubborn to realize the depth of celebrities because we have this disgusting need to view them as caricatures of their public persona. All Kanye has done is be a normal person under a more public spotlight. Besides, an artist's personality should be considered separate from their art in my opinion. John Lennon abused women, but people still say he's a dreamer or whatever. Anyways, after the Tswift incident Kanye absconded to Japan, then interned at Fendi for a few months in Rome, then he went to Hawaii to record. 

And then he released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Oh man this album. It's one of the few albums I can listen to all the way through without skipping a track. It's such a nuanced and well put together album that it feels like a movie scene or something. An unbelievable reflection on insecurity, celebrity, loneliness, and the temptation to drown out all the pain in drugs and women. It is the work of a perfectionist whose attention to detail is clear in every single instrumentation. It is the ultimate culmination of everything he's ever done and is told in a way akin to a Greek tragedy. But a majority of people don't get the message. It received near perfect reviews but never really took off on the radio waves. They harp on the occasional misogynistic lines that are also not only present, but the focus of countless other hip-hop songs. Kanye is an asshole, a petulant egotist. There's no way that he has something relevant to say. It seems like the pop culture world doesn't believe in second chances.

Never was much of a romantic,
I could never take the intimacy.
And I know I did damage,
'cause the look in your eyes is killing me,

The thing that bothers me most about all of this is the double standards that exist in today's society. Kanye if nothing else, is authentic. To the very core, you get all or none of him. According to how much people hate hipsters nowadays, authenticity is literally the most important attribute ever, since degradation of hipsters is based solely on perceived unauthenticity. On the other hand, there's nothing real about Lady GaGa. Everything about her is manufactured, and people know it, and they eat it up. So what the hell? There is a man whose personality shines through on every single one of his tracks and is ultimately very much a human being. But no, we'll take this fake chick who wears meat dresses to garner attention.

I went on this rant when I was drunk following the Kanye set at the 12.12.12 benefit concert so I kinda forgot about talking about Jay-Z. I'll get to him later.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Oh fuck I'm 22

I never really loved the ideas of my birthday. Call me a cynic (many people do) but there's nothing that inherently changes once it hits that certain date every year. I love other people's birthdays because giving presents is fun for me but for some reason I feel this unnecessary pressure that something fun needs to occur every time it hits. Now of course I understand certain milestones in one's life, 16, 17, 21, etc, but there is some point where birthdays reach a level of diminishing returns. It does seem odd when I think about how quickly this past year has gone by though. This time last year was kind of a strange time in my life mentally and emotionally.

On one hand, I had just gone through a breakup that might have been one of the most mentally taxing experiences of my life. It was made worse by the fact that it wasn't really facilitated by much other than us simply falling out of love with each other. By nature, this made it much more difficult to deal with than if either one of us had horribly wronged the other. Of course I was blind to this at the time but no one sees clearly in these situations. On the other hand, I had just been offered a full-time job right out of college. I doubt there are very many things better than being grossly overpaid for actually doing something you like so there really wasn't anything I could complain about on that end. But looking back, I've had a really good year. My friends are awesome, my life is good, but I'm kinda worried that someone is gonna find out I'm not really all that smart and the wave function of my life will collapse.

So here's to that.