Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mr. Can't Tell Me Nothing: The Genius, Audacity, and Struggle of Kanye West

"You know how the game be/ I can't let em change me/ Cause on Judgment Day, you gon blame me/ Look God, it's the same me"

Kanye West-"Two Words"

Kanye is dropping what might be his most provocative musical work, in what might be one of his darkest personal periods. All while society is in one of the most politically, economically, and socially-charged times in recent history.

Is 808s and Heartbreak Kanye's official "Declaration of Independence?" Or is it a living testimony of his personal anguish?

Is this new found sound still Hip-Hop? And can the Hip-Hop community handle this "New Wave Hip-Hop?"

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts"

William Shakespeare-"As You Like It"

The idea of Kanye West being a "genius" is not a new story. It is almost apart of every article or interview covering him; and he reminds us nearly every time he speaks about himself.

But the coverage surrounding his newest project, 808s and Heartbreak, and recent events in his life are not quite in this mold. What seems to be at the center of attention this time is not Kanye's narcissistic, self indulgent diatribes--he should of won this award; or we don't recognize how dope this is; and the proverbial not enough praise, not enough coverage, not enough recognition for something he created---a wide-spread celebration, critical acclaim of his artistic creativity is what he expects. However this time the story seems to be: What is this?

Fans don't know what to do with it, and neither do journalist.

Part seems to appreciate the audacity of the album, due to Ye's full out performance with the Auto-Tunes sound. Experimentation with the Auto-Tune/vocoder has been prevalent in Hip-Hop recently. It is a sound made notable lately by the success it has provided R&B artist T-Pain, and the popularity its garnered from one of Rap's current superstars: Lil' Wayne. 808's and Heartbreak takes it to another level, "a whole album of vocoder" level. For the most part, Kanye's venture marks the first time a Rap artist---and definitely a first for a Hip-Hop superstar with Pop culture crossover success--- makes a complete album featuring the device.

In this way it is standard West's: daring, different, and challenging the norm. It encompasses a certain boldness that has allowed him to create a sound, a mind frame, and fans that appreciate the artistic quality of his music. Keys, notes, kickdrums, cords, arrangements: the attention to these details, and the willingness to take these things to places others could not think of (or would not try too) is the trademark of the Kanye West sound.

But the vocoder is different. Hip-Hop has a love/hate relationship with it. It certainly has produced a sound embraced by many fans, and more readily used now by artist. But many Hip-Hop heads, critics, and listeners have no love for it. It has been labeled artificial, annoying, and cheap. Thus the sound and the music it produces has been subject to popular conversation throughout Hip-Hop over the past several month: Is it hot, or annoying?

Better put: is Hip-Hop ready for it?

It is not surprising that Common (another artist who in the past has faced intense scrutiny for doing something outside the Hip-Hop norm---see Electric Circle) seems to think so.

At an exclusive session session for his new album Universal Mind Control, Common shared with Real Talk NY and the audience how he felt Hip-Hop was ready to move into different sounds, different styles, and different places. About his own new project he said, "I just wanna make some music and have some fun...make you feel good. Take the music to the something progressive." He explained how the influence of groups like N.E.R.D. and Gnarls Barkley; producers like The Neptunes; and the success of artist like Andre 3000, have created more room to be different---to take the music to another place.

With the mix of retro-styled groups like The Cool Kids; skateboarders in the mold of Lupe; and new artists like Kid Cudi, Jay Electronica, and Blu (and many, many more) complicating what we typically think Hip-Hop should look like and sound like, maybe we are expanding. Perhaps the horizon is broadening.

But a large part of the intrigue around Kanye's new album has nothing to do with this new sound. Much of it is surrounded around the rapper's seemingly turbulent, erratic emotional state.

Over the past year he has had a range of devastating, personal, and volatile incidents: the calling off of his engagement with Alexis Phifer; the death of his mother Donna West; and now recently several violent, widely reported run-in with paparazzi. Ye has been open about how these events how deeply affected him---and led to the "Heartbreak" aspect of the new album. And the album cuts that have been released and leaked clearly speak about feelings of pain, depression, and loneliness.

Kanye has always been explicitly open about his emotions and life experiences in his music. "Through The Wire," "Jesus Walks," "Diamonds From Sierra Leon," "Hey Mama"---all these songs deal with West giving us a piece of himself; sharing with us unabatedly his view on all aspects of life.

But 808's and Heartbreak is without a doubt different. A large part of the subject matter stings with hurt.

In the lyrics of joints like "Welcome to Heartbreak," "Love Lockdown," "Heartless," and "The Coldest Winter Ever" we see hear how strong his pain is. And through the many entries of his popular blog we read through his fluctuating, conflicting, tumultuous emotions of frustration, introspection, and reflection. We get "twelve minute misery freestyles," and messages of recovery, inspiration, and creativity (see Kanye's blog from yesterday here)

Kanye West expresses a quality that we see in Hip-Hop's when it is at its best: sincerity, vulnerability, and openness. The danger is... well as Ye' put, we see "The Good, The Bad, The Ugly:" cocky, egotistically, and at times petty actions. But its strength is its testimonial power: less of a marketing scheme; less fabrication; more life experiences---from the personal truth, to the creative expression of reality.

It is the genius of Kanye West to have the audacity to let us into his struggle.

But is Hip-Hop ready for this? That is the impending question.

Can our hyper-masculinity, homophobic, thug-constructed self-conscious allow us to listen to more sensitivity? Can our self-interested/industry-cultivated taste for music with a dance and a catch phase allow us to become in tune with our other emotions for a moment?

Can we learn to balance the party and the work; to be "wavy" and be socially-aware; to be strong, yet to be vulnerable?

And can we sound different---completely different? Can we handle mash-ups with Coldplay, infusions of trip-hop, and engagement with sounds not normal to the Hip-Hop feel?

Or will we just call it wack?

808's and Heartbreak is the beginning of the challenge to conventional Hip-Hop, with more and more fellow provocateurs coming.

Hopefully Mr. West's pain and genius can inspire; and does not break and martyr himself, and the audacity to be different.

Michael Partis

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