Monday, September 28, 2009

#94. 'You lose'

Kanye West "Love Lockdown"

I try to separate Kanye West the public persona form Kanye West the artist as well as I can, but the influence the former has on my appreciation of the latter is undeniable. Let's just get it out of the way right now: Kanye West is basically an overgrown child prone to tantrums when he doesn't get his way and not self aware enough to really notice how lacking he is as a human being. In short, Jesus Christ is Kanye West an asshole. And I’m not talking about the ordinary gaping orifice that all of us possess. I mean, an all encompassing, all consuming, out of proportion to every facet of humanity CHASM!! Whose borne, if I may quote Shakespeare, no traveller has ever returned…you get the idea. But that's just Kanye the public persona we're talking about, and even though there was a lot of overlap with Kanye the performer I can ignore that facet of Westdom when discussing his music.

I think.

The thing is that without West's own hubris I don't think "Love Lockdown"'s parent album 808s and Heartbreak would have ever been made. Think about it; insurmountable amounts of praise for each of his first three albums fed his ego to its highest level and gave him the gall to abandon everything he'd laid out on those albums and put out an autotuned, album-long meditation on his most recent breakup. The album's as much a product of West's ego as his public persona is from where I stand, and it's (undeserved) critical savaging is as much a reaction to said ego as it was to the album's nose-thumbing at West's wheelhouse. I never understood any of the critical reactions that West received to be honest; his first three albums were all just as uneven as the next mainstream rap album yet were viewed as the peak of that genre while 808s was ripped apart despite being the most easily palatable West album in my opinion. It's not a masterpiece by any means, but in its best moments its the only time either on record or in public that West has seemed remotely human.

I'm saying this about an album where West's voice is treated by the loathsome auto-tune voice box at every turn, never quite as subtly as on "Love Lockdown" either, and one that was fueled by what are mostly selfish emotions, but lyrically the Kanye depicted in the songs is an actual person, not an amalgam of cliches and mildly clever wordplay. It's his most personal album, and not in an off-putting way either. The fact that vocally he sounds like a sad robot adds a bit of cognitive dissonance to the proceedings, but on "Love Lockdown" and a few of the other songs it's used more as a subtlety to the production than being an overpowering focal point which makes it that much more easy to endure. And most importantly of all, the songs themselves are miles above West's previous material as far as quality goes.

Though I'm starting to be staunchly pro-808s my appreciation of "Love Lockdown" is a much less recent development. Pretty much from the first time I heard it something about it made me stand up and take notice, something in the combination of the sparse beat, the lightly touched up vocal and the minimal piano accoutrements made for the single most compelling single of Kanye's career. It didn't matter that it sounded nothing like a Kanye West single, hell if anything that helped it in my eyes since outside of "Flashing Lights" and "All Falls Down" none of his previous singles did anything to keep me interested. Of course the differences weren't wholly sonic either, every aspect of the track was free of the usual Kanye trademarks and in their place was something approaching genuine emotion. It was a bit of a shock at first, but soon enough I just went with it and realized that it was just a genuinely good song, regardless of who it was by.

And god what a good song it is. The unadorned production lets West's lightly - and I can't stress enough that any more auto-tune application would ruin the track for me - modulated voice fill the song's every crevasse, and it's not as annoying as that sounds on paper. If you couldn't tell, I'm not a fan of the recent auto-tune crutch/fad that's encompassed every recent R 'n' B/Rap single, but the way West uses it here is probably as good as its ever gonna get to my ears. It's not the only thing you can focus on when West's singing, and there's enough other modifications to his voice at various points that the autotune just seems like another piece of the puzzle as opposed to being every piece. Take the third verse where West buries his vocal under a layer of light distortion, but the distortion effect actually doubles the vocal as opposed to remaining static, or the additional layer of robotic effect on 'system overload' in the first verse. There's plenty more to this that just Kanye and his autotune, and the level of detail in the construction of those moments is as much of a testament to Kanye's (oft overstated) abilities as a producer.

Speaking of the production, the instrumental track here is just as devoid of common West-isms as the vocal. No pitch-shifted soul samples, no extraneous bells and whistles, no jubiliance at all - like West's bizarro world counterpart took over for a track and it worked to such great effect that he stuck around for the whole album. The instrumental is based off three relatively simple components: the near subliminal bass line that runs through the whole track, the three chord piano motif that pops up halfway through each verse and the tribal drum pattern that underpins the chorus. Sure, the glorious minute long coda section adds some ethereal whistling to the mix, but for the better part of the track you've just got those three elements coming and going at fixed intervals. That doesn't stop them from being extremely powerful when they converge though. The drums' entry in the first chorus gives the track a new sense of motion, spicing up what was a pretty melancholy overall sound while not explicitly changing the mood any more than West's vocals will allow, and the coda section is one of the most effective instances of a purely instrumental section giving the track its necessary closure as opposed to relying on the vocals. West's always been a better presence behind the mixing board than in front of it, but given that his usual bag of tricks was getting a bit tired at this point it's nice to see that he can pull out one of his better beats without going straight to his wheelhouse.

Coming up tomorrow: Kraut-techno-metal? It happened in the 00s...

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