I have never met anybody who just liked Kanye West.
He seems to be either championed or crucified, and dividedly evenly
whether either opinion is based on music or everything but. In my
travels and occasional music discussions, people seem shocked when I
tell them that I’m an avid supporter of Mr. West, as if a living in the music industry is supposed to counter enjoying one of its brightest stars. If not for Jay-Z,
few artists keep me on the edge of my seat lyrically – and musically,
at a time when redundancy and monotony appear to be accepted as the
Most music feels cheap right now, and Kanye West makes it feel
expensive. He locked himself in the basement doing five beats a day for
three summers. You’ll hear reports that even today, ‘Ye‘s
midnight-disease studio sessions are spent toiling over one sound, a
background effect, a mix level or an ad-lib, when most of his lesser
peers are recording albums on tour buses, in shower studios, and too
busy filming it on YouTube to care about anything more than
where the next check or bag of green is coming from. As this month
dances towards, what I believe already is a life-changing trend in Hip
Hop in 808’s & Heartbreak, I argue to stow your cynicism
long enough to assist the person seated next to you in understanding
just where this “Spaceship” of ours may be headed – and how, if you’re
old enough, you may already know how this movie ends.
Let me start here: auto-tune doesn’t move me. But then again, I was adverse to Rockwilder and The Neptunes singlehandedly deading the sample a decade ago (and was it not largely ‘Ye who brought it back?). This is a sound, no different than the way Dr. Dre‘s synthesizer challenged the boom-bap of the early ’90s. Andre knew what he was doing; seemingly the west coast bargain bin copycats did not. Although I’m an avid Pittsburgh Pirates fan, I never liked Barry Bonds
for the simple fact that his ego was really the one on ‘roids – and
carries a bigger asterix than his records. Yet despite my despise for
ego trippin’, I admire Kanye West for the fact that he’s one of the few rappers who avoids cliches like “It is what it is,”
and says what he means and seems to mean what he says – even if it
inevitably becomes headline news. He talks reckless, making him not the
spoiled brat some accuse, but the common man; see me at the bar and I
do too. But moreover, if Hip Hop is anywhere near dead in 2008, this is
one man looking into the future, with sunglasses on. I hate hyperbole.
But I sense that Kanye West may be affecting Hip Hop this month in a way parallel to Dr. Dre’s impact in late 1992, a short 16 years ago, with The Chronic.
Ask anybody who was there. The Chronic changed the way rap was to sound forever more. Listen to Notorious B.I.G.‘s Ready To Die,
and you can hear the sonic influence, the sense of an epic, cinematic
album above a collection of great songs. It was a progression from Run-DMC‘s introduction of the rap album to begin with to Public Enemy‘s
zeitgeist and reporting-style rap, to an effort that grabbed a
spotlight, telegraphed a movement and taught everybody with a late pass
that it was the day the rappers took over.
I see a strange relationship between what is The Chronic and what I expect 808’s & Heartbreak to
be (I was unable to attend last month’s listening in Los Angeles).
Moreover, I see a strange relationship between these makers of music, Dr. Dre and Kanye West. One of my favorite things about Dr. Dre is that he rarely speaks; one of my favorite things about Kanye West
is that he refuses to shut up. I’ve never read too many places where
either men talk about each other. Although both provide memorable
rhymes to nations of fans, the core Hip Hop follower unanimously seems
to respect both more for their work behind the boards, and tremendous
ear for anthems, street symphonies and unthinkable sources of
In truth, The Chronic began in the form of “Deep Cover,” a song not on the album. More known for its impromptu introduction of the lyrically gifted Snoop Doggy Dogg, the single from the soundtrack of the movie of the same name was a genesis of Dr. Dre’s musical interpretation of the L.A. Riots
that same month of April 1992. The compressed kickdrum and fuzzed out
bass hits, coupled with the fuse-burning sound effects, and you could
feel the ticking time bomb of a nation held back, of a coast overlooked
by the mainstream, of a producer eclipsed by the antics of a group –
and by thousands of young men called “perps” that simply were ready to
justify blasting back at undercover cops. “Fuck The Police” six years
earlier had intensified to “187 on an undercover cop.” The music probably outshined the message, but the status-quo of rap appeared to be challenged.
In terms of evolution, to me, the musical introduction of “Deep Cover” is not unlike ‘Ye’s appearance on Young Jeezy’s “Put On.” Although music came courtesy of Drumma Boy, ‘Ye
used his token mid-year smash single to tell the world not how his
grandfather was arrested for the sit-ins, his addiction to retail or
how he likes to undress his work, but that the superstar was depressed,
lonely and jaded with fame. This was not unlike Jay-Z’s
move a year ago, to brandish how unfulfilling fortune and fame could be
on “Success.” After almost 10 years of star rappers telling us about
cars many could not afford, chartered planes, jewelry and frivolous
spending, Kanye made it emotional. Whether the listener
empathizes, sympathizes or apathizes doesn’t really seem to be the
point, the organic content, themed on angst and emotion channeled every one from Eminem to Ghostface to even Dr. Dre, who’s sheer bragging on The Chronic was about the pumps and dumps of his ‘64 Chevy. This is not what the world wanted to hear – or even was ready, but surely, what they ought to.
Musically, Dr. Dre whet the appetite then, on that Deep Cover soundtrack – for whatever was to come. His words and actions were different than N.W.A. Dre, and so was his sound. Like a Prince Paul going from Stetsasonic to De La Soul three years earlier, things were vastly different, and exciting for all fans. James Brown and Charles Wright evolved to Parliament and Ohio Players sampling. Parallel, the “chipmunk soul” Kanye introduced himself with five years ago (after years of honing a style) has developed into collaborations with the likes of DJ Toomp and DJ Premier, and jukes at electro, bass, and experimental styles. Beanie Sigel‘s
“The Truth” is nothing like “The Coldest Winter” [click to listen], but somewhere in
there, people far more intellectual than I, can put to words the
auteurism that holds true for Kanye West. “Lyrical Gangbang” sounds like the type of record N.W.A. might’ve favored, but it’s the intro, the G-Funk synthesized accents that make it totally different. In a different medium, Martin Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver is vastly different from Goodfellas,
but it’s the attention to detail, the moving camera work, and the
implementation of music that makes it his own, and allows a novice
viewer to unconsciously recognize the trademark of a true artist.
Sixteen years after the fact, it’s hard to really tell what The Chronic
is remembered for. Perhaps many of the people that were most impacted
it by the release have moved on to other genres in age and distaste.
Above being the archetype of gangsta rap as many will tell you, or the
invention of melody to rap production, as Diddy claimed – neither of which I disagree with, it is my belief that The Chronic was a release made for cassette tape. It’s progressions, interludes, it’s ADD-proof of enlisting a body of guests defined the 15 years to come. Today’s Zshare downloader might struggle with The Chronic.
It’s an album about patience, about unpredictability, and an ensemble
cast, when nearly all big releases focus strictly on one person.
Within three years of its release, the cassette tape would be on its
deathbed. The ease of skipping through tracks gave many artists,
specifically in Hip Hop, an excuse not to take chances, but to make
According to Akon and Will.i.am, skip your Discman 16 years, and the CD is on borrowed time. Although West plays the game of providing free single samples to core online followers, he’s an artist in rap, more than Lil Wayne, more than Jay-Z where sequence matters. “Love Lockdown” [click to view] was arbitrarily picked as a single, for the simple fact it was handed to the MTV Awards‘ producer. Who has that kind of power or apathy today? Elvis Presley‘s
“Hound Dog” was a b-side record that stuck, due to daring radio deejays
and request line callers. As both have seemingly died long before the
CD, I commend Kanye West for defining his albums earliest predictions and interest based on one man’s decision. Moreover, West is the the one artist who we want to hear, as only he spent seemingly days trying to figure out sequencing the work.
I expect 808’s & Heartbreak to tell me a story. In
abstractions or concrete details, I expect to hear about the man who
parted ways with the only woman who understood him. I expect the pain
of losing a mother too early to come to life, after so many
shot-snappers and recorder-holders tried to get the artist to put it to
words as he walked to and from. I really don’t anticipate to learn what
Lamborghini leather feels like, or the inside scoop on the joys
of a foursome. These are all too cheap, or minor dots in the bigger
expression. When seemingly only inmates and industry-libertarian music
journalists are the only people buying musical product the old
fashioned way, Kanye West, from cover art to sequence makes an album an experience. Clicking to listen is like watching Star Wars in black and white.
As we look at the relationships between albums and singles, it’s important to recognize that The Chronic was
birthed in the pinnacle of the maxi-single. Everybody I know, from my
mother, to the teenagers I once worked with to the bike messenger on
the next barstool at three pm happy hour knows the words and melody to
“Nuthin’ But A G Thang.” It’s a party staple, heard at bowling alleys,
bar mitzvahs and just plain old bars everywhere. But of the people that
know it, only a few percentage can recognize “Stranded on Death Row” on
a playlist. Singles are just excerpts, and to judge either 808’s (albeit prematurely) or The Chronic based
on what a majority hear is a travesty. To the seasoned Hip Hop
listener, the videos, the radio and the cover art only reinforce the
music. It starts there, and we cannot hold the artists accountable for
the symbolizers out there taking tokes of culture, and inevitably
choking when they do – they have no clue.
Often, I take The Chronic with me these days. It reminds me
of my own choking, a soundwave, a cultural benchmark. More than
anything, it’s just good music. The armchair producer in me crams to
understand how something so good came out so quickly, and just how
everybody in Hip Hop reacted because of it. And while I enjoy so many
albums and singles before the Dr. Dre solo jumpoff, I think Hip
Hop owes that album a great debt of gratitude in shape-shifting us,
giving us something to hate and love and talk about, 16 years plus
As I was telling one esteemed colleague of mine yesterday – who seemed to agree, I stand firm that Killer Mike has
made the best album this year, on a shoestring budget, on one of the
smallest recognizable labels in the game, with poor sales yields. In
all honesty, I’ll be shocked if my opinion is any different in six
weeks. The same is true of The Chronic. If I lose my copy, I’ll promptly buy another, but truth be told, I admittedly prefer Black Moon‘s Enta Da Stage a few months later, or De La Soul Is Dead a few months before. This isn’t about favoritism or throwing the word “classic” around carelessly, this is about significance.
When I listen to people talk about 808’s & Heartbreak,
I’m hearing a crop of self-appointed critics with forks and knives
pointed upward, ready to pick apart an album. I feel like the normal
procedure isn’t going to work here. Kanye West appears to be a man with a message, and a defined vision and sound for this record. As even West‘s
peers appear to make thematic efforts that seemingly sound the same,
this one has already proven to be different. And as everyone is “throwing T-Pain” on their vocals, it’s already showing trend impact and leadership.
More importantly, as Kanye West can stand before millions
and say he lost the one woman that knew him best, lost his mother, and
perhaps lost sight of his passion for an instant, it’s more than beats
and rhymes. This is authenticity. While I’ll congratulate if auto-tune,
like the truck horns of 2000, goes out with the year, there’s some
powerful stuff under the vocoder for those willing to stop and listen.
The challenging production, the artfulness of the music, the
sustainability of the full-length album and the ability to still be
honest and powerful are all things that rap desperately needs right
Hate it or love it, West was right – he deserves to do
these numbers. But more importantly, after he got his classmates to
drop out a semester after him, he made sunglasses a must, chirped up
samples a standard, and made Polo all the money back that Thirstin Howl, III and Rack Lo cost
them in the ’90s. So how we treat this next effort, and the way the
followers follow will determine the direction we’re all headed in for
the remainder of the decade. If you like it, celebrate it. If you
don’t, I urge you to respect it and grab the rapper/producer next to
you, and restrain them from copying. But just as Dr. Dre took set-tripping and set trends, ‘Ye is putting the art back in the charts.