As a rule, rap producers’ albums are poorly received. (And by “as a rule,” I mean ”Timbaland.”) In light of this (if admittedly little else), it makes sense to compare Kanye West and Swizz Beatz’s recent albums. Both are producers who a) are regularly derided for their technical facility as rappers and b) are occasionally more name-valuable than the rappers they produce. I’m exaggerating the similarities more than a bit: in relative importance, Kanye:Swizz :: David Foster Wallace:Mark Leyner. But still.
Graduation is Kanye’s third and most underwhelming album for reasons that would generally be considered virtues: it’s his most musically streamlined and focused work yet, and also his shortest. But what Kanye excels at is sprawl: the fantastic orchestral excesses of Late Registration, public temper tantrums, and long album lengths all go together. From the moment College Dropout kicked off with the sky-high “We Don’t Care,” Kanye seemed like hip-hop’s Phil Spector, or maybe even its Flaming Lips. On Late Registration, Kanye used Jon Brion to swipe Aimee Mann’s keyboards and explored melancholy introspection (“Roses,” ”Drive Slow”), but his best moments were still generally the show-stoppers.
Graduation is sonically excessive, but in the same way on nearly every track: gaudy synths at loud volumes. There’s been a lot of foolish talk regarding Kanye’s alleged fetishization of dance music, which is only half true: yes, the beats would be European-club-worthy if stripped of the vocals, but nothing in these songs indicates Kanye’s prioritized rhythm over melody. “Good Life”’s insistent treble line is this album’s children’s chorus on “We Don’t Care”; “Stronger” is more interested in the vocoder than the rumbling bass.
Alarmingly though, Kanye seems to be more interested in the sounds than the lyrics: for the first time, the “first rapper with a Benz and a backpack” seems to be trying hard not to annoy anyone. Call College Dropout and Late Registration whatever derogatory names you want, but frivolous they’re not: they seem, at times, more socially and politically engaged than most political parties’ entire platforms. Kanye’s not a great thinker in practical ways, but he’s fantastic at raising substantive issues in a normally toothless rap landscape without reaching Chuck D levels of annoyance. Kanye will never be one of the “Top 5 MCs, you gotta rewind me” he claims to belong to on “Barry Bonds,” which means he can’t coast on style alone. Without substance, we have great beats and weak boasts, which is what much of Graduation is; no lyrical highlights, only musical ones. Bizarrely, even while scaling back on the memorable lines, Kanye’s also scaled back on guest appearances, limiting himself to a sub-par Lil’ Wayne turn and a few vocal hooks: a guest appearance like Paul Wall’s substanceless virtuoso turn on “Drive Slow” would’ve gone a long way. Why he’s chosen to foreground himself as a rapper at his weakest moment is beyond me.
Exceptions include, most importantly, the gorgeously bummed-out “Everything I Am”—the album’s simplest production, just a vocal sample, piano and some scratching—and the bouncy “Homecoming,” whose Chris Martin guest vocal just might make Coldplay acceptable for the cool kids again (Jay-Z certainly didn’t pull it off when he got Martin for his comeback earlier this year). Tellingly though, the two best tracks aren’t actually on the album; run to iTunes, or somewhere less legal, for bonus tracks “Good Night” and especially “Bittersweet Poetry”; the only vulnerable songs here, and also the only ones that sound like Late Registration outtakes. “Heard ’Em Say” redeemed Maroon 5; “Bittersweet Poetry” goes one better and rehabilitates John Mayer, who provides a guiltily irresistible chorus while Kanye spells out exactly how much his girl hates him for being an arrogant prick. For the first time, he seems like he’s going back to introspection and thinking about his words rather than filling the silence above the synths. Graduation is a fine dance album, but it’s not much of a Kanye album.
So, what do Kanye and Swizz have in common besides brand-name fame (Swizz perhaps best known for producing T.I.’s arguably best single, “Bring ’Em Out”) and criticisms of their style? Both their new albums feature a vocal hook from Chris Martin. The similarities end there: One Man Band Man is eagerly vapid, a concise exploration of a brand name whose very title is unintentionally ironic. “You know I got that product man,” Swizz announces on the opening track. “Beats, hooks, loops and samples.” Liar. What he’s got is three tracks of his own (plus a remix of the lead single and one co-production) and a bunch of producers to imitate him while he’s busy, um, “rapping.” For subject matter, in addition to “Big Munny,” there’s also “Money In The Bank”; you get the idea. The energy level is the same regardless of the subject manner: I presume “The Funeral” is supposed to be sobering or something (“every night I see an old man with black slacks,” which conjures up images of moldy undertakers more than ponderous reflections on mortality), but it’s really hard to tell when it’s the umpteenth song to chop up a drum kit and crowd chants and sprinkle them over a sprightly bass line and/or loud brass/synths.
The best songs, predictably, are those actually produced by Swizz. There’s other names here (Dr. Dre-approved Nottz delivers “Big Munny”), but no one seems to turn Swizz on quite as much as himself. Lead single “It’s Me Bitches” had its name changed to “It’s Me Snitches” without altering its message one bit, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know. It’s typical Swizz: segments of a descending marimba scale, sirens, fragments of crowd chanting. “Take A Picture” may be even better, relying as it does on the all-too-rarely sampled sound of a camera snapping, chopped up and becoming a kind of drum kit element over elated, warm melodies and strings. Swizz Beatz’s trademark swirling hyperactivity—where the hookiest, most instantly absorbing elements of each loop and sample compete for attention—pushes itself too far on “Part of the Plan,” which begins with the simple enough goal of rehabbing Coldplay (yet again!) by popping a bass line under “X & Y,” and devolves into near-chaos by the end as gunshots, random exhalations, and voices talk over each other. It’s the one time Swizz really doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing. The rest of the time, it’s a somewhat monotonous sugar rush of 38 minutes of uninterrupted bounce, executed with various degrees of skill, a sample beat tape that happens to have filler words over it.
I’m pitting Kanye against Swizz not just for the superficial, easy, producer-vs.-producer aspect (although the monotony of Swizz’s work makes me appreciate Kanye’s range of sample reference and musical styles a lot more), nor necessarily as an excuse to write about Kanye too late (although yes, that too). What I have in mind is more of a cautionary tale, directed at Kanye: if you concentrate solely on the music and let your lyrics diminish, somewhere along the line you end up like rich Swizz, barking out lyrics comparing your prowess at shooting off your gun to making ’em cum. No one wants to be that guy.
Because it seems to be the fall/winter of Joy Division—Control raking ’em in at the Film Forum, new album re-issues, another documentary on the way— a few brief words on Closer seems to be in order. Namely, I wanted to voice my deeply held conviction that Ian Curtis was kind of a twit. Granted, I don’t have much information to go on here—the fact that Control opens with Curtis staring into space and muttering about “existence” may not be documentary evidence, but it certainly feels right. How you feel about Joy Division generally depends on whether or not you prefer New Order (which I do). Still, lip service aside—yeah, Joy Division invented a revolutionary new sound, etc. etc.—I’m not sure I like where that takes us.
Closer is an album I’ve been listening to lately, and for what little it’s worth I find it a huge leap forward from Unknown Pleasures (an album that basically has only three modes: stripped down emptiness, crushing proto-metal like “Day Of The Lords,” and “She’s Lost Control,” which is in a league of its own). But it seems like an end-point, not a starting reference point—e.g.“The Eternal,” which is kind of staggering, what with its woozy, indecipherable opening 20 seconds of noise (a recurring sound strangely like locusts), drone-y background vocals, and warm keyboards; nonetheless, what would logically follow from this would be an especially lethargic Cure song, or perhaps a maudlin goth ballad, or perhaps even a lazy horror film score. I dig the sample of manipulated drums doing a downward scale at the beginning of “Atrocity Exhibition” too, but I’m not sure why the song really needs to be called that. I suspect that if Curtis had lived longer, Joy Division might have just gone out of their way to full-bore offend people for no good reason: I like to envision an optimistic scenario where Curtis went to America, perked up, and starting issuing Negativland-style provocations.
I don’t really believe any of that, of course, but I question the value of Curtis’s legacy vs. that of the overall band unit and especially Martin Hannett’s many bizarre, still-compelling production innovations. Curtis, basically, was a high-school poet who wrote things like “Can’t replace or relate, can’t release or repair” and got taken far more seriously than, say, Elliott Smith ever did, presumably because Curtis was tying in to the Late-20th-Century Sense Of Despair, Manchester version, while Smith was just being a solipsistic jerk. Somehow, I question this version of history. The album is still fine.
Finally, I want to briefly mention the Pale Young Gentlemen, who’ve managed the mildly remarkable feat of cracking Metacritic’s Top 30 albums of the year without either a record label or a ridiculously over-excited Pitchfork review. To these jaded ears, any album with the lyric “You can never trust in a sailor’s love” should probably be tossed away swiftly, landing next to whatever faux-Weimar-cabaret bullshit Dresden Dolls fans are listening to these days, but—since they were kind enough to send in their self-titled debut—I can’t deny that I find opener “Fraulein” a pretty irresistible lead-off, a nicely-judged blend of soaring cello hook (this is one of those bands that records seemingly live with little in the way of mixing board tricks) and jazzy rhythms; closer “Single Days” isn’t half-bad either. I don’t find the middle terribly exciting—songs have names like “Me & Nikolai,” seemingly assuming that anything involving nights of drunken would-be debauchery is automatically exciting, especially if it involves a foreigner (the band’s from Madison, Wisconsin, which might have something to do with it), but your mileage will probably vary based on how much you like…you know. Cabaret-influenced bullshit. Or Tom Waits. Or whatever.
The reason I really mention it is this: not that I’ve ever illegally downloaded music myself (too much of a wimp), but a large amount of the music covered here is obtained from sympathetically inclined friends who do the downloading for me. (I’m a ridiculously impoverished college student; don’t even start with the lectures.) Last week, the authorities took the wise precaution of busting Oink, pretty much the holy land of music piracy. As a result, I may have a slightly less esoteric selection of new albums to write on. So: if you’re a record label or even, god help me, an unsigned band, feel free to get in touch with me (vadim dot rizov at gmail dot com) about sending over a promo. My only ground rule: actually read the column first and figure out what I like and if you’re in the paradigm. (I love you Merge Records! Are you listening?) Anything that could be labeled “blues rock” will promptly be sold for scrap.