There must have been a moment when Kanye West was actually content with being the most potent and essential personality in hip-hop. Date it early (the out-of-nowhere ubiquity of The College Dropout) or late (Graduation’s dominance of 50 Cent’s Curtis during the first-week sales showdown of last fall); at some point West has to have rested on his Luis Vuitton-labeled laurels for at least a millisecond and savored the fact that his singular styles of production and emceeing, not to mention dressing, have left irreplaceable impressions on hip-hop as well as the culture at large.
If such an instant of self-congratulation has existed for West, though, we’ll probably never know about it. From the very beginning he has shown an utter disdain for running victory laps or patting himself on the back. In West’s world, each success is overshadowed by a disappointment imagined larger than it actually is, and every artistic breakthrough is only a stepping stone to something even more coherent, polished and universal. Applaud West for winning Grammy’s Rap Album of the Year award three times, and he’ll only point out that he’s been unfairly shut out for the big prize, overall album of the year, on as many occasions.
And so this famously unsatisfied, irrepressible and often insufferable temperament, fresh off a trilogy of albums likely to be remembered as some of the most innovative and endearing in the history of hip-hop, has produced 2008’s biggest musical conundrum, the hurried and ill-conceived Auto-Tune experiment 808s & Heartbreak. With his mother’s death a year ago and the sundering of his engagement to longtime girlfriend Alexis Phifer earlier this year, West’s post-Graduation life has been anything but halcyon; add to the personal adversities the stress of headlining the most ambitious hip-hop concert tour ever attempted, and you have a recipe for a major breakdown. But instead of a faux retirement or a retreat into the business side of things, which may have been reasonable responses for any number of pop stars but certainly not for West, we get another album. 808s, despite its myriad flaws, is both a reflection of the hard times West has suffered through and a testament to his artistic fortitude.
Just as hard as it to pinpoint what facet of a great Kanye West song makes it great (is it the thunderous live percussion, the triumphant Curtis Mayfield sample or Lupe Fiasco’s killer verse that makes “Touch the Sky?”), it is incredibly difficult to decide which ingredient of 808s spoils the soup. Perhaps the obvious starting point would be West’s decision to sing on every one of these songs and dispense with rapping altogether. In his previous life as a rapper, West certainly evidenced a predisposition to sing-songiness; even in his verses, his delivery packs more inflection and musicality than, say, the straight-ahead attacks of Common or Nas. But as someone trying to carry a tune, West would be unbearable without Auto-Tune, and even with the computer enhancement he sounds only a little better than the average drunk at a karaoke bar or halfway-serious American Idol reject. In addition to applying a sense of monotony, the rigid aesthetic boundaries of 808s—stark, laser-like synth lines, tribal 808 drum patterns, diaphanous string passages—leave little cover for West’s vocal flaws. “Street Lights” is a song that would probably be nothing more than harmless balladry in the hands of Ne-Yo or The-Dream, but under West’s awkward, wistful ownership it’s just not palatable. Similarly, “Heartless” has all the makings of a classic, minor-key club anthem, darkly swaggering and indulgent of love’s travails—if only it were sung by Usher.
The guest singers that show up occasionally will come out of this flop with ascendant reputations. Anytime another voice shows up here, especially one worthy of a microphone, the ears prick up eagerly. Mr. Hudson’s chorus is a big reason why “Paranoid,” a disco-tinged track brighter than anything else on the album, largely succeeds, even though the song begs for a pulsating bassline. And Kid Cudi’s anxious cooing on “Welcome to the Heartbreak” provides a perfect counter to West’s attenuated sketches about fame and self-loathing. While Lil Wayne’s appearance on “See You in My Nightmares” represents the worst of his recent Auto-Tuned, soft-rock indulgences, rapper-of-the-year candidate Young Jeezy absolutely kills on the one track that lives up to the Kanye West brand. “Amazing” takes a ruminative piano riff, West’s catchiest tune and a shuffling drumbeat evocative of a broomstick on marble to spin an eerie vision of a kingpin’s braggadocio colored with disgust and sarcasm: Lord Kanye surveys his minions of chipmunk-soul-producers and pink-polo-wearers and realizes it’s worth little more than peanuts. Jeezy’s joyless, snarling addendum, worrying over his blood pressure and the inevitability of defeat, is an appropriate “thank you” for West’s soul-searching elevation of The Recession’s “Put On.”
It’s a little interesting that 808s is being released the same week as Guns N’ Roses’s long-awaited Chinese Democracy. Both albums evidence the excesses of two different types of artistic egos, and the eras in which those egos were bred. On the one hand there is Axl Rose, a creature of stadium-sized, corporate-owned, top-down rock n’ roll, fiddling and tweaking for over a decade to produce the ultimate statement, a virtuosic orgy meant to fulfill the prophecy of Zeppelin, Sabbath, the Who and about 30 other Important Rock Bands. And on the other there is Kanye West, swept up in a trend barely two years old, so frightened of irrelevance and failure that he debuts his single on MTV, iTunes and The Ellen Degeneres Show a mere few weeks after writing it and reworks the original version after postings to his blog revealed rumblings of fan frustration. What Rose and West both require is moderation, and someone to implement said moderation: It’s no coincidence that West’s two best co-producers, DJ Toomp and Jon Brion, don’t show up in the liner notes of 808s.
Whether the album represents the beginnings of a permanent artistic devolution or a momentary bump in the road to glory, only time will tell. One heartening point to keep in mind is that no matter the reception of 808s, West will probably find something to complain about or be dissatisfied with. Indeed, he’s reportedly already back in the studio working on his comeback.
Label: Roc-a-Fella Release Date: November 24, 2008 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon