In spite of everything, I still listen to Kanye West all the time

Okay, so we’ve all firmly established that he’s not exactly a model of decorum. President Obama called him a jackass. Even before he disrupted the MTV awards, a lot of my friends disliked him intensely. This dislike crosses racial, class and gender boundaries.

And yet, I like Kanye’s music better than just about anything that anyone is making, and I like it up there with the best stuff ever made by anyone.

There are a lot of other musicians whose work I enjoy whose personalities are/were difficult. Miles Davis was said to be a challenging person. You wouldn’t have wanted to be married to Jerry Garcia. Charles Mingus wasn’t exactly Mister Personality; neither was Beethoven. In the age of recorded music, I find it easy to compartmentalize. Maybe I wouldn’t like Miles Davis’ or Charles Mingus’ albums so much if I had known them personally, but I didn’t, so I’m free to love those albums without reservation. So it is with Kanye. Whatever I think of his personality, I can’t get enough of his music, especially the stuff he sings on.

There’s a lot of pain in Kanye’s music, especially since the death of his mother from complications of cosmetic surgery. His mood got even darker when he broke off his engagement with his fiance a few months later. Kanye has taken the counterintuitive approach of making his music more pop-oriented and melodic as a way of expressing his anguish. His recent stuff has mostly been lush dance-pop of the Michael Jackson school. But it’s been a long time since Thriller. Kanye’s singing and subject matter are a step or three angrier and less polite. The combination of angry singing and blunt language filtered through seamlessly perfect digital production scratches me exactly where I itch. I like pain in music, but I don’t like it when the pain manifests itself as annoying, inaccessible sounds. I get plenty of boredom and anxiety in my actual life, I don’t need to seek out more of it. I prefer when unhappy musicians make attractive music you can dance to.

Kanye was motivated to sing a whole album with Auto-tune by his collaborations with and admiration for TPain. As T-Pain spurred Kanye to plunge all the way into robosinging, so both of them have motivated me to try it on everything too. Singing is one of the most basic, universal human bodily pleasures, but an introverted guy like me doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to do it aside from the shower. I don’t go to church, I don’t go to sports games, I don’t find myself in group singing situations generally. I have to go out of my way to make social singing happen by having bands and recording projects.

The problem with having music-making be a specialized and rigorous craft is that it makes normal people too anxious to participate. Why would you want to listen to me sing if any of the dozens of excellent singers I know could do it better? Why would you want to listen to any of us sing a jazz standard when there’s Billie Holiday? Why would you listen to anyone sing rock when there’s Mick Jagger?

Auto-tune is emboldening. It encourages risk-taking and truth-telling. By guaranteeing that everything you sing will at least be tolerable to listen to, you’re free to push boundaries in other areas. You can explore guttural, harsh sounds without being offputting and annoying. My favorite vocal performances of the past year have been by non-singers: not just Kanye, but also Lil Wayne. His duet with Kanye on “See You in My Nightmares” from 808s And Heartbreak is the high point of the album for me.

Some musicians like where Kanye is headed as much as I do. In an interview on MTV, Common said:

I love it. Let me tell you, as an artist, you wanna be free. You gotta do what you feel. You can’t just cater to the audience. You gotta say, ‘Hey, y’all, this is where I’m at.’ For him to do an album called 808s and Heartbreak, you know that’s where he is at this moment. I heard some songs, and I think it’s fresh. I think the people are ready for it.

Not everybody is ready for it, but I’m with him on the sentiment. When asked what music inspires him, Lil Wayne said:

Everybody’s doing their thing, but they’re not exciting. Everybody is doing the same thing. That’s terrible. Do I love the music that’s out right now? I love it with a passion. Does it motivate me? Not one bit. That’s because 808s & Heartbreak isn’t out yet.

Opinions on the album are widely divided. Some of my friends get angry when they hear 808s, or even when they talk about it. A lot of critics hate it. Here’s a quote from Andy Kellman’s two-star review in Allmusic:

For anyone sifting through a broken relationship and self-letdown, this could all be therapeutic. Otherwise, no matter its commendable fearlessness, the album is a listless, bleary trudge along West’s permafrost.

I’m happily married and I find the album to actually be kind of uplifting. But then, I like frosty music.

The Boston Globe complained that because of the Auto-tune, “you don’t get a real sense of [Kanye’s] vocal chops.” I think you get an excellent sense. With Auto-tune, his chops are great. There are a few vulnerable moments where he turns it off, and then his chops are terrible. I find the emotional effect of the contrast to be super powerful. It’s something I strive to emulate in my own music.

A lot of people can’t get past the equation of Auto-tune with cheating. John Caramanica said in The New York Times:

Mr West can’t sing, and it is that weakness for which this album will ultimately be remembered, some solid songs notwithstanding. For him, using Auto-Tune, the pitch-correction software with the robotic vocal effect, is a true crutch… At best, it is a rough sketch for a great album, with ideas he would have typically rendered with complexity, here distilled to a few words, a few synthesizer notes, a lean drumbeat. At worst, it’s clumsy and underfed, a reminder that all of that ornamentation served a purpose.

I think Mr West can sing, using this particular tool. Saying he can’t sing because he needs some tools to optimize his sound is like saying Jimi Hendrix couldn’t play guitar because he couldn’t have played Purple Haze on a nylon-string acoustic.

Also, I think John Caramanica is wrong about ornamentation. Stripping away ornamentation is brave, and generous. You can fill in all the little curlicues in your head anyway. Actually, it’s fun to do that. Keeping the music spacious and empty invites audience participation. Kanye goes a step further in inviting you to participate. He gives away the stems for “Love Lockdown” for your remixing pleasure.

Salon gave a more positive review:

“808s & Heartbreak” belongs to a mini-genre of “woke up this morning/ got me the superstar blues” albums, alongside Nirvana’s “In Utero” and Puff Daddy’s “Forever.” What redeems the record is its sound, whose intimate relationship with technology is emblazoned in the album’s title. The Roland 808 is hip-hop’s famous drum machine, a sound at once vintage and timeless, like the wah-wah guitar in rock. 808 bass lines (made by detuning the kick drum) are prominent in West’s album, not in their typical block-rocking mode but as a subdued pitter-patter, the pulse of a worried heart.

“Heartbreak” refers to the emotion (West has had a bad year, no doubt) and also to a sound he’s devised using studio technology, which is slathered over virtually every vocal on the album. “It’s Auto-Tune meets distortion, with a bit of delay on it,” he said in a recent interview. “And a whole bunch of fucked-up life. That’s what I call my ‘Heartbreak.'”

Auto-Tune can also be deliberately misused or overdone. Radiohead dabbled with the device during the experimental “Kid A/Amnesiac” sessions, discovering that if you spoke words rather than sang them, the confused machine would try to assign notes to your speech and produce an impressively avant-garde-sounding cluster of dissonant and random-seeming notes. More typically, it’s used to create a kind of cyber-melisma effect, a fluttery vocal sound simultaneously evocative of angelic purity and a lovelorn robot. The most famous early example was Cher’s “Believe” at the turn of the decade, but since then the effect has popped up regularly in R&B and dance hall records, sometimes as a momentary glisten of posthuman perfection irradiating a particular line, sometimes coating the entire vocal in the gimmicky tradition of the 1970s vocoder and talk-box. This year it resurged as a fad sound, with the R&B singer T-Pain building a career around its glutinous, glucose texture.

Jumping on a bandwagon that’s already been around the block several times doesn’t quite fit the profile of a self-styled innovator, but West has made Auto-Tune his own, both by adding extra effects like distortion that push the sound to the edge of pain and by making it the defining sound of his new album. “808s & Heartbreak” starts with five down-tempo songs in a row that could be chips off the same sonic block, starting with “Say You Will” and climaxing with his smash hit single “Love Lockdown,” whose dolorous melody is offset by an incongruously harsh clatter of drums. Because it’s not just the vocals that are interfered with: Almost the album’s entire sound palette is distorted. “Paranoid,” the first of the few fast songs on the album, sandwiches a pretty melody between a grating synth riff and gnarly drum beats; “Robocop” is woven virtually completely from abrasively lo-fi sounds; and bursts of pure noise pepper “Coldest Winter.”

These abrasive digital effects — noises that make the ear flinch, like the sudden surge of distortion on the vocal early on in “Love Lockdown” — are motivated by the desire to find new ways to communicate pain. West wants to make his music sound how he feels, which is raw, skinless, unprotected.

[W]est’s cold and dehumanized sounds, which could have served as a mask, instead allow us to see right through him. wrote about the 808s debut listening party:

Kanye launched into a speech about how much he loves using Auto-Tune and that lately the term has been associated with being “wack” much to his dismay. “Never lose your childhood,” he told the crowd, explaining how he wanted to go back to feeling like a child, overwhelmed and carefree. Auto-Tune reminded him of those early days. As a kid, he thought the color pink was cool until someone told him “it was gay.” He then excitedly exclaimed, “Pink is better than blue!” Ye expressed his admiration for T-Pain, saying “his light was so bright.” He further explained his belief that society and culture steal confidence and self-esteem from you when you’re a child. You’re born with it, but society takes it away. If he was 8 years old, he would have walked into a recording studio and told the engineer, “Give me Auto-Tune!” He officially declared it “the funnest thing to use.”

Childishness is usually not a charming quality in other people, but artists do us a favor by maintaining the inner toddler. The cost of being in touch with that inner toddler is that it can make you behave inappropriately. Hipster Runoff has a long thing about Kanye interrupting Taylor Swift that’s worth quoting at length. The post’s title is also its thesis, one I agree with: “It takes a socially transcendent moment to remind us what makes life worth living. Kanye West is a valuable member of society.”

Last Sunday night, I was browsing the internet, and all of a sudden, everything came to a halt. It was as if one moment “made the world stop.” This single moment demanded the instantaneous attention of the every human being in the Westernized world. After experiencing this moment, every human “came up with an opinion” on the event, and felt obliged to share this opinion with the world [via life stream/social network/ real life interaction]. It was truly one of the greatest live moments in the history of the world because 2009 has given us the proper tools to instantaneously reflect on a moment in a group setting. It was as if “social media” finally had a reason for existing (besides helping 2 elect the black President).

As a society, we must come together and root for Kanye West to continue to create content & headlines. While he is genuinely pursuing greatness, his narcissistic qualities will surely lead to his premature death. This is more than about needing “good guys” and “bad guys” to create conflict and news. We need a stream of content that we can continually reflect upon. This is why we miss Michael Jackson so much, we had the opportunity to have fun watching him fall apart together. It was legitimately a bullying process that rallied all humans together. It didn’t matter how smart or how dumb u were, there was something inherently funny about making fun of Michael Jackson’s racial, sexual, and social identity. A type of humor that transcended educational levels and class divisions.

Taylor Swift represents everything that is wrong with show business and the arts. We must respect Kanye West and his neverending quest to express his true self to the real world…

We must accept Kanye West as the true heir to the King of Pop — not because of his talent or his artistic interpretation of the world, but because of his ability to create content. He can rapidly produce albums as well as public incidents that are indicative of a deeply troubled human being. He transcends “right and wrong” because he truly “acts from the heart/soul” in a world where most people are too smart/deliberate/PR-managed to act upon their emotions.

A lot of people say that twitter is a “useless and boring display of humanity.” These people don’t understand the true value of twitter — twitter is an instant window into the lives of people. A chance to track the distractions that are filling up people’s lives, momentarily taking over their brains. An impact significant enough to process a lil thought/meme about it. Whether it is a human, a product, a political scandal, a television show, a movie, or a celeb death, the twitter portal into a generalized human psyche is priceless.

We must embrace the power of this tool. We must embrace all tools that allow us to reflect/share/digitally mourn.

We are growing up, learning how to use social networks to experience life together. We are learning how to mourn, celebrate, and crucify miscellaneous celebrities. We are learning that death memes are the memes that unite us. The internet/internet meme is a coping mechanism/opportunity.

When President Obama called Kanye a jackass, he said it with genuine warmth and affection in his voice. I think the President has the right attitude.

One thought on “In spite of everything, I still listen to Kanye West all the time

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. I’m a music producer who’s worked with hip-hop acts like Drake and indie rock acts alike and they all agree that Kanye is essential.

Comments are closed.