What we talk about when we talk about Kanye West

Here’s an email conversation I’ve been having with my friend Greg Brown about Kanye West’s recent albums. Greg is a classical composer and performer with a much more avant-garde sensibility than mine. The exchange is lightly edited for clarity.

Greg: I’ve been listening to 808s and Heartbreak and Twisted Fantasy. I’m really enjoying them. Far more than I thought I would. I think Auto-tune here is somehow protective for Kanye when he is expressing emotion in a genre where that is not really smiled on. I haven’t quite put my finger on it, but I think the dehumanizing of the human voice is somehow a foil for the expression of inner turmoil. It’s haunting.

Ethan: Yes! Absolutely. The Auto-tune gives Ye a way to be the sensitive, vulnerable singer, as opposed to the swaggering rapper. And I like the similar sonic palettes between 808s and Fantasy, except 808s is sparse and Fantasy is full. And the thing of using tuned 808 kick drums to play the basslines is so hip.

Greg: The hard part for me to wrap my head around is the fact that Auto-tune is a filter, a dehumanizer, and it manages to make Kanye both closer and more human.

Ethan: I have a broader philosophical idea brewing about the concepts of “dehumanizing” and “posthuman” and how they’re really kind of meaningless, at least as applied to music. How can things that humans create be dehumanizing? Everyone involved in the production of Kanye’s albums is human. Auto-tune is a novel way of sounding human, but it’s still human, just like the sound of reverb or EQ or compression.

Greg: Yes — I have similar issues with natural vs. unnatural in general. Humans are natural, therefore everything we do is also natural.

Ethan: I’ve been listening a lot to “No Church In The Wild,” the opening track from Watch The Throne.

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Kanye doesn’t use any Auto-tune, he just raps. The interesting thing is that the chorus is sung by Frank Ocean, who’s a perfectly capable legit R&B singer, and they put him through the full Cher effect. At the end of each verse, Kanye and Jay-Z tell Frank to “preach” through the Auto-tune. Curious as to your reaction.

Greg: This track is really something. The animal noises fusing with human with street noise. The bizarre outro — WTF is that? The Auto-tune section kind of hides structurally, in some ways. If the liner notes are to be believed, then the Auto-tune section is actually The-Dream on vocals. [Ethan note: it is Frank Ocean singing; The-Dream co-wrote the song.] The extreme EQ of that section is key, though. The dropping to low frequency moves the preceding music into the far distance and down into the horizon. In some ways it heightens the internal effect in an almost cinematic way. It’s a radical emotional zoom and pan. The fact that it is also Auto-tuned may relate to what we were talking about on Kanye’s earlier albums. The sense that Auto-tune allows for and maybe heightens emotional expression. One would think that it is despite the dehumanization, but maybe the dehumanization allows for the words themselves to become more present? I’m not sure. I’ll keep listening.

Ethan: There’s a tradition in hip-hop that if you have an instrumental that isn’t going to get turned into a full song, you append it to the beginning or end of another track. But usually it’s a funk sample or something, not a weird classical piece.

Greg: It reminds me of the Fiona Apple cover of “Extraordinary Machine” for some reason. It’s flat weird.

Ethan: I don’t know that Fiona Apple song, will have to check it out.

Greg: it’s a Marilyn Monroe cover, of all things.

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Greg: Funny that delay is not corny, but reverb is? What’s that about?

Ethan: I think the thing with delay is that it’s technologically newer — tape delay goes back a ways, but tempo-synced digital delay is still pretty fresh and of the present. Also, reverb diffuses the sound, and delay keeps everything nice and crisp. Good point about how the EQ spatializes the track — reverb is considered corny by current pop and hip-hop producers, so either you leave everything bone dry or use delay and EQ for spatial effects.

Maybe the Auto-tune heightens emotion by making the melody totally unambiguous. It gives the sung notes an organ-like clarity and distinctness, and slight pitch nuances get exaggerated into stairsteps and warbles. Also, the filter changes the voice’s upper partials in odd ways that adds to the pathos. The-Dream has done some nice Auto-tune singing on other Kanye material — there’s a song called “Flight School” that I have on a mixtape or something. But it’s nowhere near as hip as “No Church.”

Greg: I’m digging “Made in America” as well. The tone is so unapologetic. How often does “banana pudding” show up in rap? It’s unsettlingly positive in some ways. Nostalgic and wistful. Where’s the Auto-tune?

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I was teaching John Adams‘ “On the Transmigration of Souls” today and I noticed some distortion on some of the sampled voices. It’s utterly unnecessary but clearly present. I realized that this is related to our discussion of Auto-tune and filters on the voice. My thought in class was: “Do we live so scared that a naked voice is a thing that can’t speak truth?” I’m not sure I still stand by this sentiment, but there it is.

Ethan: I’ll catch myself putting delay on everything as a matter of course. It takes a lot of discipline to leave things dry. I saw this movie called Jiro Dreams Of Sushi about Japan’s best (and most expensive) sushi chef. All he does is cut fish, put it on rice, add some soy sauce and serve. But he uses the best fish, the best rice, the best soy sauce, the best sequencing of dishes, etc. I like that philosophy of getting good ingredients and not processing them at all.

Kanye’s raw singing voice is so comically bad that using it unfiltered is a startling effect unto itself. It’s like, in this day and age, hearing a big pop star sing terribly is more startling than hearing them sing perfectly.