I thought about writing a review on this blog of Kanye West’s new album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” But I’ve actually been having a really good Facebook conversation with a young brother I know that captures how I feel about the album, about Kanye West, and all the hubbub around him.
It started when I posted Popmatters’ review of the album on Facebook, tagging a few fellow music heads in my friend list, with the following comment:
This is about how I feel about the album. Though I think a 7/10 is a mite high, maybe a 6/10 6.5…eh. it’s mostly enjoyable tho
I posted the Popmatters review because it captures much of what I feel about the album and is also emblematic of what I consider a real problem in music reviewing: grading on a curve such that you give credit for ambition without sufficiently assessing execution.
Drives me batty.
Anyway, this exchange which took place in the comments of the post was only lightly edited for clarity:
Oh, my bad. I know this wasn’t addressed to me, but fb told me somebody in the northeastern part of the country was talkin crazy bout Mr West’s new album.
That album is a strong 10, and killin what anybody else is doin!
is you nuts?! Yea i said “is you”!
Musically – great. Lyrically – I’m sorry, he’s just not a good emcee. That’s not really debatable if you know anything about emceeing.
That said, it’s the first ‘Ye album I can stomach all the way through since College Dropout. He may be an important artist, but creatively his reach seems to ALWAYS exceed his grasp. The industry confuses commercial dominance for artistic greatness and so they will overlaud this because it’s fits the narrative of messy egotist -> big fall -> redemption. blah blah snooze.
We have already discussed that fact that Kanye’s lyrics are..meh. But you miss production value, vision, and showmanship – also key to emceeing. For what he is missing lyrically, I think he makes up for with the addition of certain colleagues, who, with the right placement contribute lots to the album.
Artists like him will pull the game up because he IS reaching. Miss me with the personal drama story line. Having been separated for pop culture for the last several months, I can only testify as a fan of the guy who made Drop Out.
I don’t dispute his ambition. I never disputed his prowess as a musician and producer. But the truth is that his music only makes his deficiencies as an emcee all the more noticeable. Nearly every review I’ve read sort of begrudgingly and almost dismissively admits he can’t rhyme and then proceeds to be like 10 out of 10.
You can have the best design for a car ever. It can be revolutionary in the world of car making, but if your carburetor doesn’t work, you just got a really pretty lemon. Feel me?
Talent is not what’s missing from the game. It’s creative ambition.
I agree, but one can’t ignore execution and skill just because you like what it is trying to be. The simple fact is that Kanye NEVER sticks the landing.
And you don’t have to dislike his work, but pretending like he’s the greatest thing ever because you like it is simply not good enough. I like a lot of stuff, but I won’t tell you it’s all great. That would be dishonest. I know it’s common and it’s what people do, but one should never confuse what you like with what is great. The two can overlap, but they are not the same thing.
True. But somebody has to stand up for quality. Nobody is trying anymore. Kanye made a full album – not 3 singles and 9 other songs. And he put himself into it. Investment. Artistic integrity. I respect that.
You did say it was enjoyable though. I can take that.
Again, I would say you are standing up for ambition, not quality. The album is not high-quality. One can only think Kanye released the best hip hop album of the year, 1) if they are too keyed into popular culture and don’t really know anything about hip hop and 2) didn’t listen to Reflection Eternal, the new Nottz joint, Big Boi’s album, the Nas/Damian Marley collabo album…I can go on.
The issue here is that far too many people listen to music through a prism of how it is sold, without questioning those marketing campaigns. It is no different than in politics. If you keep hearing that liberals are tax and spend, you will repeat it … even though it’s simply untrue. Same here. Kanye is not the most ambitious emcee in the game, he’s just the most ambitious emcee that the mainstream media and the sheep who only understand and consume hip-hop as disposable pop are paying attention to.
There are countless numbers of emcees who make complicated, ambitious, messy albums. The ones I mentioned above all fit that category and actually hit the mark more often than does Kanye. But no one is paying attention to them because they lack personas that are inherently interesting from a marketing point of view.
Hmm. Having heard the Nas/Marley and Big Boi albums, I agree with their greatness. Big Boi is under rated, but Nas is a legend, and will be looked at by history as a 2Pac type figure. Kanye is not on the same plane as these guys-for the most part because he hasn’t been in entertainment as long as them. But his music is also much different. Not any better or worse, so much as he’s in another lane, with violins, ballet, and short films with no words.
See…again, your understanding of ambition is limited.
Nas and Damian Marley making a commercial hip-hop album about our connections across the diaspora is just as expansive and ambitious a concept as Kanye’s love of “high-art” (or, more …pointedly, white shit like ballet that black folks are, supposedly, not so into). In this, we reinscribe this notion that to explore ourselves in any complex way is not so interesting as when we play with elements that are coded in the American mind as “white” or “universal.” You’d do well to resist such tendencies.
And let’s be honest. Big Boi is a better musician than Kanye by a long shot, but again his reference points are staunchly black and Kanye’s are not so there’s a “eh, typical OutKast shit.” And he’s not Andre 3000 or an outsized personality in a way that makes for good copy, so no one pays attention.
to sum up: Kanye is an important artist. He’s frequently quite fascinating. He’s also popular and people connect to his work. All true, all fine.
But he’s also an artist who artistically never fully realizes his ambitions, because he is still woefully inadequate in one key area – emceeing. His rhymes are borderline elementary and ridiculous. He simply does not articulate his ideas as an emcee well at all. Read his lyrics on the page and they are stupid. Listen to them over great backing tracks, and the phrasing is terrible, the delivery reaches far more than it flows smoothly or fits into the pocket of the tracks, and his understanding of meter is non-existent. His accent grates, his arrogance is off-putting depending on the track, and he buttresses his deficiencies with better emcees that (clearly) distract everyone from the fact that he himself is a, at best, serviceable emcee.
None of this is to say that one shouldn’t, or couldn’t, like him. but come on…
No, I’m saying I agree with you on all points to a certain degree. I only offer an appreciation for what his effort means for artists like BoB, Wale, Kudi, and others who represent a “reblooming” of sorts for hip hop (or at least, popular h…ip hop). His attempts at innovation, even if paltry, in the end encourage innovation from others. The likes of which that has brought us a rapper who also plays acoustic guitar. We’re talking about a market that for some 15 years has been held hostage by hypermasculine and uber violent images finally giving way to alternative images of male masculinity. In that line, Big Boi, and even to a point, Nas, has done little. I know this is hip hop, and brothas gotta be able to clown on the mic, but it is also a cultural phenom, that has hystorically been about more than dope word play.
I agree completely, but what you are talking about goes to his importance and influence, and has nothing to do with whether or not he’s executing his work well.
I appreciate that there is now a place for the suburban brother who doesn’t fit the traditional black male role in hip hop. That is incredibly valuable. But it is important to take the long view here. Kanye was not the first, so much as the first to emerge after a long period when the industry was ignoring folks like De La, Novel, Q-Tip, Common, etc. Q-Tip made Open and Kamaal the Abstract years before Kanye decided to explore sounds outside of the traditional understanding of hip hop. I would argue those are better albums than any of Kanye’s, but that’s really neither here nor there. Kanye having the backing of someone like Jay-Z and being credited with helping him create what people (foolishly) think is a great album in The Blueprint gave him license to be who he wanted to be. And that worked commercially and now the industry is like “oohhh, black men aren’t all violent and are sensitive and wounded and listen to white music. who knew?”
This is all fine. This is how the industry works. particularly with black music, each thing that works becomes revolutionary because the industry starts from the presumption that 1) blackness is narrow 2) black people have narrow interests and 3) what the industry last turned into a trend is what black “is.”
If we didn’t pay so much attention to what moves in the mainstream we wouldn’t also be thinking “oohhh, there was nothing like Kanye before Kanye” because we’d be consuming our culture on our own terms and not as it is sold to us.
I agree. Because he provided a glimpse of what we loved about the Tribe and De La (I personally know more about the former).
I especially agree with “culture on our own terms”
Also, you should check into a guy named Big KRIT, from Mississip…pi.-Its really really southern, but he’s dope
What do y’all think? I’m sure the ‘Ye stans will take issue, but go on ‘head and leave a comment.
Cool back and forth.
How would you grade an album by someone lyrically masterful, but is missing other elements? How much of the graph counts for the rapping part, versus everything else?
For instance, Rakim’s last album.
Pretty cool discussion about how people grade work.
I’d grade it largely the same way. Emceeing is a critical part of the game, so is the music. Think Canibus or Nas. Top-shelf emcees whose work often suffers from inconsistent, often poor, beat selection.
That said, as an emcee you gotta come hard wit your game. Nas not picking good beats doesn’t change the fact that he’s a top-notch emcee, but it does mean that the work product is imperfect (though his last two albums were about as close to perfection across the board as he’s done since Illmattic). That is different from Kanye West getting a pass on his primary damn function – emceeing – because the tracks are so good.
So there is a slight difference, but in general when grading an album, I look for execution across the board. And I try to go beyond “I like it” to assessing why I think its working structurally.
Re: Rakim. I was disappointed in Rakim’s album. That’s why it didn’t make my list last year. He’s the best to ever do it, but that doesn’t mean every time he does it he’s the best.