Monday, September 17, 2007

Kanyeezy, Part Threezy

(Joshua Masayoshi Huff)

It’s evident (to quote the subject matter at hand) that Kanye put some time into classes after his “Late Registration” to make quite certain that he would indeed graduate. All the cramming, attending of office hours and actually reading up on the classics paid off: “Graduation” is clearly a sign that Kanye is on to bigger and better things. He’s got the schooling in. He’s ready—but considering that he held down a 9-5 with regular overtime…ready for what? It doesn’t matter—“Graduation” is a masterpiece.

The opener, “Good Morning”, sees ‘Ye revisiting the morning theme that he enlisted on “Late Registration”, which, I will add, I was a huge fan of.

The next “full” track, “Champion”, sees Kanye back at his best: boisterous and humorous and also precisely captures his modus operandi. You want the braggadocio? Here he is: “They got the CD then got to see me drop gems/Like I dropped out of P.E.” The lines he spits here are funny, but they’re also awkward and far from perfect. This flawed delivery is what made Jay-Z hesitate to let Kanye put out a record of his own, but, somehow, the man is selling more than his idol (who he sells out on the album’s finale) and is, quite possibly, much more relevant today.

Humorous, boisterous and relevant? He calls out Lauryn Hill by rapping:

“Lauryn Hill say her heart was in Zion /I wish her heart still was in rhymin' /'Cause who the kids gon' listen to? Huh?/I guess me if it isn't you”

This is the genius of Kanye in a nutshell. He realizes that “superstardom” is fleeting and just having one album doesn’t make your name (or your art) eternally relevant—he saw that Hill dropped off and is more than happy to pick up her fans. Of course, people listen to more than one artist, but in this fickle age of music downloads, Kanye knows that you need to put out gold (not just bangers) on a regular basis—something that he’s committed to.

Another of Kanye’s calling cards has long been his reliance on old soul samples. On this album, he spread his wings a bit and utilized samples of Daft Punk and German krautrockers Can. I want to commend Kanye for using Daft Punk’s “Harder, Faster, Stronger”, but I agree completely with Pat’s critique of the song—he rides the sample way too much and doesn’t do a very good job saying anything over it. The outro, with the keys and the scratching, is fairly impressive—however, Kanye could have done much more. I would have wished that Daft Punk actually put in an entirely new song for this record…but, alas, that was not to be.

Unfortunately, though, the Can sample is used on “Drunk and Hot Girls”—the one track that will probably keep this album from becoming an absolute, out-of-the-park, “Barry Bonds” home-run type classic. This song is horrible and retreads Kanye’s worst moments on “Late Registration”—overdramatic, too minor of a key, and over-preachy (is it any surprise that my least favorite track on “Late” was “Roses”?). It’s evident that Kanye is going to pull a track like this on every album, and I guess he has the right to—it’s his record, for heaven’s sake...But I feel that both tracks didn’t fit in with the flows of their respective albums and served as deadweight.

“I Wonder” sees Kanye deliver a great track devoid of any decent vocals. It is one of the most “vintage” (and sounds eerily similar to a lot of Jay Dee’s work) Kanye tracks on this record, and it’s a bit disappointing to hear it go underutilized. He could have easily learned from himself: “Everything I Am” may just be the best socially conscious piece in his entire canon—and it’s done very tastefully over a heavy soul sample. Take this stanza, for instance:

“people talk so much s--- about me at barbershops /They forget to get their haircut /Okay fair enough, the streets is flarin' up /’Cause they want gun-talk, or I don't wear enough”

This just be his most powerful rhyme ever. Lyrically, I believe that this is the best song that he’s ever put out because he calls out the establishment on a level-headed, “these are the facts” way. The lines “I know that people wouldn't usually rap this/but I got the facts to back this /just last year, Chicago had over 600 caskets /man, killin's some wack s--- /oh, I forgot, 'cept for when n----s is rappin it'” are absolute stunners. Kanye wittily, sarcastically and truthfully distilled everything that is wrong with the rap game today in less than a hundred words. And, unlike Jay-Z, who said that he “he would spit it/if y’all could get it” and then continues to use this excuse to turn his back on intellectual discourse for the remainder of the album, Kanye proclaims “that everything I’m not made me everything I am”—he doesn’t lie about his upbringing and doesn’t indulge to make it seem like he is someone he isn’t. “Everything I Am” is one of the finest self-realization tracks in rap history, which is incredibly considering how self-centered rap as a whole has become.

You’d think that by extension, “Everything I Am” is my favorite track—you’d only be partially right. I have yet to mention “Good Life”, which is both a banger and a gem. It mixes the absolute best of everything Kanye West has ever done and distills it in one track. A great background track, humor (if she got the goods/and she got that ass/I got to look/sorry), ego (y’all popped the trunk/I popped the hood/Ferrari), calling out this weeks biggest rival (50 Cent), throwing “it up in the sky” (ala “Diamonds Are Forever”) and a surprisingly strong cameo from a star (T-Pain…I’ve hated everything else this guy has done…how did he bring it here?). In all honesty, this is the absolute best musical track that Kanye has ever committed to tape. The keyboards are so rich and full and the samples complement the rest of the song enough that it just all works…everything balances out. Calling out three of my favorite cities (DC, LA…the Chi) doesn’t hurt, either (get the 808 in there next time, ‘Ye, and we’re all good).

Overall, I love the feel of this record. “Graduation” is played out in very muted tones and keys—there isn’t a ton of minor or major work here, and I’m an incredibly huge fan of that. This perfectly portrays that graduation feel—it’s all a bit bittersweet….you’re scared to be too happy and don’t want to be too sad…perfectly evidenced in “Good Life”. Kanye dialed down his “Jesus” complex on “Graduation” and isn’t out to save the world anymore—he’s just here to be who he says he is.

There definitely is an “end-of-an-era” feel to this album. I’m not quite sure where Kanye plans to go from here—this album is Kanye becoming fully self-realized. Lyrically, it is his strongest record. Musically, it’s leaps and bounds beyond anything he’s ever done. I still can’t get over the piano and keyboard tones that adorn this album, and I don’t think I ever will.

Where next? Soccer moms? I don’t know (but Chris Martin doesn’t hurt in the attempts to capture this market). This could quite be Kanye’s “soccer mom” album, and I don’t mean this disparagingly—this album is incredibly mature but it also retains all of the angst that Kanye had. He doesn’t need “Jesus Walks” anymore—he thinks things out with “Everything I Am”.

This is a coming-of-age record. This would be Mr. West’s announcement that “he has arrived”, but he’s been “here” (wherever “here” may be) for quite some time. There’s nothing to say, really, other than “Damn, Kanye, you did it again. Only this time, you did it better than before.” That’s all any artist can hope for—growth. He did more than his fair share of that here…I’m just curious to see where he goes next. “Ph.D. Candidate Mr. West”? “The I-Bank Baller?” The wait may be long, but I’m ready for it: as incredible as this album is on first lesson, it’s so well-packed with production flourishes and textures that it opens up even more with every listen.

And, on a closing note, it’s really disheartening, though, to hear someone like 50 Cent say that Kanye sells because Kanye is “safe” (what “safe” means, of course, is totally open to interpretation, and I don’t want to open that can of worms right now...Dude also said he created the mixtape). Kanye is enlightened and Kanye is not only attuned to the bigger issues at hand; he’s willing to talk about them and confront them. Maybe he doesn’t talk about money, cash and hoes the way 50 does. I don’t think that makes Kanye any more “safe” than any other rapper—I think it makes him more real, more substantive and more provocative. To be honest, 50, in this day and age, money, cash, hoes and drugs, guns and cars are passé and pedestrian—oh, just like your latest album, “Curtis”.