and Heartbreak (Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam)
Raw, uncensored expression of emotion is something the mainstream
rap world has rarely seen, certainly not in recent years.
So every time Kanye West throws a fit at an awards show, you
have to identify with him just a little. (Right?) That competitive
spirit has driven him to produce three of the most fascinating
rap records of the millennium—2005’s Late Registration,
in particular, where he proved he could make a record that
works both as pop and hip-hop by hiring a producer (Jon Brion)
best known for his work with decidedly non-urban acts like
Fiona Apple and Robyn Hitchcock. On 808s and Heartbreak,
his fourth album in five years, West has made something close
to an anti-hip-hop record. 808s is a strange and (almost)
altogether unexpected left turn following the hit parade that
was last year’s Graduation; it’s more of a millennial
techno-pop-meets-’80s-throwback thing. It’s a difficult, brooding
album (some have called it emo, and that’s a fair assessment)
that will likely be a divisive move for fans of the big, bouncy
club sound that made West famous.
While rapping about “The Good Life” with T-Pain and enjoying
the massive commercial success of Graduation, West
was enduring a tough year personally: His mother passed away
last November; in April, his 18-month engagement to designer
Alexis Phifer was ended. In light of those events, West achieves
an apex of unflinching introspection: Never have his experiences
taken him down such dark corridors. Proper album closer “Coldest
Winter” (whose hook nicks the bleak pre-“Shout” Tears for
Fears track “Memories Fade”) is the only song specifically
directed at his late mother; elsewhere, 808s falls
in line with great breakup records like Beck’s Sea Change
and Elvis Costello’s Blood and Chocolate.
He also continues his existential battle against materialism,
as on “Welcome to Heartbreak” (“My friend showed me pictures
of his kids/And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs”),
though the theme is more of a lamentation on the loss of youth
and innocence that’s in fitting with the greater point.
But for a record that ostensibly chronicles his life falling
out of his control, West has made the most disciplined record
of his career, from a production standpoint. Gone are the
big beats and flashy guest appearances. West made this record
almost entirely himself using a classic Roland TR-808 Rhythm
Composer to make the beats, which gives many of the tracks
a distant, tribal feel. The album sounds like it might have
been made by West, for West, in his bedroom.
Also gone, for the most part, is the rapping.
The R&B world’s obsession with Auto-Tune audio-processor
technology is taken to an unusual end here—West is not a great
singer, so the processed vocals come off robotic and jerky.
If he’s trying to replicate the feeling of loneliness and
isolation, it works. The few guests on 808s turn up
to deliver rhymes that are on-point with the album’s vibe:
Young Jeezy’s spot on “Amazing” sounds like Kanye toasting
Kanye in the third person (“Look what he’s been through/He
deserves an applause”), while Lil Wayne’s turn on the beat-free
“See You in My Nightmares” musters a level of bile that West’s
own detached presence cannot.
It’s a flawed release for sure: West’s sense of humor, one
of his best qualities, is all but absent. But while the warts-and-all
catharsis can be a little much, 808s and Heartbreak
is a ballsy move. It’s a hard album to connect with—it’ll
be a sonic shock for those familiar with West’s prior catalog—but
it’s worth sticking with this record to witness the rebirth
(by fire?) of an artist.
Renaissance (Universal Motown)
Guess who’s back?
Queens rapper Q-Tip rose to fame in the early 1990s as leader
of A Tribe Called Quest, considered one of the great acts
of the genre for their fusion of jazz and hip-hop, a unique
mash-up that appealed to fans of hardcore rap and college
students alike (as evidenced by the group’s appearance on
the 1994 Lollapalooza tour).
Now, almost 10 years since his first and only official solo
record (1999’s Amplified), Q-Tip has returned with
The Renaissance, and he couldn’t have chosen a more
appropriate title. Tip’s voice alone is a throwback to another
time; his clipped couplets sound like nothing else in hip-hop
today. And the production, heavy on the classic R&B and
soul-jazz vibes and rhythmic record-scratching, is undeniably
smooth. It’s old-school through and through.
had more than its share of hold-ups—Tip’s labels shelved two
consecutive, completed albums (Kamaal the Abstract
in 2001, and Open in 2005) due to marketing concerns.
Amplified found the artist out of his element, trading
in the club bangers of the day; he reportedly pulled a 180
with Kamaal, going straight ’70s new jazz, which surely
freaked label execs—it would be hard to imagine that album
existing in the same commercial universe as “In Da Club.”
So Renaissance is less an artist returning to form,
than a form returning to vogue. With the gangsta-rap cycle
finally having run its course (or so we should hope), Tip
sounds right at home rapping over back-to-basics R&B joints
like “Gettin’ Up” (one of two tracks here produced by the
late J-Dilla) and “I Believe” (whose keyboard riff is practically
a ringer for Tribe’s “Scenario” lick).
A lot of ground is covered here: Tip sings a bit on “Official”
and goes a cappella on “Dance on Glass”; “Won’t Trade” samples
Chicago soul singer Ruby Andrews; “Manwomanboogie” grabs its
fractured, funky track from krautrock pioneers Can. He calls
out the system that’s kept him silent on “Move” (“So what’s
the industry/If the listeners will always stand beside me?”),
but more than anything the artist proves to be the foremost
purveyor of relationship rap: “Life Is Better” and “We Fight/Love”
(which features a guest spot from another familiar early-’90s
voice, Tony! Toni! Toné! singer Raphael Saddiq) are just a
few of the tracks here that tackle matters of the heart. This
is change you can believe in: Q-Tip is back at the top of
his game on The Renaissance.