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Rhyme Scene

By John Brodeur

Kanye West

808s 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.

Q-Tip

The 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.

Renaissance 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.

—John Brodeur


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