05 December 2008

achy breaky auto-tune

i've been listening to kanye west's 808s & heartbreak, and i actually think i might like it. i guess a couple of other people like it too (though not so much my colleague mr. kellman), so maybe that's not so surprising, but i haven't really actively liked any of mr. west's output in a long time. i haven't listened to any of his albums close to their release dates since i guess college dropout (mostly because i've been so turned off by his lead singles; i might have been more slightly more interested in the albums without those, but listening to them has been generally underwhelming.) so there may be some correlation there - not sure how much the appeal of this one stems from lowered expectations, plus actually bothering to care about it. or maybe i am finally learning to hate the single, love the sin.

anyway, 808s definitely has a few things going for it. first of all the title, which is way better than his stupid college-themed ones, and smartly picks up on the 808-'08 connection that you'd really think would have been played up more (notwithstanding the black devil disco album that i'm still too bored by to review.) also it makes me think of decks efx & 909, which i've never heard but always thought was a catchy name.

this is also the first time that i've really engaged with the autotune phenomenomenon. obviously i've heard it, all over the place, but never thought here nor there about it save that it was part of what was making mainstream hip-hop so uninteresting these days. (being that it's one of the dominant things about current hip-hop, and it's gotten really uninteresting; annoying actually.) but this is a little different - it so overdoes the autotune thing that it doesn't come off as a gimmick at all (or maybe it's just so played out by now that there's no way for it to sound novel or even gimmicky anymore.)

instead, it's a bizarre but actually effective expressive choice. not just for the obvious cyborgian/techno-alienation interpretive reasons, but on simple sonic terms too. i'm even less interested in kanye's pain than i am in t-pain, but the robotic sounds are interesting enough (and actually, in subtle ways, varied from track to track) that i don't feel a need to engage with the emotions they're supposedly representing. also, the autotune goes a good distance to masking kanye's voice, delivery, and lyrics, which i've always found pretty much insufferable. anybody could be singing here, it doesn't really read as kanye, per se.

i like how it's continuing and extrapolating modern mainstream hip-hop's love affair with electronica. which is a totally weird love affair in that it's pretty much one-sided and also clumsy, based on samples of varying subtlety (daft punk obv., booka shade, i guess "dragostina din tei" counts), and just lots of signifying synths and vocal efx. i guess it's not so much electronica as electronics in general. (not that that's exactly a new thing for hip-hop) synth-pop (>synth-hop. have people been using that?) also interesting that it seems like mostly a mainstream phenom, not underground? (not sure though. have to check out black milk's tronic, and i guess the people that are really doing it are successful enough that i don't think of them as straight hip-hop anymore anyway - like the hipster-hoppers and the (post?-)grime guys.)

[btw, the other thing mainstream hip-hop has a love affair with these days is m.i.a. and santogold. (not that they're one thing, but in this context they may as well be.) which is also weird b/c it seems like they are not being treated as rappers or even really as artists, just as hip cred-grabs and sonic source material (q.v. the stupid sample on "swagga like us" and santi's nothing vocal contribution to the new jay-z joint, though that does include a rap at least.) i still can't quite believe that "paper planes" was a #4 hit this year... in some ways it seems like the song of the year (again?) more on that later, maybe.]

anyway. the other thing about 808s, though, is that it's not actually a hip-hop album. i guess it's some weird mongrel form of synth-r&b-pop. which may explain a lot of things, like why the autotune is less annoying, and why it's a kanye album i don't really mind - considering that two of the things that annoy me most about him are his dumb-wannabe-clever rapping (as opposed to will.i.am's dumb-wannabe-dumb rapping) and his sore-thumb sampling. the only samples i'm aware of here are a tears for fears song that i don't know (so it doesn't bother me, i guess, but it's also not obvious which part of the song is the sample, which is a good thing) and the beat from nina simone's "see-line woman," which is used fairly subtly and effectively (it's just the beat, not the hook or anything) and is a pleasant reminder of the nina simone sample 'ye used for (both) talib kweli's "get by" and john legend's "i used to love her," which still sounds like some of the freshest sampling he's done.

people are talking about this as a tangent to his main career trajectory, which probably makes sense, even though in some way it's a logical extension of the synths and pop fetish (and lack of heavy hip-hop signification) of graduation. certainly, if he continues in this vein we'll have to reassess just what kind of artist he's trying to be - and that could be pretty exciting; it's territory that hasn't really been staked out yet, maybe. but presumably this is just an oddball, one-off experiment. a lot of weird but distinctive records turn out to be surprisingly durable, especially those that are somewhat confounding at first blush. i'm not necessarily counting on it with this one, esp. as few of the individual songs have really grabbed me as songs, per se - it's definitely cool that kanye is writing sorta straight-ish pop songs, but that will ultimately be less significant than whether he's capable of writing good ones. time will tell, i guess, whether this curiosity will blossom into something more lasting.


Dave said...

Liking 808s but it's not giving me quite enough to want to like it any more than I do just listening to "Say You Will" a bunch of times.

Anyway, just wanted to point out that, as expected, you beat me to the 808 --> '08 wordplay. Perhaps Kanye beat both of us? (I'm not sure he's even that clever.) But I do want to put together an '08 Heartbreak mix.

music-type-writer. said...

so wait, are you saying that you only like the album well enough to listen to the same track a bunch of times? does not compute.

bernard fevre beat kanye... and possibly so did the people who thought of doing an 808 state reissue campaign this year. i can't remember if i thought of it independently or not, but i'm totally ganking it for the opening of my year-end mix. (vaguely surprised nobody else did anything with "oh wait!")

meanwhile my friend jesse is already ahead of the curve, with "909s and goodtimes" as his g-status message. 909s being actually more versatile than 808s.