2004, 18-15 Kanye West, Sufjan Stevens, Dizzee Rascal and Annie

Kanye West
Sufjan Stevens
Dizzee Rascal
Jump To Comments

Kanye West: The College Dropout

For most people like me who don't really listen to hip-hop, Kanye West is better known as Kayne "George Bush doesn't care about black people" West. (That's not a typo.) If you aren't into hip-hop, you at least know West from his work on the ever-present "H to the izzo" or whatever the fuck it was called. Those of us who didn't drop out of college probably made some hilarious math joke about it. West's story is a pretty amazing one if you haven't heard it: famous producer said not-good-enough-to-be-a-rapper gets into a car wreck, records his first single 2 weeks later while his mouth still has wires in it and becomes a born-again Christian and speaks out about political issues like racism during the Katrina disaster and fights discrimination of homosexuals in the black community. This, West's debut album, deals with, amongst a lot of other stuff, life and the folly of paying for an education that you're never going to apply.

West first went to college at Chicago Columbia College, a college that the majority of my non-U of C friends now attend, and my sister went to for a year. Columbia's philosophy is more in line with Kanye's than most colleges: you take classes where you work on your craft, and they encourage you to get internships during the summer. But he didn't go there for sound production or music; he went there for visual arts. He eventually dropped out of college in order to work on his music career. And things turned out okay for little Kanye - he has 18 Grammy nominations and 6 awards. So, drop out of college and wait for those nominations to roll in.

The obvious arguments aside (someone has to research all this shit, and is being the smartest dead guy really any worse than being the richest dead guy?), West's point is a good one: you have to work at what you do. College is all potential energy, not kinetic. But is the majority of West's audience really made up of people who are going to get more schooling than they need? The album's core theme is that perseverence, hard work, and belief in religion is what's going to get you through life - not a bad message, honestly - but I think that the distrust of academics and negative attitude toward education is really the prevalent message being given to kids these days. As much as West loves talking about politics, I wish he had put more on this album about not being ignorant. After all, knowledge is potential, and you can turn potential energy into movement - as any educated person will tell you.

Otherwise, this album, as little as I know about rap, is really excellent. West combines straightforward honest songs with comedy and ironic pieces, some ("drug dealin' just to get by / stackin' money until it gets sky high") more subtle than others ("I don't know what [sexy] is, but I can add up the change in your purse really fast"; "I'm gonna get super smart so I can be the smartest dead guy. Who has that?"). The album has standard pop hits ("All Falls Down"), jazz/gospel ("I'll Fly Away"), Christian songs ("Jesus Walks"), typical rap hits similar to "Izzo" ("Get 'Em High"), and a 12 minute anecdote ("Last Call"). The pitch-shifted R&B diva background is present on many of the tracks, especially on my favorite, "Through the Wire", which got a lot more respect for me when I realized it was recorded while he still had wires in his mouth - hence "Through the Wire." I honestly can say that there are no subpar tracks on this album, except for Two Words, which isn't actually subpar, I'm just panning it because I'm personally mad at Mos Def for taking 1 1/2 hours to sound check, taking away from my college band's stage time.

I'm not really into hip-hop, so I don't know if I'll listen to this on my own again, but this is an album you should buy for sure.

Oh man. So close to awesome. The first seven tracks of this album (four of which are actually songs) promise a lot, but things fall off in a big way and the album sags in the middle. He teases us with ideas and then gives us a lot of pot and bitches. Not that there's anything wrong with that, exactly, but he made me expect better. Cocktease.

Kanye doesn't have Dizzee Rascal's raw skills on the mic, but he's got more interesting things to say. Even if his message isn't always coherent. On "All Falls Down", the album's mission statement, he starts off decrying the phenomenon of people going to college and getting into debt because that's what they're supposed to do, even when their degree won't earn them any money -- then he goes on to say that people shouldn't be so hung up on earning money, and that addiction to consumer culture must be fought -- and then he admits that yeah, he likes his watches. Does he contradict himself? So what? He's working on ideas that you don't get from a lot of rap artists, still less folks who get major radio play and take over the world. It's the sign of a sharp mind at work. I mean, he got Jay-Z to do a guest shot on his album and suck, thus making himself look all the more impressive in comparison. And he brought back the vocoder, spreading freaky electronic vocals are all over his beats. That earns major points in my book.

The problem is that things get dumber as the album goes on. And he knows it: "I always said if I rap I'd say something significant / but now I'm rapping about money, ho's and rims again", he says on the shambling, schizophrenic "Breathe In, Breathe Out". He says he's got a benz and a backpack, and that's the story of this album -- a delicate balancing act between social consciousness and mass appeal. It shows up in his guest stars, with Talib Kweli and Mos Def rubbing shoulders with Ludacris. The two big singles, "Jesus Walks" and "Get 'Em High", split the difference between Kanye's impulses... the first is an impassioned statement of belief with an unusual but undeniably kickass marching beat, whereas the other is pretty much just what it says on the can, with a two-note casio theme behind it that seems purposefully designed to out-dumb the competition. I suppose I should be happy that he bothers with interesting ideas at all, given how easy it would be for him to sell out and coast.

Of course, some of his ideas are better than others. In the four-part skit and song sequence "School Spirit" he makes fun of the college system in a way that verges on the anti-intellectual, running down people who get degrees for the sake of getting degrees. It's dishonest -- exactly what part of our current society actually values education for education's sake? Do impoverished urban folks dream of getting doctorates for the prestige? What is he fighting against? Of course, the skits are aimed basically at academic wankers like me, so I could be biased here. And the actual song that ties together the skits has the most amazing beat.

Bottom line here is that this is a debut album, exciting but unformed, terribly uneven but really promising. So I suggest that you burn it. Looking forward to reviewing his follow-up -- stay tuned.

Jump To Comments

Sufjan Stevens: Seven Swans

Lovejoy: Friday, you will have the chance to *party down* to the Jesus-Rock stylings of "Testament." That's Friday... 6 PM sharp.
Bart: Pfft. All the best bands are affiliated with Satan.

Christian music has long been mocked as uncool, overly preachy, or just bad. This criticism isn't entirely off base - there aren't many Christian bands, thereby narrowing the chances of success, and in addition Christian music is really intended for church-goers as worship music rather than excellent works of art. This isn't a bad thing, because even mediocre music can be enjoyed. But it perpetuates the idea that somehow music expressing religious ideas does not make good popular music ("But if I talk about God my record won't get played, huh?" Kanye asks). The Christian bands to receive a modicum of success - Petra, Five Iron Frenzy, Audio Adrenaline, Jars of Clay, and MxPx which originated as a Christian band - and guess you can count Creed, but it seems like Scott Stapp thought he was Jesus - and the entire Tooth and Nail record label - have all been pretty mediocre. Typically the only successful arena for Christian references has been hip-hop.

Recently, though, successful indie singer-songwriters have been getting into the Christian area, but usually from a more realistic or personal perspective than a worshippy/preachy stand point. Pedro the Lion takes a kind of tortured angle, and Sufjan Stevens, when he addresses the topic, sticks to ruminations or simple retellings of biblical stories. Seven Swans seems like it was supposed to be a concept album involving the book of Revelations, but it was scrapped because the idea didn't work out for one reason or another - like some other concepts I could mention. Instead, we get a handful of Christian-themed songs, and some other ordinary singer-songwriter songs. But Sufjan, as he probably wants, doesn't make a big deal about this fact. Let me put it another way: they aren't gimmicky. One, "The Transfiguration", talks about a story from the New Testament that I actually wasn't too familiar with. The album's highlight is the title track, "Seven Swans", which is a 6-and-a-half-minute epic which led me to believe that his original idea involved a Relvalations-themed album. The song is excellent, dynamic, powerful, and a bit creepy.

The rest of the album, however, was slightly disappointing. Sufjan has two speeds: laid-back, and funeral. Everything seems in order - excellent minimalistic production, beautifully recorded acoustic guitar, softly sung vocals. But nothing is quite moving. I feel like most aspiring singer/songwriters would listen to this and go, "Hey, this is pretty good - this is just like what I play," or, "I could do this!" Most of these songs sound like the kind that end up on the back-burner, because they don't really excel. They're good, but just good, whereas some albums like Elliot Smith's self titled album follow the same simplistic approach but are orders more impactful.

There are still really good tracks on here - "Sister" has a 4 minute instrumental, but it's absolutely beautiful, and the final two tracks - "Seven Swans" and "The Transfiguration" - are also excellent, despite the cheesy horn sound on "The Transfiguration".

So burn this album, because I while I can't guarantee you won't get bored by it, I also can't guarantee it won't strike you just the right way. So go to iTunes or whatever and see if you can buy "Seven Swans".

Sufjan, Sufjan, Sufjan. Scary, scary Sufjan. The boy genius with the haunted look in his eyes.

Between recording the epic "Michigan", about the state of Michigan, and the even more epic "Illinois", about...well, you know what it was about... he released this small, relatively spare album, full of modest, perfectly proportioned songs mostly about love -- brotherly, romantic, and spiritual.

I love this damn album. I sing "He Woke Me Up Again" in the shower. I get chills when he gets to the explosive part of the title track. And that's a song about the apocalypse. Not the Mad Max apocalypse or the Evangelion apocalypse or any of the dozen cutesy science-fictiony formations of the concept that have bled through into popular culture. This is not a cautionary piece in the environmentalist or peacenik mold. He is warning you about what will happen, Revelations-style. This is old testament shit -- and this album is in large part about Jesus -- and for me normally that'd be problematic. But the sheer skill at play here and the intellect and artistic confidence that underpins the lyrics flattens any petty atheist-fringe qualms I might have.

For those unfamiliar with Sufjan's work (and to you I say, what rock have you been living under for the past two years?) he is a singer-songwriter who can play about fifteen different instruments and is an okay-to-competent electronic beatmaker but who defaults mostly to banjo and guitar. He has an amazing voice and a penchant for complex, rhythmically unusual arrangements. This album isn't drenched in the horns and woodwinds that define his more robust work, but the vocal harmonies and odd time signatures are very much in evidence. There's a spare, intimate, almost countrified feeling at work here, embodied most in the sprawling centerpiece "Sister", wherein Sufjan picks up an electric guitar and indulges his Neil Young fetish for minutes at a time before delivering a haunting, breathy vocal that knits together what might otherwise have been a self-indulgent jam.

There are so many high points here that it's hard to pick out an example. "A Good Man Is Hard To Find", a song inspired by the Flannery O'Connor story, is just amazing, and I'm not sure I can articulate why, cause it would mean skipping back and listening to it again when I'm in the grip of "He Woke Me Up Again", a banjo-driven song scored exquisitely for bass and drums and keyboards which is about religious experience (the chorus is half hallelujahs, for pete's sake) but which manages it in such a conversational and unthreatening way that I find myself borne along. If you're wondering how a hallelujah can be conversational, ask the artist. This is followed up by the aforementioned "Seven Swans", which builds slowly from Sufjan singing softly with his banjo in an echoey room to a shambling climax built on broken pianos, as choruses singing "He is the Lord!"

If I haven't scared you off at this point, you definitely need to buy the album, which at its best is everything that contemporary religious music should be, sailing over a bar set pathetically low by most "Christian" rock groups. And it's an album that starts strong, steadily builds and ends with a trio of incredible tunes. You don't see that often. Go get it.

Jump To Comments

Dizzee Rascal: Showtime

u no how u are sumtimez listenig 2 sum music n like u just cant STAND tha singers voice? sumthing bout it just doesnt feel rite 2 u, u no?

I can't take that anymore. That's about how I felt after about two minutes of listening 2 - er, to - Dizzee Rascal. Rascal (because I refuse to write out 'Dizzee' anymore) is a Jamaican-with-an-English-accent high-speed cool'n'nonsense kind of rapper. The beats and style are all the Jamaican kind of music that you hear the Japanese kids listen to in Amemura. Seriously, those kids eat that shit up - anything even closely related to Jamaica or pot leaves is instantly awesome with these kids. The music seems well-done enough - it's intricately produced, and Rascal raps at like a million miles an hour. It should be simple enough to find something to like.

But there's something about Rascal's voice I can't stand. I don't know what it is. Is it the sudden switch from Jamaican accent to "wot's all 'is then" English accent? Is it the fact that I often can't understand a goddamn thing he says because he won't get those marbles out of his mouth? He makes Kurt Cobain look like Morrisey. Is it the fact that his accent affects his image worse than George Bush's accent? Maybe it's that in some cases he sounds just a little bit "slow", kind of like a chav with too many rugby injuries or maybe someone with a slight case of Downs? Whatever it is, it's physically irritating, which made it very difficult to listen to twice through.

I worked at a country station for a short while, but while I was there I attempted to get into the music. I figured, if I was going to work there, I should at least give the music a shot instead of mindlessly pan it, especially if I wanted to talk with the DJs I would work the board for. But as hard as I tried, I just couldn't enjoy Rascal Flatts. I really tried to like this Rascal, but I honestly could not enjoy it. Something awful, horrible, was lurking beneath that man's voice, and my soul simply couldn't tolerate it. The beats are good - it reminds me of the good parts of the Fennesz album or DJ Rupture - but I really wish that was all that was there. This album is won or lost completely on style. The lyrics aren't anything more than "cool" or good-sounding nonsense, and while the beats are good, the fact remains that they are just the backdrop for Mr. Rascal.

I'll put this diplomatically: Dizzee Rascal is not for everybody. You might say that it's esoteric. So, unless you are really looking to prove how weird your taste in music is, give the Rascal a taste before you think about listening to the rest of the album. But until you can do so, skip this album.

Yes yes yes. This guy is from outer space. He's younger than me and is one of the single best hip-hop artists on the planet. There are two reactions you are likely to have listening to his music: your jaw will drop or you'll fall down laughing. Possibly both. If you can understand his lyrics through his accent, which is shot through with black british slang, you'll love him doubly -- if you can't, it's still a pleasure to listen to his flow.

Dizzee is the public face of Grime, a hip-hop subgenre native to London, which is characterized by cold, angular, minimal electronic beats. (For an introduction to the godfather of the genre and an all-around unforgettable experience do a youtube search for "Wiley - Pies".) His debut album broke worldwide -- it was an amazing portrait of the life of a thoughtful eighteen-year-old kid growing up hard, with ruminations on love, sex, violence and a shaky future. There were a lot of entertaining descriptions of how exactly he planned to take apart his competition, and that element is retained on "Showtime", but the introspection has been largely replaced by descriptions of his current life, which is needless to say not quite the same sort of thing now that he's doing world tours. The upside is that his skills and composition are even sharper here. And he's retained one of his most charming attributes: his penchant for inviting female rappers on to rip him a new one, as on "Face", where a hard-as-nails south london girl named Caramel comes and punctures any ego he might have developed as a result of his new success. That's in the end what makes Rasket so special: he can be egomaniacal and self-deprecating within the space of the same song, never losing his self-awareness.

Let's look at tracks. "Hype Talk" is a tight story-rap about the price of fame delivered at that elusive speed which is fast enough to be exciting and impressive but not so fast that it blends into incomprehensibility. "Respect Me" has one of the most honestly threatening hooks I've heard in hip-hop, as Rascal hisses "You people are gonna respect me if it kills you" with menacing slowness that stands out starkly from his normal rapid-fire flow. Once the album hits its stride every track has another quirk to keep you interested, in the beat or in the lyrics -- this is original stuff coming from a real talent. It's a little too long, as hip-hop albums tend to be, and could have benefited from the removal of the funny but plodding "Knock Knock" or a few of the opening tracks.

Listen to "Dreams", with its genuinely inspiring message and so-cheesy-it's-cool hook overlayed with self-deprecating banter, and see if you can resist buying the rest of the album. Bet you can't. Even if that doesn't speak to you, something on here will -- there's a treasure trove. Worth the cash.

Jump To Comments

Annie: Anniemal

This is a pop record. This is as close as you can get to pure pop without encountering 14-year-old Tiger-Beat-buying middle school girls. Doing this review was weird for me because listening to Annie and then Dizzee Rascal is like eating an entire Japanese chocolate cake and then drinking castor oil. Annie is a pop singer from Norway, and this is her debut album. How it escaped the Top 40 in the US absolutely baffles me.

The album is in English, and it sounds so much like Top 40 radio I started to wonder if my mp3 collection was mislabeled. Had this album been released at the right time, it could have been huge. In fact, there are several times in recent history this album could have been a huge splash. The first song, "Chewing Gum" could have been "Steal My Sunshine." "Always Too Late" a Britney Spears song. "Me Plus One" an 80s hit right next to "Funkytown". (The two don't sound that alike, but they fit.) "Anniemal", the title track, could have been the Cardigans' "Lovefool". "No Easy Love" could have been the next Utada Hikaru hit (something she could have really used on Exodus).

I myself am no fan of the style that is so prevalent on Top 40 radio. Maybe I'm sick of it, and maybe it's just taste. But I will say that this is, at the very least, equal or greater than the music I have compared it to. There's even some songs I like: "My Best Friend" is a nice vibes-ish organ driven song with a melody that is catchy without being so aggressive about it. But a lot of it reminds me of Japanese idols.

If you're not familiar with the phenomenon, let me outline it: high school girls decide they want to become idols because they are cute, squeaky, and have a lot of experience singing at karaoke. They dress up in cute clothes and sing wherever they can. Eventually, they might get a record or two put out, and the whole point is for fans to latch onto a local idol and cheer for that idol to become huge nationwide. It's kind of like American Idol, except it's not organized. It's more of a decentralized capitalist way of doing it than American Idol's cathedral republic style of doing things. And what this album sounds like to is a Japanese idol's first grab at the big time with a serious-but-fun record. Except that Annie isn't as sugary-sacchriney-cutesy as Japanese idols are.

This said, there is some quality on this album, even though it's not my style at all. Burn it. You might even like it.

So you're hungering for some shiny, plastic, Swedish-produced pop music cause you want to put on a little private fashion show or dance like Jay and Silent Bob. But Abba's so overdone and you can't listen to Britney... what would your hipster friends think? Well, suffer no more, you guilty and conflicted, for Annie is here to titillate and tempt you, to make you twitch and chew gum.

There's almost nothing more to say. This is electronic pop at its most shameless. The singles burrow into your brain and lay eggs... "Chewing Gum" is particularly impressive, lacking as it does any organic elements at all but still managing to be funky and catchy and fun. This album does only one thing but it does it really well -- it's all about making you dance and bop along, and hey, man, if it's done well, it's cool with me. The out-and-out disco of "Come Together", the cutesy electronica of "Me Plus One" (which may be too twee even for this collection) and the smooth, vaguely R&B flavor of "No Easy Love" flow easily into each other in a tide of pop magic. So the lyrics aren't Shakespeare. They're not bad, either. And Annie's faintly accented, slightly sexy vocals make everything smooth.

When I say sexy, by the way, I'm not talking teenage pop/porn star glurge. I think in the end that's the most refreshing thing about this album -- it's pop, and it's fun, but without being juvenile or over the top. It's sexual without being slutty and simple without being dumb. Then again I can't say that you're really missing anything in the way of Art by not buying it. This stuff is meant to be disposable, and it's not something that I would want to listen to very often, lacking as I do the gay dance gene. If you're the sort of person who would love this album I'm betting you already own it -- if you're not, it's worth a burn.

Jump To Comments

Prev Index Next

email: dranger aatt gmail doott com & ajhoffer att gmail dott com

Peanut Gallery

Leave a comment