Before buying this album I really only knew of Kanye West as a loudmouthed guy who tweeted a lot and told off George Bush. But then everyone was raving about this album (Pitchfork gave it a 10 out of 10!). So I decided to check it out. And I can’t get over how great an album it is.
Now I’m going to start this review by mentioning a few things I dislike about rap as a genre. 1) I dislike all of the “guests” that appear on a record–I bought the album because for you, not your friends. 2) I dislike excessive use of “unh” and “yeah” at the beginning of a track; when you have nothing to say–let the backing music flow, save your voice for actual words. 3) Rap is still terribly misogynist and vulgar–I’ve nothing against vulgarity per se (I do have something against misogyny) but excessive use is lazy, and it stands out much more in a rap song since you’re saying the words not singing them.
The Kanye West album is guilty of all three of these things, and yet I still think it’s fantastic. The first reason is because it goes beyond a lot of rap by introducing real musical content into the songs. This is not an “all rap is just a beatbox” dismissal of rap, it’s an observation that rap tends to be more about the lyrics and the musical accompaniment can get kind of lazy. West’s songs have (beautiful) choruses, strings, and samples that augment the rest of the song, as opposed to samples that ARE the song. And Kanye West’s voice is great. His delivery is weird and twisted, a little cocky but more funny, with a twisted attitude that is really cool–and to my rather limited palate of rappers, it’s original.
The opening of the disc “Dark Fantasy” has a chorus singing “Can we get much higher” which is catchy and cool (and is used in the promo for The Hangover 2). The switch from this opening to the rapping works well (aside from the FOUR “yea”s). Although I don’t love the yeahs, I love his delivery, and that he occasionally ends lines with these weird “hunh” sounds, that are wonderfully emphatic.
The guests start showing up on track 2, but even the guests can’t detract from the excellent guitars of the song (and the cool solo). And I’ll say about the guests that I like some of them, but for the most part I’d rather hear Kanye.
“Power” samples King Crimson’s, “21st Century Schizoid Man”; anyone who samples King Crimson is alright with me. But to use it so perfectly, to make it part of your song is real genius. It works musically as well as within the overall concept of the album.
“All of the Lights” (with the pretty piano intro) features scads of guests including John Legend, The-Dream, Elly Jackson, Alicia Keys, Fergie, Kid Cudi, Elton John (!), and Rihanna. I can hear some of these people but not Elton John (why would he agree to be on a track where you can’t even hear him?). It is a beautiful pop track nevertheless.
“Monster” is a monster of tracks with yet more guests (I like that some of these guests break with the typical guest, like Bon Iver (!)). And I really like Nicki Minaj’s verse. [I'm not familiar with her work at all (in fact I keep wanting to say Minja instead of Minaj) but her verse with the wonderfully crazy vocal styling she displays is weird and cool and very powerful--I would like to check out her solo album, but the samples I heard weren't that interesting]. It also has a great repeated chorus of being a “motherfucking monster.”
It’s followed by the even more catchy “So Appalled” (with FIVE guest rappers–some of whom I’ve never heard of but who do a good job. I love Cyhi da Prince’s lyrics: “I am so outrageous, I wear my pride on my sleeve like a bracelet, if God had an iPod, I’d be on his playlist” or “So call my lady Rosa Parks/I am nothing like them niggas baby those are marks/I met this girl on Valentine’s Day/fucked her in May/she found out about April so she chose to March” or this line, “y’all just some major haters and some math minors.”
“Devil in a New Dress” opens with a bunch of “unhs” (which I dislike) but this is nice ballad in the midst of all of the noise (and it has some clever lyrics). It morphs right into “Runaway” one of the more audacious singles I can think of. The piano melody is so simple (a single note to start) and the lyrics show Kanye as a loser in relationships. It’s a surprisingly thoughtful song for a song with a chorus that goes: “Lets have a toast for the douchebags, let’s have a toast for the asshole; a toast for the scumbags every one of them that I know. You been putting up with my shit for way too long…runaway fast as you can.” It gets even more audacious when you realize the last 4 minutes of the song are a solo with distorted voice. And the video…the video is 35 minutes long!
The sentiment of that song is erased by the next one, “Hell of a Life”. It opens with a great distorted guitar riff and lyrics about sex with a porn star. “Blame Game” is a surprisingly honest song about being nasty to your girlfriend (“I’d rather argue with you than be with someone else”). It features a sample of Aphex Twin’s (!) “Avril 14th”. And it’s quite a sad but lovely track. It ends with a very long skit by Chris Rock. I like Chris Rock, but this dialogue is kind of creepy because the woman who Rock is talking to (about the great sex she gave him) seems to be a robotic sample–why not have an actual woman talk to him?
The final track, “Lost in the World” has a lengthy intro by an auto-tuned Bon Iver. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the disc, especially the end, where the processed vocals get even weirder but accent the beat wonderfully. This track morphs into what is the actual final track, “Who Will Survive in America” which is basically a long recitation from Gil-Scot Heron. It works great as an album closer.
So, despite several things I don’t like about the disc, overall, it’s really an amazing release. And I can overlook the few things I dislike because the rest is so solid. I can’t decide if it’s worth looking for his earlier releases. How can they live up to this one?
[READ: May 6, 2011] McSweeney’s #37
This is the first McSweeney’s book where I’ve had to complain about the binding. The glue peeled off pretty quickly from the center cover. Fortunately, the back cover held up well. I’m guessing it’s because there’s an extra book tucked into the front cover which prevents the book from closing nicely when it’s removed.
But aside from that, the design of the cover is very cool. It is meant to look like a book (duh), but actually like a 3-D book, so the bottom right and top left corners are cut on diagonals (this makes for a very disconcerting-looking book inside–with triangles cut across the top). The artwork inside is also cool. In keeping with this appearance, each two page spread looks like a book with a spine drawing in the gutter of the pages). And the bottom of each page has lines making it look like the bottom of a book. (The illustrated margins are by SOPHIA CARA FRYDMAN and HENRY JAMES and there are interior paintings by JONATHAN RUNCIO).
The front matter is wonderful. Although it gives the usual publishing information, the bulk of this small print section is devoted to counteracting all the claims that the book is dead. It offers plenty of statistics to show that not only are the public reading, they are reading more than ever. The introduction also goes a long way towards arguing against the idea that people are reading less now than in the past. When was this “golden age” of readers? There’s also the wonderfully encouraging news that 98% of American are considered literate.
This issue opens with letters.
MICK SACKS-Arrives in Paris. Letters later, disappointed, he returns home to Brooklyn.
JAMES FLEMING-Talks about all of the famous people he has “met.” An amusing piece in the spirit of “Concise Interviews with Notable People“
JAMIE QUATRO-Did you know that Band Aid-boxes are also written in braillie.
CHRISTOPHER MONKS-I used to work with Mr Monks, so I am biased, but damn if this isn’t hilarious. In this letter, Christopher argues with his wife about Van Morrison. And, as I told him, he’s now just pages away from Jonathan Franzen and therefore Oprah.
TED TRAVELSTEAD-When he was a boy he found a dead turtle; while looking at it, a crazy man talked to him.
HALLIE HAGLUND-An absurdly funny lesson on what you should know when you travel to Ireland.
JAMIE ALLEN-This is a hilarious letter about a man hanging out with a younger couple. The hilarious part comes at the end when they realize (through a comically outdated suggestion) just how old he is.
BRENDAN EMMETT QUIGLEY-Notes of concern from a Crossword Puzzle maker. I rather enjoyed this insight into the process (and the jargon that I now know).
STEVE DELAHOYDE-What happens if you walk in on The Red Balloon in the middle.
LARAINE NEWMAN-Yes, the Laraine Newman from SNL. This is a very funny letter in which she bemoans the status of her work and her fear of having to put on a “one-woman show.” (I had no idea she has been doing voiceover for years, adn was in Wall-E and Finding Nemo–although sadly she is only listed as “other voices”).
CHRISTOPHER TURNER-A confusing but very funny story about meeting a psychoanalyst who makes Turner do 25 somersaults as a way of getting in shape. The image of him doing somersaults on a bed will stay with me for a long time.
Then come the longer stories
I’m not sure if this is an excerpt from a larger future work (I know Franzen doesn’t really write short stories), but it seems pretty self-contained. This is a look at a marriage that works because both partners have no ambition. Betsy is an avowed slacker. When Jim knocks her up, they get married in a low-key ceremony. And the only reason they go to Paris on their honeymoon is because each thinks the other wants to. But after a couple of days there, Betsy blows up at Jim, saying how much she hates Paris and why would he think she wanted to go there? He responds in kind: he doesn’t want to be there either. This solidifies their love and they spend the last few days in Paris in their hotel eating McDonald’s.
Betsy’s sister, Antonia is the opposite, a type A mom with overachieving kids. And many of their friends are the same way: getting their kids into great schools and fighting hard to be the best. And they all look askance at Betsy and her (richie rich Republican) husband. So how is it that Betsy is the only one still married after all these years?
But now, Jim seems to be getting restless, and that will no doubt change everything for them. This was a sad but really compelling look at couples who really have nothing in common.
J. MALCOLM GARCIA-“Now Ye Know Who the Bosses are Here Now”
This is an essay about a killing in Northern Ireland. But despite what one might expect, the locals believe that this was actually a killing of a Catholic boy by the IRA because he crossed a line. This all occurs in the shadow of the IRA ceasefire (so they don’t use guns), and this makes for a brutal and disturbing essay.
JESS WALTER-“Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington”
This consists of 51 objective and subjective points about Spokane Washington. It creates a very thorough picture which I enjoyed.
NELLY REIFLER-“The Grove”
This was a strange story about a rabbit who finds a dead woman in the woods. The rabbit is fully sentient and can experience everything that the woman could. Although it was an interesting point of view, I didn’t really enjoy the piece, it felt a little too forced.
ETGAR KERET-“Cheesus Christ”
I loved this story about depressed people. The opening begins with an MIT study of the word most frequently uttered before someone dies. It’s what you think it is. But Jeremy Kleinman’s last words were “without cheese.” The story then looks at the peculiar manager and managing style of the Cheesus Christ chain, a hamburger joint that only serves cheeseburgers and is run by a manic depressive.
EDAN LEPUCKI-“Take Care of That Rage Problem”
Another story about a broken family. In this story, Molly is an adult and her parents have recently split up. Her father was kind of a dick about it and Molly refuses to speak to him. Even when her mother reveals that shes not that upset about the events, Molly can’t let go. The story looks a Molly’s inability to budge and what her mother deems is her “rage problem.” It’s actually a rather funny story.
JOHN HYDUK-“Still Looking”
Hyduk’s narrator has been out of work for a long time for the first time in his life. He begins envying people who do shit jobs because he can’t even get one.
KEVIN MOFFETT-“Lugo in Normal Time”
Another divorce story. This time, Lugo is the father of Erica. Erica is with him for the weekend. Since the divorce, Lugo has been pretty much an alcoholic, and Erica doesn’t really want to be there with him.
I liked the conceit of the title in that Lugo has several speeds that he works at “slow time,” “normal time” and “fast time”. When he’s engaged in something (like wrapping a present which he does very thoroughly) he is in slow time. Whereas his ex wife is never in slow time. Ever. It’s a dark story but the ending is satisfying.
JOYCE CAROL OATES-“A Brutal Murder in a Public Place”
Set in Newark Airport, this story looks at what would happen to the commuters if they heard a sparrow chirping at their gate. And I believe that everyone would do the same thing: looking for this poor life stuck in a place of transience and dead trees. The story gets surreal by the end, and it kind of lost its impact for me. But the early details were great.
JOE MENO-“Lion’s Jaws”
The opening of the story is “A girl I used to know wanted to be eaten by a lion.” So this is not a typical story. It’s a weird and interesting piece about a man who hooks up with a woman from Berlin. The sex is bad. But he can’t figure out what to think about her. She doesn’t kick him out of her place and continues to walk around with only a t-shirt on. They more or less break up, but she contacts him some time later. She wishes to film a lion for her movie. (It’s an artsy movie, of course). And this is where the first sentence comes in.
And Five New Stories from Kenya, Selected by Binyavanga Wainania and Keguro Macharia
BINYAVANGA WAINAINA and KEGURO MACHARIA-“The Pursuit of Ordinariness in Kenyan Writing”
This essay introduces us to the writings of these five Kenyans and their obsession with the ordinary. These writers represent a new kind of writer who has emerged in the last thirty years. They are able to look back at high school or college drinking games or church and other marks of what it means to be ordinary.
RICHARD ONYANGO-“The Life and Times of Richard Onyano”
This is a straightforward autobiography of a Kenyan man who gets picked up by a large white woman who keeps him. Literally. She more or less keeps him locked in her house, and he is young and naive enough to not know what to do about it. It is accompanied by awesome paintings. The paintings are also by Onyano who explains that before he met the woman he was a successful artist and a musician. It’s a fully engaging story.
This was a story about two young girls who are sneaking out of school. The story itself was fairly simple, but there was enough idiomatic speech in the story that it kept losing me.
BILLY KAHORA-“Urban Zoning”
This story about Kandle was really fascinating. It begins with Kandle’s discovery that he can exist in a zone: a calm breathless place that occurs after he drinks for a minimum of three days straight. The bulk of the story talks about him wandering around in this state. The strange thing comes at the end when we learn that he has been missing work for quite some time on a supposed doctors excuse. The showdown in his office’s board room is really wonderful and is so different, it feels like the second act of a two act play. I really enjoyed this one.
YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR-“Dust and Memory”
A story about a mother’s reaction to her favorite son’s death. This seems to be a fairly common trope in storytelling and I wonder how common it actually is: the mother who so grieves over her beloved son that she ignores her other children completely. I felt this was a little slow and a little long.
ANNETTE LUTIVINI MAJANJA-“It Is Only the Best That Comes Out”
This piece looks at life in the Precious Good Riruta Secondary School run by nuns. It is a hard life, in which your time is accounted for, your food is rationed and you can’t talk for pleasure. The idea is to make the work hard so that as the title says, only the best come out.
There’s not a lot of “story” to this piece; it feels more like a documentary. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating look at the school life and I wished it was much longer.
This issue also contains an excerpt from the new John Sayles book A Moment in the Sun.
JOHN SAYLES-A Moment in the Sun (excerpt)
This excerpt is four chapters from Sayles new book. The excerpt is 64 pages (longer than most of the stories that appear in McSweeney’s issues), but it’s only a small fraction of his 968 page book (!!–McSweeney’s is really getting into these long (and very thick) books, after Adam Levin’s 1030 page The Instructions).
It also turns out that this excerpt only covers one of the many threads that run through this novel. It is set around 1897 and takes place in the Yukon. Hod Brackenridge (I have such a hard time with his name being Hod, that I almost couldn’t read the story), is trying to capitalize on the Gold Rush. He goes to the Yukon full of hopes and dreams and all kinds of equipment only to find all of that stolen out from under him. When we next see him, he is working for a con man and falling for the local bar’s prostitute.
Sayles’ writing style is a bit stiff (I didn’t realize that he wrote fiction, I only knew him from his movies), and I found the story a bit hard to get into (that may also be because it’s an excerpt so who knows where in the book it is taken from). But once I settled into the story I found it really interesting. The Gold Rush is not a period that I’m well versed in at all. I was a little reluctant to get absorbed in such a large story, but I think it will be well worth the effort.
The final chapter of the excerpt is outstanding–Hod gets involved in a boxing match, in which he is expected to lose big time. The writing is exciting and the story is totally engrossing.