808s & Absence: Why We Need Kanye West
By Chris Le
I miss Kanye West. And not just his music. I miss him as a character, as a leading player in the endless opera of popular culture. Kanye remains, to the chagrin of Pink and the overly sensitive public, one of the few genuine protagonists in pop music. As an audience starved for the inane and scandalous, we are invested in — or at the very least take notice of — where he goes, what he does, and most of all, what he says.
The public was robbed of this simple pleasure after the Taylor Swift debacle. Kanye became a public relations pariah and understandably — maybe even smartly — instituted a Lauryn Hill-like self-exile to squelch the heat. And with the recent incarceration of Lil Wayne, the hip-hop landscape now finds itself devoid of an absorbing figure. Sorry, Jay-Z.
Now I long for a world in which Kanye West has a bully pulpit. It may be an annoying world, I concede, but you can’t say it would be uninteresting. With this longing in tow, I took a trip down memory lane with my iTunes and listened to some ‘Ye.
Say what you will about Kanye’s demeanor (that he’s an asshole) or his skills as an emcee (mediocre voice and flow, an at times trite lyricist, though always with exceptional timing), but Kanye is — and this isn’t up for debate — a musical genius. It most shows in his production, those hip-swaying beats and oft-overlooked melodies. Dive into his catalogue, and it becomes clear that his ear and mix-and-match acumen are nonpareil.
I guess you can say I look more forward to his beats than I do his rhymes. Though he doesn’t quite crack the gilded penthouse of Primo, RZA, Pete Rock, and Dre, Kanye is on the elevator. And it is because of these following tracks (my favorite Kanye productions) that he’ll, inevitably, be joining them shortly.
5. “Wouldn’t Get Far – The Game.
Kanye probably needed a chiropractor after carrying this track. Not even crude subject matter and nonstop name-dropping could derail the production. It’s Kanye at his best, making lewd lyrics seem lighthearted — catchy even — by combining the frequented “Red Long” breakbeat with an infectious Creative Source hook. It’s simple misogynist fun à la 2Pac’s “All About You
4. “I Want You” – Janet Jackson.
The sample is B.T. Express’ “Close To You.” Listen to it. It barely resembles the Janet track (just more evidence of Kanye’s imaginative ear). The music perfectly captures the lyrics’ mood — listening to the instrumentals’ alone points to the fluttering butterflies of anticipatory love. R&B and hip-hop needs to utilize more strings.
3. “Heart of the City” – Jay-Z.
Like a skilled editor with words, an expert record producer knows when to not touch a thing. Kanye displayed Ghandi-like restraint here; all he did was speed up the sample, loop the guitar riff, add simple drums, and the beat was perfect. No need to tamper with a classic.
2. “Get By” – Talib Kweli.
Have you ever read a Malcolm Gladwell article (comparing a full court press defense to Lawrence of Arabia or Wayne Gretzky to a brain surgeon) and think, “How the fuck did he see that connection?” That’s how I feel when I hear this track. I, a mere mortal, can’t begin to fathom how Kanye extracted this beat from Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” Like a Gladwell parallel, it works. The interplay between the piano and Kanye’s trademark drums and the barely audible clapping underneath the uplifting chorus is inspired. No doubt, Kanye’s Sistine Chapel.
1. “You Don’t Know My Name” – Alicia Keys.
It punches you in the face right out the gates — like nascent love, I suppose — with a bombastic descending piano scale. The “ooh”-ing throughout is a soulful accompaniment that adds depth. The finale, ooh the finale, with its calming strings, forecasts a happy ending. Much like the original sample, the production pulls at the heartstrings and makes me smile every time. What more could you ask for?
Chris is a writer based in San Francisco Bay Area. He is the editor of SportsCouch.