Monday, September 19, 2005

Predictably, Late Registration has grown on me

A marble-mouthed rapper, a preppy, a "conscious" rapper and a floss-happy egomaniac, Kanye West is like all superstars in that he's something greater than the sum of his parts. He is, for one thing, certainly the most explicitly middle-class rap superstar in history, or at least the first to be completely forthright in claiming his middle-class upbringing. What do you think this means? What do you think it means for the future of rap?

And am I the only one who hears cognitive dissonance in the looped Ray Charles sample in "Gold Digger," which is "She gives me money when I'm in need"? For a song about that stock rap character, the Gold-Digging Woman, the sample is decidedly gender-reversed. Oh, I know the song's third verse, which describes a broke-ass dude glomming off an indulgent woman, is meant to turn the tables, but "Gold Digger" is basically fluff and good-natured fun with rap stereotypes; I reckon it'd be unwise to pin any overarching political statement to it.

When he looked straight into the camera and said "George Bush doesn't care about black people," Kanye started a debate that needed to happen, the results of which have been good for the country. But Mr. West is nothing if not ambivalent when it comes to politics and his public image. Even the album's most explicitly political track, "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," considers the larger world but still (re)assures listeners that "before I beat myself up like Ike/ you can still throw your Roc-a-Fella diamonds tonight." Nice to know that he's not being too hard on himself, or us.

Lest I be accused of faulting Kanye for lacking a politically coherent worldview, make no mistake: cognitive dissonance is what makes Late Registration compelling. Sonically lush with Jon Brion flair and an exceptional guest list (Nas and Paul Wall acquit themselves especially well), the album shows West engaged in a tug-of-war between ego-driven hedonism, social conscience and his love of hip-hop as it is. If the social conscience often loses out, this hardly makes the album less fascinating or soulful.

Also feeling: Seu Jorge, Cru; Randy Newman, Good Old Boys; Blackalicious, The Craft.


Saxdrop said...

I was wodnering what your thoughts were on John Mayer's new role in genre-crossing and pop. Showing up on Common and (being dropped at the last minute from) Kanye West's album. Not to mention, a stint with John Scofield, BB King, Herbie Hancock.

Is he the new imprimateur of authenticity? The good looking guitar player that actually adds some cred to your project?

I remember earlier this season, Chris Griffin (on The Family Guy) was prompted, manipulated by his overgrown facial zit, to spraypaint "That's enough John Mayer" on a wall.

Is John Mayer the equivalent of a a pop music meme? A cliche? It's just wierd, methinks.

Rob said...

More like a rock signifier for non-rock artists, is my guess. You know, like how back in the early 90s rock bands would occasionally bring in a rapper to lend a sheen of genre-crossing without actual genre-crossing. (R.E.M.'s "Radio Song," say...there are lots of other examples that elude me right now.)

Kanye uses the dude from Maroon 5 kind of the same way on Late Registration, and "Heard 'Em Say" is about as rock-influenced as Beethoven's 9th.

But why John Mayer specifically? That I don't know...I have no ill will for the guy, but I'm not sure I'd recognize one of his songs if I heard it...

But you do raise an interesting question: Is John Mayer rap's favorite rocker? And what does an aspiring rocker do to achieve rap-guest-star status?

AC said...

I think in general the Kanye disc is tight, but I just like the Nas song right now.

Mayer is being used because of two major reasons - BAM! he's a pop star. They are selling hip-pop albums. Two, because of this BB King, soul guitar stuff he's done (Thank Clapton). Turns out the guy can play some blues.

haahnster said...

Sorry for the late time is scarce at home, and personal use at work is ill-advised (though, of course, that's exactly what I'm doing right now).

My initial impression of John Mayer was that he was a Dave Matthews wanna-be. Or, at the very least, a Dave Matthews sound-a-like. However, after witnessing him live at Farm Aid, playing guitar with Buddy Guy, perhaps I'll give him at least some credit. After all, he sounded good, and he definitely played "second fiddle" without showing any outward signs of bruised ego. [Not that he would've had any reason to pout...After all, it was BUDDY f@cking GUY, a living legend if ever one existed.]

I'm now realizing that I've come nowhere near the topic of rap, hip-hop, or even "hip-pop". But, I'm way too far into this post to quit now (especially since I'm such a painfully bad typist). All I can do is echo a-rock in saying, "Turns out the guy can play some blues."