Watch the Throne: Some Next Level Shit

a modest symbol announcing the coming of our lords

Recently, monolithic golden Greek crosses on black posters began popping up around town, announcing the forthcoming release of WATCH THE THRONE. And I awaited, with messianic fervor, the coming of August 8th, so I could hear two kings defend their rightful place at the altar of rap.

I’ve prevented myself from reading reviews so that my mind is not sullied by other critic’s opinions, though I know the world has been abuzz with love for the album. And I gotta say, this is the best shit Jay-Z has put out since… The Black Album? At it’s heart, though, Watch the Throne is a straight-up Kanye effort; each song has his musical tendrils curled all over it. WTT continues the adventuring spirit of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The dirty, dry-as-bone snare and clattering cymbals from Twisted Fantasy are again the dominant percussive sound, and the sneer of Ye’s recent rhymes has persevered well into 2011. Most notably, this album also offers a dizzying variety of samples and sounds that would only come natural to a voraciously omnivorous music consumer like Ye (I’m still stunned by the use of the hipster dupstep FLUX PAVILION sample, as well as the electronic percussion on “Why I Love You” — may as well have been jacked from M83’s “Kim & Jessie”). Last night, my buddy Andrew aptly pointed out that Kanye’s recent output proves he’s like the Borg: he assimilates indiscriminately.

Speaking from my podium as a Kanye scholar, this album provides something no others have previously done: it closes a loop dude started on his first album, providing coherence to a heretofore scattered body of work. He’s cultivated his own variety of mini-genres (the soul sample jam; the 60’s civil rights jangle; the chest thumping ode-to-ego; the inspirational hymn, etc), and my perception of his interests and career up to this point was that he was just going to keep expanding and conquering new genres every time he released a new album. But here he revisits his previous genres: “Lift Off” has the earnest autotune of 808s, and it’s uplifting (lit’rally) mood is something Kanye did best back on College Dropout. “Otis” is obvi the soul jam, and is possibly one of his best; “Murder to Excellence,” an absolute highlight of the album, features the afore mentioned 60s jangle, the bassy piano keys he so favored on Twisted Fantasy, and the chipmunked vocal sample he’s successfully employed all along.

Now for our elderrapsman of the album: Jay-Z goes DEEP on Throne. While Jigga’s done an album inspired by his autobiography and has also written a book, he has rarely been as emotionally forthcoming as he is here. Up to this point, he’s been a great self-mythologizer, reflecting on his rags-to-riches story from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. Kanye, on the other hand, rarely escapes the circuitous perils of navel-gazing, and this seems to have rubbed off on our man in a good way. We have him staring at himself in a mirror, noting that he’s his only enemy in “Welcome to the Jungle.” He also sits in his car, alone, feeling numb in “Why I Love You.” Furthermore, Jay seems to relish his rhymes in a way he rarely does. “Murder to Excellence” features a somewhat indulgent but also very enjoyable slithering alliteration of “s” sounds; Jay even imitates the “chsshh chsshh” of a cologne spray nozzle. On a music level tho, Jay-Z finally is succeeding at sounding cool with synths, something he has not done well on previous sans-Kanye attempts, such as on Blueprint 3’s embarrassingly horrible “Forever Young.”

One of the most satisfying things about this album is, obviously, the interaction between the two rappers. Like poets anxious about their influence, they freely quote their own and the other’s past work. Kanye says: “I’m from the murder capital, where we murder for capital.” Jay sings along with Kanye: “puh-puh-puh-paranoia.” They finish each other’s rhymes. They don’t compete: they meet as equal ballers in the game. From “Niggas in Paris”: “ain’t that just like LeBron James?/ ain’t that just like D. Wade?” They once were enemies, but now they play for the same bloated/egomaniacal team!

Notably, there are no guest appearances on this album from any of rap’s minor princes or would-be heirs. Thank goodness they left Drake to his naked lady sexts and Weezy to his purple haze. It would have been distracting to include these proteges and wannabes. Appropriately, our kings are buffeted by the ghosts of music’s best: a James Brown motif/sample breezes jazzily in and out between a few songs; Brown has four or five additional samples on this album; Nina Simone’s profound “Feeling Good” (“it’s a new day/ it’s a new dawn!”) provides the sentimental backdrop for “New Day,” Otis Redding stomps and grunts in “Otis.” Why play H.O.R.S.E. with the little guys when you can get your picture in the Hall of Fame?

Dudes could have totally phoned some shit in, because that’s what absolute monarchs are allowed to do. But they didn’t. This album isn’t perfect, but if I explained why it ain’t, then we’d all be here till 2012. (It has something to do with Kanye’s newly appalling sexual politics… some other time, though.) Watch the Throne is a completely edifying listening experience for long-time fans, and this is largely because Kanye is an evil genius/Borg-like musical being to whom our resistance is futile!

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I Forgot About These Albums

Dude you are wack
Do I look seductive in this photo?

Yo! You know, I can’t believe I forgot to include these two albums in my list of the years best stuff. Here’s my final word:

Morrissey: Years of Refusal

Not the man’s best, but this man is still the best

Jay Z: The Blueprint III

Not the man’s best, but this man is still the best

This year, I liked some recordings, I found a lot of new stuff inspiring, but I hardly listened and relistened to anything. However, this is not true for either of the above-noted recordings. I listened to these albums all the damn time, but they aren’t new and flashy, so I forgot that they existed. In many ways, Jay Z and Morrissey are similar dudes. Both are megastars who are the defacto musical representatives of their nations. Jay Z’s King of New York Music thing is obviously a more self-conscious construction, but that doesn’t mean he is any less than one of our biggest, most significant stars, someone who skillfully uses American archetypes to make a great American myth, showing us Rags To Riches 2.0, making blueprints for how shit gets done, etc. He also claims that he made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can. What is a Yankee can? What am I not getting here? Whatevs, though, Jigga is the elder statesman of America’s most relevant musical/cultural product: hip hop.

Likewise, Moz is so British. But I will let one of the queen’s own argue that.

Tim Lott for The Guardian once noted in a great article about the Moz’s lyrics:

Also, the sentiments of Morrissey… were English sentiments. This poet – for it was clear that he was a poet – had the knack of taking the national experience as well as the national mindset and rendering it both visible and valuable. Until Morrissey wrote about fairgrounds, and Shelagh Delaney, and grey provincial towns, they were just there, part of the background hum(drum), hardly to be treasured or noticed at all. They were all of a piece with the generalised self … hatred and obliviousness that pervaded much of England in the 1980s as Margaret Thatcher drove the nation into two opposing, glowering camps.

Word.

Hypocrite Listener vs Daftpop Music Showdown

To Hypocrite Listener: Like all haterisms, hating hipsters sure gets old. I agree. What I’ve tried to convey is my boredom with the whole dismissive irony of some of the men making music in this genre. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the woman part of me feels left out from this entirely dude-ly genre. Trend-spotters have identified hipster style as gender-ambiguous, but I’d say it’s really more like women are dressing like men. I will be satisfied when men mix flannel with skirts and eyeliner. Anyway! Men are still the majority of music critics, the music makers, and the people at shows. And fo’ sho’, a majority of men present in a scene does not mean said scene is evil. But it does mean that I feel left out and will look elsewhere for a more colorful, various backdrop for my interests.

But, Anna! I can almost hear my detractors say: what about them women in the Dirty Projectors, what about Annie Clark and Natasha Khan? Yar, yar, yar: I agree and am very excited by the music they make. Also, for the record, I think the Dirty Projectors are totally, unequivocally awesome.

But besides the grievances I carry on behalf of my sex, Nige, I am probably more on your side than it seems. I get pissed too when people diss “hipsters” who live in our hoods. And I see that just by having a music blog, attending Pitchfork’s festival this summer, and owning a pair of black skinny jeans, I am clearly taking part in this massive subculture–as you pointed out, this subculture is a force that pretty much defines our generation. But I think it’s important to forever keep an eye on how this subculture bizness develops, what it includes, and what it leaves out. I think you’d agree with me on that.

But everything I’ve said so far makes it seem like taste is a conscious decision. In many ways, it is. But I’ve been bothered for a long time about the mystery of personal preference, especially when it comes to music taste. Can I tell you that you need to like T-Pain? Yes. But can I actually make you like him? No. Same goes for someone like Grizzly Bear. I can appreciate what the band is doing but still be totally bored by soft, mid-tempo acoustic songwriting. This might seem an evasive thing to say, because I am essentially acknowledging that even if we argue all day about the merits or demerits of T-Pain and Grizzly Bear, my ill-drawn pseudo-scientific theory about personal preference trumps all. Critics use ideas and objective material to discuss art; subjective likes and dislikes shouldn’t be an excuse. But at the same time, does not music possess mystical and intangible properties? We do our best to qualify all its empirical qualities, but still, the reason some songs sound awesome evades all logic. And besides, if all of art could be neatly codified into good and bad, wouldn’t it be something other than art?

Another note, for another blog post–I didn’t like 2009. It was a desert for good music no matter the genre. It was so bad, some people even postulated hip hop was dead. Maybe it’s all dying, or it’s just end-of-naughties fatigue.

Anyway, you may not prefer to listen to any of these songs, but perhaps you can appreciate them.

THE PLAYLIST IS LINKED HERE

Here they are, in no particular order:

–Beyonce: “Halo” and “Single Ladies”

There are few stars that I would indulge a double album showcasing the two sides of their persona. But Beyonce endlessly fascinates; she’s reserved, classy and a great old fashioned star, akin to Diana Ross, but with better pipes. Though I’ve seen her bare most body parts, B retains mystery and tact when overexposure is the norm. But more important than her persona is her voice. The brassy sass of “Single Ladies,” is all the more impressive heard in the context of “Halo.” Turns out, I need both sides of B’s coin. “Single Ladies,” which I have positively described elsewhere as a “robotic Motown stomp,” is alone in its aural universe; there’s really no other song like it. “Halo” is obviously one of millions of ballads, but Beyonce’s singing on that one sorta makes me cry.

–Big Boi feat. Gucci Mane: “Shine Blockas”

This is probably the most refreshing hip hop song of the year. Seriously, I was attentive to everything that came out. In the classics we had Ghostface, Mos Def and Raekwon. Commercial faves like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and to a much lesser extent Fabolous all released albums. There was a come back from Eminem. Clipse finally released their third album the other day. But you know somefink? Though some of that stuff was good, none of it was really new. (Although Clipse’s pandering to commercial hip hop was new, but that’s for another blog post.) Big Boi picked up hot-on-the-streets-today Gucci Mane and made a song that embodies a warm, breezy Georgia day, with slightly nostalgic and thankfully un-2009 instrumentation, and made an unassuming track that sounds like it’s been here for a while but will stick around forever.

–Most the-Dream songs, notably “Rockin’ That Thang,” “Walkin’ on the Moon,” even his collab with Fabo on “Throw It In the Bag,” and his production on Electrik Red’s album.

I object to the idea that most pop is “the set-it-and-forget-it trend of auto-tuned to death vocals over recycled beats and increasingly boring sampled material.” The-Dream and his buddy Tricky Stewart guarantee that a lot of the music on the radio sounds interesting. The warm, human option in a radioverse of T-Pain’s playful robotics, the-Dream is very like a chubby cherubim with a bewitchingly lovely voice. He also knows his way around the studio, channeling MJ on “Walkin’ on the Moon,” Prince on the Electrik Red song “Friend Lover,” R Kelly every which way, including a persona favorite, Electrik Red’s song “Freaky Freaky.” He’s not copping these masters, though, he’s paying a dutiful tribute while adding his own shit: speeding up the songs and adding like 16 tracks of bleeps, bops, strings, space sounds, etc: there’s literally never a dull moment on one of his songs. Pitchfork identified his style as rococo; indeed, the-Dreams interior design equivalent is probably this room. Did I mention the-Dream co-wrote “Umbrella” and “Single Ladies”? And that he is younger than you and me? ! ! !

–Ghostface: “Do Over”

Turns out Ghostdini didn’t have the lasting power I’d hoped for. Many long-time fans complained that Ghost didn’t bring it on this album as he had on his soul songs elsewhere. But I still think this song is a success.

–Pet Shop Boys: “All Over the World”

Okay, this song is totally ridiculous. It sounds like it was produced in 1996 and features gruesomely tacky faux-strings playing a famous ditty from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” But whatever! This song is totally exhilarating; every time I hear the chorus, I imagine the aging Pet Shop Boys standing on top of a mountain with their arms majestically stretched out to the sky. As the feverish 90s-British-gay-club bass pounds, we see the snow-capped peaks around the P.S. Boys, and the expanse of this colorful world unfolds before our eyes.

–Bassment Jaxx: “Scars” & “Raindrops”

Sasha Frere Jones helpfully pointed this out earlier in the year:

Two dance acts emerged around the turn of the century, both of which had the visas to pass between the worlds of pop and dance. One was Daft Punk and the other was Basement Jaxx. Especially since Basement Jaxx used actual human vocals and wove a wide range of references into their music, I thought they would reach more people, and for longer. Quite the opposite.

Daft Punk offered the nexus of studied unhumanity, the final solution of Kraftwerk’s menschmachine universe. And yeah, I think DP is more accessible than BJ, because even though BJ offer uplifting melodies, they are often hidden in an unintelligible chaos. DP makes a squeaky clean sound, even when they’ve got a shit ton of distortion on. Anyway, Bassment Jaxx is becoming a much more compelling group than DP–they’re a lot more prolific, and their emotional register is wide and varied. “Scars” is an auditory thesis in desperation and darkness. (This song also puts Kelis’ at-times gruff alto to much better use than her new single “Acapella.”) “Raindrops” is the opposite, the refreshing washing away of darkness, like the last drizzle before a rainbow appears! Yay.

–MSTRKRFT: “Heartbreaker”

You’re probably mad at me because I am including a bunch of dance music in my list, and most fans of dance/electro/whatevs wear skinny jeans. But alas, it’s technically a different genre. I know most MSTRKRFT songs consist of Justice-esque power-punching distortion, (their 2009 album is called Fist of God, for heaven’s sake), but this walk on the sensitive side plucks my heart-strings every time. The piano is simple but more emotionally effective than the catharsis-mongering of, say, Alicia Keys. The lyrics are rather basic: “I feel like crying/just want to die.” But the spirit is similar to the substance of Kanye’s 808s, and who hasn’t felt that desperate?

–Raekwon + Ghostface: “Cold Outside”

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II is so dense that I haven’t absorbed more than half of it. But this song stuck out during my first listens; it’s all street-elegy, a pointed picture of what sucks about being poor, cold and stuck in the hood. Kids are smoking weed, mothers can’t afford diapers and no one can afford Newports at $7.50 a pack. Mariachi horns blare in and out of tune in an endless loop, sounding a bit like the undying cycle of human misery.

–Keri Hilson, Ne-yo, Kanye, “Knock You Down.”

Sure did love this song.

–Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”

I had to acknowledge this one-woman phenomenon in some way, and it is by honoring her with a place on my playlist. “Bad Romance” has just the right amount of Gaga affectation; “Poker Face” was as static as the visage it describes; “LoveGame” featured a hook so obnoxious that it lulled you into a state of catatonic braindeath; “Paparazzi” was effectively creepy, but less because it’s about a stalker and more because it sounds uncannily like Gwen Stefani.  But the way she pronounces the word “romance” in this new single is brilliant: she slips in and out of a linguistic anachronism like she slips in and out of pop star cliches and robot outfits.  I am still embarrassed every time she says, “I’m a free bitch, baby,” but then again, no Gaga song is complete without something stupid like a “disco stick” popping up. Beside that, this song is pretty cool in a farty, thumping, idiotic sort of way.

–Jay-Z: “Thank You”

As previously mentioned, this song ain’t nothin new. But it suits Jigga to a ‘t’–I can just see him in his $4,000 suit, shimmying up his Italian silk tie, nonchalantly thanking all of us for providing him with riches. The marching horns on this track are a more effective testament to his old school New York cred than they are on “D.O.A.,” and, despite the questionable analogy about “9-11″ing his enemies, this song is a relaxed and enjoyable example of the rapper comfortably gazing down on us from his pedestal.

–Cam’ron: “I Hate My Job”

If there was a theme song for enduring a job during the recession, it’d be this one. Obviously being unemployed is miserable, but being locked into a job with a shitty commute, shitty boss, shitty hours, and shitty wages can be just as demeaning and dehumanizing. The piano loop sounds more like a Billy Joel rag or a Kermit the Frog sing-along than a track for the rapper of Purple Haze infamy, but I guess that just shows us that Cam’ron’s got the flexibility and wherewithal required to survive hard times.

–Clipse + Kanye: “Kinda Like a Big Deal.”

I listened to this song about 5 billion times this year, and I can’t remember what I ever liked about it. However, from an objective stand-point, this song features Kanye’s best verse of the year, and the guitars on this song are a much better way to rock in rap, as opposed to, say, Lil Wayne’s idea of how to rock in rap.

Grizzly Bear Almost Restores My Faith in Indie Rock

Grizzly bear, the band

2009 is the first year in (my) living memory that I didn’t buy even one compact disc. All the other years of my musically-engaged life, I went to record stores and kept mental lists of stuff I was interested in. The candy store (aka place where I blow my $$$) was replaced by Indy CD and Vinyl during my first year of college in Indianapolis, and when I moved to Bloomington the next year, I frequented TD’s and eventually Landlocked. When I made trips up to Chicago, I made sure to stop at Reckless to pick up stuff I couldn’t get in Indiana. I would be the girl spending 30 bucks on a UK-specific reissue of the Fall’s Hex Enduction Hour (that really happened) or requesting that Kate Bush’s long-forgotten 1982 release, The Dreaming be ordered immediately (fortunately, that only cost about $8.99). But this past year in my new Chicago life, I worked an office job, and though I’ve had more money and more access to record stores than ever before, I stopped buying music since I listen to it online all day.

But it’s not just the context of my life that has prevented me from going to buy cds. It’s that the record-store-going life is attached to the whole business of being indie, which I no longer am/aspire to be.

Bands with animal names went in one ear and out the other in recent years: Panda Bear and Grizzly Bear? Whatevs and whatevs. Saggy sweaters and disheveled skinny jeans? Whatevs and whatevs. Beach Boys influence and lofi fuzz? Whatevs and also whatever.

But then there’s this one band that, though they are everything I hate, made two good songs. Grizzly Bear–not totally whatevs. I’ve been listening to Veckatimest today–and it’s pretty, okay, really boring. Except for this one song that you maybe heard six months before I did. It’s called “Two Weeks.”

Like Peter Bjorn and John in the good days before they made this song, “Two Weeks” is cute and melodic. And yet it somehow climbs the heights near enough to the Platonic ideal of “twee anthem” to sound like a revelation.

Pitchfork’s reader survey asks which trend you are most anxious to see die. Ultimately, I picked “lofi/shitgaze” (take that, wavvvvvvves!), but I was tempted to pick the “buttoned-up, prim indie,” trend, a la St. Vincent, Grizzly Bear and Andrew Bird. However, upon further reflection, this trend is okay by me, because singing and lyrics actually matter to the songwriters in this mini-genre. One of my biggest peeves with indie is the lack of auteurism and ownership when it comes to the words of a song and singing style; perhaps that’s why I’ve turned to the glittery egoism of pop music and the poetry of hip hop in recent months. Just ask Wavvvves dude if he cares about singing or lyrics, and he will just goth vomit on you. (That’s an inside joke with Wavvves dude about how much thought he put into his song titles.)

So, yes, “Two Weeks” shows an earnest effort at singing (as opposed to mumbling soullessly about one’s ennui!), at craft, at plucking heart strings.

But wait, Grizzly Bear has one other good song. It’s on the New Moon soundtrack, and it’s called “Slow Life.” (On a side note, I wish a fan would make a video for this song from New Moon footage, or help me do that.) This song awesomely includes Victoria LeGrand, the singer of Beach House. The song starts off unsuspectingly, just some minimal guitar strumming and a simple verse. But then there’s a cathartic pause and a Cure-esque tinkle of chimes; then a derge, like a cliff is falling away beneath one’s feet; then Victoria LeGrand’s voice, all subterranean force like an underwater volcano, crashes on to the scene, and instruments drift in from a distance to twinkle darkly in the moonlight … See? It’s a really dramatic song. Kinda like the movie.

Anyway, since Grizzly Bear only has two good songs, my faith in the genre isn’t fully restored. Even Jay-Z can’t change my mind about that.

Jay-Z Longs for Old-School Tastefulness, Glamour as seen in Scorsese Movies

Shawn signing autographs in 1983
Shawn signing autographs in 1983

Jigga-who? According to Forbes, Jay-Z is the most ballin’ of “Hip-Hop’s Cash Kings,” with this year’s earnings at $35 milli, although that is down almost $50 million from his earnings last year. Jay-Z has made many declarations throughout his career about the life-span of stardom (not least including his attempted retirement), and now one gets the impression he feels guilty for having so much dough, prestige and fame. He’s still at the top of the game some decades after entering it, which, he has lately asserted, is not as much a testament to his lasting genius as it is to the stagnant nature of hip-hop. Hence… D.O.A.

I know you’ve heard the track. BUT, have you seen the video for it?

WOW! One of the better looking videos you’ve ever seen, right? Gritty like a Scorsese pikcha, but with a smaller budget, this video reclaims O.G. status for Jigga by literally obliterating bling, colorful/tight hiphopster clothing, Champagne bottles… and other paragons of today’s hip-hop culture. The whole explosion thing is quite similar to Fatboy Slim’s video for “Gangster Trippin’” but as of this moment, I am not certain of the connection between these two videos, other than, I mean, Jay is a gangster, clearly.

Jay is seen cavorting with Harvey Keitel, chomping a cigar, and playing poker with some Degos in the store-room of a restaurant. He drinks good red wine, thank you very much, not Champagne (although this is the man who put Cristal on the hip-hop map!). He rocks an Old School ‘do (which, weirdly, makes him look about 15 years younger than he is), plays with a live band (?!), and also b-balls with LeBron. What do all of these things ad up to? That Jigga say: Old School still wins, and, quit T-Painin’ too much.

Responses? Thoughts? No one reads this blog so I will share mine. Jay-Z: I appreciate your artistry, your good taste, your brand of hip-hop. You are one of my favorites of all time.

And though I really think T-Painin too much really sucks, it has also made some really good tracks, like “Chopped and Screwed,” and “Blame It,” as well as the album 808s and Heartbreak, etc. Hip-hop evolves, gets growing pains, and, so what, relies a little too much on voice modulation hardware. Worse things have happened. I predict this trend is already in the throws of death.

Another thing I was worried about: Kanye *produced* D.O.A. and much of the forthcoming Blueprint 3, which apparently features no auto-tuned tunes. Kanye said he didn’t take Jay’s sentiments personally, offering this incoherent analogy to MTV news:

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Kanye laughed about Jay not wanting to incorporate the sound that is featured so heavily on Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak. “It’s music; it’s just sonics. I like Auto-Tune so I do it, but you want the other thing — like you’ll wear a suit to a wedding and gym shoes to a basketball game. I think it’s a perfect moment for Jay to provide some gym shoes to a basketball game right now.”

Still, I wonder how Kanye felt when he saw his wardrobe getting blowed up real good in Jigga’s video?