19 May 2011

2010: Justin Townes Earle, Kanye West

Justin Townes Earle
Harlem River Blues

Released September 14, 2010 (Bloodshot)

Short Notes: Steve’s kid grows up.

Brandon: B+

I’ve got a soft spot for Justin Townes Earle. He’s Steve Earle’s kid, and named after his dad’s good friend (and SMWiH hero) Townes Van Zandt. He’s also best known around these parts for his revelatory cover on pretty much my favorite song ever: The ‘Mats’ “Can’t Hardly Wait”. But honestly, my first couple times through this record, it really wasn’t working for me. Growing out of his more youthful alt-country sound and into a retro sound that sounds a little like the recent Preservation Hall Jazz Band (the one with Andrew Bird, Jason Isbell, and Buddy Miller) album stripped of (most of) the horns. It’s a little dixieland, really. But it’s grown on me substantially--most notably the lilting, romantic “One More Night in Brooklyn” and the swinging blues “Ain’t Waitin’ ”--and I’m inclined to think it’s a nice album for a Saturday afternoon.

Lin: B-

Earle had been on my "List of Artists to Check Out" for some time, but before this album came up in the list I hadn't heard any of his work. This should be right up my alley: Earle's dual namesakes (both of whom I like), signed to Bloodshot, and spoken well of by friends with similar taste. But I find this more unexciting than anything. It's fine, but it's not as interesting as, say, the recently reviewed Joe Pug album. In a way, it reminds me of why it took me so long to get into Lucero: excellent on paper but merely competant and boring in execution. I can get why people like this, but I need something just a little bit more.

Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Released November 22, 2010 (Def Jam)

Short Notes: A motherfucking monster.

Lin: A

I want to hate this album. I find Kanye's previous albums extremely overrated, with something like 6 good tracks spread among the four albums. His public persona and actions are ridiculous. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy appeared on nearly every end of the year best of list, usually near the top. I want to hate it, but I don't. This is the album where I finally see the same genius that everyone else does.

So, at this point, there's not much I can say that hasn't already been said by critics more talented than me. Cultural zeitgeist, critical darling; one of the most vital albums of the year, forcing you to pay attention as it spins not uncontrollably but purposefully into inextricable self-psychologizing and ultimately a self-destruction or, probably more accurate, a de-mythologizing. (Or is it the opposite?) Yes, the title is appropriate.

I mean, seriously:

I have no idea what that is, but I’ve watched it about two dozen times over the last 3 days. It's not properly a music video (2 minutes long?), more like promo for a video. Or a teaser for the album. Regardless, it’s utterly fascinating and seems oddly indicative of the album-as-listening-experience. "POWER" is one of the highest highlights on the album (even though I'm tricked every time by the riff-less Crimson sample) and that video is ridiculous in every awesome way. But there's also "Monster" with the somewhat disturbing video and fantastic verse by Nicki Minaj (who also provided the best moment on Drake’s album). And “Runaway” -- entirely deserving of Pitchfork’s “second best track of the year” designation. There’s exactly one less-than-good track and my biggest complaint is that the highs are so high I don’t have the patience to listen to the merely great tracks and skip ahead.

Highly recommend. This is a pick that everyone got right.

Brandon: A+

This record is a lot of things. Kanye West is a complete and total asshole--a terrible person whose misogyny is irredeemably banal (and brutally violent), a casual, almost lazy racist (there’s a lot in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ rather brutal takedown of this record for The Atlantic Monthly to agree with) and a remarkably narcissistic man, even in the golden age of over-exposed celebrity. Parts of this album make me a little sick.

I’m also increasingly convinced, after listening to it a couple dozen times, that he might have made the greatest hip-hop record of all time.* My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is clearly rooted in his earlier work--the soul samples, the electronic thump, the biting self-criticism that undermines the bravado. But it’s also something different, something more. Musically, it’s without a weak or slow moment. The beats are huge, and even the non-singles bring me back for repeats. Lyrically, this is ‘Ye’s best rapping. His style is plastic, and despite his unquestionable talent, is without a clear identity of its own--affecting a Lil Wayne-style flow on “Monster,” technically proficient if not silky smooth most of the time, and without a distinctive characteristic. In terms of the flow, most of the guests here--Raekwan, the remarkable Pusha T, Jay-Z, especially--are demonstrably superior. But Kanye blows everyone away on every single track here, mostly with sheer bravado and pathos. Has there ever been a more pathos-laden rapper than Kanye? He’s a master producer, but nothing he does feels technical. That doesn’t mean he’s not calculating, but he has a remarkable talent for sounding immediate.

I’m not inclined to waste more time trying to describe the record, because I’m not sure I can communicate just how remarkable it is. Let’s just say that “Runaway” is probably my song of the year. It’s 6 minutes of Kanye viciously undermining himself and his less self-conscious doppelganger Pusha T (of the mighty Clipse), followed by what amounts to Kanye’s version of Neil Young’s Trans--his painful lament, pitchshifted into incomprehensibility with Autotune, as though he wants us to know how much he hates himself, but he just can’t quite bear to say it out loud. And truthfully, self-loathing is the dominant theme of this record. Kanye seems to genuinely hate himself--he’s constantly chipping away at his own arrogant bravado, even when, as in “Monster,” he spends most of the song in classic self-promotion.

This is rap’s White Album: a big sprawling, genius mess, with Kanye’s personality crisis providing the John, Paul, and George parts (Rick Ross is Ringo. I kinda hate Rick Ross). Absolutely crucial.

*Note: If it's not this record, what is the greatest hip-hop album of all time? Illmatic? The Chronic? Ready to Die? Something old school, like It Takes a Nation of Millions... or Paid in Full? Hip-hop is increasingly (hell, popular music is increasingly) a singles game, and I'm not sure how many more defining album-length statements hip-hop as we know it right now has in it. The strongest argument for this record as opposed to the finest 90s records is that Kanye seems to be aiming for something--musically, obviously, but lyrically, too--more complex, more universal (by way of the particularity of our fame culture), more ambitious. If this is The White Album (or maybe hip-hop's Dark Side of the Moon, in its ability to be proggy but hit the mainstream), then Illmatic sounds like Elvis's 1956 self-titled--great on its own terms, but clearly the product of an earlier time.

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