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Pusha, Yeezy, and Where we are Right Now

January 19, 2011

Pusha/Yeezy

I

AVB and I were spending the night in, flipping between a dozen different shows: Top Chef, Iron Chef, The Office, real college-white-people jawns. The VMAs were also on that night, and since neither of us had seen it since we were teens we ended up watching more of it than I expected or really wanted.

It was the typical nouveau-MTV fare; less music than exhibition, more DeadMau5 than Aphex Twin (literally). I had heard that Kanye was performing his new track for the finale and since he very rarely disappoints in terms of spectacle (biggest miss: live performance of “Love Lockdown” at these same awards a few years back) I made sure we watched the last 30 minutes.

We’ve all seen the performance so I won’t go into the specifics. I will however describe what I said when Pusha T came out:

I will never forgive you, Pusha.

AVB gave me a confused sideways glance. She had no idea who he was, and neither did any of the kids who were in that dancing well thing.

II

Clipse is one of my favorite rap duos of all time. Their first two albums are classics and exhibited an elusive binary in hip-hop: production and flow exactly in tune. The Neptunes were peaking early in their careers and Pusha and Malice caught them before Pharrell was posing on the cover of MAN. The synths were novel and the sharp sounds complimented both ends of Clipse perfectly.

We all know every album, save for the pantheon of true “records”, has weak points, and “Lord Willin’” and “Hell Hath no Fury” both endure their share of shortcomings. But Clipse was something that I very rarely skipped on my iPod and sought out at ignorant events.

Kanye ruined that; he took Pusha T and made him want to abandon Malice for Miami Vice suit jackets and some of the worst lyrics I’ve ever heard. Pusha and Malice made “Grindin’”, Christ, I can’t remember a song I listened to more in middle school. And then Kanye came on, they made the single “Kinda Like a Big Deal”, and they ended up making not just a bad album, but a terrible album.

Seduction: pure, ruthless, and simple.

III

Music tends to be indicative of greater things. Art imitating life, the sounds of the social echo chamber, whatever you like, but it’s typically not the other way around. Brubeck embodied the subtle and bubbling chaos in the nuclear family in 1959, Dylan built bridges from folk nostalgia to disillusioned sentimentality in 1962 and 1975, and Public Enemy articulated urban anger alongside suburban fear in 1990. The milieu and the ennui and the joie vivre, it comes out in prose but is remembered in verse.

The sound of the moment, much like the mores of the moment, is one Kanye West, and the sound that describes the current age? Runaway.

The song reflects a sort of minimalist self-indulgence: single key strokes, followed by and mixed into a canned drum machine beat, muted synthesizers, and mediocre singing. There is nuance in production peppered throughout the song, but it is in essence a simple song.

That’s exactly why it’s so indicative of where we are now. There’s been a feint towards austerity, but we all still love the same things. We’re all still trending towards having more while at the same time wanting to appear to have less; it’s absolution through minimalism. What needs to be remembered is that this song is not an act of minimalist art; it’s still self-promotion at its most rabid, it just lacks the foam. Kanye is not drawing a red line on a white canvas and selling it at Sotheby’s, he’s crumbled diamonds and used it for primer.

The hole here, of course, is that this hasn’t translated into a greater movement. Radio play is still dominated by Wiz Khalifa, Waka Flocka, and Rawce, all to varying degrees. That lack of widespread exposure is a red herring though; popularity is judged through downloads and page hits, not billboard charts. The asymmetric reflection of perception and popularity has tilted towards the former, and in a world where music is defined by MySpace and YouTube, Kanye’s affected austerity may be the best reflecting pool we can find.

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4 comments

  1. Agree with you 100% about Runaway and Kanye in general. You can just tell that he wanted to make it (the single, the video, the album) a “classic” so bad by throwing in a bunch of artistic symbolism, which to me masks what’s supposed to be a raw and sincere statement, even though that was probably contrived in the first place. (Whiiite) critics took it as a statement on hedonism or something, but there’s no real depth to the album at all. I still enjoyed it because the production is incredible and it’s a very-well put together album with great guest appearances and little fat. So yeah, this is a “statement album” in an era where we can’t even rally without irony. Unrelated: I’ve loved Pusha’s verses on GOOD Music, I think Malice is writing a book on how he found god..


  2. And yet guys like Masta Ace, who put together amazing albums with themes and dynamics, won’t ever want radio play because it would ruin their music.


    • i would have to disagree a little on the minimalist/simplistic argument of this song (as well as the album). the album seethes incoherence and a lack of direction and tries desperately to make up for it by being incredibly ostentatious and gaudy. i think that yeezy struggled big time with the direction of this album, and in the end, isnt it just a giant middle finger to everyone? the critics praise him for (?) taking huge risks and chances by exhibiting all of the crazy facets of his personality in what amounts to one long disconnected mixtape (and really that’s what is is – several songs on the album were released over a time period of GOOD friday drops rather than recorded all at once). just b/c you are rocking the ill beachfront residence/studio in hawaii doesnt give any plausible justice to the fact that you thought that pusha T, rick ross, nicki minaj, elton john, bon iver, and the dream (<— really WHERE did he find the time??) would really be the people to help you convey your darkest most intricately introspective thoughts (again this is just a big fuck you – hey, i'm kanye, and i can have whoever the fuck on my album and the reasoning can make no sense because hey this is in essence my autobiography but i still have about 25 guest appearances on it and i can still make it hot, and by the way i'm rich and you spend your money and time listening to me you whiiiite assholes). apparently though, consequently, by the way this album was rated, kanye MUST be the most complex, emotionally diverse, fuckin genius of a person who ever lived. apparently geniuses think that family matters references illustrate their thesis in a way, really, that could not possibly be supported in any other verbal context. let's be real – ye is not the first ever famous person to be a) a giant douchebag and b) regret being a giant douchebag at times. this album absolutely is a reflection of our time, because it's just famous for being famous. brown, you had an outstanding take on it, but – minimalist self-indulgence is still just self-indulgence in the end (and really – can kanye really ever be considered minimalist at this point? especially when you go to the headquarters of facebook and twitter to discuss album promotion?). is any part of this album not just outrageous for the sake of being outrageous? Like he said in Monster – "But my only focus is stayin on some bogus shit."

      dont get me wrong. kanye is without a doubt, one of the illest producers who has ever lived. this album is a classic, without a doubt, but only in 1 of 4 ways. a classic album must have a) ridiculous production (double check – power, monster, devil, hell of a life, all of the lights are outstanding tracks), b) great lyrics (double minus – have you heard anybody actually singing any of kanye's words to ANY songs on the album besides "lets give a toast to the douchebags?" c) great vocals (i thought jay killed autotune? or maybe he shouldnt have? why is kanye allowed to sing ever?) and d) a theme (808s sucked, but at least it had a purpose – "fantasy" is just being pulled in way too many directions. darren aronofsky decided to split the original screenplay for the wrestler when he realized that it was just too much for the ballerina and the wrestler to be in love – instead he made 2 outstanding films rather than packing them into one 4 hour mess).

      sorry for the rant, fellas.


      • Well to be honest, and I might be wrong in this because I tend to forget what I write 5 minutes after writing it, that’s exactly what I meant. Minimalism is the new hedonism; it’s why brands like Margiela and Bottega Veneta don’t have tags anywhere obvious.

        And this was really meant as a one track review. When I talked about those albums defining national moods, I was obtusely referring to singular, seminal tracks off those albums. The best example, and actually the one that kind of sparked that whole paragraph was Brubeck’s “Take Five”. His drummer was in 5/4 time which hadn’t been used basically ever, and it somehow created this national sensation because kids were itching for something new. Even non-musicians could hear that somehow, in some indescribable way, this song was different. Think of it as a musical introduction to a movie like “American Graffiti”.

        I didn’t mean for this to turn into another long winded parallel description but that’s what ended up happening. “Runaway” became a musical introduction (or interlude, if you like) to Kanye’s movie. He wrote a song, a fantastic song, and used it as a vehicle to create a short movie. It’s dual-layered self-promotion, but it’s not regarded as something negative because the people who listen to the music and watch the movie (myself included, though I never saw the movie) strive to be self-promoters as well. That’s why we have twitter feeds and facebook and blogs; we want the world to see us as interesting and nuanced. Kanye is simply the best at it, and whether we admire or loathe him, he, and “Runaway” in particular, represents all of us. We love us some us.



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