I have a love/hate relationship with rap. As a card-carrying member of Generation X, there is a part of my male brain which, having grown up with rap as it grew up (or, tried to) has always appreciated the primalised bassline of the modern African-American sound. Not sure why.
But I have great disdain for many of rap’s most celebrated artists, some of whom are quite talented in their own right. Greed, misogyny, advocation of violence toward other black people: it’s a sometimes beautiful music gone terribly wrong, trapped in the social circumstance of many of the men and women who author it, so blinded by the need to fulfill a stereotype that the music goes wanting.
Kanye West is not gangsta rap – that much is sure. Wikipedia states that “multiple record companies pushed him aside because he was not the stereotypical hip hop artist.” His sound is certainly less fundamentally aggressive and lacks the ‘me against the world’ emphasis that characterises most gangsta rap. That same article also describes him as having an upper-middle-class background; Kanye West is a different machine.
Graduation is West’s third studio album (his work as a producer was first featured on Jay-Z’s 2001 The Blueprint). It’s clear that production is very high on his list of priorities, and it sounds first class. Samples are featured from songs by artists as diverse as Elton John, Daft Punk and Public Enemy, and do enhance the sound, though it would be nice to hear West arrange his own samples rather than relying on others to continually craft the melodies that colonnade his music.Â West also collaborates with the usual and the not-so-usual suspects: a song with Coldplay is the second-last track on this album, and there are contributions by Timbaland, Mos Def (with a brilliant jazz voice) and Mr Z.
Where the album really falls down is the lyrics. Not the rapping itself; West’s stylings are clearly the work of a man who belongs in the 40 on a permanent basis, if only he could find a new platform for his messages.
The man who courted controversy by declaring in his lyrics that “Jesus walks with me” would like you to now understand his obsession with Prada, Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton and Versace. And others. He would like you to enjoy the sexual innuendo and the song “drunken hot girls”. West raps about murders in the Chicago area but the content of his lyrics generally revolves around sex and material possessions. He might do it in a classier way than 50 Cent but does it really matter? It’s all the same superficial tripe drowning the rest of the genre in a sea of monotony and near self-parody.
In the end, Graduation is not terrible. Some of the songs have real bounce – I liked “Stronger” and “Good Morning”. But most of the album is ordinary and seems to be a musical shrine to Kanye West’s ego (by the way, Kanye means “the only one” in Swahili…but that’s his parents’ doing). And where the rap genre needs to evolve past its obsession with sex and big gold chains – and there’s no doubt West has the ability – it is content to sit with the pack.
I hope Mr. West graduates from the pack soon, for the sake of my love/hate relationship with rap.
Das Critic writes for readravereview.blogspot.com