Friday, December 19, 2008

The Post-Grad Life Can Be Lonely

Something big in the music world may have just happened. The new album by today's biggest hip hop artist Kanye West is not a hip hop album, and it's not an "experimental" album, and I think that means something. I'm not sure what that means yet, but I'm interested to find out.

Kanye has been at the forefront of the hip hop world since The College Dropout in 2004, continuing with Late Registration in 2005 and finishing the trilogy with Graduation in 2007.

But the post-grad life can be lonely.

The most important thing about the new single "Love Lockdown" and the rest of the 8o8s and Heartbreak album is not the change in tone. It's not even that someone is using Audio-Tune and a drum machine (Roland TR-808). Lil Wayne just got big audio-tuning his voice on the single "lollipop." The big deal is that the biggest rapper in the game didn't just incorporate these new techniques, but has seemingly abandoned rapping altogether on his new album. On top of that, he's been juxtaposing tribal sounds with Daft Punk-style mechanical/electronic sounds. Again, not something entirely new - indie rockers Animal Collective come to mind - but Kanye West is a much bigger force than those guys.

So I'm curious as to what West's new adventure will bring. Will the biggest rapper around rap again? Of course. But by NOT rapping, Kanye may or may not be on to something new.

On the other hand, Kanye West has never brought change. Sure he's been a big deal for a little while now, but he's never done much to actually sculpt the hip hop landscape. When he performed on The Letterman Show with Daft Punk (WATCH HERE) it was amazing, and Kanye proved his live chops once again... and he looked like a modern day James Brown. Now on one hand that's a compliment, but on the other hand, it's not. It's not because James Brown was big 30 years ago, and if Kanye is going to do something to truly break boundaries, then looking and acting and recreating the image of a 70's star is NOT the way to go.

Hip hop, like all music, is expanding and diversifying, but I wonder if the equivalent of the trickle-down economic theory (Kanye can influence the rest of the hip hop world) will prevail, or if it works from the ground up; in which case artists like M.I.A. and Cut Copy can influence the mainstream.

I've never pretended to be an expert on hip hop, and it's impossible to predict the next big music trend (disco? ska? emo? who sees that coming?), but for every critical review of 8o8s and Heartbreak, I appreciate more and more that Kanye West is looking to challenge the mainstream. Too bad it's at the expense of his psyche... oh the loneliness of being number one.

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