Kanye’s Self-Inflated Twisted Fantasy

December 1st, 2010 at 5:21 pm (Music Commentary)

Sometimes aimless YouTube surfing can be rather satisfying.  Sometimes it can be rather aggravating, particularly when one’s interest in a new album by a certain popular artist named Kanye West causes one to stumble upon some startlingly laughable interviews of said pop artist.  I’m fully aware that calling Kanye a self-involved jerk is a bit like declaring that Velveeta isn’t real cheese.  After his drunken gaffe at last year’s MTV Awards — where he botched sweetie-pie Taylor Swift’s tender moment of triumph — Kanye’s belligerent arrogance is practically household knowledge.  Even President Obama (mistakenly thinking he was off-record) called him a “jackass.”  The problem is, Kanye can’t be dismissed wholesale.  Commenting on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which dropped November 22, an iTunes listener-reviewer writes: “Dear Taylor Swift, I just gave this album a listen and Ima let you finish, but this is one of the greatest albums of all time.  OF ALL TIME.”

I’ll preface by saying that I intend to give his new album a good, earnest listen, and that I like some of his past work (808’s and Heartbreak in particular).  It’s clear that Kanye’s music has struck a chord with listeners, despite his unflattering public image.  The many vigilant Kanye haters out there are surely missing something by ignoring his recurrent popular success.  Surprisingly, his jackassery can sometimes even be endearing, or at least comical. During an interview with Ellen Degeneres, Kanye’s casually immodest cracks earned him quite a few laughs from the studio audience.

Still, one can’t help but mumble “hubris” — or at least wonder if he isn’t getting in his own way — when Kanye says (in all seriousness) that he intends to be the greatest performer in a generation.  Or when he self-righteously explains that in making 808’s and Heartbreak he discovered the value of “melody”, and cleverly decided to use it here and there.  Or when he talks about the difficulty he and other hit-makers face in deciding whether their latest release outshines The Beatles.  Give me a break.  Why don’t you just focus on making the best music you can, and be grateful that so many people find it valuable enough to purchase.  You might also beware of that fabled Achilles’ Heal of stardom, the belief that present-day fame is: (a) a vindication of artistic merit, and (b) lasting and historically relevant.

That Kanye’s most potent skill is in production and beat-making, and not so much in performing or melody writing, is obvious, but let’s go a step further.  I wonder (and this is a sincere question) whether Louis Armstrong would have ever said, publicly or privately, that he thought of himself as the greatest performer of a generation.  Terry Teachout can correct me, but it appears to me Armstrong was simply a gifted and hardworking musician who endured the struggles of touring and fame to share his genuine passion for music.  Somewhere far along that road (to borrow a line from a certain genius), he became, yes, one of the most loved and enduring performers of a generation.  Perhaps the differing attitudes of Kanye and Armstrong can offer a lesson to young artists about talent, fame, and humility.

Time, of course, will supply its exclusively evenhanded assessment of Kanye West.  I downloaded “Heartless” last night, one of the epic hits from 808’s and Heartbreak, because I hadn’t heard it in a while.  To my surprise, I found it kind of boring.


Molls On The AutoTune Fad

August 1st, 2010 at 9:47 pm (Home Recording, Music Commentary)

Molls writes an interesting post on her “Molls She Wrote” blog about the recent — and surely soon-to-die — fad in pop music where autotune is used in a deliberately obvious way.  If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, here’s some background.  Autotune is a specific brand of pitch correction software that was added to the arsenal of studio tools sometime in the last 15 years with the genesis of Pro Tools and computer audio editing and processing.  Used primarily on vocals, though it can be used — and I have — on any monophonic instrument, autotune determines the pitch of the selected signal (i.e., what note the vocalist is singing), and how close that pitch is to the nearest note on the keyboard (or the nearest note in a scale) and then time-stretchs the audio signal so that the pitch more closely matches the note (you know how you can speed up or slow down a cassette player to mess with the pitch? Well this is the same idea, but with way more precision).  The idea being: the vocalist may have intended to hit A-440 (A-440 being the correct note in the melody), but actually hits something like A-450, which would sound sharp of the correct pitch.  Autotune then adjusts the audio signal until the vocalist’s pitch sounds like A-440, thus correcting the out-of-tune note.  Autotune can be remarkably transparent, and while it’s used pretty extensively to correct bad singers (i.e., Katy Perry), it can be useful even on good singers, in that it might allow you to use a take that was fantastic emotionally (which is the element that’s really hard to capture in the studio), but may have come out unacceptably sharp or flat in places.

Which brings me to the abuse of autotune in certain recent pop releases.  Autotune contains, among other parameters, an attack parameter, which sets how quickly the software applies correction once it deciphers a deviation from the “correct” pitch.  How you set the attack parameter depends on the material, how far out of tune the singer is, just how much slight-of-pitch singing the song can withstand, and generally what you can get away with before it begins to sound “processed.”  I’m feeling generous tonight, so here’s an audio example:

A short clip from “Cathedral Bells.”  First, the vocal take with no pitch correction.  Tayler hit the big note that leads into the chorus a bit flat.  Tayler’s a great singer, and surely there was another take with spot-on pitch.  But there was something about this take (the tone, the emotionality) that made me want to use it.  Here’s with no correction:

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Here’s the same clip with the pitch correction I actually used on the album, set with a relatively aggressive attack time time of 78.3 milliseconds.  A keen listener will notice the vibrato sounds a little funny, but the correction is otherwise transparent:

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And now with the attack time pushed to zero milliseconds — i.e., the correction happens immedietely:

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This last clip makes the vocal sound fake and computerized.  But this is exactly the effect that’s become a small fashion in certain recent productions.  Kanye West used it quite famously, and fairly artfully in my opinion, on his 808’s And Heartbreak album, notably the single “Love Lockdown.”  With the hyped autotune, Kanye, it seems to me, admits that he isn’t a great singer, and asks us to just accept that fact in exchange for the deeply personal, emotional character of his singing on these tracks (they were written from a place of genuine personal heartbreak — a painful breakup with his fiance and the loss of his mother).  It’s the only instance I’ve heard of abused-autotune that I haven’t found completely irritating.  I’ll be forever baffled as to why Mariah Carey — the best-selling female pop artist of all time, with the biggest range and some of the best pipes in the genre — used the same hyped autotune on the single “Obsessed.”

A number of bad-singer pop stars have surely been grateful for the fad, though.  Molls comments shrewdly on one example, the aggravating — but unfortunately catchy — single “Blame It On The Alcohol“.  I’ll edit a few *choice* words to keep this a family blog:

OK, so this morning I was walking back from Coffee Bean and “Blame It On The Alcohol” came on my iPod. I was thinking about it and I decided that that song is probably a forever jam. It has that vibe about it. It’s kinda funny, it’s dancey. It’s got what it needs to be played at weddings for all of eternity.

So I was thinking about that and then I was like, “If I ever have kids and they discover this song and start listening to it ironically, that’s going to be really annoying.” ‘Cause like, after 2009, I don’t need to hear that song more than once a month, at the very very most, for the rest of my life.

I thought about how what my future kids would probably find hilarious about the song is the autotuned chorus, specifically the “a-a-a-a-a-alcohol” part. Because that’s so ridiculous. It’s such a ridiculous thing to have in a song. And it’s so unique to that time in music, I feel like. When we’re wondering what will stand out about our generation the way we think of our parents in bell bottoms, it’s probably going to be s*** like that (which you know makes me want to kill myself, but we can talk about that more later.)

Then I tried to decide how you’d explain autotune to a child living in the future. And I had a memory: My BFF Bethany and I sitting in her parents’ Fun Room (I think it was called the Fun Room) listening to “Baba O’Reilly” by the Who. We went through this whole Who stage sophomore and junior year of high school. Yes, I’m bragging about how cool and popular I was in high school. Again.

Bethany’s dad, Steve (I love you, Steve Folger), came in the room and he stood over us and he was like, “You like The Who, huh? You know that song is the first song that ever used a synthesizer.”

BAM! Right?! S***! It’s kind of like that. Except with autotune. Because you wanna know why? Because we’ve failed.

Have a great day, guys.

Molls She Wrote

I’m going to hope that we haven’t failed, but only momentarily fallen for a passing fad.


Eminem’s Got Something On You

July 12th, 2010 at 8:00 am (Music Commentary)

Rapper B.o.B’s much anticipated release B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray has put two singles on the Billboard Hot 100 — “Nothin’ On You”, which dropped in February, and “Airplanes”, which I’m pleased to note is currently hanging at number 4 on the Hot 100.  B.o.B did a smart thing on this album, inviting guest singers to sing catchy, pop-styled choruses to complement his rapped verses.  When I first heard “Nothin’ On You” on the radio back in February, I mistakenly guessed that the boyish tenor on the choruses was actually the main artist — and the rapper the featured guest.  You won’t be surprised, then, that I consider the pop choruses the main draw of these singles (I wonder — did B.o.B write the choruses, or did the singers?).  Both “Nothin’ On You” and “Airplanes” sport sick beats, too; I’m a sucker for snare dancing, especially with that lo-fi sound.  B.o.B defintely deserves credit there.

An extended version of “Airplanes” features Eminem rapping a chorus.  Props to the young B.o.B for attracting the attention of such a renowned and influential rapper.  But unfortunately, Eminem’s verse really contrasts with B.o.B’s: B.o.B, it turns out, just isn’t that great of a rapper.  Having heard B.o.B rap uneventfully for a few verses on the extended “Airplanes,” Eminem enters, and his energy and ingenuity — and his smooth, solid control of rhythm — jump out of the speakers, and we wonder what we’ve been listening to for 3 minutes.  (I’m not even a huge fan of Eminem; more on that later).  Eminem, of course, has just released a much-talked-of studio album, and his single featuring Rihanna (it would seem this featured pop singer thing is a succesful formula) leaped handily to the top of the charts.

Not to knock B.o.B.  I think he’s put together a great package in “Nothin’ On You” and “Airplanes”: Cool beat, catchy and meaningful pop chorus, and some unnoffensive — if undistinguished — rapping for flavor.  Hook line and sinker; I bought both singles from iTunes without reservation.  But calling B.o.B a rapper doesn’t exactly pay tribute to his best talents.


Rihanna’s Rude Song

July 8th, 2010 at 5:51 am (Music Commentary)

Rihanna’s latest singleRude Boy” has slipped to 33 on the Billboard Hot 100, and in my humble opinion, that’s not far enough.  Fortunately, the track seems to have fallen out of regular rotation on 95.7 The Party, the local R&B-hits station.  Featuring a recurrent pre-chorus that goes “Boy, I want, want, want whatchu want, want, want/Give it to me, baby like boom, boom, boom” and a chorus that leads off  “Come here, rude boy, boy, can you get it up?”, “Rude Boy” first came to my attention in March when my sister mentioned how shocked she was that such an explicit song was getting heavy radio play.  “Rude Boy” joins the other hit single “Hard” (I’ll let you make your own judgments) on the album titled Rated R, Rihanna’s fourth studio release.  The title and cover apparently hope to draw us in with the allure of uncensored material.  What I would say to Rihanna is this: Sex holds an old and hallowed place in pop music; but talking about sex in absurdly blunt terms is not the same as being sexy.  We want you to be sexy, Rihanna.  We want your pop songs to feel sexy.  “Rude Boy” is not sexy.

“Rude Boy” and “Hard” both succeed, like many of today’s hits containing painfully self-aware awful lyrics, because of their downright catchy beats and hooks (I find myself, in utter frustration, humming the choruses to “Rude Boy” and “Hard” on occasion).  The vocal performances are decent, and the production is flawless.  And so I find myself forced to swallow the tasteless lyric with the hip production.  The iTunes review praises Rated R for venturing successfully into darker territory than previous Rihanna releases — apparently on the tracks that didn’t make the Billboard Top 10 — so perhaps the complete album bears a listen.

Lest you think I’m grumbling generally about the decline of music, let me assure you Top-40 pop holds a special place in my heart.  But could we maybe strive for lyrics with a pinch more integrity?