At BBH, this dude Shane had the poor fortune of being sat next to me.  Then when we all moved desks, somehow the whole office turned inside out and he had the even poorer fortune of me sticking around, this time we sat behind one another.  It’s a good thing we did, because he had a habit of dropping music into my transfer folder that I’d really like.  I had a bad habit of slacking on the art (or media?) that Shane would share with me.  He lent me Half Nelson, a film starring Ryan Gosling about a crack-addicted high school history teacher in Gowanus, Brooklyn.  It sat on my desk for a month until I finally caught up to it and it is a beautiful film, highly recommended.  Extra credit for featuring Broken Social Scene on the soundtrack.

But sometime during late 2008 he put a mixtape on my desk, telling me he saw this rapper, Kid Cudi, and his release party was lame but his music was pretty good.  Much like the Half Nelson DVD, that CD gathered dust on my computer at work and he’d keep mocking me for not listening to it.  At some point, I ripped it, loaded it onto my iPod and got to listening, and I swore to never pause on Shane’s recommendations again.

A Kid Named Cudi (free download, get it now) isn’t really a mixtape.  No DJ shout-outs, full tracks.  He raps over sampled and recycled beats, but that’s a skill, not a cop-out.  For instance, one of the strongest tracks on the mixtape is “The Prayer,” where he raps over a beat driven by a sample of “Funeral” by Band of Horses.  This song segues into “Day N Nite” which you’ve heard if you’ve been on a dancefloor in New York City in the last six months.  Also, there are only two featured guests — he puts Wale and Chip the Ripper each on a track.  In his long-form debut, Kid Cudi carries 50 minutes of music, which is impressive in his own right, and he does it over OutKast, Ratatat, Paul Simon, Dilla.

He claims to have invented a new form of music.  This is a stretch; it’s still hip-hop, but it is unlike the large majority of albums that we hear.  He’s melodic, wacky but not immature, and a clever lyricist.

Cudi is going to be a star.  He’s fresh, clean, handsome, clever, and wickedly talented.  If I can, I’m going to put this mixtape away for a few months.  I can succumb to the pressures of overindulgence, ceaselessly repeating an album until it nauseates the brain.  I think this is going to make a good summer record if I can keep it fresh.

Then again, his first “official” album is supposed to come out this summer.

For fun, this might be my favorite track.  Not on the mixtape.

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The Microsoft Sound

February 4, 2009

“The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I’d been working on my own music for a while, and was quite lost, actually, and I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, “Here’s a specific problem — Solve it!” The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional”, this whole list of adjectives, and then, at the bottom, it said: “and it must be 3¼ seconds long”. I thought this was so funny, and an amazing thought, to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel. In fact, I made eighty-four pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny, little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds, at the end of this, that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then, when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were, like, three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.”

– Brian Eno

That is it

January 8, 2009

After their debut in 2001, it became as trendy to lavish praise upon The Strokes as it was to color them awful.  The hype machine dubbed Is This It? the best album of the ’00’s.  The skinny tie re-entered well-edited menswear.  And that graphic t-shirt you wore in 2003 before college?  See left — The Strokes, 2001.

I always describe The Strokes as harmless.  Their rise to stardom seemed genuine, and a re-affirmation that, yes, a grunge-ish band, or a group of guys that maybe shower twice a week but produce great music can still come out of New York City.  They don’t curse much in their albums, they don’t address anything serious or likely to offend, and musically, they don’t take many challenges.  They are more Paul Simon than Pete Doherty.  It’s best summed up by a Pitchfork writer, Stephen Troussé (yes, that is the Pitchfork writer’s name.  Awe.), who writes

LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy once told me he could imagine in 15 years’ time, he might be having a barbecue, and someone would dig out the Strokes’ debut from a pile of old CDs and, as the half-forgotten power-pop drifted across the summer lawns, he would realize, “You know what? That was a great little record! A perfect barbecue record!”

Neater still, The Strokes were the germ from which a few cheery saplings grew.  Albert Hammond, Jr., guitarist, has released fantastic solo work.  It clearly sounds like Strokes progeny (which I like) but it takes a slightly lonelier approach.  And a former colleague pointed me to Fab Moretti, the drummer, who released a self-titled album with his band, Little Joy.  Moretti met his singer, Rodrigo Amarante, at a festival and the two made a record.  It’s best described by that smooth-sounding Pitchfork writer:

Soon enough they [Moretti and Amarante] catch up again, jamming at Devendra Banhart’s pad up in Topanga … and decide to get a place down in Echo Park, work on some songs and see what happens. By now Fab has hooked up with this broad Binki Shapiro– crazy cute, with a voice like summer wine. The three of them spend their afternoons hanging out a down-at-heel neighborhood bar (it’s called Little Joy), mixing their own cocktails, strumming on ukuleles, and singing along to a jukebox stuffed with Brazilian bossa nova, Portuguese fado, Julie London ballads, some early Mazzy Star, one of those Spanish Jonathan Richman albums, and the Velvet Underground’s Loaded. And that’s it… and it’s pretty great.

That’s a really accurate description.  Little Joy should have been released in April or May of next year, because it would have been 2009’s Vampire Weekend — summer’s album.  Rodrigo Amarante sounds like a Rodrigo Amarante, with a voice of molé, and this Bikini Shapiro lass inherits the Nico role in The Velvet Underground & Nico as the first welcome female singer on a rock album in decades.

It’s simple, really.  Doesn’t have to be complex.

Kanye West’s new album, 808s and Heartbreak, was written and recorded in light of West enduring two life-changing events after becoming the world’s most recognizable babyfaced, Gucci-clad rapper: his mother died from complications during plastic surgery, and he ended his engagement with his long-time girlfriend and fiancee.  These tragedies color West’s most experimental record to date, an album lacking any organic sound, choosing instead to create all of its beats using a Roland 808 drum machine and the Auto-Tune voice enhancement/synthesizing technology.

This is Kanye West’s most personal album.  It’s deviations from the past are blatant as soon as the album picks up, with the minimalist, hardly-there beat of “Say You Will,” and the melodic, almost soothing sounds that West sings on the track.  But perhaps the most noticeable shift in the six-plus minute opener is that listeners expect the track to explode three minutes in.  On Late Registration, Kanye would have dropped a Justice sample and launched into a bubblegum hook that would move millions of discs.

But in this release, Kanye’s melancholy leaves listeners anxious, a little uncomfortable, and possibly even fearing for Kanye’s safety.  If your college roommate recorded this album, you’d call the campus suicide hotline.  Kanye’s lyrics are very dark, and while they don’t qualify as well-written lyrics (or even transcendent hip-hop lyrics), they are caustic and blunt.  On Kanye’s last album, the sun shines on his life and he writes “whether you’re broke or rich, you gotta get this / having money’s not everything, not having it is” as the listener is treated to 60 minutes of bombast and glory-coated lyrics.
As if depression has seized his life, now Kanye sings “my friend showed me pictures of his kids / and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs.”  Success has apparently left Kanye empty, soulless, with a closet full of Louis Vuitton luggage but a Blackberry lacking any true friends.

Nearing the middle, Kanye picks up the beat and laces tracks that would get a club bouncing, if only the lyrics and song titles were left on the MacBook.  “Heartless” and “Love Lockdown” are exciting tracks about unpromising situations: infidelity and isolationism.  The former carries an especially keen beat that makes heads bob.  But don’t expect listeners to chant their lyrics at the club.

Kanye West delivers a great, if not spectacular album that will be seen as a turning point in what is sure to be a sustained career.  It would have been too easy for Kanye to pen Graduate School, an album about his new Lambo and the six pair of Prada shoes he copped at Bergdorf.  Credit West as an artist, not a rapper, for having the prowess to reverse direction and interject two new elements to his music: personal lyrics and artificial music.

Maybe we’ve had a negative first impression of Auto-Tune because its introduction came on the shoulders of T-Pain, a banal hip-hop sideshow act, clowning around with a cane and exaggerated top hat.  Truthfully, Auto-Tune enhances West’s music, because Kanye has an ear for melodies, but lacks the chops to belt them out.  That’s fine; music should embrace its technological advancements in this manner, using them for good and not in jest.  It’s plain that Kanye can’t hit the notes on “Love Lockdown.”  In fact, from live performances, he can hardly voice them.  Auto-Tune can’t smooth his raspy voice as it climbs for the higher notes, it can only manipulate the tone that voice emits.

But without this tool, the melodies would have stayed in Kanye’s head and he wouldn’t have shared them with us.  On the other hand, the Roland-808 gets stale as the album wears on, and at times it capitulates entire tracks, specifically “RoboCop,” whose chorus sounds like a Trans-Siberian Ochestra Christmas disaster.  Unlike Kanye’s voice, the beats in this album lack any hint of sincerity.  They aren’t natural with artificial sweetener, but rather crusty and fake.

For West, it is a turning point, and it will be interesting to see how sincere this album is.  Will he follow “Welcome to Heartbreak” with “Good Life” on the live stage?  Or will this cause the now-single and lonely Kanye to retract from the public’s spotlight and sharpen his artistry and not his beaming star?  Lucky us: we’ll likely have dozens more opportunities to learn more.