For a moment, revert your minds back to the night of September 13, 2009. Although microscopic specs of that proverbial shit storm might still be fresh in your nostrils, it is difficult to imagine that for a time, Kanye West was the most despised man in America, somehow temporarily knocking Charles Manson and George W. Bush out of the collective conscious. Previously, Kanye had long infuriated the public with his absurd rants about nonsensical topics, childish complaints about apparent award shows, and hair-brained comments in eminent publications. However, the Taylor Swift incident was the last straw for most people, they had had enough of this brash musician from Chicago.
In the months that followed Kanye underwent a self-imposed exile. Canceling his headlining tour with Lady Gaga, which was expected to make no less than a gazillion dollars, Kanye decided he needed a break. It seemed as though the resurrector of hip-hop, who had supplied audiences with a tantalizing mixture of witty lyrics and exquisite beats in the form of three arguably classic albums (College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation), had decided to give up music altogether. Citing overwork, stress, and overall disgust with the media over the slaughtering of his character, Kanye regrouped in Hawaii– at the Avex Recording Studio.
In the music history books, Kanye’s fall from grace was all too similar to a group of despised musicians back in the early seventies. That band was The Rolling Stones. And although the VMA’s and Taylor Swift were a long way away from existence, the Stones had their own problems around this time. Facing tax evasion, mass criticism from concerned parents, pressure from law enforcement, and heavy drug addiction, the Stones decided to relocate in France, and while at Nellcote, experimenting with a new way of creating music, Keith Richards and the boys went on to record what Rolling Stone Magazine named the one greatest albums of all time. Appropriately titled, Exile on Mainstreet.
Kanye took a similar approach with his fifth studio album. During the recording of MBDTF, Kanye wasn’t fucking around. The motherboard, or rather, Kanye’s studio, was to maintain a professional aura at all times, and everything nonmusical was not welcome. Engineers were behind the boards, on call, at all hours of the day. The walls about the studio were adorned with strict rules for everyone deemed worthy enough to collaborate on the album. All Focus on the Album. All Laptops on Mute. No Pictures. No Blogging. No Tweeting. No Hipster Hats. Just Shut the Fuck Up Sometimes.
The Kanye project was relatively classified from public knowledge until around the late summer months of 2010. Beginning on August 20, Kanye initiated a cutting-edge viral project, G.O.O.D. Fridays, to satisfy his music-deprived, ravenous fans. Every Friday, Kanye released a new song, each complete with special artwork. At the time, it was widely believed that these were going to be tracks from Kanye’s new album, then tentatively titled Good Ass Job. Out of the fifteen songs released, most of extraordinary quality, only three songs were featured on the finished product.
And then came the video. Influenced by epic music videos such as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, as well as legendary filmmakers (Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini) and painters (Pablo Piccasso, Matisse) Kanye was determined to add synchronize the transcendent music he was creating with a 35-minute-long film. Hype Williams, longtime music director and Kanye collaborator, teamed up with Kanye on the script, and shooting took place in Prague for four days. Featuring the beautiful Selita Ebanks as Kanye’s half-phoenix girlfriend, a large paper mache bust of Michael Jackson, a marching band, car crashes, ballerina dancers, and a lot of other interesting points of interest, the actual story was somewhat confusing. However, when the album was released, and fans were able to really listen and contemplate the songs individually, the themes of excess, disillusionment, grandiosity, and fame illuminated themselves, as they almost perfectly conveyed the album’s overall themes in a striking visual sense— the primary reason the music video was established in the first place.
Despite the fact that Kanye spent scores of cash on a 35-minute film for the album, sonically the album entices the mind with a cinematic ambience. In the way that Jimi Hendrix was able to access the colors of his dreams and translate them into music and subsequent visuals in the listener’s mind, Kanye succeeds at painting picturesque portraits through rhythms and harmonies alone. The beats are symphonic, evocative, and resonant, that it is nearly impossible for the listener, whether casual or music enthusiast, not to emit some sort of reactionary emotion. From the commencement of Nicki Minaj’s recitation of Roald Dahl’s poetic version of “Cinderella” at the beginning of “Dark Fantasy,” the album never forsakes its theatrical aura and extravagant sound. Each song in and of itself is meticulously crafted, encapsulating entire cosmos of immensely variegated and complex sounds, mimicking the diversity that most fans only expect entire albums to encompass.
One of the reasons for the dynamic musical quality MBDTF is because of Kanye’s precision as composer. During the recording sessions, revered musicians from all over the world were brought in not only to contribute tangible aspects to the album, but also to impart their overall wisdom and uncensored opinions on the recordings. For instance, Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest) and RZA (Wu-Tang Clan), who are equivalent to Jimmy Page and Roger Waters in the hip-hop world, were asked to provide candid feedback on some of the finished material. In an interview with Noah Callahan-Bever, a respected Complex Magazine writer, Q-Tip had this to say: “When he has his beats or his rhymes, he offers them to the committee and we’re all invited to dissect, strip, or add on to what he’s already started. By the end of the sessions, you see how he integrates and transforms everyone’s contributions, so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He’s a real wizard at it. What he does is alchemy, really.”
Speaking in terms of tangible supplements, a multitude of talented artists were employed to contribute vocals and production credits. The process of Kanye’s deliberate attempt to generate timeless music during the recording sessions manifested itself in bizarre yet ingenious ways, such as his decision to invite no less than eight of his all-time favorite singers to each provide vocals on a single record, “All of the Lights.” It is truly telling of not only Kanye’s prowess as a composer, but his seemingly inherent “ear” for creating exceptional music with such eccentric experimentation. There are few artists in the world who would even think to feature Elton John, Kid Cudi, Fergie, and Charlie Wilson on the same song, and even less that possess the skills necessary to execute it with such an explosive outcome.
In the present day, music is more analogous than ever before. The clear delineations between different music facets has for the most part vanished altogether, and hip-hop especially, a genre originally founded on principles of blending various musical styles and vast experimentation, has invaded most all other popular forms. Kanye’s album is a clear attempt to make an album even more hip-hop than hip-hop, and consequentially MBDTF transcends the genre altogether. Despite a plethora of ambitious albums from artists earning their rightful spot in the hip-hop album pantheon, Kanye’s latest solo offering successfully carves its own musical niche, bearing very little resemblance to any other album to date.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Kanye’s lyrical content is how it transforms from album to album. With each release, Kanye undergoes a personal transformation, and each of his albums acts as a crucial piece to his autobiographical catalogue. On College Dropout, for instance, he presented himself as the immensely accessible, relatable, and lovable Average Joe who rapped about achieving the coveted American Dream. However, with the Dream actualized several times over and the love gone, Kanye is a wholly different artist with the release of his fifth album.
Many critics have appropriately pointed out the themes of decadence and disillusionment. At this point in his career, Kanye is so steeped in the depravity mire that he appears to relish it entirely. On “Hell of a Life,” Kanye unabashedly speaks of his ephemeral marriage to a pornstar, nuns having orgasms, and his inevitable descent into Hell, all the while chanting “No more drugs for me/Pussy and religion is all I need,” during the chorus. Surprisingly, he also makes time to provide insightful and poignant criticisms of 21st century society, in that crude, singular Kanye fashion which we are all accustomed to: “How can you say they live their life wrong/When you never fucked with the lights on.”
Probably the greatest aspect of Kanye’s lyrics on the album is not always so much what he says, but how he says it. On songs like “Power,” the first single from the album, the urgency in his delivery cannot be denied. It comes across as a fierce battle cry from a man in perilous trouble, in the throes of death, but not going down without a fight. Although it is easy to dismiss Kanye’s feelings of being exiled by the entire world as mere exaggeration, but it is clear in the urgency and anger that those feelings were genuine.
As a whole, the album emits vibes of an apocalyptic manner, a soundtrack to the end of the world. In some moments, such as the appropriately “So Appalled,” Kanye trades the aggressive flow he showcases on “Power,” in exchange for a more subdued, disillusioned, and subtly pissed delivery. Frankly, Kanye sounds like he’s fed up and disgusted; like a man who has been completely numbed by the world. This song is Kanye’s own personal “My Back Pages,” his world has crumbled, and he sincerely doesn’t give a fuck, because he’s much younger now.
It bears mentioning how masterly the supporting players on MBDTF are. The overall fumes and aura in the studio, the weighty implications surrounding it, and with most likely a little help from friends Mary Jane and Jack Daniels, artists such as Pusha T, Raekwon, Kid Cudi, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, and Fergie each attributed some of the album’s best moments, surpassing much of their previous work altogether. Even Jay-Z, who many critics claimed lost some of his greatest-of-all-time abilities after his Blueprint 3 release, provides two of the albums’ best verses on “Monster” and “So Appalled.”
Kanye’s painstaking endeavor to perfect every nuke and cranny of his album was vastly beneficial in terms of musical quality, and he not only won the praise of the general public, but MBDTF received universal acclaim from virtually every major entertainment criticism imprint. Rolling Stone Magazine, widely known for their judicious attitude toward reviewing albums, award Kanye a perfect 5-star rating. Pitchfork.com, for the most part just as scrupulous as Rolling Stone in terms of criticism, felt Kanye deserved the coveted perfect 10.0 rating. Moreover, both XXL and The Source, longtime frontrunners of hip-hop journalism, bestowed MBDTF with perfect ratings. Even Spin, a magazine long criticized by consumers for their questionable reviews of hip-hop related material, gave the album a 9/10 rating. Clearly, Kanye’s fifth studio album captured the hearts of almost everyone, except the men and women behind The Grammys.
When the Grammy nominees were announced this past Saturday, one slightly notable name was mysteriously missing from the “Album of the Year” category. As it goes without saying, musical masterminds such as Bruno Mars and Rihanna were present, but the most critically acclaimed album in years was incognito. Kanye still ended up with the most Grammy nominations of any artist, and MBDTF, along with Watch The Throne, his collaborative project with Jay-Z, were nominated for “Rap Album of the Year.” However, these minor considerations were lost on most of the general public, and dumbfounded fans quickly vented their shock and frustration in the form of angry tweets and hashtags.
Despite a noble or perhaps coincidental attempt at reversal last year (Esperanza Spalding winning Best New Artist and Arcade Fire winning Album of the Year), the Grammy Awards have increasingly lost their credibility and relevancy in the eyes of viewers, especially to the younger generation. If the existence of “Rap Album of the Year” distinction is necessary, then it should only apply to albums of a certain quality. For instance, Wiz Khalifa’s Rolling Papers and Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday, despite many expectations to the contrary, are standard, mediocre releases from artists who achieve little in the field of undeniable musical genius and trendsetting. These albums are neither good nor bad, but that is really beside the point; unlike Kanye’s album, these albums fail to transcend the mainstream hip-hop genre they claim residency to, and should garner no momentous accolades.
Based on the critical reception of MBDTF, much of which came from journalist factions not primarily known for paying in-depth attention to hip-hop, the Grammy’s decision not to include it in the overall “Album of the Year” is frankly ridiculous. According to the logic being applied by the Grammys, Bruno Mars’ Doo-waps and Hooligans sonically defecates all over one of the greatest albums of all time— no pun intended.
The Grammy Awards have been in existence for over five decades. In that fabled epoch between the original ceremony in 1959 until the current day, The Grammy Awards have birthed many momentous events in music history. Despite it’s supposed divine relevancy to the general American music climate, many fans and critically acclaimed artists alike have criticized the award show giant. Excluding Kanye’s numerous tirades against award shows in general, other famous musicians, such as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, winner of the 1996 “Best Hard Rock Performance” award, have vocally shared their less than appreciate attitude toward the Grammys. Maynard James Keenan, lead-singer of Tool, declined his invitation to receive an award based on some strikingly poignant logic: “I think the Grammys are nothing more than some gigantic promotional machine for the music industry. They cater to a low intellect and they feed the masses. They don’t honor the arts or the artist for what he created. It’s the music business celebrating itself. That’s basically what it’s all about.”
In nutshell, polished and gift-wrapped, I agree wholeheartedly with Keenan’s viewpoint. The current molecular mode of the Grammys cares little, if any, for awarding deserving artists but rather, for the most part, appeasing the masses. Also, they often display a shockingly blatant desire to snub artists that do not fit the Grammy standard— a set of pseudo-logical markers for determining whether an artist deserves to be nominated for a certain category.
Let us take a look at the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, which has only been existent for sixteen years. It is no surprise that Eminem has won this award five times, beating out such timeless classics as Dr. Dre’s Chronic 2001, The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, and Mos Def’s The Ecstatic. Eminem is by far the most commercially successful rapper in the present day, and in order to satisfy the masses, as the Grammys are wont to do, Eminem wins almost every time he nominated, whether he deserves to (as in some cases) or not.
However, The Grammys cannot take all the blame. Sure, their nearsightedness and blatant disrespect for Kanye is disturbing, but we as fans possess the ability to boycott. The Grammys, once a respectable haven for talented musicians, now a bloated swine insatiably lusting after ratings and relishing in its own stupidity, can choose not to support the obvious ulterior motives of a once beloved ceremony of music. This is likely all fantasy, dark and twisted, because as long as the masses choose to devour the musical garbage being served on pop radio, then The Grammys remain— incredibly irrelevant to those who understand and incredibly important to those who don’t.