The Sound of the Earth Turning

12 Jan

This entry was drafted on 12/20/2011 on my trans-Pacific flight from Los Angeles to Seoul, Korea en route to Vietnam.

Right now I’m 34,000 miles above the Earth racing the sunset across the International dateline. We may have enough of a headstart from L.A. that we’ll make it to Seoul before the sunset does, but it’s hardly a fair race. The earth turns at 1200 kilometers per hour at this latitude and our jumbo jet is managing a measly 870 km/h.

Thirteen hours in the air to cross the Pacific really puts the size of the earth in perspective. As I usually do when I travel, I purchased quite a few new albums of music to listen to. (I’m a fairly big, tall fellow and music helps take my mind off of the discomforts of small, short seats.) When I traveled in Asia in 2001 I had a cassette tape player and I picked up pirated copies of James Taylor’s Greatest Hits and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. They became the soundtrack for my journey, at least when I wasn’t absorbing the natural Burmese soundscapes. On this journey I’ve got an iPhone and an old iPod. Each is packed with an absurd amount of digital music—surely enough to listen to unique items and do this 2 week excursion five times over.

The advantage of excessive supply of music is that I can fit quite any mood that I may be in. Since I’ve never been to Vietnam before, that’s probably a good thing because I can’t predict what the moods will be. The Burmese countryside became a natural fit for James Taylor and when I returned to North Carolina (where I was living at that time) I understood some of where that comfort came from.

I didn’t too much research about what to purchase before I left. I simply went to Rolling Stone’s list of the top releases of 2010 and listened to samples of things until I found 6 or 7 I thought were things I’d enjoy. Their editors’ top pick of the year is Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I’ve definitely enjoyed West’s earlier releases, among whose highlights are the songs “Jesus Walks” and “Gold Digger.” Here’s a sample:

Like Jay-Z, West has a way with samples, pulling out an impressive array of gospel and R&B clips to set behind his rapping. My father, for his part, has never been able to appreciate Hip Hop. I don’t particularly blame him or anyone else who finds that this genre isn’t for them. I can’t stand most hardcore metal (too much screaming and unnecessary noise for noise’s sake) or county (it’s the same soap opera repeated with the same melody).

Hip Hop is natural for my generation, however, and in the last decade or so it has become more widely acknowledged as an art form in its own right. I mean this in the sense that the best Beatles’ lyrics have been praised as poetry. A newly released volume chronicling the evolution of Hip Hop lyrics is high on my wish list. Take, for an example, the skill not only in delivery but in craft of “Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious or in the raw political rage of NWA’s “Fuck the Police”. Follow along with Blackalicious if you can:

It’s not necessary for Hip Hop to be all things at every moment—it can be offensive in one moment and whimsical the next. Kayne West’s most recent release strikes me as trying to participate in this moment-by-moment identity changing. The first two tracks are fiery rebukes of his critics (musical and social), but before long West takes you more deeply into what feel like sound pieces. Consider the nine minute track “Runaway,” in contrast to the earlier mentioned 2 minute sprint of “Alphabet Aerobics.” Or the electronic club vibe of “Lost in the World,” one of my favorite tracks on the album, which reaches far outside of Shy-town for inspiration about how to drop beat on the right 8-count. I can see this being endlessly remixed in dance clubs, and I especially enjoy its contribution “America was a bastard” by Gil-Scott Heron. [I’d link to the video, but YouTube is blocking unofficial links and there is no official link at this time. Here’s a site that has full lyrics.

West is certainly not the first to try to expand the genre and really concentrate on the value of the album as art form (as opposed to the pop industry’s preference for singles), but the challenge that has been ever-present for West’s albums remains that he is, even at his best, a relatively weak MC despite being a superior producer. He has none of the rhythmic genius of Jay-Z, nor any of the tongue-twisting magic of Blackalicious, nor the political consciousness of Common, nor the hip-grinding grooves of Outkast’s Big Boi and Andre 3000, and so on. In short, his release has its own relative high points (“All the Lights” and “Lost in the World”) but the rapping is on the whole mediocre. We could say that Kanye Is celebrated more for being the musical icon he is, but this would overlook how wonderfully satisfying the album is. Whatever his faults as a MC may be, his craft in the production booth seems second to none.  If Hip Hop falls into your musical wheelhouse and you can deal with explicit content, then My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is certainly worth checking out. With very few weak moments to disappoint you, I expect you’ll be adding at least one or two tracks to your playlists.

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