So fucking ugly
The beginning of Kanye West’s new mixtape Can’t Tell Me Nothing finds Kanye yelling bravura over Daft Punk’s “Harder Better Faster Stronger,” starting out by identifying the date: Friday morning, May 25, 2007. This past Friday. And the thing was all over the internet two days later. “I might as well mark the day our lives changed,” says Kanye, which seems a little extreme. Still, that’s startling speed even in an era where the Cam’ron/50 Cent beef only needs a weekend to catch fire. Honestly, I haven’t been by my local mix hut in a while, and I don’t even know if any physical copies of Can’t Tell Me Nothing exist. It’s a pure internet product, which might almost explain why the tape finds Kanye going full-bore for what I guess I’ll have to call a hipster audience. The warning signs have been there for a minute. “Stronger,” the possible second single from Graduation, samples Daft Punk, and he debuted the track at Hiro Ballroom during a night that A-Trak, his DJ, was sharing space with Parisian house bigshots like DJ Mehdi, pretty funny considering that less than a year ago Kanye threw a bitchfit when Mehdi’s Ed Banger labelmates Justice beat him out for an MTV Europe Award. And I guess it’s not even all that surprising that Kanye would like Peter Bjorn & John’s “Young Folks,” since everyone likes that song. Still, it’s tough to imagine, say, Fat Joe actually freestyling over that song on a damn mixtape. On the mixtape, Kanye also raps over tracks from the Thom Yorke solo album and from A-Trak’s new dance-rap prospect (and, um, girlfriend) Kid Sister. If all that is any indication, he probably reads Brooklyn Vegan and listens to Yo Majesty and shit. If Kanye is actively trying to court a hipster audience, it’s probably not for financial reasons. For one thing, he already has a hipster audience, as well as about fifty other audiences. And for another, hipsters don’t buy music. So he’s probably just rapping over Daft Punk and Peter Bjorn & John and Thom Yorke and Kid Sister because he really likes Daft Punk and Peter Bjorn & John and Thom Yorke and Kid Sister and because he thinks that these artists, in one way or another, all have something to do with the current moment. From what I can tell, Kanye’s biggest professional obsession has always been to encapsulate some particular moment. It’s a noble goal.
Right now, Kanye West might be the only pop star who takes pop stardom seriously. Other pop stars seem more interested in managing their careers and in avoiding mistakes. Kanye knowingly and willfully makes mistakes. Both of his albums have been complete messes, and they’re among the most interesting rap records of the last few years. He does dumb shit like posing in a crown of thorns on the cover of Rolling Stone, and then he feigns incomprehension whenever anyone calls him out for that shit being dumb. On a riotously entertaining Can’t Tell Me Nothing interlude, he talks about the Rolling Stone article (he calls it “Rolling Stones,” even though I know he knows that’s wrong, which is hilarious). He mentions wanting final approval over magazine interviews like it’s a reasonable thing. He concedes a bit: “I realize that I was halfway out of my mind for the last two years and shit. I was, you know, off that drug called fame.” He also says that he’s calmed down since, but (and this is the best part) he sounds totally unconvincing on that last bit. He’s still trying to be all things to all people, and that leads him into a lot of ridiculous decisions, but I’ll take that over another corporate micromanaged rap album. Supposedly, Kanye and 50 Cent both have their third albums coming out in September, and I know that’ll never happen, but it would be interesting to see what would come of it if they did. 50 Cent is also making noise about branching out and experimenting, but he means he’s making songs with hitmakers he hasn’t worked with yet; he’s not talking about going off the artistic deep end. 50 Cent is a businessman trying to extend and maintain his brand. Kanye is trying erect an eternal monument to himself. The difference between the two of them is as pronounced and revelatory as the difference between, say, Brian Wilson and Steve Miller.
“Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” Kanye’s new single, is coproduced by DJ Toomp, and it samples Young Jeezy’s triumphant ad-libs, but I’m pretty sure it’s not an example of Kanye chasing Southern-rap money. Instead, he uses Toomp’s crawling keyboards as sputtering, rippling foils for his own production, offsetting them with mournful vocal samples and elegiac trumpets like he was Moby or something. The lyrics are portentous, riddled with celebrity-angst and self-doubt: “I feel depression, under more scrutiny / And what I do? Act more stupidly.” The video is practically minimalist by rap-video standards, though it says something that rap-video minimalism can still feature a slow-mo Lamborghini and flashing rave-smoke. As for the rest of the mixtape, it’s a promotional tool and not a stand-alone object like Lil Wayne’s Da Drought 3, but I’m surprised at how compulsively listenable it is. Virtually everything on the tape is startlingly clean and breezy; even the track from perennial background guy GLC comes with an ethereal synth arpeggio. Farnsworth Bentley, who has absolutely no talents beyond pocket-square selection, turns in a half-decent simulation of a second-half album-track from Stankonia, complete with really nice guest-verses from Pimp C and Lil Wayne. All three of the leaked tracks from the new Common album are more purposeful and exciting than anything that guy has done in years. But there’s only one messiah-complex on display here, and all of a sudden I can’t wait to see what other stunts Kanye is going to pull this summer. At the beginning of the tape, Kanye says that Graduation is being pushed up even as he speaks. It can’t come soon enough.
Voice review: Robert Christgau on Kanye West’s Late Registration
Voice review: Hua Hsu on Kanye West’s College Dropout