Lost in space
It had to happen eventually. The T-Pain robot-voice gimmick has come to completely dominate commercial rap over the past six months or so, with every possible rapper and R&B singer rushing to swipe it. Eventually, someone was going to come along and rediscover the vocoder’s potential for pathos. When electro was still a relatively new thing, people seemed to realize that these voice-filters could do more than make you sound all awesome and futuristic. That was obviously still the main draw, but on, say, Cli-N-Tel’s “2030,” there’s also a curiously blank melancholy to be heard, a feeling of feeling being lost. Those early electro tracks were all about technology in some sense or another. This was science fiction as music, and the futures depicted in science fiction are almost never completely happy utopian ones. If the Glow in the Dark tour is any indication, Kanye West is on his own science-fiction kick these days. And even if that science-fiction kick mostly exists to give a goofy-ass narrative framework and cool visuals to his struggle toward becoming the “biggest star in the universe,” it’s worth noting that “Homecoming,” the show’s triumphant pre-encore closer, is really a song about being unable to feel at home when you’re home after you’ve found success elsewhere. Vocoders are in constant use during that show; Kanye even croons some of the T-Pain parts from “The Good Life” himself. But one new single shows that Kanye’s also able to use that same effect in a way that transcends T-Pain’s mercenary hook-man ephemeral immediacy. On his verse from Young Jeezy’s “Put On,” Kanye slathers his voice in autotuner and turns it into a song about the loneliness and dissatisfaction that can come when you spend your entire life working toward a specific set of goals and then realize that those goals, once achieved, won’t really make you any happier than you were on your journey.
“Put On” is the first single from the forthcoming Jeezy album, and it’s a Jeezy track through and through up until the end: coke-talk, drawn-out ad-libs, epically gothic Drumma Boy synth-twinkles. (“Put On” is also, I should point out, a really great Jeezy track. The guy’s lyrics are finally becoming as vivid as his vocal presence, and there’s a newfound sly sense of humor at work here: “Big wheels, big straps, you know I like it supersized / Passenger’s a redbone, her weave look like some curly fries.”) But the song abruptly becomes something else at the 2:53 mark, when a gratuitously manipulated version of Kanye’s voice shows up. At the outset, Kanye’s singing the title, drawing it out into some weird R&B vocal runs that he never would’ve tried without the benefit of autotune. (I can just imagine how ass the untreated vocal must’ve sounded.) As he starts rapping, Kanye swings wildly between sneery defiance and gut-twisted ache: “I feel like there’s still niggas that owe me checks / I feel like there’s still bitches that owe me sex / I feel like these butt niggas don’t don’t know the stress / I lost the only girl in the world who knew me best.” This isn’t the first Kanye verse to emerge since his mother died; the appearance on Estelle’s “American Boy” came first, and I might be forgetting a couple more. But the “Put On” verse might actually be the first thing Kanye recorded after his mother’s death; either way, it sure catches him feeling raw. Throughout his verse, Kanye abruptly switches between wounded openness (“All these Jesus pieces can’t bring me peace”) to ugly if standard-issue rap girl-talk (“Sure I need just at least one of Russell’s nieces”) and back again. And with the benefit of that robot-filter, he stretches his voice into shapes he’s never attempted before, dramatizing his emptiness. For reasons I can’t quite place, it just kills me when he sings “I’m so lonely,” stretching that I into a long moan. It’s a verse about losing the people who really matter to you and who understand you, about being surrounded by people who want something from you instead, about the paranoia and bad faith that come along as byproducts of wild success. That it comes stapled onto the end of a triumphal Jeezy single somehow only increases its impact. It’s the saddest thing I’ve heard in forever.
After disappearing for a little while, Kanye is firmly back on the high-profile featured-rapper circuit these days, and his newest verses are about the most joyless he’s ever released. On the remix of “Lollipop,” he has to contend with a Lil Wayne who, thank God, seems to be having fun rapping again, and Kanye’s labored metaphors (“Tell a girl, like Doritos, that’s nacho cheese”) can’t match up with Wayne’s free-associative insanity. But even through the autotuner that’s once again all over his voice, Kanye sounds really heated; that “best in the world” line is pure defiance. The pretty great remix to N.E.R.D.’s horrible hammering single “Everyone Nose,” meanwhile, is all sinister brittle club-pop, the track approximating the dizzy, sticky heart-pound of the drug that made all those girls get in line for the bathroom. Kanye’s back to talking about girls on his verse again, and, as on “Put On” and the “Lollipop” remix, he’s doing it without any of the humane warmth he used to sometimes bring. He’s switching between extremes again, but now it’s between predatory pickup lines and haughty disgust at coked-out fellow celebrities. Taken together, the three songs represent one of the weirdest and most uncomfortable victory-laps in pop history. Even when we’re talking about someone who broadcasts his feelings as loudly and publicly as Kanye, it’s dangerous to infer anything about someone’s mental state from his music. But the image these three songs give me is of a Kanye numbed by success and heartbreak, one who might be running himself off the rails. But, then, I really like all three of these tracks, even despite their shaky metaphors and ooky misogyny. Maybe I shouldn’t be complaining as long as whatever wrongs are helping him write these songs.
Voice review: Greg Tate on Kanye West’s Graduation
Voice review: Robert Christgau on Kanye West’s Late Registration
Voice review: Hua Hsu on Kanye West’s College Dropout