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Album Review: Kanye West – Yeezus [Def Jam]

“How much do I not give a fuck? / Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up.” These are the words Kanye West spits out in the bridge to the song “On Sight,” the opening track off his new record Yeezus. It’s likely he’s addressing the media when saying them, however it makes a grand statement about the album as a whole. After a few records of ever-evolving but always smartly constructed and commercially accessible hip hop, West has had enough. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a crowning achievement of the highest order, enough to be called one of (if not THE) greatest records of the century. Crafting a follow-up certainly wouldn’t be easy, but in many ways West makes it look like child’s play. Those looking for challenging and obtuse in their hip hop will find it on this new album in spades, and though he’s purposely tried to avoid releasing any singles, it’s going to happen anyways since “Black Skinhead” has caught on.

Unlike the boisterous arrangements and orchestral flourishes that populated his last record, Yeezus goes for the stripped down, attack dog approach. West is angry at the world it seems, and though he throws out a lot of hate, he rarely threatens actual violence, which has largely been the case since the beginning of his career and has helped to separate him from his peers. Still, women don’t fare well on this record, particularly on the extremely sexual “I’m In It,” which includes lines like, “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign,” and the cringe-worthy “Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce.” The only real “redemption” (if you can call it that) for women comes on the final track “Bound 2,” which is rumored to be written about his relationship with Kim Kardashian. Elsewhere he chooses to go anti-corporate advertising with a track like “New Slaves,” slamming corporations and any famous people (especially other rappers) accepting goods in exchange for promotions and shout outs. Ironic then how closely his pal Jay-Z is working with Samsung for the release of his new album. Also unlike his last album, West keeps the guests to a minimum on Yeezus, and several tracks feature only his voice, though with a fair number of samples and “producers” working on them. Frank Ocean shows up for a few seconds on “New Slaves,” and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon gets a couple of dramatic vocal workouts on “I Am A God,” “Hold My Liquor” and “I’m In It.” Though Kid Cudi shows up for a verse on “Guilt Trip,” the only other guests are up-and-coming Chicago rappers Chief Keef and King Louie, on “Hold My Liquor” and “Send It Up,” respectively. Everybody’s great, but West truly shines when he’s flying solo.

The divorce drama of “Blood on the Leaves” is the absolute greatest and most powerful piece on the entire album, buttressed by a Nina Simone vocal sample and a piece of TNGHT’s “R U Ready” that provide a profound mixture of sadness and venom. The acid-house squelch sample from Phuture’s 1987 classic “Acid Tracks” cut, which inspired a generation of rock bands from that era (Nine Inch Nails included) helps drive “On Sight” to an intense degree, and brings a certain synth element to this record that West has never attempted before. That sort of sound works well on a number of album tracks, but perhaps “I Am A God”‘s Blade Runner-esque haze with a Daft Punk production assist matches up best overall, somehow able to handle both a goofy eye-rolling moment like the line, “Hurry up with my damn croissants,” and the terrified, breathless screams that show up at the end. The only track that really breaks from the unified bare-bones production on this record is “Bound 2,” which smashes together The Ponderosa Twins’ “Bound” with Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s” and Wee’s “Aeroplane (Reprise)” in a melody that sounds like t was ripped straight out of one of West’s first two albums.

Still, the generally minimalist (down to the cover art) and rock n’ roll-like approach he takes on much of Yeezus is new territory for him to explore, and something that feels informed at least in part by some of the incredible, anti-commercial anger that has earned Death Grips the right kind of attention over the last couple years. Hip hop in general could use more of this type of boundary exploration. In this particular case the strategy is likely West’s attempt to feed his own ego; to prove that no matter what he does or how much he alienates his own fans, he will still be praised as the greatest thing to ever happen in music. The worst part about it is, to some degree he’s right. Very few, if any, rap artists can claim to have such an acclaimed and lucrative career over a 10-year period. The same can be said about almost every musician outside of that genre too. You hate to give such a self-aggrandizing figure even more ammunition, but full credit where credit is due, Yeezus is another near-masterpiece.

Kanye West – Hold My Liquor (ft. Chief Keef and Justin Vernon)

Buy Yeezus from Amazon

Class of 2012: A Look Back

Last year, I was privileged enough to start something that turned into a great feature here on Faronheit. That was the “Class of 2012“, in which I chose 10 artists whose profiles I expected to rise significantly that particular year. After unleashing those names in January, I spent the year following their progress to see if they made good on that initial promise.

Some of the artists, like Grimes, Frank Ocean and Purity Ring, turned out to be inspired choices. Grimes was the #1 most blogged about artist of 2012. Frank Ocean released a record that revitalized R&B and got him applause that led to earning the top spot on many a year-end “best of” list, plus a nomination for the Album of the Year Grammy. Purity Ring just plain made a great album called Shrines that got them the same sort of praise, though maybe on a slightly smaller scale. So those were the main success stories from that last class.

Others didn’t work out so well. Kreayshawn was a “controversial” choice, a girl with a couple decent hip hop singles to her name, but who many felt was annoying and attempting to destroy the very fabric of popular music today. She promised her album would “put the haters in their place,” but sadly it only gave them more fuel to throw on the fire. She’ll undoubtedly keep trying, but will anyone bother to listen? Then you had a band like Blonds, an indie pop duo out of Florida. Their debut album The Bad Ones came out last summer, and while it often sounded like a mixture of bands like Tennis and Cults, the hooks just weren’t quite there and neither were the reviews. It wasn’t a poor effort by any means, it may just have struck at the wrong time – when a bunch of similar-sounding bands had already taken over an already crowded field.

And now a few words on Lana Del Rey. Arguably speaking, she’s a success. Her record may have been so-so outside of a few strong singles, but where she failed musically she struck gold as a figurehead. She barely even toured in 2012, yet continued to gain popularity thanks to a bunch of modeling work and commercial appearances for high end merchandise. You could say that music was just a springboard for her towards something much larger. As she moves in a new direction, can acting be far behind? We’ll see what happens in 2013. In regards to someone like Nicolas Jaar, he spent most of 2012 waking up to the idea that his album Space is Only Noise continued to be discovered and gain new fans almost every day. I expected him to rush and release something new to capitalize on his slow burn rise in popularity, but he instead chose to make some more subtle movements. Okay, so maybe releasing a compilation of largely unreleased music via a cube called The Prism isn’t entirely subtle. But he did that, compiled a BBC Essential Mix featuring some of his favorite artists, remixed a Cat Power track, and unleashed a new single called “The Ego” late in the year. He also toured quite a bit, and I saw him perform twice, which he was great both times. Maybe we’ll have something new from him in 2013?

Speaking of that, a few of my Class of 2012 still haven’t peaked quite yet. Their debut full lengths were due in 2012, but ultimately got pushed back to 2013. In other words, this year is going to be a big year for all of them, though arguably last year was too. Charli XCX put out a couple singles, an EP and a mixtape in preparation for her debut, and continues to gain new fans through touring as well. A$AP Rocky‘s record LongLiveA$AP got delayed and will finally be out this month, but he toured quite a bit in 2012 with the A$AP Mob, and unleashed a couple singles and videos. Oh man, remember that music video he did with Lana Del Rey for her song “National Anthem”? He played JFK, which was really quite out of left field. Finally, there’s Azealia Banks. Her 2012 was pretty huge, with her 1991 EP and Fantasea mixtape both coming out to a fair amount of praise. Both didn’t quite meet the expectations of her earliest singles, but the hope is that her debut full length Broke With Expensive Taste will rise to the occasion when it comes out in February. Meanwhile she’s attracting enough attention in the last couple weeks thanks to a fresh feud with Angel Haze that seems almost purposely created to promote one another. Whatever it takes to keep your name in the headlines, I guess. So long as the music is good, I don’t care how you promote it.

So let’s tie these artists up in a neat little bow and file them away for another day. Most assuredly they’ll all continue working in 2013, some with greater success than others. I’m proud of each and every one of the Class of 2012, even the ones that didn’t do so well. I plan to continue to follow all of them for the foreseeable future, but probably won’t actively report on any of it unless it feels absolutely necessary. Instead, I’ve got to shift my focus to the new year, and a brand new class. There are 10 new artists I’ll be following for all of 2013, and I’m super excited to reveal them to you later this week!

Album Review: Frank Ocean – Channel Orange [Def Jam]

Frank Ocean’s sexuality shouldn’t matter. Why his revelation that he’s bisexual has made so many waves (pun intended) is because people working in the hip hop and R&B genres are often considered intolerant of anyone who’s not 100% straight. There’s a fair amount of anti-gay rhetoric and hurtful slang used in tracks without even blinking an eye or somebody speaking out against it, and so for Ocean to come out in that sort of environment takes an incredible amount of courage. He’s weathered the storm quite well so far, though the realities of his situation might be a bit different than what we’re seeing through the eyes of the media. Now let’s just hope he doesn’t get stereotyped because of it, or made an unofficial spokesperson for all things bisexual or homosexual in the music community. The ultimate hope is that if you make great art that people will see past any labels and appreciate it solely for what it is. The great news for Ocean is that his newest album Channel Orange does exactly that, transcending topical, musical and many other boundaries to help make it one of the most fascinating and exciting full lengths of 2012 so far.

Whether you’ve been paying close attention to the R&B and urban styles of music the last few years or not, chances are you’ve become aware that the increased popularity of AutoTune has been both a help and a hindrance to music in general. At its best, AutoTune is another creative tool that can be used to take vocals or accent tracks in ways many never thought possible until now. At its worst, it’s an annoyance, detracts from the humanity in a song, and allows singers to cheat by taking their vocals to places they couldn’t otherwise go on their own. Ocean doesn’t use AutoTune on Channel Orange, nor is it apparent that he needs to. His vocals are smooth as silk, and his range is far more vast than you might expect. Listening to opening track “Thinkin Bout You,” Ocean holds a pretty even keel together until the chorus hits. Reacting to being wounded by a love interest, he flips into a soaring falsetto that makes for an impressive emotional outpouring of his pain. Sad though it may be, it’s also one of several very catchy songs on this record.

The lightly bouncing and effortless “Sweet Life” celebrates the excess associated with being rich, ultimately settling on the very addictive creed of, “Why see the world/when you’ve got the beach?” But that sort of reaction isn’t meant to be taken at face value, instead it’s more about the search for meaning beyond what money and the song’s title describe. Similarly, “Super Rich Kids” uses a plodding piano chord that sounds like it was ripped from Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” to both mock a life of massive weath and relate to the consistently greedy emptiness it causes. “A million one, a million two/a hundred more will never do,” he sings like a man trapped in a prison of money from which there is no escape. As a 24-year-old still in the earliest stages of his career, Ocean isn’t nearly at the point yet where he could be considered a financial heavyweight. These songs aren’t so much personal stories or feelings he’s describing, but rather character morality tales that are always human and surprisingly relatable. “Crack Rock” turns a drug addict into somebody we can sympathize with, while “Lost” is about the personal relationship between a drug dealer and a drug mule, how they may love each other but can’t stop using one another either. Love and religion intertwine on “Monks,” where the passion a crowd has for a musician parallels that of a deity, the Dalai Lama and Buddhism being the example used. Thematically similar but all the more devastating is “Bad Religion,” where he likens unrequited love to a cult because of its exclusivity, obsession and inability to give anything back to you. The line in the chorus, “I can never make him love me,” is thought by many to be related to the letter he wrote about his attraction to a man that didn’t feel the same way. Whether or not that’s actually the case, the frustration and sadness in his voice is very, very affecting.

Lyrical content and stories aside, Channel Orange also has plenty to offer in terms of composition. This is not your standard R&B slow jam style record. Ocean is offering up so much more than contemporary leaders of the genre like R. Kelly and Usher are trying these days. The risks he’s taking have more in common with Kanye West’s last album, the near perfect My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, than almost anything else around. If that record set a new bar for hip hop, Ocean’s seeks to set a new bar for R&B. He’s taking many of the greats such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Prince, and applying some of their best qualities in mind to tracks that are extremely modern in body. The organ and spoken word opening of “Bad Religion” is eerily reminiscent of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” but moves in a polar opposite direction with the entrance of mournful piano chords and dramatic orchestration. Southern style rhythm guitar and church organ blend quite effortlessly with drum machine beats on closing track “Forrest Gump,” and together they give the song a tenderness that betrays a line like, “I wanna see your pom-poms from the stands.” If you really want to understand what this record is all about and see how Ocean has turned R&B on its head, look no further than “Pyramids.” The sprawling, nearly 10 minute track moves from ambient electronica to dancefloor synth-pop to a soulful slow jam to a psychedelic guitar solo without ever sounding out of place or clumsy. Altogether it’s unlike anything else in music today, and it’s that much more brilliant because of it.

If Channel Orange has one problem, it’s sticking with the time honored tradition of adding interludes between a few songs to expand its overall length and track listing. Some of them, like “Fertilizer” and “White,” serve more like brief sketches of songs and glimpses of potential wasted. The bookend tracks titled “Start” and “End” feel even more pointless, the former using the sound of a Playstation powering on while the latter has the sound of somebody getting out of their car and walking into their house. Only “Not Just Money,” featuring a woman talking about how there’s more to life than dollars and cents as she struggles to feed her family, actually feels appropriately used. It’s sandwiched in between “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids,” emphasizing the moral lessons they’re looking to teach. Outside of those shrug-worthy and mostly pointless moments, everything else about this album is ironclad and near perfect. While it lacks the same theatricality and reinvention, Channel Orange can be favorably compared to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust record. Following on the heels of his controversial 1972 interview in which he confessed to being gay (which later turned out to be…not so much), Bowie was on the verge of calling it quits. Coupled with the legendary Ziggy Stardust however, Bowie’s profile rose significantly and he became the powerful force in music that many look up to today. Ocean is only getting his career started, but with the revelations about his sexuality and the excellence of this new album, you can almost see the same sort of career trajectory emerging. Time will tell for sure if that holds true, but for the moment this looks like the true birth of the next music superstar.

Frank Ocean – Pyramids
Frank Ocean – Sweet Life

Buy Channel Orange from Amazon

Class of 2012: 10 Artists to Watch This Year

Welcome to 2012! I hope you all had a great New Year’s. For my Chinese readers, we’ll celebrate next month. I’m very pleased to kick off this fresh new year in a similar fashion to how we ended 2011: with a list. Typically I leave all the listmaking for December and Listmas, but in this particular case I wanted to set a few objectives for 2012 and stick by them. That is to say, I want to step out on a proverbial limb and predict what will be hot this upcoming year. So I have created what I’m calling the Class of 2012: 10 Artists to Watch This Year. These are artists that, if you haven’t heard of them yet, hopefully you’ll know much more about them by the end of the year. I’m expecting big things from all these artists, though to be clear “big” can be defined a few different ways in this case. A couple of them will sign minor league record deals and make a small splash on the indie circuit, going from completely unknown to only relatively unknown. Others will become enraptured in the hype cycle and achieve much critical acclaim and potentially indie stardom. And even a few might just break out huge, turning into the next music superstars. The grand hope is that all these artists will obtain some serious forward momentum and reach your radar screens sooner rather than later. My plan is to provide periodic updates on all 10 of these artists, keeping a close eye on where they’re at and what they’re doing, in addition to the site’s more typical cycle of album reviews and mp3 giveaways. Stick with me as we learn more about the Class of 2012 so we can say we discovered them together. Let’s start with some introductions, so click past the jump to learn more about these wonderful ladies and gentlemen and hear some music by each one of them as well.

Album Review: Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne [Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation]

When talking about modern-day hip hop, you’d be hard pressed to argue there are two bigger names than Jay-Z and Kanye West. They are, to put it one way, at the very top of the talent pool, ruling over all others. Which one is the true #1 is plenty debatable, but according to them it really doesn’t matter. They hold a mutual respect and friendship towards one another, and hip hop is more of a collaborative art than it is a true solo pursuit. Look at almost any rap record and you’ll find a list of guests about a half mile long. Jay-Z and Kanye have each guested on one another’s records at different times in their careers. Kanye’s fingerprints were all over Jay-Z’s last album “The Blueprint 3”, while Jay-Z made appearances on Kanye’s first couple efforts. Those single song collaborations were often special unto themselves, but they never overshadowed the full vision of whichever artist’s name was on the cover. Speaking of visions, Kanye has just been having a banner year since the release of his last record “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, an album so highly praised that many are calling it a masterpiece. To put it another way, he doesn’t particularly need to be working on anything new right now, and even when he does you’d imagine expectations would be high. Yet when inspiration strikes and your buddy Jay-Z is ready and willing to work with you, it can be a tough calling to ignore. Hence “Watch the Throne”, a full length collaboration between the two current kings of hip hop. If it seems like an event record, that’s probably because it is. To treat it with the utmost of sincerity however, might be a mistake.

That’s not to say “Watch the Throne” is a joke record, because by all means it is not. Instead, try to view it as one of those moments where two extremely popular hip hop icons are getting together to just have a little fun. Since neither has to carry the burden of the entire album on their own, they’re able to relax a little bit and worry less about how the songs reflect on them as individuals. Besides that, Kanye West and Jay-Z approach hip hop in markedly different ways, with Kanye being very emotionally transparent in his words and experimental in his beats while Jay-Z is more straightforward and a storyteller. To put it in ruling terms, Kanye is like a crazy dictator, commanding his armies based largely on how he’s feeling emotionally that day. Jay-Z is more like a President in a democracy, in many ways isolating himself from any major decisions by having a hierarchy in place to blame mistakes on. He also adapts to the will of the people somewhat, or the will of his closest advisors, allowing their ideas and influence to be felt in his work as that simultaneously allows less of his own influence and personality to be exposed as a result. On “Watch the Throne” it results in an interesting dichotomy in which Kanye’s dominant personality continues to rule over all, both sonically and lyrically, while Jay-Z allows it to happen and has his arm twisted into trying that hat on himself. In other words, we get the same Kanye we’ve always gotten, but are exposed to a part of Jay-Z that has been rarely seen up until now. The entire record is not one long emotional confession from Jay-Z, but there are a few tracks where he certainly reveals more than he needs to – “Welcome to the Jungle” being the most obvious among them. The thing about such moments is that you can almost hear it in Jay-Z’s voice that he’s a little uncomfortable and it lessens the impact of a couple tracks as a result. A track like “New Day”, in which Kanye and Jay-Z play the “what if” card and dish out advice to their potential future sons is partly ruined because Jay sounds just a little unsure of himself. Funny that it comes up immediately after “Gotta Have It”, one of the record’s best moments, in which Kanye actually sounds more like Jay-Z rather than vice versa.

Topically speaking, a significant portion of “Watch the Throne” is devoted to the hip hop gold standard of bragging about excessive wealth. Given that Jay-Z and Kanye West are both rolling in money and their gold-plated album cover is opulent just to look at, these two have plenty of ideas about what it means to live the “good life”. Listen to or watch the video for first single “Otis”, and you’ll hear an array of high class brands mentioned, likely along with a few you’ve never heard of before because your bank account simply won’t allow you to even research them. That track in particular also misuses and abuses an Otis Redding sample, in that the music legend is nearly unrecognizable thanks to how brief and modulated his vocals are. It likely also cost a pretty penny to obtain all the samples used on this record, from James Brown to Nina Simone to Curtis Mayfield. That’s not even counting the guest vocalists ranging to Frank Ocean from Odd Future on a pair of songs through Jay-Z’s own wife and songstress Beyonce. And while such decadence both sample and lyric-wise can be a whole lot of fun, it’s good to know that these two guys can talk about more than just how big their bank accounts are. “That’s My Bitch” is about women, though not necessarily in the way you might imagine. Not only does Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon contribute some vocals to the track, but Jay-Z gets an remarkably solid verse as he pulls apart the exceptionally high beauty standards women are often submitted to these days. Kanye is the one that makes an ass of himself on the track, which then causes it to lose some of its power. The issue of “black on black violence” is addressed across a couple tracks, most notably “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Murder to Excellence”, which effectively function as two halves of a similar whole. Sandwiched in between them is “Who Gon’ Stop Me”, an ode to many of the famous leaders from our past that were killed for many different reasons – power being chief among them. Kanye spouting off a handful of lines in Pig Latin is nearly reason enough to make it an album highlight. Meanwhile “Made in America” creates a new royal family in its Frank Ocean-sung chorus, making mention of “sweet king Martin, sweet queen Loretta, sweet brother Malcolm” among others while Jay and (mostly) Kanye go on about their rise from the streets to being able to generate millions of blog hits. It’s one part poignant and another part braggadocio, which actually does a great job of again highlighting the differences between Jay and Kanye. Given their past histories, take one guess as to which one of them has a bigger ego.

Admirable though “Watch the Throne” might be, and as packed with talent as “Watch the Throne” might be, the sum of one part Jay-Z and one part Kanye West actually equals something lesser than the two when taken as individuals. When packaged in terms of single-song guest spots on one another’s records, the dichotomy tends to work out of sheer brevity and counterpoint – a momentary yielding of control. Because they’re ostensibly operating as equals here, there’s only so much room underneath the spotlight and gracious though they might be in sharing, you can tell that neither one of them is operating at full capacity. Given Kanye’s strength as a producer and Jay-Z’s strength as a lyricist, they’d have been better off playing to those big pluses rather than trying to evenly balance them. Kanye could easily have done a lot more in generating creative beats, as evidenced by “Why I Love You”, just as Jay-Z could have unleashed more controlled spitfire verses, as evidenced by “Lift Off”. While it’s always great to have an artist step outside of his or her comfort zone, it counts as a misfire if the results are ill-timed and awkward. Not only that, but the lack of a genuinely compelling and memorable single on this album makes it that much harder to fall in love with and generate repeat listens. For the strikes against this album, there are as many, if not more positive ways to view it. Foremost among them is the sheer talent that Jay-Z and Kanye have, to the point where even in a diminished capacity both still manage to shine when the time is right. If this was at all intended to be a battle for the proverbial “throne”, neither side officially wins but both make strong cases in one another’s favor. With the weightiest of expectations upon their shoulders, these two don’t quite meet the high watermark, but they come really damn close. “Watch the Throne” may not be the new gold standard of hip hop records, but do you think either one of these guys would be okay with accepting silver?

Click through to stream the song “Otis”

Buy “Watch the Throne” on iTunes

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