Over the past decade, hip-hop has developed into more and more of a producer's medium, with beat creators like Timbaland, Mannie Fresh, the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams, and veteran Dr. Dre celebrated almost as much as rappers like Ludacris, Jay-Z, or 50 Cent. But as much as the producer is the new auteur, these music makers are rarely content to remain the wizard behind the curtain, with each of the men listed above prone to grab a microphone and put their face in front of the camera.
But over the past year or so, a new generation of producer-rapper is emerging that unites the two skills far more smoothly. There's Mississippi's David Banner, a sought-out producer for others who has developed on his own into perhaps crunk's deepest artist. And then there's the new king of this type: Chicago's Kanye West.
West, who has produced tracks for Jay-Z (most notably the Blueprint megahit "Izzo"), among others, stepped out on his own this month with the debut album The College Dropout, which currently resides at number two on the Billboard album chart and places two singles in the top 15 of the Billboard singles list.
As a producer, West favors vintage soul (and even gospel) samples and understated beats, making him a bit of a classicist compared to Timbaland's and the Neptunes' keyboard hooks and shock-of-the-new beats. But as an artist in his own right, he slays them. West is probably a better songwriter than rapper -- his lyrics always smart and interesting and his sense of song construction flawless, but his vocal flow merely proficient -- but he cuts a compelling cultural figure rather than coming off as merely an aurally gifted cipher.
The persona West establishes on The College Dropout might be something new in hip-hop. West is self-conscious, which he admits on "All Falls Down," thus conscious of his self-consciousness. So he's self-aware, but, thankfully, not self-involved, which turns out to be a crucial and compelling difference. West's empathy and community outlook -- writing about other people and about their problems -- contrasts with the perpetual end-zone dance that is much of modern, mainstream hip-hop. The kind of striving triumphalism that made the genre such a huge up in the '80s has had a tendency to turn sour since the music has, you know, actually triumphed. It's the difference between an underdog grabbing for the brass ring and a victor shoving that ring in your face. And West seems to understand this.
The College Dropout's two current smash singles don't totally convey the newness of West's gambit, but both are, in their own ways, still crucial to the character of the record. "Slow Jamz," with a sung hook from Jamie Foxx and a speed-rap finale from Twista, is sort of a hip-hop version of the Commodores' "Nightshift," a soul tribute that tries to duplicate the feel of the music it's celebrating. It's so gimmicky that it amounts to a song version of the standard hip-hop skit, and some of the lyrics ("I'ma play this Vandross/You gon' take your pants off") might make your eyes roll (though still in a self-aware way), but it acknowledges and celebrates West's debt to classic soul.
More interesting is "Through the Wire," an audacious bit a pop autobiography. The background story is that West, already a successful producer, was in a near-fatal car accident, from which he emerged with a wired jaw. But instead of waiting his injury out, West wrote a (killer) song about it and recorded it, mumbling through his shut jaw over a sped-up sample from Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire," making the line "spit my soul through the wire" literal and figurative at the same time. In a genre where embellished accounts of past transgressions are the norm and 50 Cent's bullet wounds are fetishized by magazine writers and prepubescent fans alike, this more mundane tale of "tragedy to triumph" feels more real than "real." And the song's opening, Three-6-Mafia-referencing lines will be tough to top as 2004's most memorable musical moment: "I drink a Boost for breakfast/An Ensure for dizzert/Somebody ordered pancakes/I just sip the sizzurp."
But truer to the strategy of the album is the opener, "We Don't Care," a defiant state-of-the-hood anthem (best part: a kiddie chorus that sings "We wasn't supposed to make it past 25/The joke's on you, we still alive/Throw your hands up in the sky/And say, 'We don't care what people say!'") that focuses more on community-wide problems -- riffing on minimum-wage jobs, school budget cuts, and the allure of drug dealing -- than on West himself. It also establishes an album-long pattern, which works more often than not, of tempering serious material with borderline cheesy laugh lines. (A fave, about the kids having their after-school programs cut: "Some of them dyslexic/They favorite 50 Cent song's '12 Questions.'")
And this sets the tone for a mainstream hip-hop album that presents a much fuller vision of life than we've been getting from the genre lately: business deals and family get-togethers, working at the Gap for no scratch, musing on family civil rights history, making promises to your girlfriend's dad, and dropping out of school (though the album's anti-education skits are out of character, grating, and just plain unfunny). But West still celebrates himself (fave Big Willie boast: "I'm Kan, the Louis Vuitton don/Bought my mom a purse, now she Louis Vuitton mom"), even as he makes a show of not celebrating himself.
On The College Dropout, West comes on as hip-hop's Bill Clinton (with, say, 50 Cent as Reagan, Talib Kweli as Walter Mondale, and Aesop Rock as Ralph Nader), presenting a third-way path between the often opposed conspicuous consumption of mainstream rap and the school-marmish finger-wagging that is its underground corollary. As he puts it himself on "Breathe In, Breathe Out," he's the "first nigga with a Benz and a backpack." He's perhaps the only man in hip-hop who can put mainstreamers Ludacris, Jay-Z, and Freeway on the same record with "conscious" standard-bearers like Mos Def, Common, and Talib Kweli. He wants it both ways, every which way, and he seems smart enough, charming enough, and cagey enough to get it.
You can hear this on "All Falls Down" (which finds a hook on, of all places, Lauryn Hill's dreadful unplugged record) and "The New Workout Plan," which examine a "single black female, addicted to retail" and a gold-digging "video hofessional," respectively. These are both gender-specific social critiques but manage not to be mean-spirited or misogynistic. Compare these songs to, say, Public Enemy's condescending "She Watch Channel Zero" to appreciate West's political skills. In the PE song, they excoriate women for watching brainless soap operas but uphold their own right to watch football after the women are kicked off the couch. West makes a point of both understanding the impulses of the women he's rapping about and implicating himself in each scenario, acknowledging his own materialism on "All Falls Down" and warning women in "The New Workout Plan" about going back to dating "hustlers, gangstas, all us ballers." The difference is akin to the distinction between a Reagan vision of welfare reform and Clinton's. Like Bill, Kanye feels your pain.
But, also like Clinton, as intoxicating as West's vision and skill might be, you can't quite trust him. Part of the problem is that the space West has carved for himself as a uniter, not a divider (oops, wrong president), is a bit of a strawman argument. From mainstream De La Soul to underground Atmosphere, there are plenty of hip-hoppers who have been able to rocket past these distinctions and with considerably less self-congratulation, though perhaps not with the same measure of commercial success. But the biggest problem is that West's drama of the gifted child (yep, like Clinton's) carries an aftertaste, something you sense on "Through the Wire," where West's line "wasn't talking about coke and birds/more like spoken word" is just a little too cute. He seems too pleased with his own achievements, too smugly satisfied with his own modesty. But even this doesn't detract from West's status as the most compelling new artist in pop music right now. In fact, that tension is central to why he feels so momentous. --Chris Herrington
Phantom Planet's self-titled third album finds the L.A. band trying desperately to sound of-the-moment.
Their previous album, 2002's attention-getting The Guest (which has found new life since its single "California" became the opening theme to neo-90210 The O.C.) bounced by on the boyish enthusiasm of five West Coast music geeks who couldn't wait to tell the world about this amazing singer they'd just discovered named Elvis Costello.
Phantom Planet, however, gives an obligatory nod to a more East Coast aesthetic -- the gritty garage-rock of the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Liars. Derivation is always a bad thing (see Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?), but in trading the O.C. for CBGB, Phantom Planet jettison the bouncy refrains and simple, boy-doesn't-get-girl lyrics that buoyed their best songs and instead adopt a grungy new-punk approach that plays to their weaknesses by showcasing flimsy songwriting and forgettable melodies.
Occasionally -- almost by accident -- they dig up something interesting and memorable, such as the shout-out chorus of "Big Brat" and the caffeine jitteriness of "Making a Killing," but on the whole, the album is surprisingly lifeless. Worst of all, they don't seem to be having any fun; instead, they sound like they'd rather be going back to Cali and hitting the beach. --Stephen Deusner