(Author’s note – this is an editorial on two future albums, please give a small margin of error to things like tracklisting, lest I end up with egg on my face.)
I just finished watched Kanye West’s latest featurette, about him falling in love with a Phoenix that falls to Earth. It is actually pretty good, although the specific “Runaway” portion drags on a touch too long. Having released the tracklisting to his new album – due to drop within a month now – it seems clear what we can expect. And it is exciting for a number of reasons.
For the first time in a while – I’d argue about 3-4 years, in fact – we can expect the unexpected from West. He has taken a break and gone back to basics: focussing on the creation and distribution of his art. It is clear that the whole Taylor Swift incident woke him up from a slumber of sorts, and he is now back, in full effect. Perhaps, in another news week, that whole palaver would have received less attention (I didn’t actually know who Taylor Swift was, prior to that). But Kanye is nothing if not a fighter: “So I used my arrogance as a steam to power my dream.” This is a similar case, where he has turned a negative into the polar opposite.
For my money, I’d argue that he started to lose the plot from around late 2006. Building up to “Graduation,” he foolishly declared that it was going to be one of the Top 10 hip hop records of all time. Three years on, can anybody reasonably defend that statement? It was good, sure, particularly the first half – but it isn’t even the best rap record HE has released. I was painting my house a few weeks back, and decided to listen to “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration” back to back. They have aged remarkably well, his debut in particular. You can still pick holes in it, left, right and centre. But it has a warm, CLASSIC feel to it. I continued to paint, and stuck “Graduation” on straight after – the difference in quality level, charm, risk-taking and general cohesiveness was marked. As for “808’s & Heartbreaks” – I’ve previously attributed that album not to T-Pain, as 50 Cent suggested at the time, but to Kid Cudi. His fingerprints are all over the album, and whilst it was a worthy effort, commendable even, it just felt rushed and would have worked better if Kanye had rapped more and Cudi had sung.
Now, on the eve of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” it turns out that we have already heard over half of the 12 or so songs: including “Power,” “All of the Lights,” “Monster,” “So Appalled,” “Runaway” and “Devil in a New Dress.” For some reason, many a rap fan equates number of songs to quality – I do too, but inversely. The fewer, the better; eleven/twelve seems like a good number. Yet, the album version of “Runaway” is purported to be exactly EIGHT minutes long. We tolerated Kanye’s excesses on “Late Registration” because they worked in random isolation – let us hope that he doesn’t go completely over the top on MBDTF (if every song has a 3 minute Auto Tune outro, it will get old pretty quick).
Saying all that, one of the reasons this album augurs particularly well is due to the regained fearlessness that West is displaying. He is dropping a song every Friday until the end of the year. Forget taking tracks with Kweli and putting him on with Jay-Z: now he mixes Justin Bieber with Raekwon. Forget simple 3 minute music promos: now he directs 35 minute (and beautifully shot) feature films about falling in love with a bird. The feeling I get tells me that the days of Kanye West selling close to a million first week are over. It just doesn’t seem to interest him anymore. He seems to be looking at his place in the history books as a genuine innovator within the genre, and it looks like he wants to create a brilliant but challenging front-to-back record for artistic merit, not mass consumption.
One of my criticisms of Jay-Z is that he appears to be too focussed on breaking records, as opposed to making records. Kanye West seems to have taken the opposite direction. Just as Radiohead went through an almost contrary period (“Kid A”), expect West to do the polar opposite (or at least, as close as he is allowed to). I think he is hoping the MBDTF plays pretty much flawlessly, flowing perfectly from start to finish. The likes of big “hits” in the vein of “Gold Digger” and “Stronger” don’t seem to be relevant right now – West has to reinforce his reputation as a rapper, producer and artist.
Which brings us to another artist dropping an album clashing almost directly with Kanye – Nicki Minaj. Her debut, “Pink Friday,” is destined to sell healthily, I’m sure. She is in constant rotation, be it on guest tracks or her own singles. Yes, “Massive Attack” was a failure of sorts, but since then she has shocked and surprised in equal measure.
“Your Love” is a promising, under-stated, almost old school R&B club track, with an effective video. “Check It Out” is literally “OMG (Part II)” and scores a 9.5 on the Blatant-Rip-Off-O-Meter. But it is catchy, fun and, again, effective. “Right Thru Me” is a breezy number with challenging production, the likes of which should connect strongly with her emerging female fan base. Counter-balancing all of that, however, is “Roman’s Revenge.”
Managing to secure the kind of guest roster that the track-listing suggests – Rihanna, Drake, Kanye West and will.i.am – is impressive enough, but getting a co-sign from Eminem on the second song in is a real coup. Having heard the track, I’d argue that it is a missed opportunity. A simplistic review would go along the lines of: Em rips it, particularly in his first verse, Nicki is made to look like the novice she is, and the beat is kind of wack. However, let’s wait and see how it slots into the album as a whole.
It’s strange that it is one of Kanye’s tracks that may well have facilitated this: “Monster.” This is probably the first time that I took Nicki Minaj as a serious threat, because she basically ripped Kanye West, Jay-Z and Rick Ross to shreds. It was truly her “breakthrough moment” and even if she had dropped impressive guest spots before, her showing here gave her all-important credibility. Up until that point, it is arguable that Eminem would have even known who Nicki Minaj was. After THAT, he had to take her seriously.
As for the feel of “Pink Friday” – well, we will have to wait and see. My suspicion is that it will have a very “traditional” debut blueprint, with dots of Nicki and her various split personalities overwhelmed by Young Money stuff and chart attempts. As anyone who bought “Relapse” will tell you, however, accents can get somewhat boring, pretty damn quick – so let’s hope for her sake that she doesn’t overdo it.
This obviously isn’t a “battle” between Minaj and West, especially since they are label mates, so really it is Interscope that wins (as was the case when West “went up against” 50 Cent). That doesn’t mean, however, that it doesn’t provide interesting touchstones. West is now, it is fair to say, a seasoned “veteran” – this being his fifth album, and he has basically been in the mainstream hip hop industry for a decade now. Minaj is releasing her debut, with massive support from the “in” team (Young Money) and is, understandably, trying to chart, sell records, and gain respect. Their respective albums are likely to be chalk and cheese, polar opposites in virtually every respect. Yet, it is still fascinating to read comments such as these from West himself:
“This is such a big statement and such a big thing to fill but I think the scariest artist in the game right now is definitely Nicki Minaj and I think she has the most potential out of everyone to be the Number 2 rapper of all time. Because nobody’s gonna be bigger than Eminem. Eminem is the #1 Rapper of all time.”
After her album, we should be able to understand this prediction more, but what West is probably talking about is the potential market she can tap into: females. There is still not a single genuinely massive female rapper. Missy Elliott was popular, of course, but she was never a great lyricist (nor did she try to be, in fairness). Lauryn Hill – well, can you really count her, when you can probably count the amount of verses she dropped on both hands? Just as Eminem tapped into the “white market” and took them along for an incredible journey, could Minaj do something similar with the female market? Yes, Drake, Nelly and the rest – ever since LL Cool J dropped “I Need Love” – have sold consistently, but Minaj could have an “army of Barbies” to call upon. She can sing, rap, write, and you wouldn’t kick her out of bed either. The potential is almost exponential. Whether or not she will succeed, however, depends on a lot of factors, and her dropping the word “cunt” on the second song into the album may well alienate as many female fans as it inspires.
Either way, these two albums promise to provide music fans with an endless source of fascination for the coming months.