Rapping Up the Year
With Kanye, Cudi and Cee Lo Green

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t fully understand hip-hop.

Part of it is cultural, no doubt. So much of this music is dedicated to the experience of being black in America, and those are shoes I will never walk in. But then, I’ll never be a poor boy from a British mining town, or a working-class guy from New Jersey, or an evangelical Christian from the deep south, or a victim of Apartheid in South Africa. And yet, I own music from artists who express all of these points of view, and help me to understand them, the same way Chuck D. and Posdnous and Q-Tip and Eazy-E helped me understand theirs.

No, my stumbling block with hip-hop has always been musical. Here’s the thing: I like pop music so much because I get it. I know what goes into it. I know how a good pop song is constructed, and I understand when writers play with those rules. I’m well-versed in the history of pop music, and I can tell you when writers with a sense of history are pulling from certain styles.

I don’t have this same kind of knowledge of hip-hop. I’ve watched it grow and evolve from the early ‘80s, when I first started listening. (Admittedly, I was listening to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, but whatever.) I know the landmark albums, I can tell you which records are responding to which, but I can’t exactly explain to you why, for example, Illmatic is awesome and Nastradamus isn’t. I know I like Illmatic more, but in a lot of ways, they’re very similar to me.

And the real difficulty I have is that I’m an old-fashioned melody addict. I need strong melodies to really engage with something, and lyrics are often less important to me on first listen. Hip-hop, particularly the more stripped-back beats-and-rhymes hip-hop, requires me to completely reorder my way of thinking. I usually end up in awe of the lyrical construction and vocal delivery, without ever really liking the songs very much. And I know that sentence by itself must seem odd to hip-hop fans, because in many ways, the lyrical construction and vocal delivery is the song.

So I don’t keep up with a lot of the lower-key rap releases during the year. (I definitely don’t keep up with the higher-profile ones either. My collection just doesn’t need any 50 Cent.) This year, for example, I bought Eminem’s album, which I really liked, and Big Boi’s, which I dug, but apparently not enough to write about. I’ll buy anything De La Soul puts out. I liked Mos Def’s last record, The Ecstatic. I like Sage Francis a lot, but haven’t picked up his latest for some reason. I feel like hip-hop is a world I know very little about.

And yet, I keep trying. I can only review rap albums the way I review any album: by talking about what strikes me and what doesn’t. My analogies are all going to be to rock and pop records, though, because that’s what I know best. All art comes from the same human desire for connection and expression anyway, it’s just the trappings that are different.

Case in point: Kanye West. Here’s a guy who wants to be loved, wants to be revered as an artist. But he wants that on his terms. When he started out, he was a pretty good rapper and a very good producer, making off-center pop hits like “Jesus Walks” and “Gold Digger.” He quickly earned a reputation as an artist who would collaborate with anyone – his second album, Late Registration, was co-produced by classic pop composer Jon Brion, and was in many ways the hip-hop Sgt. Pepper.

But lately, West has been making weird, weird music. This is to his credit. There’s practically no rapping at all on his fourth album, 808s and Heartbreak. Just the sound of a broken man singing through Auto-Tune over ancient synths. And now here is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his longest, most self-indulgent, most profane, strangest, and quite possibly his best. It’s an album no one else on the planet would make, the product of complete creative freedom, and that’s both its blessing and its curse. It’s an album that isn’t quite sure of itself – like its creator, it works very hard to convince us of its genius, even if it doesn’t quite believe it.

Early word had West returning to hip-hop on this album, and that turns out to be correct. But he’s Kanye West, so you know it’s not that simple. This record pulls from a hundred different sources, and while it remains rooted in rap, it explodes those boundaries again and again. West collaborates with dozens of artists here, some you’d expect – Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Nicki Minaj – and some you’d never guess, like Elton John and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. West uses programmed beats and synths, of course, but he also incorporates cellos and horns, and samples from some wild sources, like Aphex Twin and King Crimson.

Essentially, West does whatever the hell he wants on this album, and while there are moments when he falls on his face, the overall sense of unbridled creation here is worth it. Just the first single, “Power,” is unlike anything he’s done, with its hook ripped from “21st Century Schizoid Man,” its orchestral interlude, its beautifully arranged choral vocals, and its unstoppable beat. Everything clicks here. “All of the Lights” incorporates a massive number of guest vocalists, including Rihanna, The-Dream, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Elly Jackson of LaRoux, Elton John, Fergie and Drake, but doesn’t just mass them all together – they’ve got parts, and you can hear them intertwine.

For the first five tracks, in fact, West’s ambitions are perfectly realized. It’s the best opening shot he’s ever delivered, from the Mike Oldfield-sampling “Dark Fantasy” to “Gorgeous,” based on a lick from the Byrds’ “You Showed Me.” But in the back two-thirds, West gets into more self-indulgent waters, starting with a three-song stretch of straight beats and rhymes, loaded down with guest stars. Swizz Beatz, Pusha T, Prynce Cy Hi… I don’t even know who most of these people are, but they each get extended verses. The only must-hear moment is Nicki Minaj’s jaw-dropping turn on “Monster,” my favorite of these three tunes.

The final third, however, is music only West would and could make, and it’s brilliant and bizarre, tentative and bold. It’ll make you gasp in awe and roll your eyes in contempt, often in the same song, and in that way, it’s very much like its author, who inspires both frustrated sighs and fervent accolades. West takes on his own public image on “Runaway,” one of the best songs he’s ever penned. “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags, let’s have a toast for the assholes,” he sings, before advising the listener to “run away fast as you can.”

“Runaway” drew cheers from the crowd at the Video Music Awards, and I think some might have considered it penitent when he performed it. Not so. The lyrics are more probing and curious, West seemingly saying he just does what he does, and he has no idea why he acts like such a douche. He’s basically asking his fans to indulge him, and then he immediately takes advantage of that, stretching the song to nine minutes. The final third of “Runaway” finds West humming through Auto-Tune over a repetitive cello part. For three whole minutes. Another producer would have vetoed this, no doubt, but West gives it all to you, for what it’s worth.

“Blame Game” is a further eight minutes, and this one perfectly sums up the joy and exasperation I feel listening to this record. The song is amazing – West samples Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14,” wrapping up the piano parts in warm synths, and then gets John Legend to spin a tale of miscommunication: “I’ll call you bitch for short,” he sings, and later responds, “You call me motherfucker for long.” (It doesn’t sound pretty, but it is.) But then, West gives the last two minutes over to Chris Rock, for a repetitive, tedious gag that, tonally, just jars. On repeated listens, this bit is particularly useless.

Which brings up a good point: for all of West’s brilliant production techniques, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a lyrically confused and often ugly record. West presents himself as both self-aware and defiant, exploring his shortcomings, but then refusing to grow as a person. It’s an interesting paradox – he’s a guy who really wants to be liked, but still raps about dating porn stars. It’s like he’s showing us all of this ugliness while looking for our approval, and the extraordinary music makes rejecting it much more difficult.

His final sentiments make the point better than I ever could. The last track is called “Lost in the World,” and it’s West’s most complete collaboration with Justin Vernon. Vernon’s all over this record, in a supporting role, but “Lost in the World” is built off of Bon Iver’s Auto-Tune wonder “Woods.” West somehow makes this piece even more affecting than it was originally, and gives it a pulsing beat. It’s almost spectral, otherworldly, and over that, West raps this: “Let’s break out of this fake-ass party, and turn this into a classic night, if we die in each other’s arms, we’ll still get laid in the afterlife.” It’s like a dirty joke at a funeral.

And then? And then he layers in a sample of Gil Scott-Heron’s scathing revolutionary rant “Comment No. 1,” which adds more gravitas to this record’s closing moments than they deserve. As a poet, West isn’t working on Scott-Heron’s level. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a self-obsessed document of douchebaggery pretending to be a major statement. Musically, this is astonishing stuff, and it flows like wine. But when the author of the story reveals himself, he just doesn’t have anything important to say.

Still, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is probably West’s masterpiece. He’s working on a plane all by himself. Rather than abandon rap when other music interests him, West has grounded himself here, bringing all of his myriad influences to enrich his hip-hop roots. It’s phenomenally self-indulgent, sometimes ill-advised, but mostly off-the-charts creative, and unlike anything else you’re likely to hear. West is prodigiously talented, and when he’s on, he’s at least as good as he thinks he is. Which is pretty damn good.

* * * * *

And that guy, Kanye West, once said that Kid Cudi is his favorite living musician. That alone would make Cudi’s work worth checking out to me, but I’ve been reliably informed that the popular rapper is not held in high regard. This is probably one of those times where my unfamiliarity with the genre and its scenes trips me up, but I can only say what I feel: I like Cudi. And as much as I liked his first record, I like his second even more.

Kid Cudi (real name Scott Mescudi) made his name with mixtapes and guest spots, and I suppose people were expecting something more hardcore from his debut album, Man on the Moon: The End of Day. Instead, what they got was a low-key, almost somnambulant collection of paranoid, drug-obsessed dreams. The sequel, Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, turns those dreams to nightmares. It remains slow and low – there are practically no beats on this thing, just little percussion patterns – and the whole thing is claustrophobic and dark.

That fits its subject matter. Mr. Rager is a concept album about dealing with the pressures of fame. Yes, it’s one of those, but there’s a conceptual weight to this thing that ties it all together well. It’s subdivided into five acts, and Mescudi starts off on relatively stable ground. But by act four, he’s drowning in his own addictions and pain, and turning into Mr. Rager, his violent and self-destructive alter ego. It’s just as self-obsessed as West’s work, but Cudi’s conceptual underpinning elevates it. You feel pulled in by Mescudi’s darkness.

The production is mostly minimal – ghostly beats, empty bass lines, droning keys. Cudi’s voice is hangdog, and when he sings he slips off the notes more often than not. But even that works with the record’s theme. Even a song called “Wild’n Cuz I’m Young” is a pitch-black shroud of music, like a death march. Only “Erase Me,” a guitar-fueled pop song with a verse by West, doesn’t quite fit, but it’s fun, so I let it slide.

This is the second installment in a trilogy, the back cover blurb informs us, and I think Cudi sees this as his The Empire Strikes Back, the middle movie that puts our hero in jeopardy. He ends the record trapped in his mind (on a song called, um, “Trapped in My Mind”), looking for a way out of the prison he’s built for himself. (But not very hard: being trapped is “not that bad,” he sings.) Cudi is very popular, and his records sell well, but listening to this, I’m at a loss to explain why. That’s a good thing, by the way – this album is so odd, so dark, so antithetical to anything you’d hear on pop radio that its popularity is a mystery.

But I like it. It’s moody, trippy music that never overstays its welcome, and though the album as a whole is oppressive, it’s also impressive. I have no idea how long Cudi can keep this up, but he’s carving out a space for himself, doing music no one else is doing. I guess I’m not supposed to like this, but I do, and I’m already waiting for Man on the Moon III.

* * * * *

I’m on much sturdier ground when it comes to Cee Lo Green.

But wait, you say. Cee Lo’s a singer, not a rapper. Ah, but he used to rap, when he was one-fourth of Atlanta-based hip-hop group Goodie Mob. So he counts. And his album is terrific, and I want to tell you about it.

Cee Lo Green, as you probably know, is a golden-throated soul singer. He’s the voice of Gnarls Barkley, but earlier this year, he scored his first wildfire hit on his own with “Fuck You,” the song that launched a million YouTube views. In many ways, “Fuck You” is the perfect Cee Lo song – it coasts on a bed of old-school soul music, but Green uses the lyrics to say the things the old soul singers just couldn’t. It’s firmly rooted in the Motown sound, but fully and completely modern at the same time. It’s a little miracle of a song.

It’s also the best pop tune of the year, bar none. Even Green was surprised when “Fuck You,” released as a teaser for his third album The Lady Killer, went viral and turned into the biggest hit of his solo career. And I think he was caught flat-footed. For more than a week, while “Fuck You” made its way around the interwebs, Cee Lo offered no way to legally download the song, and no album to buy it on. The Lady Killer clearly wasn’t finished, and at the time of the single’s release, was still three months from hitting shelves.

The Green Team scrambled, and brought the release date forward about a month, and now The Lady Killer is here. It’s still two months too late, but it’s here, and it’s very, very good. The entire album maintains that perfect balance between the old soul sound and modern production, and somehow Cee Lo has mastered the art of writing this particular kind of song.

Just listen to “Bright Lights Bigger City,” the opening number. (After the awesomely badass intro. “My name is… not important.”) It comes dangerously close to taking the bass line of “Billie Jean,” and it’s performed almost entirely on synthesizers, but it’s such a classic-sounding tune. “Satisfied” is similar – I can really hear Al Green singing this one. “Love Gun” even uses the old hip-hop trick of substituting gunshots for snare drums, but its zippy James Bond-style surf-soul really works.

In fact, the whole album is excellent. I’m even warming up to Green’s cover of “No One’s Gonna Love You,” my favorite Band of Horses song. This version is missing the ghostly beauty of the original, but Green amps it up with strings and his from-the-heart vocals, and it works. Top to bottom, The Lady Killer is solid and entertaining stuff.

There’s only one problem, and its name is “Fuck You.” It’s far and away the best song on this record, as it would be on just about any record released this year, and its presence puts everything into sharp relief. Without “Fuck You,” The Lady Killer is a really good neo-soul album from a master of the form. With it, though, the album may as well be titled Fuck You and Some Other Songs That Aren’t As Good. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather have the song than not have it, but if there’s any case that cries out for a return of the ‘50s and ‘60s practice of non-album singles, it’s this one.

Green was wise to sequence the amazing “Wildflower” right after “Fuck You,” and it very nearly carries its momentum. But as you check out the spooky “Bodies” and the lovely “Cry Baby” and all the other very good tunes on The Lady Killer, you’re going to want to go back to track three and hear its best song again and again. Resist that temptation, and you’ll find that Cee Lo Green has delivered a really swell album here, one worthy of the praise it’s getting. Green may never again write a song as catchy or as perfectly-realized as “Fuck You,” but if he continues giving us albums like The Lady Killer, his place in pop history is assured.

* * * * *

Next week, well, could be anything. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.