I wonder if the hubbub over Kanye’s album leaking in dribs and drabs is going to obscure the fact that he’s making inventive, entertaining music. I hope it doesn’t. I want us to remember that while Kanye the person is endlessly fascinating, Kanye the musician is as dynamic and compelling a creator as anyone in pop music today.
I want us to remember that he’s doing clever things with his production, like taking Auto-Tune and making it the language of ghosts, as on “Monster” and “Lost in the World,” where Justin Vernon’s modified voice serves as a wraith-like entity on tracks that sound like lonely nights. I want us to remember the way “so excitin'” fades into “suicidin'” on “Power”, the way Nicki Minaj’s last four bars Doppler in on “Monster.” I want us to remember the way ‘Ye’s turned Charlie Wilson (This guy!) into the house soul man for G.O.O.D. Music, as on “See Me Now” and “Lord Lord Lord.” I want us to remember that Swizz Beatz is the guy who flipped the sample on the “Power” remix.
I also want people to remember what Kanye and others are saying, and not just because it’s very important for everyone on Earth to remember that Swizz Beatz is a terrible, terrible rapper. I want us to remember what Kanye’s said, from gems like “I think about ’em Christmas, and play some Donny Hathaway” on “Power (Remix)” or “I’m like Socrates, but more chocolatey” on “See Me Now” or “I got lines that’s better than niggas’ albums, plural / King of the urban, make your shit sound rural” on “Lord, Lord, Lord” or, well, I’m sure you have your favorite lines, too. I want us to remember that Pusha T sounds inspired on these lush tracks, and that he’s likely to have an album full of them now that he’s under Kanye’s wing. I want us to remember that Jay-Z sounds as sneeringly potent on “Monster” and “So Appalled” as he ever has, that he actually tried on “Power (Remix)” and got obliterated by a white-hot Kanye. I want us to remember that Nicki absolutely kills her “Monster” verse, and Big Sean was so bad on “Good Friday” that someone snipped him from the song. I want us to pick up on the themes of death and isolation and acceptance of flaws in these songs, which sound at times like marches for shadow warriors, and remember that as long ago as Late Registration, Kanye said, “I’m tryna right my wrongs / But it’s funny, them same wrongs helped me write these songs.”
I want us to remember the signature sounds of these songs, from the revival-ready “whoa-ah-oh” and jagged King Crimson sample on “Power” to the stunting-in-church strings of “See Me Now,” from the rugged drum loop on “Monster” to the spacey sample of “Solstice” on “Lord, Lord, Lord,” from the mournful Smokey Robinson sample on “Devil In a New Dress” to the icy, chiming keys on “Runaway,” from the balloons-colliding drums on “Lost in the World” to the drums that clatter in like fusillades of rainsticks on “All of the Lights.”
I don’t want all of us — all of this — to get lost in the same old debate about whether piracy and bootlegging and leaking are hurting music. Car trunks and street vendors existed in the ’80s; Napster existed in the ’90s; The Pirate Bay exists now. The scale and mechanisms have changed; the goals and results of those who steal and profit off of art without creating it haven’t.
It’s tired and unnecessary for more people to expound on what’s killing the music industry. If more people had answers to those questions, fewer people would be scraping for music jobs. (And if the industry were really dying, not just downsizing and changing, it would probably be a bigger deal.)
The most interesting thing about music, to me, is that it is one of the easiest arts to criticize and judge, yet lends itself to incredibly deep and meaningful critique. Talking about music is, as it always has been, like dancing about architecture, but enjoying and dancing to music is judging music every bit as much as a Pitchfork review is, just in a different, less formal forum. Tapping your toe or tweeting “This is HOT!” is judging music. It’s really, really easy for torrents of opinion to pour out over a 5:56 track.
I just hope they’re about the track, and not about the track it took to public release. I care about people talking about the sausage, not the sausage-making.