Is Kanye West the (Auto-Tuned) Voice of Our Generation?

Stealing from Zero Punctuation here:

The short answer is “No.”

The long answer is “Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.”

Kanye West recently declared himself the voice of his generation (which is, I believe, my generation), which is, in my book, totally against the rules. You don’t get to decide you’re the voice of your generation; your generation decides that. I don’t think my generation has elected Kanye our Spokesdouche. Or, if we have, I missed the meeting. In case you’re wondering, my Voice of a Generation nominees are, in no particular order: Craig Finn, Jarvis Cocker, Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Matt Berninger. Take your pick.

Lest I be accused of hatership here, I will cop to really liking “Gold Digger” and a smattering of Mr. West’s other tracks. He’s probably the best of the mainstream rappers, which I admit is like saying he’s driving the short bus instead of traveling as a passenger, but I want you to know that I am acknowledging his modicum (or jot or iota) of talent. And I don’t hate hip-hop as a genre, either. To the contrary, I tend to compare all hip-hop I hear to “Rebel Without A Pause,” or “Don’t Believe the Hype” and I usually find it wanting.

I’m not rambling all this preamble because of West’s brash declaration (I’ve supported his brash declarations in the past, cheifly when he said “George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Come on – you were thinking it too.) but because he’s released a new album and I, inspired by a recent debate over the merits of Auto-Tune (the prize in that discussion goes to my pal Jon from Portland who quipped, “Now, Now…for some, Auto Tune saves that one perfect take with that one slight imperfection…for Britney Spears that one imperfection is her whole voice.”), have actually bothered to listen to it.

The question is, can anyone use Auto-Tune creatively? I opined that Tom Waits would seriously bust some shit up with it, but we have no evidence of that so far. So, Mr. Waits, if you read Bollocks!(doubtful), feel free to throw your beaten-up hat in the ring and record something with Auto-Tune. In the meantime, we’ll settle for Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, his album that is more pop than hip-hop. More pop means more singing, which is where the Auto-Tune comes in.

The first thing I noticed, from album opener “Say You Will” (points to Kanye for a six minute pop song), is that Auto-Tune seems to make every male vocalist sound like a cross between Peter Gabriel and that douchebag from Maroon 5. That’s a pretty deep hole to start out in and Kanye’s lyrics don’t really do him any favors. I understand the dude’s personal life has been rough this year (join the club, Kanye), but “I admit I still fantasize about you” isn’t really digging for emotional gold.  Nor is, “He said his daughter’s got a brand new report card/ and all I’ve got is a brand new sports car” from “Welcome to Heartbreak.” Sorry, Kanye, you’re going to have hone your literary chops a bit more if you want to be the voice of my generation.

The Auto-Tune gets old immediately, as does West’s tendency to repeat one or two phrases over and over while using it. There are some good beats on 808s and Heartbreak and some fun 80s synthesizer bits (especially on “Robocop,” which is ridiculous but also the best song on the album), but that fucking Auto-Tune just gets in the way, especially on “Heartless,” where I thought he was actually doing a duet with that asshole from Maroon 5.

Okay, okay. I’ll stop bashing the Auto-Tune for a minute and focus on the song writing.

It’s great.

Well, it’s great if you like your lyrics on a par with Chris Martin’s. And some people do. You know, people who take John Grisham and Dan Brown seriously as novelists. (I know that’s elitist, but criticism is elitism, and don’t believe anyone who tells you different) Once you strip away all the shitty effects, 808s and Heartbreak doesn’t have much in the way of depth. It’s long on repetition (“Amazing” repeats “It’s amazing” a bunch of times for its chorus, in one of the most brilliant rhyme schemes in the history of music) and out-of-left-field cultural reference (like “How could you be so Dr. Evil?”). Hip-hop is a great venue for literary cleverness (and so is rock music, as Craig Finn proves), and I know this is more of a pop album, but the point still stands. The rhymes on this album are pretty lazy, which torpedos an album that’s supposed to be so personal.

The music itself is fun – an eclectic mix of hip-hop drums and the afore-mentioned 80s pop hotness, but the cumulative effect is nothing that isn’t surpassed on every Grand Buffet album.  West deserves points for trying to step outside of his comfort zone, but I can’t listen to his ambition. I have to listen to his music, and 808s and Heartbreak is a mostly hilariously bad attempt at a pop album (Common’s Electric Circus was a more daring and more satifsying step outside of the mainstream) with some mildly redeeming stuff in the middle (“Robocop” and “Street Lights”). If West is really feeling ambitious, he should ditch the effects entirely and front a punk band on his next album. Live drums, two guitars, and a bass. No Auto-Tune, either. Just yell it out, dude.

As far as 808s and Heartbreak goes as an admittedly arbitrary referendum on Auto-Tune, I honestly believe West would sing better without it. And I know he was going for a particular sound with the Auto-Tune but I can’t make myself like that sound, can I? No, I can’t. And I do recognize that the album is, by mainstream hip-hop standards, a bold move. The other hip-hop songs I’ve heard that use Auto-Tune are more annoying than this whole album, but the effect is still distractingly irritating. I realize, of course, that this is just my opinion, but so is everything else on Bollocks! In a genre so reliant on technology (which is not a bad thing at all), it might be a more refreshing move to switch over to more live instruments (as Atmosphere did on this year’s excellent When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold). If you like the sound of Auto-Tune, this album might be a revelation to you, but the only thing it reveals to me is (call me a purist or a hater or whatever you want) that I really fucking hate Auto-Tune.

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