"Die Mauern steh'n/sprachlos und kalt, im Winde/klirren die Fahnen."
"In a French-ass restaurant/Hurry up with my damn croissants."
Three quotes from three different records all making a splash right about now: Ian Bostridge singing Benjamin Britten songs, Prodigy & Alchemist's Albert Einstein, and Kanye West's Yeezus. In all three cases, there are a lot of words set to music, and in all three cases, depending on the moment, you can take the words seriously, with a grain of salt, or as just part of the sounds. In short, it's the return of the perennial form vs. content debate and from my point of view, form always trumps content - in fact, in many cases the form IS the content.
Britten Songs, by tenor Ian Bostridge, with accompaniment by pianist Sir Antonio Pappano and (on five songs) guitarist Xuefei Yang, is a supremely intelligent collection of songs by the 20th century's greatest Btitish composer. In part a celebration of Britten's centennial, the five song cycles included span his career from 1940 to 1969 and showcase his remarkably consistent approach to setting songs. Britten always seems to engage with the words of the poems he chooses, but the listener may ignore them as the results delight the ear and the emotions with melodies by turns haunting, spiky, questioning, wistful, and charming.
Bostridge has been singing Britten songs since the start of his career and he inhabits these songs completely. Such is his conjuring of mood that it seems only appropriate that his doctorate from Cambridge was earned by a thesis on witchcraft. He is ably assisted by Sir Antonio, whose playing is always lucid and dynamic without ever stealing the spotlight. Yang is equally transparent on the guitar in the sweet miniatures of the Songs from the Chinese. Fortunately, Britten is far too sophisticated to fall prey to any Oriental clichés in these pieces and they end the album delightfully.
I'm sure there will be many new releases and reissues commemorating Britten's 100th but this basically perfect record may stand at the top of the heap. And, while there are some evocative words in the poems of Hardy, Hölderlin, Michelangelo, etc., you don't have to read them to enjoy the record - which is fortunate as most download services do not provide the liner notes.
Prodigy is, of course, one half of the legendary duo Mobb Deep, and he has been on a tear since his release from prison in 2011, releasing three albums, at least as many mixtapes, as well as a variety of Mobb Deep singles and guest appearances. He's currently on an international tour in honor of Mobb Deep's 20th anniversary. His jail sentence for a weapons charge in 2008 especially stung as it was not long after the release of both Return Of The Mac (a full album collaboration with producer The Alchemist and one of his finest records) and H.N.I.C. Part 2 (also very good). One of the things that made Mac so great was how tightly focused it was, with nearly every song featuring beats redolent of 70's soul and Blaxploitation soundtracks, and lyrics dwelling on the gangster life from all angles.
The connection between Prodigy, the ultimate New Yorker, and The Alchemist (out of Beverly Hills) goes back to 1999 and Mobb Deep's platinum-selling Murda Muzik album. They are both hip hop lifers and obviously simpatico so the announcement (relentlessly promoted on social media) of a new joint album was welcome and Albert Einstein, while perhaps not at the heights of Return Of The Mac, does not disappoint.
Alchemist's sounds are dazzling, constructing a kaleidoscopic array of spine tingling backgrounds to challenge Prodigy to bring his A game. Just like pretty much every rap album, not every line is a deathless classic (like the boilerplate boasting quoted above), however Prodigy has a hypnotic flow that pulls you in. It's like a con-man's seductive patter and especially effective when he's painting a specific picture as on the chorus of YNT: "Got 16 on the hip/Pretty little things in the whip/'Bout to take a ride, get lit/Episodes of some young hustlers, we thuggin'."
There are plenty of memorable couplets on Albert Einstein, however, and it never ceases to amaze how Prodigy comes up with new ways of describing his noir surroundings: "Morning of the day, evening of the killer kids/City of the gods, money stack pyramids," from Death Sentence, or "I am - slippery when wet off that 'maldehyde/Smoke a Dutch full of dust, pull a homi-," from Give Em Hell. In that second quote, check out how he cuts off the second syllable of "homicide," denying the ear of the expected rhyme - then he uses the word "side" in the next line, twisting the knife. Dylan does stuff like that.
When it all comes together, as on the album's masterpiece Confessions, all the power and promise of the Mobb Deep ethos is brilliantly present. The song is a straight-up tale of score-settling, with perfectly chosen details that put us in the scene: a hip hop first-person shooter. The song begins with Prodigy hitting the street and being told the guy he's looking for is up the block, "hot-boxing" with a woman wearing a cheap red weave. He spots the car and: "I saw his radio lights through the rear tint/I stepped in front of the car so he could see the hit/The look on his face was priceless/The bitch's micro braids caught fire when the fifth/Put pieces of her wig on the seats in the back/Now there's weed smoke pouring out the bullet hole glass." Raymond Chandler himself would tip his fedora.
Unlike last year's guest-laden H.N.I.C. III, which was simultaneously too focused on chart success and too lazy to satisfy the true fans, Albert Einstein is a fantastic album, putting Prodigy squarely on top of the rap game, a remarkable achievement for someone celebrating his 20th anniversary in the biz. Much kudos due to Alchemist for once again bringing out the best in this New York legend.
Speaking of legends, if Kanye West didn't exist, we would have had to invent him. Since his debut a decade ago, West has been cutting a wide swath though the airwaves, music sales, tabloids, and even the hard news world (remember "George Bush don't like black people"?). Selling millions of records and concert tickets, pissing off millions of people (especially Taylor Swift fans), and dazzling critics and listeners alike with music that fascinates even when he stumbles, there is no one on pop culture quite like him.
Fortunately, Yeezus is not one of the stumbles but rather one of the most startling albums of his career. One of the engines of Kanye's production (and one of his fatal flaws) is his constant demand for approval, necessary to fuel his distressingly large ego. The ego is still there, but the need for approval may finally be waning. Perhaps the fact that his last album, the outrageously good My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (the Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) of hip hop), failed to make a dent at the Grammys has led him to make a record that doesn't give a good goddam what anyone thinks.
The overall sound is sleekly brutal, with serrated synths abutting tinny samples, like a smash cut from Technicolor to Super-8, and distorted screams popping up in more than one song. The consistency of Yeezus is even more remarkable when you consider that each song features a dozen writers and recordings made at half as many studios in NYC, Paris, Jamaica, California and England. Part of that is no doubt due to the final polish provided by Rick Rubin, who reportedly helped Kanye chip away at excess to perfect the record, like the old adage about sculpting an elephant.
Just as on his previous albums, there are some highly visible collaborators (who knew Daft Punk could swing like that?), but the blend is tighter and sounds more a product of one mind than his earlier work. Tellingly, Yeezus is West's shortest record, at 40 minutes a full 36 minutes shorter than Late Registration. That concision does not extend to the lyrics, however - a sometimes bewildering splatter-punk spray of aggression, self-pity, jokes and boasts. You could quote many lines that make Kanye look like an ass, but the overall impression is one of complexity, ambivalence, depth, often couched in a scabrous cynicism.
Kanye is as capable as David Bowie at creating personae to communicate through - and there are many on Yeezus - but if you take the essence of the words at face value, you get a very clear sense of a man on the brink of fatherhood and fearfully observing the current state of race, class, and personal relations - and finding them all wanting. His world is one in which self-absorbed, hedonistic African Americans squander the advances of the civil rights era, men and women screw each other over for money and celebrity, and white people get rich off imprisoning black people. It's not a pretty picture and Kanye paints it with the abandon of an abstract expressionist.
The album's high point is Blood On The Leaves, a harrowing conflation of the great anti-lynching song Strange Fruit with tales of broken hearts, broken promises, and dangerous obsessions. Lest you dismiss the use of the classic song as being disrespectful, consider the fact that not so long ago engaging in an interracial romance (as Kanye himself has), or even "reckless eyeballing," could get a black man strung up.
There is light in the darkness, however, as the brilliantly sequenced album ends with Bound 2, Kanye's version of a love song in which he describes a passionate affair developing into a long term romance, with encouragement from none other than The Gap Band's own baby-making crooner, Charlie Wilson. Besides Wilson, many of the hooks on Yeezus are gorgeously sung by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, continuing another unlikely partnership that no one thought would last. In fact, the microcosm of his relationship with Vernon might hold the most hope for all the areas Kanye is so worried about: seeing the indie rocker and the megastar, the black man and the white man working together so fruitfully would inspire anyone to believe that not only can we all get along, but we can benefit greatly from our connections with other people.
Dissertations could be written (Rap Genius already has a head start) on all the references and elements, both musical and lyrical, that combine together to make Yeezus so good. I'll just say that it is well worth your time to delve into another masterpiece from Kanye West - you may get uncomfortable, or even angry, but indifference is not an option.
All three of these records may have words that leave you cold or that may defy comprehension, even in translation, but they are all landmarks in their areas that demand familiarity. Get to know them soon.