Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens [1949 - 2011]

A puff of dust hovers by the sidewalk,
a footstep hurled in haste. A bus to be caught, perhaps,
that curious cargo of sighs, limbs & distances,
leftovers of yet another dailiness.

Nothing pauses.
They are all too busy living,
too busy staving off death's unwavering envy of life.

The absence sharpens,
streetlamps dilate in lament, like balloons.
There is no elsewhere,
no afterwards.

[7:43 pm | 16th December, 2011 | Delhi]

Friday, December 9, 2011

On THE Grammy snub of the year

Oh Kanye, Kanye, Kanye.
How, how could they?

[End of rant.]
[Or not.]

To paraphrase Sartre, Awards are other people. They exist, whether you would like them to or not. And by virtue of their mere existence, they tamper with your subjectivity. There's no escape, neither for the uninterested nor for the disinterested. So, when I went through the list of nominations for the Album of the Year and failed to locate the one name that I was looking for, it did carry some weight, a heaviness of the weightless kind. But before I could contemplate that further, there was a more urgent concern - what was he going to do now? A frenetic google news search for "Kanye West reaction Grammy nominations" revealed 130 results. Whatever it was, it had already happened.

"Kanye West blames himself for Album of the Year snub."
Wha? Himself ? Was the 34-year old tantrum-at-the-drop-of-a-hat rugrat of hip hop finally growing up? Reading further clarified things. It was his fault that he dropped two great albums in the same year when instead he should have "spaced it out, just a little bit more." He had just been a little too good for his own good. Kanye West was still Kanye West, after all.

Coming from a culture where an oversized ego is a survival tactic, that almost sounds, curiously enough, humble. And West, whose public image can be almost accurately described by a first-grader's attempts at cubism, is a titan in that world of giants. But there's more to him, an ambition to match the ridiculous proportions of that ego. (I'm not yet on board with his fashion foray, so let's just stick to music for today.) As a crafty producer with an exquisite taste for samples, he's always had an aural imagination to die for but his recent musical evolution has involved, to my great delight, the infusion of an emotional honesty. Emotion is a rare thing to find in modern hip hop, emotional honesty even more so, (which is such a shame, given that it's perhaps the most literary of musical genres, rap's very ravenousness for language and rhyme making it a mouthwatering canvas for confession...) so I was obviously taken in by his 2008 release, 808s & Heartbreak. Even though its android-like passages of raw emotion stretched out in Auto-tune over staccato notes of electronica barely qualify as hip hop, the shift was obvious. The prodigy had finally been baptized, the most unfettered imagination in hip hop now had a soul. (Shinier and heavier than silver, yes, but still a soul nevertheless.) No wonder why over an year ago, I couldn't wait to get to his next album when it came out, the album this heaviness of the weightless kind is all about.

My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy is, like its adjective count, an exercise in unabashed indulgence. There can be no other way to describe an album that has a guest list that includes Elton John, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Drake, John Legend, Fergie (all on a single track), Jay-Z, Bon Iver, the RZA, Rick Ross and Nicki Minaj among others. Even as they all turn in masterful appearances, stamping their signatures on the album, it's clearly West who's in charge, conducting an ambition that anchors the album through its numerous excesses and digressions. At moments, with burgeoning textures of vocals layered over a cavalry of strings, trumpets and beats, you can't help but feel that he's channeling Wagner, furious and maniacal in his fascination with grandeur. In "All of the Lights", a pacy Fergie verse suddenly devolves into an Elton John piano solo which then ascends into a spar between his vocals and Alicia Keys's, juxtaposed with African horns and towering beats. All this on a rap-driven track. This is not hip hop, it is the naivete of an imagination whose irreverence knows no bounds.

On "Runaway", around the 6-minute mark, past the lyrical climax of the track, West drags the song on for three more minutes with an insistent coda of keyboard notes over a slithery jarring sample that sounds like a lazy electric guitar but is in fact him singing through a synthesizer. It is the kind of idea that should sink under its own weight but he makes it work, an almost-mournful plea that shores up the self-deprecatory confession the song itself is. The album does have its weaker moments (such soaring ambition can't not fall flat on occasion) and, of course, it indulges in every one of the genre's notorieties - the braggadocio, the misogyny, the materialism and the phallic obsessions - but to deride it for just that would be like dismissing Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping as merely revolting or Lolita as being paedophilic. I am, often to my great regret, too much of a classicist to be able to appreciate hip hop in all its truest passions but West's relentless ambition makes the album, through the opulent hues of its ebbs and flows, the sonic equivalent of a Mohtashem Kashan.

Gonna take this sh** to the next level is hip hop's greatest cliche, but after this, even if all West does is impersonate Louis XIV on a pedestal of trashed Lamborghinis in a sea of Versace upholstery and Basquiat-adorned walls as he spits bombastic verses over the glint of golden strobes, he shall have earned it.