Ludwig und Yeezy.
I’m at my desk listening to the new Kanye West album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I’m not going to argue with the pop critic consensus: it’s good. When the staff of the music review website Pitchfork named rap duo Outkast’s “B.O.B.” the best track of the last decade, they praised the song for its “obliteration of the boundaries separating hip-hop, metal, and electro,” thereby expressing a culturally democratic hope for a world where genres exist only as objects of play. It takes imagination to crack through the rigid marketing categories of pop music without losing focus; Kanye’s got an excess of that kind of imagination. Who else would imagine that you could successfully juxtapose a hook by Justin Vernon, the quiet pretty voice of indie band Bon Iver, with a rap verse from Nicki Minaj that reminds me of O.D.B.’s insane vocalizations on Enter the 36 Chambers? Kanye throws his tender heart in a blender, along with pretty much the entire landscape of pop music, and out comes a classic album.
Classic, that is, insofar as pop music can be classic.
This weekend, I spent some time working through Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. I know, I know, it’s one of the basic texts of the Western musical tradition, but I’d never sat down with the score before. As you might expect, there’s a lot going on, and I’m barely past the surface. And so I was interested to read through David P. Goldman’s First Things essay “Why We Can’t Hear Wagner’s Music.” I won’t try to sum up Goldman’s essay, but he makes good use of the approach to music theory first elaborated by Heinrich Schenker. Schenkerian analysis is a way of identifying deep harmonic structures in tonal music; its most devoted proponents — including, perhaps, Goldman — take Schenker’s analysis as describing the heart of Music Itself. Rhythm, timbre, and dynamics are surface phenomena, albeit important ones (and I expect a real Schenkerian analyst could make good use of these concepts).
Though I can’t do this kind of analysis, I’m starting to make sense of the foreground of the Eroica. The harmonic motion, even on the surface, is subtle, seductive, propulsive. You don’t need me to tell you this, though. It doesn’t take much time with Beethoven to make bad pop music sound unbearably repetitive, to the point where I want to say that pop music becomes indistinguishable from sound effects in the computer age.
Listening to Kanye, it’s hard to sustain the extreme opinion. Of course the harmonic sense is more or less lobotomized, but we’ve still got rhythm (lots), timbre (a little), dynamics, and — perhaps most of all — glorious allusion. To understand the achievement of the Eroica, I’ve had to read up on symphony and sonata forms in the time of Mozart and Haydn: out of context, the third theme in the Allegro, the use of a funeral march, or even the very heft of the symphony lose force. It’s fun in a similar — though less intellectual — way to catch Kanye riffing on Black Sabbath, or borrowing ideas from old Jay-Z lyrics, or bringing his predecessor-in-production the RZA in to take a verse. And, since there’s rappers everywhere, you get some delicious wordplay to boot. To me, these things aren’t merely ornamentation over a harmonic essence. (I could be badly mistaken here: David Goldman, for example, has a strong theological reason for connecting beauty and truth, and his emphasis on the harmonic structure of music in part falls out of that.)
Which isn’t to say the limitations in harmonic vocabulary don’t handicap the album; it’s just that this is true of so much pop music that you can’t really single Kanye out.
Also, I’d appreciate moral vision, but that might be too much to ask.
(Also relevant: Peter Suderman muses on why pop music critics converge on Kanye.)