Quite a few good things going on musically right now. First is Kanye West’s high-expectation second release, “Late Registration.” I didn’t know West’s music before this. I was intrigued by the positive reviews that seemed to swirl around this new album, even from expected skeptics. I went through a hip-hop phase a few years ago, and still keep an ear out for Nelly and Jay-Z, the current king of the industry who discovered West. But I shied away from hip-hop because of the constant focus on bragging about sex and bling. Not that I have anything against sex and bling, but how long can you urgently go on about it? In one summer I had my fill. So I was intrigued by those pre-release reviews, and I got my hopes up that West had more to say. And he does.
The disc opens with “Wake Up Mr. West,” a short taunt of Kanye from, apparently, a former teacher:
“I knew I was gonna see you again… Where’s your goddamn book bag? Always carryin’ that book bag… Fourth grader… Look at him, playin’ like he’s got something else to do… You ain’t got nothing else to do…You ain’t doin’ nothing with your life…You think this is promised? Ain’t nothin’ promised to you. Look at my face. Does this look like a promised face? Kanye! Did you snore in my class?”
West picks up on the “nothing’s ever promised” line and raps – the usual thug urgency replaced by a gentle tone, backed by engaging rhythms instead of a throbbing bass line. This is something. West swept the Grammys with his first album, “The College Dropout” and opening with this piece seems to clear the deck, remind us and West of who he is, where he is from, and that he has to earn respect with every project, not rely on his last album’s success. He seems to be following the advice of Biggie Smalls as he tells us on the Jay-Z track, “My First Song:”
“the key to this joint, the key to staying on top of things is to treat everything like it’s your first project.. like it’s your first day when you were an intern.. stay humble”
West seems to express a wisdom teaching him that he can find his strength not in taunting us with how successful his earlier work has made him, which most rappers do, but by letting us hear him taken down a peg, so he can stay fresh on this album.
Not that West doesn’t do any of the expected rapper bragging, eventually he does on this album, but as the above example shows, he also is capable of laughing at and challenging himself. And the songs have content, sometimes even a story. Also listen for great Chicago references, especially in the definitive cruising tune, “Drive Slow.” In “Crack Music” he draws out an interesting analogy, proposing that making, marketing and consuming rap music is analogous to making and selling crack as a ticket to prosperity for disadvantaged youth – “this dark diction has become an American addiction.”
In the album’s most tender piece “Roses” he describes his family’s vigil during his grandmother’s critical illness:
“My grandfather trying to pull it together, he strong, that’s where I get my confidence from… Aunt Shirley, Aunt Beverly, Aunt Jean, so many aunties we could have an auntie team… We at an all time high, we run, we fly, we drive, cause with my family we know where home is. So instead of sending flowers, we the roses.”
The song masterfully mixes pop, gospel and rap. And tells a significant story – more specifically, conveys the writer’s feelings about that story. He starts angry with health care and the hospital, but as his family arrives on the scene, he is overcome with pride in his own, realizing that his grandmother did her job well. For those of you who may not realize the significance of this, believe me, this is not what you generally expect in rap music. Usually the only tender you’ll hear in a rap album is phony tender as a ploy for sex.
The album goes on, but I won’t. Those are just a few examples of what makes Kanye West’s second release significant and worth checking out.
Next is Paul McCartney’s “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.” Unlike West, Sir Paul has released many albums. And, like Robin William’s acting career, though there are some highpoints, there are quite a few very low points as well. I bought Paul’s release having not heard any reviews, and with pretty low expectations. In my best-case scenario for this album, I expected saccharine but maybe engaging love songs dedicated to his new wife. Worse case scenario, I expected lame attempts at political dead horse beating about how land mines and the war in Iraq are really, really bad.
Boy was I surprised. David Bauder from the Associated Press says
“It sounds cruel, but let’s face it: Except for the occasional highlight like “Vanilla Sky” or “My Brave Face,” for the past 20 years, Paul McCartney’s catalogue has been pretty barren…
Time magazine breathlessly declared “Chaos” to be McCartney’s first album that matters since the Beatles broke up 35 years ago. But it’s simply unlike anything he’s done before, a quiet disc with complicated emotional shadings Â the album that generations of critics who derided his sunny, silly love songs have been asking him to make…
The heartache of “Too Much Rain” and smoldering anger of “Riding to Vanity Fair” are unusual for McCartney. When the 63-year-old struggles for the notes in the “Blackbird” successor “Jenny Wren,” he even sounds fragile…
Much like he did with his first solo album, McCartney played virtually every instrument himself. On “Friends to Go” alone, he’s credited on the grand piano, acoustic/bass/electric guitars, harpsichord, drums, tambourine, flugelhorn, melodica and shakers.
The last music news comment I’ll make is about the Indigo Girls. I first heard the IG in 1989 with their self-titled release. It was an epiphany moment, the first of several their music would create for me. I was just out of college and lost-ish, my degree in English and philosophy landing me a fabulous job making copies for a now defunct corporate empire. (Their song “Closer To Fine” seemed to mock my exact position: “I spent four years prostrate to the higher minds, got my paper and I was free.”) Nevertheless, I found it inspiring to see two women finding success being themselves, just like me – wearing jeans, no makeup and expressing themselves in a heart-on-your-sleeve kinda way. It would later become apparent that they were like me in more ways than just these.
Their second album, Nomads, Indians and Saints, contains a song called “Hammer and A Nail.” The first time I heard it was my second Indigo Girls-induced epiphany. It was about 5am and I was at work during our busiest season. I had been there until 1 the night before. Making copies, of tax forms. I wanted to be a writer. But I also wanted to eat and have a place to live. I was pretty miserable and discouraged. Then I heard this:
“Had alot of good intentions
Sit around for 50 years and then collect a pension
Started seeing the road to hell and just where it starts
But my life is more than a vision
Sweetest part is acting after making a decision
Started seeing the whole as a sum of it’s parts…
Godda get out of bed and get a hammer and a nail,
Learn how to use my hands,
Not just my head I’ll think myself into jail,
Now I know a refuge never grows from a chin in a hand and thoughtful pose,
Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose…
I found myself beoming more immoble
When I think a little girl in the world can’t do anything.
A distant nation my community, street person my responsibility.
If I have a care in the world, I have a gift to bring. “
Yeah! I can do it! I screamed to no one in my highest falsetto. I took the song’s advice a bit too literally and looked for a job in construction. That didn’t pan out. Eventually, still inspired by the above words as I listened them into the ground, I decided to become a nurse.
I’m babbling about all this because the Indigo Girls were recently in Chicago for a three night stand at The Park West, our city’s finest intimate concert venue. I went without expectation, because in recent years Indigo Girls shows have been spotty. They’ve aged, spent way too much time on the road, gained weight and lost an edge. Though their albums continued to be soundtracks for my life, through successes and failures, a bitter breakup and new love, I’ve worried that as live performers they were not going to retain much of their original relevance. Was I wrong again. The Indigo Girls are back – lean, energized, and in touch with the songs and the spirit that spurred them – and me – on in 1989.
This tour is to celebrate the release of their new Rarities album, bootlegs and never released studio cuts. The album is interesting to diehard fans like myself (and millions of lesbians across the country) but I’m more captivated by the live performance, the retrospective reinvigoration they Girls are experiencing right now. It’s worth checking out if you have the chance.
One line they sang Monday night keeps ringing through my head. It’s from the song “World Falls” on their first album. It’s held true for me and, it seems, for them as well: “Everywhere I turn, the beauty just keeps shaking me.”