It has been some time since my last foray into /mu/core. Such is the degree of mental preparation and spiritual cleansing necessary to listen to one of Kanye West’s albums. Indeed, I had given up Kanye for Lent, but now the time has come for us to rejoice: today I listen to the album that saved hip-hop.
This review ended up being pretty long, so I’ve provided a handy-dandy table of contents:
- Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
- Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
- Death Grips – Exmilitary
- American Football – American Football
My history with this band is amusing. I was introduced to them when I was in high school, and I thought they were too boring. I rediscovered them in college as I was getting into post-rock, and thought they were the greatest band ever. Then I listened to their music too much, and now I think they’re boring again.
Furthermore, it can be a challenge to talk objectively about an album that I think so highly of, and that is so frequently described as “must-listen” classic of post-rock. In as much of an unbiased manner as possible, I will discuss the pluses and minuses of the album.
The album starts very strong. Storm begins the way a lot of other post-rock songs end: with a big crescendo. It has a very joyous and optimistic tone to it, with lots of sounds layering together as it progresses. Around 6 minutes in, we change “movements” to a calm section of the song. Over time, it builds to a very noisy and disturbing crescendo which I feel gives the song its name. The ending of the song is a melancholy piano part with samples that sound like some kind of radio chatter overlaid on top. It is kind of chilling, but it is a well-earned quiet period after the previous loud one.
Looking back, Storm is like a montage of various post-rock elements that you find in other bands. There are very melodious, (analog) instrumental parts, and very harsh electronic segments. It has some sampling, it has the famous crescendos, and I think in a lot of ways it exemplifies what Godspeed You! Black Emperor is all about. To put it differently, if you don’t enjoy this song, I don’t think you’ll enjoy the rest of the album.
The next track, Static, is also quite a ride. It features another explosive crescendo that lasts most of the track. This one has a very groovy feel to it, where Storm was more whimsical (probably not the descriptor you had in mind, but if you compare the two, you’ll see the difference in rhythm). It also has an uneasy calmness at the end of the track, which fades into the next track, Sleep.
Sleep features the most well-known segment of the album: a rant by some guy GY!BE found in New York City, talking about how Coney Island is not the same carefree place it used to be. Beyond this spoken piece is another very solid post-rock track. The middle section is carried by a persistent frequency-shifting effect that I’m not a big fan of, but the ending half of the track is actually one of the better conclusions on the album. It has an upbeat pace, and I like the change in attention toward the drumming, after a lot of heavy focus on strings/guitars.
I have never enjoyed Antennas to Heaven as much as the rest of the album. Listening to it now, there isn’t even anything particularly wrong with it. It’s a nice song, but I believe it suffers due to the nature of the album more than any of its own faults. The fact of the matter – and I’m prepared to take flack for this – is that Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s tracks are too long. The usual response to this critique is that “all post-rock is this way,” but in my experience that simply isn’t the case. There are sometimes very long tracks in post-rock, but when it comes to consistently producing 20+ minute long tracks across every album, GY!BE basically stands alone (in the genre).
The fact is, even the band themselves acknowledge that their 20 minute long “epics” can be broken into discrete, smaller parts. They drew an album insert detailing exactly what and where these parts are. The argument can be made that some of these tracks, particularly Antennas to Heaven, could have been broken up without suffering anything.
On the other hand, having the four tracks with very abstract titles definitely forces the listener to view the album in a different way. The album doesn’t really have lyrics, so listening to a track knowing only that its title is “Storm” or “Static” results in hearing the music in the context surrounding the word. Perhaps the album is better that way. The point is moot, however, because that is how they released the album. Despite my complaint, I still feel that it is a very good post-rock album, and there’s no reason to intentionally avoid it.
So, how did I make it this far without ever hearing a Kanye album? It is not too difficult. I got into music through nu-metal, then I orbited through rapcore to political hip-hop to underground hip-hop to instrumental hip-hop and finally into the more mainstream genres. I actually still think that route is a solid way for fans of post-grunge/hard rock to get into hip-hop. However, a lot of other people start with Kanye West, and I can certainly see how that works out.
From what I’d heard prior to now, I felt that Kanye was very good at the musical side of hip-hop, even if he was not so good as a rapper or lyricist. This album mostly confirms that suspicion, and it also confirms what his appeal is to people that are new to hip-hop. At least on MBDTF, Kanye primarily focuses on what I call instrumental beats, as opposed to percussive beats. To reiterate on the distinction, instrumental beats are usually not particularly innovative when it comes to the drums, but they are very catchy and memorable on account of the music that accompanies the “traditional” beat. This album is rich with guitar solos, electronics, and orchestral sections. For the most part, each track stands out singularly on account of its instrumental beat, and it makes for a fairly enjoyable album, as a matter of fact.
Interestingly, I have a similar complaint for Kanye that I just voiced for Godspeed You! Black Emperor: the tracks on this album seem too long. However, GY!BE’s problem was that their tracks occasionally lost cohesiveness due to their length, whereas Kanye’s tracks suffer from simply being too repetitive for their duration. I see some recognition of this on Kanye’s part in the fact that the official music video for POWER ends at the first chorus, while the real song extends more than three minutes past that mark. It is actually one of the best tracks on the album, with a rare merging of both a strong percussive and strong instrumental beat. Still, by the ending segment of the track, it is all getting a bit stale. Other tracks suffer from this problem much moreso than POWER, which is, again, one of the most impressive parts of the album.
There are several other items of interest on the album. For instance, Kanye was able to enlist several big names to perform in his songs, including Rihanna, Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj. Jay-Z and Nicki appear on Monster, which is another one of the most well-known songs off MBDTF. Amusingly, they both outshine Kanye on the track, so I’ll use this as an opportunity to discuss why I think Kanye is not a very good emcee.
Kanye’s flow is lazy and formulaic. In other tracks, such as All Of The Lights, he is basically just stringing flat, rhyming sentences together. His idea of changing things up, or adjusting his tone, is basically just ending a sentence with an “UH” sound. If you don’t believe me, Dark Fantasy is yet another example (great way to open the album, though). In Monster, he picks up the pace a little bit. His “flow” is a little more present, but he still gets into that habit of over-emphasizing the last syllable, which by this point in the album is pretty uninteresting.
The stylistic differences (and I believe superiority) of Jay-Z compared to Kanye are immediately recognizable. Jay-Z switches up his emphasis, his tone of voice, his volume, and his pacing throughout his verse. Kanye is basically just loud, and then slightly louder. We know I’m no fan of Nicki Minaj, but I have to admit that she blasts Kanye out of the water perhaps even better than Jay-Z (for mostly the same reasons). She has a Jekyll/Hyde persona in general, and it fits this track well. If we had to bounce back to Kanye or Rick Ross for the third verse, this track would definitely hit the “too long” mark, but she keeps the listener’s attention well.
The album peaks at Monster, and becomes decreasingly interesting from that point onward, with one brief, but good, recovery on Runaway. Ironically, despite being the longest track on an album of tracks that are generally too long, it actually manages time well, and is a high point on the album. The lyrics actually takes a more mature and honest tone than the rest of the album (not including Who Will Survive In America, which is just a sample of Gil-Scott Heron’s spoken word). For this one song, it seems like Kanye recognizes that for all he has outwardly enjoyed his success and fortune, he is alone. He knows how to get what he wants, but he doesn’t respect anyone, and (most interestingly) he doesn’t think that is going to change. He advises the people close to him to run away. Pusha T does a good job as well, representing in this track the “Kanye West” of the rest of the album (except with better rapping).
Is this album a “must-listen”? Nah. That said, if you don’t listen to hip-hop at all, this really is a good vector into the genre. Musically, the tracks are diverse, melodious, and pretty catchy. There’s really nothing offensive about the album on that front. My aforementioned qualms about Kanye as a rapper would not be readily apparent to someone who is new to the genre. For people who do listen to hip-hop, hearing POWER, Monster, and Dark Fantasy is probably enough to get the gist. Runaway is at its best in the context of the rest of the album.
There are two takeaways for me, now that I’ve finally heard the album. If you think Kanye West is a douche, this album isn’t going to change your mind. It is basically his tribute to his own bravado. However, if you think Kanye West makes bad music (which I know is an oddly common perception), you will be quite surprised.
We turn now from one of the most accessible artists in hip-hop to one of the least. This album and this band are night and day from Kanye West. Their music is a combination of hip-hop and some of the harsher, noise-y subgenres of electronic music (primarily industrial, but I also hear techno elements). For better or worse, I am not sure I’ve heard any other hip-hop that sounds quite like Death Grips.
Exmilitary is an experimental album, and the first thing that really surprised me about it was that it actually is quite catchy once you’re over the initial shock factor of the stark beats and Stefan Burnett’s guttural vocal delivery. Those two elements make Death Grips a very different-sounding hip-hop group, but once you’re in the groove of the album, it’s not too bizarre.
The album begins very well. Beware is a “calm before the storm” song (believe it or not) before we really get into the action with Guillotine, one of the band’s most well-known songs. I like the transition between these two songs, because Beware has a tone that feels as though it’s building up toward something really explosive, but Guillotine is actually very restrained. There are a lot of sounds going on in Beware, and then we suddenly transition into a really desolate track which rides mostly on a repeated bass-drop. It’s a good attention-grabber.
Each track experiments with different sounds for the beat. It makes each song memorable in its own way, but on the other hand, there isn’t really any overarching mood or tone to the album. This isn’t necessarily an objectively bad thing, but for me, I like it when albums have a “feel” to them. The one thing all the tracks do have in common is the lyrical themes, which revolve around violence, sexual imagery, and drug use. There are some people who might jump to conclusions upon hearing that, but trust me… you’re not expecting these lyrics.
Takyon is the best track on the album. It has a really compelling drum beat that evokes the military, and although it remained unorthodox, Burnett’s flow seemed strongest on this track. My only complaint is that it’s the shortest track on the album (not counting interludes). It’s a quick, but explosive ride. The track is situated roughly around the middle of Exmilitary. Therefore, we get another one of those “mountain peak”-type albums. On a first listen, that isn’t so bad. Coming back for subsequent listens, when I know what to expect, it’s usually not fun knowing that the second half of an album doesn’t really have anything to look forward to.
They mess around with a lot of different beats, and the fact is that some of them are just annoying. Klink is one example. It’s a fun, upbeat song, but I’ll be damned if hearing him go “Woo” every couple seconds doesn’t get old fast. Thru the Walls is another one I just can’t get into. I do enjoy Culture Shock, and the last two tracks on the album are also pretty good.
I like this album, but at the same time, I don’t feel compelled to listen to Death Grips’ other albums. I listened to several different noise-y groups before getting to this album, and from that perspective, they’re quite tame. From the hip-hop side of things, they are definitely unique, but they don’t have a sound that I would typically desire when I am listening to hip-hop. I might give them a try anyway, but so far the group has been more of an “interesting find” than an instant favorite.
Here we have potentially the last “must listen” emo album on a list of great albums that I have been diligently listening through. American Football was a (actually they just reunited for a tour, but I’ll stick to the past tense) was a short-lived group from the late 90’s that formed out of three members of various other bands, namely one of my favorites: Cap’n Jazz.
The band has a lot of potential on paper, but unfortunately, this album is simply not very interesting. It’s a pleasant listen, and I could sit here and talk about why it is pleasant, but today I’m going to focus on the negatives. As someone who has been immersed in emo music for the past year, I have some deeper insight into the music than I’d have for genres I’m currently less familiar with, so I’m not going to pull any punches for lack of expertise.
The album starts very well with Never Meant. The song is a quintessential emo track: it’s twinkly, it’s melodic, the beat is engaging. It forgoes the loud-quiet dichotomy that a lot of other emo bands use, which is fine, but the album completely stalls after this track ends. It’s nice to have one or two of these calming tracks, but the entire album is like this. What constitutes an “instrumental interlude” for other bands somehow passes as a complete album for American Football.
This is one of those cases where they didn’t really make any “mistakes” musically, but artistically the album is really mundane. A lot of pop music has this problem, but American Football is not a pop band. In my screamo article, I talked about the two-tiered hierarchy I see in this genre: you’ve got the really mainstream, entry-level emo bands that everybody knows about, like Dashboard Confessional. Bands like this are arguably pop-punk, and their music is accessible — there’s really no learning curve to enjoying it. Then you’ve got the bands people don’t always hear about, whose music is more complex, a lot more interesting, and perhaps requires some personal adjustment time to enjoy — bands like Snowing, for example.
American Football doesn’t quite fit in this hierarchy, because they are not at all as well-known as the mainstream pop-punk “emo” groups, but yet their music is some of the most entry-level content I’ve ever heard. They definitely put together what I’ll call decent instrumental “tapestries” on this album, but none of the songs go anywhere. Beyond Never Meant, which again is nothing special compared to other emo songs, the album lacks a single stand-out song. I complained about Death Grips lacking an overarching mood for their album, but American Football hits the other extreme: the album has a certain lazy mood to it, but the complete lack of dynamics in the sound makes it a very boring listen.
As I’ve explained in previous articles, “dynamics” to me primarily deals with changes in volume, pacing, rhythm, or song structure — especially within individual songs, but also across an album. American Football does neither. Excluding the addition of a trumpet on some tracks, the album follows the same pattern for every track after Never Meant. The vocalist does not vary his tone, the drumming and basswork quickly becomes uninteresting, and the guitars remain arpeggiated and saccharine.
It’s very odd to me. Previous bands that members of American Football were in, such as Cap’n Jazz or Joan of Arc, were consistently more dynamic and experimental. I cannot understand what American Football was hoping to accomplish with this album.
- Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
- I really liked the album (with the caveat that the tracks are arguably too long), because it takes the listener on a good ride through lots of different sounds
- Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
- I liked the album, more due to the instrumental beats than due to Kanye’s abilities as an emcee, but I don’t feel it is an all-time-great hip-hop album
- Death Grips – Exmilitary
- I liked the album, because it does a successful job trying new things in hip-hop, but its tracklist had some hit-or-miss issues
- American Football – American Football
- I did not like the album, because it is boring and uninventive
With this, I conclude my expedition through the /mu/core essentials. It was a mostly positive experience. The only surprises came in the fact that very few of these albums were actually worth the “must-listen” status that /mu/ awards them. The majority were good albums, but hardly the best in the genre, and in some cases not even the best by that particular artist.
This is probably the inevitable outcome of allowing a community with extremely diverse tastes in music to put together a chart of “top albums,” while expecting there to be any consensus. What has happened is that albums with the most hype have trickled to the top, and many gems have been forgotten. Of course, there are many other “/mu/core” charts out there, with a lot more of these albums, but the fact is that I don’t really trust these charts. I never have.
It’s a lot easier to just set up a last.fm account, listen to the music you like, and use that as a branching point. Sites like last.fm provide three services that result in better recommendations than an opinion-based “guide” that someone on /mu/ made for a genre: personal recommendations; a list of neighbors with similar taste; artist pages.
I never use the personal recommendations. What I do use are the neighbors list and the artist page — primarily the comment wall for the artist. Through these, I find people who really do listen to music I like, and I just start picking bands that look interesting off their charts. The success rate of doing this is quite high. But I digress.
Don’t believe hype, kids. It never pans out.