January 24, 2013

Jonah Bromwich is not keeping up with the Kardashians.

It’s weird—I feel like we just lost that mainstream/underground dichotomy of just a few years back.  Total parity existed for a minute there.  And now the dichotomy feels like it’s back, almost superimposed.  Sure there’s an easy conduit into the mainstream if you’re making massive, shiny music.  But anything that sounds analogue seems so out of vogue that it’s nearly impossible to imagine it featuring  prominently on your big-name music blogs.  And I can help to make the pattern clearer.

Tolstoy hated what was known as “great man theory” the idea that history could be properly understood by following the chief figures that seemed to animate that history.  He thought that history was equally well understood through the eyes of the lowliest soldier in Napoleon’s army and the eyes of Napoleon himself.

But following these totemic figures still provides us with a shortcut for understanding the whims of the past, especially the recent past.  All of which is to say, in order to trace the path of the disappearance and sudden reappearance of the underground, it works to trace the path of one Mr. Kanye West.

Kanye’s first and second album were soulful, and if they sounded glossy, one could easily imagine the melodic, analogue rawness that lurked behind them.  Take the song “Hey Mama” for example—their was a version that preceded the Late Registration album cut which did away with those synthesizer tones and had real, raw singing instead of the autotuned tameness that eventually replaced it.

But Kanye made a definitive shift into a cold digital world with 808’s and it seems that the rest of popular rap music has followed him, taking a turn towards nihilism.  And it’s bullshit, because, for instance, this new Dag Savage cut, featuring Aloe Blacc deserves more attention than it’s going to get.  The soulfulness, the openness of this track isn’t actually out of fashion with listeners.  Those qualities never go out of fashion.  It’s just that it’s not going to feature prominently, not going to blow up like it should.

The Village Voice recently featured an article about how Kanye had lost it, which isn’t fair at all to say, given that he still has yet to release a non-excellent solo album.  But a lot of people who fell in love with his early sound have been gearing up for disappointment for a while now, and it makes sense that some of those fans would overreact preemptively, just to avoid the seemingly inevitable let-down that’s going to come when this new Kanye releases a soulless solo album.

Meanwhile, Aloe Blacc feels like the kind of guy that that young Kanye would have loved.  Blacc has a broader, more dynamic voice than John Legend, but gravitates towards the same kind of layered, sample-based beats.  And as for Exile, who forms half of Dag Savage along with the rapper Johaz, he may never have taken the risks or reaped the rewards that Kanye has.  But it’s nice to be a fan of someone who knows how to stay consistent.


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