Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Kanye West at Coachella 2011

            Everyone seems to have something to say about Kanye West. His ego, his problems with other musicians, and his often controversial statements are usually the main focus of the media. His performances are normally are large but not with the same production value as seen in his performance at Coachella 2011. This show was the definite beginning of Mr. West’s cementation of himself as an aesthetic force in the popular music industry as well as the fashion world. This performance was the start of a new era of rap and art collaboration.

            Hip-hop and fashion have always been tied together. Street wear brands are part of a rapper’s image and whom they represent. They may have their own line or support a brand that they like. Kanye started out that way, but he became more and more interested in his personal style and clothing. This performance brought out his love for fashion and his unique taste by wearing a silk women’s blouse by the fashion house, Celine. His internship with the brand Fendi, must have taught him a thing or two about appreciation of fine craftsmanship. West’s wearing of this shirt was a statement that his views of hip-hop were changing. A rapper no longer had to wear the generic sagging jeans and a fitted hat to be cool. He showed that one could express their style however they wanted and people would find a way to accept it. At the latest VMA’s Lil’ Wayne was seen wearing women’s leopard print leggings, so it is obvious that that barrier has started to be broken down. It was not cross-dressing, but it was something no one did on a regular basis before that. West’s use of feathered ballerinas doing modern dance as part of the performance was a quite obvious reference to the recent movie,‘ Black Swan’ and drawn from pop culture. The theatrics in this performance were something to behold. In the back of the stage, the bass relief stone sculpture piece is something of a classical reference circa ancient Greek wall carvings. The juxtaposition of two different forms of what people think are classical was beautifully shown with ‘classical’ dancers (the ballerinas) and the classical form of art and sculpture. Aside from this, the stage was sparse and the audience was made to focus on Mr. West alone. These aesthetics are completely different from what a very general rap audience is used to. At times it seems as if Kanye is trying to almost educate his viewers about class and how it should be shown through personal style and production aesthetics.

            This performance turned around a lot of past feelings towards West’s viability as a live performer. His set at Bonnaroo was hours late, and his shows previously had been heavy on lights and lasers. This show was none of that. It was driven by his vision. It was theatrical in scale but still held intimacy in the sparseness of the stage itself. I don’t think West even thought he was going to receive the acclaim and love he did that night. He took the crowd into a dark place with some of his songs and showed his vulnerability. At times, when he was the only person up there, he looked weak. And it was okay. Though he masked it with his larger that human persona, you could see it. There are plenty of rap songs about family and friends and mentions of brothers who have passed, but when West sings ‘Hey Mama,’ it sounds more like a son pouring out his heart than a musician just singing a song about his mom. There aren’t very many musicians out there who contribute to rap music and  are able to show when they get emotional about their parents. Acting tough is just part of the image one is supposed to portray within the genre. West challenges this, as he challenges a lot of ideas about how products out of rap music should be depicted.

            Kanye’s performance at Coachella was one that signified him coming into his own and finding his place is pop culture history. He truly brought artists together and not just in a musically collaborative way. By combining the work of dancers, musicians, and visualizers, Kanye turns from rapper into a visionary. This performance may seem hardly monumental to the average viewer, but the fact that West has taken the first step to break down many unspoken stereotypes in rap, hip-hop, and even pop culture is a very big deal. He definitely still sticks to some of the roots that he began his career with, but honestly, his growth is further than any other musician in his field. Instead of falling right back into the rap game after his somewhat lackluster success with “808s & Heartbreak”, he melds the two different styles he’s been experimenting with and creates something new…and visualizes it. Aside from award shows and music videos, this may be the first rap concert that was eloquently staged to reflect current culture, draw from other aspects of highbrow culture as well as pull from the music itself. Leave it to an already controversial figure to have a performance that doesn’t stir controversy, but instead, begins to bring about change in an popularly scrutinized field.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

James Blake at SXSW 2011

           I have been listening to James Blake since his EP “CMYK” came out. I caught his live performance at Austin Central Presbyterian Church earlier this year and there are still some parts of his set that I can’t exactly explain. What I took away from the show was a feeling that I don’t believe I can ever forget. It was something I’ve never experienced before, and you can feel it a little bit from videos of the performance, but it was nothing like his recordings. I still get chills thinking about the sound simply washing over the audience. 
            First off, he was playing in an open three-story church with amazing acoustics. His full band is exceptionally talented and would improvise on songs with large instrumental sections. The depth of the bass in the space was enough to give you goose bumps in pairing with Blake’s slightly melancholy vocals His setup was quite simple. A keyboard and Korg board, his drummer with a reduced kit with a drum pad, and his guitarist with a sampler as well. What most people don’t realize when they listen to one of Blake’s albums is that he plays with a live band, not tracks he’s created in Reason or Ableton. This is something that I’ve seen many acts start doing. They may create a track and start out using their laptop for looped beats, but as their popularity grows, they sub out the computer for live instruments, which has a huge impact. Com Truise, the electro-synth-funk outfit from New York, changed over in the same way about three weeks ago. These types of changes in live performance draw audience members in because they can physically see and feel beats being made. Blake does use recorded music and vocals for some of his songs, but he also will sing lyrics live, then loop his live recordings during a set. His lyrics fall right into his songs, with hopeful inflections but with a mostly somber, slow tone to them. In his song “The Wilhelm Scream,” he croons a repetitive, “I'm fallin, fallin, fallin, fallin, Might as well fall in.” This sort of lyricism is perfect for the growing cymbals, drums, and ambient noise. You simply get lost in the sound and he takes you into an understanding of the song’s emotion. With a bass that pounds through to the audience’s heart and through the ground, underneath it all, it’s impossible to not get wrapped up in the noise and when the music ends, you’re left in shock. Blake is not flashy, he hardly talks on stage, except to thank the audience and announce a few song titles. His minimalist approach is one that suits him. His music does all the work. He often plays with his eyes closed, as if he as well is soaking in his creations. “The Wilhelm Scream” is only one of his many songs where performance of this sort occurs. His whole set is full of the same affection he brings to a single track. His voice hangs in the air, and even in a packed room, it touches each person intimately. Many have called Blake the founder of post-dubstep, but that would be too broad a term for the work he creates. There are the definite undertones of a driving bass force, but nothing similar to that of Skrillex or Caspa’s wobbly bass layer on more wobbly bass. The experimentation on a computer is definitely evident in Blake’s work, but the simple fact that he can recreate a studio recording in every element live, is in itself an art.

This clip of “The Wilhelm Scream” as performed in Austin Central Presbyterian Church during SXSW does no justice to the actual concert itself, but the viewer can see some of the elements I have talked about.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hopscotch Music Festival Street Style

This past weekend was Raleigh's second annual music festival, Hopscotch. With acts like The Flaming Lips, The Dodos, Twin Shadow, Diamond Rings, Black Lips, Xiu Xiu, and Vivian Girls, the crowds were chock full of people dressed for the occasion. (Not to mention the performers themselves.) Here are some shots from downtown.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Pepper Rabbit & Cultural Influence

 I saw the band Pepper Rabbit play in Raleigh during Hopscotch Music Festival this September. I had listened to their album, Red Velvet Snowball, on and off without paying much attention while I was doing things around the house. When I saw their set at Five Star Restaurant, I was blow away and realized I hadn’t been really listening to the music closely at all. I could automatically pick out the influences of Grizzly Bear’s piano chords, Fleet Foxes style vocals mixed with twinges of Vampire Weekend , and vaguely some synth work similar to that of earlier M83. I was caught up in how these musicians had taken parts of a handful of bands I enjoy and combined them together to create something new. They may not have the most unique, inventive sound, but they definitely have one that’s sustainable due to it’s creativity and resourcefulness. This seems to be a common theme that does not always pan out to popularity. A lot of bands have influences and end up sounding too similar to the music that inspires them. Pepper Rabbit has definite influences, but they draw just the right amount from each as well as bringing new song patterns to the table.

           In Pepper Rabbit’s song “Rose Mary Strech” it sounds cheerful, but when you listen closely to the lyrics, it’s mocking someone’s life who believes they are happy with the way things are despite the fact that they are lying to themselves. The person from the outside can see through their lies though. With lyrics like, “go on telling me that I don’t need a job or a college degree, throw up your caps and your gowns, you’re shit out of luck, you’re never leaving this town,” over electronic pop with melodic folk mixed in, it’s almost satirical. The listener might get consumed with the upbeat tempo, but once drawn into the words, they’d realize otherwise. Xander Singh’s singing of what someone has told him is a bit confusing. With the happy pace, you can’t really tell if he’s making fun of the person who’s told him this, or simply commenting. This ambiguity seems to be part of it all, and personally, I think it should be left up to interpretation. The audience should let it mean whatever they wish it to, so they can relate. With music that combines so many genres together, the market for this band would be quite large. Those who liked folk would enjoy the guitar, alternative fans could get into it, the chorus is catch enough for pop music enthusiasts, and the lyrics are of the country music story telling style. The music is danceable, but not so much so that you couldn’t play it while you were studying. The band has found the perfect balance in pace to catch just about anyone’s attention.

Below are some photos of the band that I took at Hopscotch.

Monday, September 5, 2011

sound mode testing

First post to this. I'll be blogging here for Pop Music 142 and starting this off as the street/music style blog I never got around to doing.