Saturday, May 21, 2011

All of Kanye's Lights

Kanye West's 2010 album—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—caught the attention of just about everybody. 2008's disastrous not-so-well-received 808s and Heartbreaks, along with some off-the-field events, led to the general notion that West had lost his mind. This fear was further strengthened by the cryptic title of his new album.

The music Kanye has produced, though, is both unlike anything he has ever released and similar to everything he's done before. The album is long, the guest list even longer, and the flow both heavy and invigorating. One song that stuck out as I worked through the album was "All of the Lights." The song represents the album, in a sense that we can understand a lot about the album just by listening to this one track. The production is tightly packed: the drum beat is intricate and varied, making heavy use of tom drums, a style not often heard in hip hop. This is contrasted heavily by orchestral instruments—horns, woodwinds, and strings. The beat flows from one to the other over a synthesized droning line, and breaks down effortlessly.

So what lights is Kanye talking about? The lights of fame, it seems. Rihanna croons on this track, singing about seeing everything. The lyrics touch on the extravagance of fame—"fast cars, shooting stars"—while also lamenting its repercussions—the family troubles he's encountered lately. In this way, he manages to juxtapose many of the themes of his past works, a theme indicated quite clearly by the contrasts presented in the chorus: "Cop lights/Flash lights, spot lights, strobe lights, street lights/All of the lights, all of the lights." While 808s was an album fully about anguish, the excesses hinted at here get fleshed out in songs like "Flashing Lights." West wants us to see all aspects of his celebrity here.

But what is Kanye trying to say about fame? Is he trying to say, such as in "Welcome to Heartbreak" from 808s, that he would rather give up the luxuries afforded by his career? That he wishes it never would have come? If so, he never comes out and mentions it. Is he trying to speak to the ephemeral nature of fame? He talks about doing time for hitting his girl, and the surprise he received upon arrival of someone replacing him in his home. It appears that he's just trying to lay out the facts of what happened. On being barred from seeing his daughter, he says, "Her mother, brother, grandmother hate me in that order." While on his previous album West lambasted his ex, here he just explains what is going on, perhaps lamenting its certainty.

On the topic of famous people, it is important to note the astounding guest list on this track. Rihanna, John Legend, Fergie, Alicia Keys, Kid Cudi, and even Elton John make appearances. Some of these guests do not even have prominent roles: while Rihanna takes the choruses and Fergie and Cudi are featured, Legend, Keys, and John are not all that noticeable, bordering on imperceptible.

What, exactly, is the purpose of having so many high-profile artists on a song dealing with fame? There is the obvious—and cynical—response that more guests equals more radio play. But maybe it's not that simple. Perhaps West felt that by bringing in so many guests, it would lend credibility to his depiction of fame. Perhaps he felt that the extreme variety in musical style needed to be highlighted by a variety in vocal styles. This is partially supported by the heavily-processed version of the line "all of the lights" that is mixed in with the true vocals. Or maybe he just thought it would sound cool. Regardless, the vocals are very well put together. Kanye does not try to flex his rapping skills, which would sound disastrously out of place with the rest of the song, but rather gives a terse look into his persona.

"All of the Lights," more than any other song in Kanye's repertoire, veers wildly from triumphant and exuberant to bleak and morose. Somehow he manages to keep it all together, and he also manages to make it sound something like a Kanye West album. It may have a very different sound than his previous offerings, but it still retains his sensibilities in production. There is a reason Kanye vaulted to the stratosphere of producers, and we see that track-making skill used to great effect on this one.

-Prasanna Swaminathan