In Praise of Assholes

A critique of Kanye, 50, and the whole hip-hop circus

Oh yes, BTW, FYI, Cent and West both have new albums out. Of course, West's previous effort, 2005's Late Registration, belongs in the pantheon of superlative hip-hop albums, despite his being a mere step or three above Combs in the "least enchanting rhymers of all time" category. To his credit, though, he's far wittier than Diddy, with reams of jokes and edgy one-liners ("I'm the Malcolm X of fly/Buy any jeans necessary") and something like a social conscience too — see his blood-diamond confessions on Registration's "Diamonds From Sierra Leone." What he lacks in ferocious flow he makes up for in plaintive verbal harassment — he's kinda like the guy who will beg his way into your panties if he has to, the one who will simply not shut up or back off until your ears give him the equivalent of sympathy punani. He's the Rodney Dangerfield of rap, in other words, and fortunately for us, what he lacks in MC finesse, he makes up for in musical panache. Registration had a jillion snappy ideas about what a hip-hop song could be — from showtunes to power ballads, from symphonic airs to Curtis Mayfield elegies — and mucho ear candy to burn. West proved he knew a ripe, juicy hook when he stole, borrowed, or chipmunked one, and he knew how to attach himself to it like a writhing, self-aggrandizing barnacle to boot. Graduation builds on this formula, even if this time around, his lyric conceits prove less galvanizing than his purely musical snatches.

Let's take "Drunk and Hot Girls," for starters. Ostensibly Graduation's "Gold Digger," its similarly breezy girl-bashing never achieves the deadpan hilarity of that Registration highlight because, like too many other moments this time, West presumes our sympathy for his rock-star pain — here, specifically, the downside of being entangled with intoxicated hotties. (The track does, however, prove he can mire himself in lounge music as seedy as any Tom Waits has trawled in.) The folly of his pathos, though, reaches its nadir on "Big Brother," a song about how much he loves and owes his big bruh Jay-Z and how little love and respect lil' bruh Kanye feels he gets in return. Not exactly Cain and Abel drama here.

Now, if there's anything both Kanye and 50 both want and will never, ever have, it's the genuine Vito Corleone-Muhammad Ali love and respect Shawn Carter has out here on these streets, a love I never truly appreciated until around December 4 of last year, when I was on Harlem's 145th Street A-train platform and overheard a young sister, about 17 or so, tell her homegirl she was on her way home to bake a birthday cake, like she always did for her "big brother" Jayhova. Both these guys could give away every dime they make from now until perdition to homeless orphans and not get that kind of unabashed 'hood love in return. Of all the things Carter has that other high-rolling hip-hop brothers might covet, the thing they covet the most can't be bought or sold: his "big man on campus" affability. In recognition of this lack, West and Cent take an opposite tack, seeing how far they can push straight-faced arrogance as an icebreaker, if not a virtue.

When West's braggadocio turns whiny, Graduation proves why he's so easy to loathe but also why he's so easy to applaud as the most genuinely confessional MC in hip-hop today. (Some would say "narcissistic," but c'mon, this is hip-hop, not emo, yo.) On "The Glory," he congratulates himself for raising the thematic bar in hip-hop and also for buying clothes with haute logos. On "Everything I Am," he congratulates himself for not being more gangsta, notes the number of caskets in Chicago last year (600), and speaks up for the down-and-out brother in the 'hood who can't even get the church to give his depression the time of day. And grating bouts of narcissism aside, Graduation contains killer pieces of production: "Stronger" uses Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" to practically revive Eurodisco, while "Champion" snarkily snatches its hook from Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne" and allows West to declare how much he's an idol for the kids, if not the ages.

For Cent's part, he and his Curtis coproducers continue to perfect a style of lean, sleek, bubbly, robo-industrial hip-hop that nearly qualifies as a modern form of visual design, each track the equivalent to watching a Maserati roll off the assembly line. We're talking a form as sleek, dark, and aerodynamic in form as a Mirage fighter — one that allows Cent to shadily blend and disappear into the music like a grinning, evil Cheshire cat and thus maintain his Zen profile as the anti-Kanye: the least excitable prime-time rapper this side of Snoop. An extremely limited thematic palette of sex, money, and dissing still wets his whistle, even if, on "Straight to the Bank," he reminds us that he's so rich he doesn't have to rap anymore. But even if you have no ears for his lyrical swagger (I don't have much), no one can say he makes indifferent, lazy albums. Curtis is stuffed with tightly wound, 21st-century pop songwriting, full of that invisible craft and flow that renders a thing eminently listenable even if it's gratuitously raunchy, politically reprehensible, and sexually retrograde. America wouldn't be America if pro-capitalist assholes and con men couldn't run roughshod over the body politic, and the day there's no room for two full-time careerist drama queens like West and Cent will be the day the revolution comes, the day of al-Kebulan, the Taliban, the tsunami, the asteroid, the omega, man.

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