(Def Jam/Roc A Fella; 2010)
By Lindsay Zoladz | 20 January 2010
In its initial run in the late ’90s, VH1 Storytellers was the sort of show that prided itself on an air of simplicity, unadornment, and even a dash of rusticity, set, apparently, in the storeroom of a Pier 1 Imports. It’s the sort of show where Meatloaf might trade the sweaty tuxedo for an informal button-down; the sort of show where Jon Bon Jovi’s hair might sit casually at half-mast; the sort of show where Lenny Kravitz would, well, be asked to perform. You get the idea. Of course, it’s all bullshit: everybody knows that most artists love nothing more than the chance to don the ceremonial vestments of mock-humility and affected candor. Everybody also knows that Kanye West is completely unfamiliar with that sort of attire, and so the extravagant, bombastic mess that is Kanye West: VH1 Storytellers should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody.
It’s a foregone conclusion: take an artist with a relentless martyr complex, give him a format that asks him to “tell his story” (as well as a set that approximates what Daft Punk’s “Around the World” video would have looked like had it taken place inside Barbara Eden’s bottle from I Dream of Jeannie), and you are basically setting yourself up for a five-minute spoken word segment about “being on trial” in which said artist compares himself to both Michael Phelps and OJ Simpson in one breath. In the year since its initial broadcast, though, debates about Kanye’s public persona have drowned out those about his music (the latter of which revolved around the divisive 808s and Heartbreak ) and Storytellers‘ most profound failure is that it fails to swing the conversation back towards the music. It is neither a tactful restoration effort of Kanye’s best tracks nor a candid glimpse into his creative process; instead, it is a garish monument erected in honor of his public persona’s most notorious attributes: his ego, his theatrics, and, above all earthly things, his crazy.
To experience Kanye’s crazy at its most potent (and, I suspect, meticulously rehearsed), look no further than the Storytellers DVD. The tremendous backing band features the sort of characters that Kanye would no doubt choose could he cherry-pick his own Greek chorus: violinists wearing futuristic goalie masks, drummers who look like Blue Man Group understudies, and a background singer wearing shoulder pads so imposing they clearly prevent her from moving any way but laterally. The lighting is predictably spectacular—especially during the finale of “Stronger”—but everything about the set is clearly designed to spotlight Yeezy’s antics. Over the span of 70 minutes, he attempts mock-profundity (“Does this staggering piece of truth that was never told have an expiration date, or can I take that back?”), he writhes around on the floor groping for his lost heart (during a head-smackingly literal interpretation of “Heartless”), he narrates—“Trapped in the Closet” comes immediately to mind—his actions in sing-songy, autotuned melodies (during the “Heartless” incident: “50, look at me now / I’m singing on the ground”), and he tries to start a beef—with books. Yes, Kanye, it was all completely insane; but now, with a year to reflect, it’s tired. Kanye’s batshit shtick has become so unsurprising at this point that the most shocking thing he could have done with the Storytellers format would have been to conjure some sort of feeling approximating simplicity or accessibility.
Since Storytellers the album so obviously has so little to do with the music, and given that the DVD’s all about spectacle, I must ask: why release the CD at all? Why would anyone want to listen to this instead of one of his albums? One answer is that Kanye’s discography is defined by the Sandinista! (1980) principle, the almost universal understanding that there’s a truly great record in there somewhere but it’s up to the listener to slog through roughly 2/3 of poorly executed shit to compile his or her own personal masterpiece. Given a brilliantly chosen set, Storytellers could have been that Frankenstein-ian Kanye opus, unequivocally great, that we all know will never happen. Thus, we know this is not it. At all. The track list misses the mark in so many ways, from including some of the worst 808s and Heartbreaks cuts (opening with “See You in My Nightmares,” for fuck’s sake), to blatantly omitting any and all of his career highlights, to using one of his weakest singles to date (“Stronger”) as a finale. Most of the tracks are particularly ill-suited for the excessive burdens of the format: all traces of “Good Life”‘s carefree swagger are suffocated beneath an avalanche of affected grandiosity; the opening lines of “Stronger” sound even weaker when they’re given a totally unwarranted, epic makeover. What’s more—what makes this an even more bloated failure—is that most of the tracks are between six and ten minutes long, filled with Kanye’s inane rambling. “Touch the Sky”‘s a pretty good track and all, but I think I’d rather hear it without Kanye talking about how his mouth is a vessel through which God transmits beautiful words. And I’d certainly rather it be four minutes, not ten.
Chet Betz, in his review of 808s, summed up the record’s biggest problem: “Kanye isn’t nearly a strong enough poet for his work to lend itself to elegy and his compositions not fundamentally innovative enough to bring about the future sound with which he so desperately wishes to bury his present.” This problem becomes magnified here in the performance of 808s tracks. Kanye riffs endlessly on lyrics that were thin to begin with, seeming to think that drawing them out will reveal some sort of profound meaning. Naturally, thin lyrics only become thinner when they’re stretched past their limits; the result is excruciating. 808s‘ most widespread and unavoidable criticism—one so obvious that it was just implied after a while—was the fact that Kanye can’t sing. This fact is further hammered home by Storytellers, and while Kanye still uses Autotune in his performances, Storytellers further suffers when Kanye’s natural voice can be heard (sometimes cracking) beneath the Autotune. 808s almost wholly doesn’t work because it demonstrates a Kanye unable to tailor his compositions around his lyrical and vocal weaknesses; most of the Storytellers performances simply serve as harsh reminders of this.
Only after sitting through this album more than once (an activity I in no way condone; see above) did I realize something truly shocking: two of these songs (minus their five-minute spoken word components, of course) actually kind of work in this format. “Flashing Lights” has always been about glossy excess, so a bit of added bombast certainly doesn’t hurt its swag. Then there’s “Robocop.” I have defended this track—tirelessly and rather inarticulately—to people who think I’m as bonkers as Yeezy himself for loving it as I do. During his post-“Amazing” rant, and right before paraphrasing The Dark Knight, he says, “I get my quotes from movies because I don’t read. Or, from like, real life or something, go figure.” It’s a throwaway line, but I think it explains why a track like “Robocop” feels, strangely, like one of the only moments of uncalculated honesty on 808s. On a record that tried so hard to express the failings of mediating emotions through austere technology, there’s something bizarrely straightforward about a guy realizing he’s better off making sense of his world and his relationships through the representations around him than through assuming the profundity of the poet he’ll never be. The chorus’s repetition of the word “Robocop” is not so much a clumsy moment of inarticulateness as it’s Kanye acknowledging his inarticulacy and making a hook out of it. “Robocop” works on Storytellers too, proving that there are fleeting moments of emotional honesty beneath this steaming heap of artifice, a reason, for some puzzling reason and perhaps beyond all better judgment, to still find oneself interested in what this guy will do next.