anthony.deanharris[at]nextbop[dot]com / @retronius
In very close succession to each other, I heard two albums that are legendary in their own right. The first one, and the main subject of my column this week, is Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a truly exceptional album that will be remembered through time as a true masterpiece and the work of a troubled genius. The other was Quincy Jones' Q: Soul Bossa Nostra, an album so filled with hokey, youthful pandering, a loving fandom may see this as the first time to start worrying about a multigenre, trans-era musical genius passing his prime.
These two artisans seem like an odd pairing, but their methodology is so similar, it's hard not to see the two to be of the same creative heart. The greatest wonder of Quincy Jones as a producer is his ability to put people of varying degrees of talent in a room and pull greatness out of them. He'll provide a framework around them, set the terms of performance, sets the bar high, and he usually seems to get great work out of anyone. Even as a trumpeter where he earned his musical chops at a very young age, by the time he was touring with Lionel Hampton at 19, he already knew to surround himself with greatness (while some of the musicians with whom he worked at the time would say he maybe didn’t cut the mustard himself as a trumpeter). Call it his ear or call it his astounding ability to find talent but the man has always seemed to know what he was doing... until now.
Q: Soul Bossa Nostra is a bad album. We don't do reviews here at Nextbop but I just have to say it's a bad album. Q has done this kind of album before and it's usually good. Jones takes his old compositions and redoes them with new talent of the time. He did it in 1995's Q's Jook Joint and it was awesome. It was a big album of my childhood. Jones found Tamia before she got all poppy and commercial. He got Brian McKnight to duet with Rachelle Ferrel with Take 6 singing backup on “Moody’s Mood for Love,” and then gave James Moody a great solo at the end. It’s a landmark album quite worthy of your time and attention. Before that was 1989's Back On The Block and it, too, was awesome. I mean, come on, "The Secret Garden" is that ish to this day, people. These collaborations over old work and various reissues have been the majority of Quincy Jones’ work over the last few decades. It reeks of fighting for relevancy but it has been mostly entertaining up until now. Nothing new is being written but new, grooving work is still made. Personally, I’ve been fine with Q phoning it in as long as the work was still good, but it ceased being good. Now it’s time to rethink some things.
What began as pulling in folks of varying degrees of talent to make true contributions to timeless classic tunes (El Debarge’s miniature verse on “The Secret Garden”, Shaq rapping on “Jook Joint (Intro)”, etc.), has devolved into bringing on a cavalcade of whatever the kids are listening to nowadays. When I hear “Strawberry Letter 23” I don’t think to myself, “You know what this song needs? Akon and a club beat.” T-Pain and his incessant Auto Tune should have stayed far away from “P.Y.T.” There is no reason why a version of “Hicky-Burr” should have Academy Award winners Three 6 Mafia (isn’t it always amusing to say “Academy Award winners Three 6 Mafia?). And for the love of God, I wish I could forget that Usher ever sang on a remake of “The Secret Garden.” This album is an unnecessary pander to a younger group of listeners, a colossal failure of Miles Davis’ Doo-Bop proportions. Jones seems to have forgotten what made his work so great in the first place and put it all on the wayside in a misguided attempt at album sales from a new, fickle generation. Jones misreads his audience as one who needs recognizable names and a catchy, club beat instead of sticking to the earnestness of his original compositions.
Contrast this with Kanye West’s new album, a work of such brilliant, useful collaboration that the masses of folks who may have little invested in the genre (of which there are many, myself generally included) and find some of his compatriots annoying (Rhianna, Nicki Minaj, KiD CuDi when he’s whining about some other heartache of his), West still manages to let each artist maintain his or her signature and fit in the ideals of his larger work to create a spectacular album worthy of the attention of any music fan, no matter the affiliation. His work poaches from any musical sample and style, involves a great deal of complexity in its layering, is open to improvisation when performed live, and is at the end of the day a masterfully crafted album. Most importantly, West has managed to do what Quincy Jones has always been able to do, especially in this time when Jones seems unable to do so himself.
So what happens when an artist reaches a point in which he nears the end of his relevancy (or at least seemingly hits a rough patch after a long spread of inactivity)? What happens when the “old guy gets young friends” album model doesn’t work anymore? (Santana’s Supernatural vs. Santana’s All That I Am & Shaman, Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company vs. the sort of creepy, posthumously released Genius and Friends) Do we still support an artist who has raised to a status more like a musical institution than just a mere producer, even when he may no longer have his chops? Do we appreciate the brilliance that emulates his form while he’s still around to see the attention shift? The situation we have here is akin to the question of academia: Should a professor who has, to be quite honest, slacked off since he got tenure be pressed to retire (i.e. we don’t buy his stuff anymore) in order to make room for a new faculty member? Yet this isn’t exactly an even metaphor. The music industry, as much as folks would like to think it is when exaggerating their commentary on the business, isn’t a zero-sum game. We don’t bump Quincy for Kanye, but we still must note what formula works and Kanye West is certainly using Quincy Jones’ formula.
What’s even more fascinating about this formula is its inherent complexity. West, throughout his entire career but especially with his most recent album, has made some of the most complex hip hop, filled to the brim with layers of sampling, beats, unorthodox instrumentation (for his genre), and goals. While this complexity in composition may have come to the fore to make up for the absolute overtness in the lyricism (no, it doesn’t get any deeper than “I broke up with my fiancée, Amber Rose, and at first I was angry but now I’m just sad”), West has still produced a highly marketable album of complex music that has something for everyone.
So once again, we come to the ultimate point that I seem to make here quite often—West should be used as an example for our own genre. If there is room for complexity in hip hop and if it can become quite lucrative (100,000 digital sales on the first day, 600,000 projected album sales in its first week by his rather disjointed admission), this should provide hope for the rest of us. It’s often noted that the vast majority of album sales go to a very small few at the top (sort of like the distribution of wealth in America and the argument to end the Bush tax cuts, hey-oh!). As deplorable as this all may seem, it still shows us a clear example to do what works. Kanye’s model works with no compromise of his own values and what he feels his music is capable of doing. The same can be said of our own genre, whether it’s an inventive spin at the works of Nick Drake or aspiring to play more Americana-based music throughout more of America, saying the public won’t buy it because it’s too complicated is a lazy excuse. It’s almost as lazy of an excuse as saying the same songs people have loved for decades can be sold once again if some rappers were thrown into the mix and if we change the beat.
Kanye West is so successful because he’s so honest about himself and about his music. Quincy Jones’ ever-present potential is wasting away because he has forgotten this musical honesty. This above all should be the lesson we learn from the album sale charts of November 2010, and it’s a pretty crucial lesson at that.
Anthony Dean-Harris is a contributing writer for African-American Reflections and hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.