On Kanye vs. Diddy

One of the lower-key debates (perhaps it only seemed low-key because I’ve essentially been in music-blog detox for the last two weeks) that ushered out the year in music concerned Kanye’s Mega Epic vs. Diddy’s Mega Epic.

Alex MacPherson (a writer for The Quietus) on the subject:

“THE DIDDY/DIRTY MONEY ALBUM = IF ALL THE NONSENSE WRITTEN ABOUT THE STUPID KANYE ALBUM WAS ACTUALLY TRUE.

Six-minute epics? Check.
A plethora of guests? Check.
Expensive-sounding beats from big name producers? Check.
A conscious sense of ambitious thinking on a grander scale than before? Check.
Luxe signifiers of an opulent lifestyle? Check.
Self-absorption and self-analysis? Check.
A fixation with the difficulty of loving someone through the prism/prison of that massive celebrity ego? Check.

The difference is that Diddy just pulls all the above in a way more satisfying and interesting way than Kanye – and despite the ego and ambition, knows when to get out of his own way. Having these songs performed by the Dirty Money trio, plus guests, ensures that no one voice dominates any song: the narrative is tossed around at a dizzying rate, from Dawn to Kalenna to Diddy to Wayne to Justin, and the effect is a bit like a high-octane action film (both in its fast-paced chase scenes and its stylish, meditative moments).

And I’ll take Diddy namechecking Rembrandt and talking about “fuchsia gaiters and cummerbunds” over Kanye’s, uh, porn stars any day. Not to mention lyrics like “I smoke weed listenin’ to Sade” and “I’ll even make love to you on marmalade” – Kanye wishes he was that fucking weird or interesting!”

A few thoughts in response.

First and foremost, nothing that comes out of either of these guys mouths is that unusual–perhaps unusual by standards of daily conversation, but not by the loftily insane benchmarks set by rap and modern R ‘n B. RZA is, after all, on Kanye’s album, and he has been saying far more inexplicable and unintelligible things for the better part of the last 17 years (and that’s even if you understand 5% references). Prince was saying freakier shit 20-25 years ago. Stevie Wonder wrote a damn song about a utopian society on “Saturn,” noting its “rainbow moonbeams and orange snow,” a place where “people live to be 205.” I know Stevie was speaking in allegory and Diddy might actually make love to you on marmalade; the point, however, is that singers and rappers have been saying undeniably weird, obtuse, and uncomfortable things since the beginning of recorded music. Just as in their taste for samples and sounds, Kanye and Diddy are picking up a mantle held by artists that came before and many who will come after.

Kanye and Diddy have, essentially, unlimited money and time to explore any artistic fantasy they desire. They can go to the Louvre, visit Ibiza, and hole up in Hawaii. They can commission high priced producers, world-class artists, all the top-notch names in any field you can imagine. And that’s just it: because we know that their horizons are essentially limitless, we shouldn’t be surprised by anything. Surprise was “Love Lockdown,” the antithesis of either of the current works from these two, a stripped down, tribal bleat from the heart, raw and rushed. It seems kind of silly to call either of them weird knowing that Kanye is essentially a status symbol collecting nerd and Diddy is somewhat of a mirror image without the nerdiness (his public persona has not reached quite the levels of perceived absurdity and derision that Kanye’s has in recent years, but he’s had his fair share of overshares, radio blow ups, and reality tv gems). And none of this is bad, it simply means that we’re never going to get what some would consider a hearty, ambitious, global message from them. What we will get is commentary on love and fame from people who have witnessed how the two intertwine and repel. If these things were not interesting to us on some love, then reality TV wouldn’t exist (and I know we’re not all reality TV mavens–the only show I’ll submit to is Top Chef–but perhaps it is time to look at the music being made and readjust our notions of what qualifies as informed, informative statements about society and interpersonal relationships; it shouldn’t merely enough to reflect, but I think at their best both of these albums are doing more than mere mirror-holding–and perhaps, for now, even that might be enough!).

Perhaps Diddy did make the more “satisfying” epic, but what does this even mean? Satisfying because it defies common critical consensus? Because it defies commonly held expectations of Diddy–so often a laughing stock for musical missteps, so often derided for shady business practices? (I will admit: I have gleefully texted and e-mailed people about this album largely because I was so pleasantly surprised by much of its content) Because if you like European dance music, you’re probably more willing to take the Last Train than visit the Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?

MacPherson does do a fine job of stating his case for what makes the album more satisfying to his ears. Indeed, Diddy does know when to get out of his own way and let the voices of others shine, but we must remember that Diddy has never had a particularly strong, singular voice, considering that an army of ghostwriters has crafted his verses and flows over the years. Kanye is Kanye and, assuming all his writing is his own, it is harder to expect a man who fancies himself a “real” rapper (and one of the greatest ever, to boot) to move out of his own way–we wouldn’t necessarily ask this of Andre 3000 or Pharoahe Monch or Eminem in his prime, would we? This point doesn’t justify Kanye’s not stepping out of his own way, but it makes Diddy’s move seem less like a grand artistic statement about polyphony in the discourse of love, and more like a move in line with every album he’s ever made (let’s not forget that No Way Out wasn’t just Puff Daddy, it was Puff Daddy and the Family–and it’s the Family that we remember).

Here the great Kanye-Diddy divide becomes a matter of subjectivity (and perhaps, at this point, every matter of critical discourse should be signposted with my favorite Nietzsche quote: “Little by little I came to understand what every great philosophy to date has been: the personal confession of its author, a kind of unintended and unwitting memoir”). Really, it comes down to your personal preferences. Rock or Dance? Werner Herzog or Michael Bay? New York or Miami?

And if you’re wondering what still surprises me after such a seemingly jaded standpoint on two decidedly, refreshingly different albums (different, that is, from the recent mainstream): “B.O.B.” (the Outkast song, not the rapper) continues to amaze and surprise after 10 years, Lil B seems ostensibly to exist on his own planet, the first 6 months of my awareness of Odd Future were pretty neat and refreshing, and any time I pick up A Book of Human Language by Aceyalone I feel like something genuinely interesting is being attempted. There are more examples, but this was a random smattering to suffice for the moment.

[For the record and the sake of completeness, Nitsuh Abebe has a pretty fantastic take on both albums over at NY Mag’s Vulture.

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