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When I tell Chinese people that Kanye West is one of my favorite musicians, they consistently have no idea whom I’m talking about. Considering that one of my preconceived notions about most conversations I have is that people know and ostensibly love Kanye, and therefore he is a safe subject to discuss (which I do, often), it’s always a blow to have this common ground taken away from me. Nonetheless, in addition to the swarms of ex-pats who rolled up to the biggest musical event in Beijing hip hop history last night (including a bunch of mysterious high-school age Americans – are there really that many embassy kids?), there were enough Chinese people to pack the Beijing Workers’ Gymnasium, which was conveniently small enough that my nosebleed seats were a lot better than my nosebleed seats from when I saw Kanye at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

In fact, the whole affair was decidedly Chinese. To get into the stadium we had to walk down an aisle lined on either side by soldiers, and the show itself had a bunch of weird regulations. By all appearances, they didn’t let the extremely limited number of people on the floor stand or dance at all until the last two songs, which both must have made those seats a ripoff and kind of killed the energy for everybody else. The most glaring issue, though, was that the sound was absurdly low. I could barely hear Kanye on many of the songs, and it often took me 20 or 30 seconds to even figure out what he was performing because the only audible part was the bass drums. Presumably there was some kind of government presence stepping in and making sure that it wasn’t too loud, since Glow In The Dark was one of the best-mixed concerts I’ve ever seen.

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We’ve now heard three tracks from 808s and Heartbreak, and they share a distinct style, so we can guess that the rest of the album will sound similar. I didn’t want to judge the tracks too quickly, because I had no reference point to compare the tracks to. But my kneejerk reaction was negative, and justifiably so–Kanye is unarguably out of his element on all of these tracks.

Kanye is not a talented singer, and the unbelievably sparse backing tracks contrast sharply with his production throughout his rap career. In the past, Kanye has rarely been content to leave his sample-based beats unadorned with additional instrumentation, whether a single synthesizer or an ensemble of horn players, featured rappers, a singer and two professional keyboard players.

Even the production is amateurish at best. Kanye’s goofy, cartoonish synthesizers on all of these tracks, particularly “Heartless” (I’m pretty convinced that the synth in the verses is the default flute tone on a $100 Casio keyboard somewhere), is particularly surprising in contrast to his consistently adept use of synthesizers in the past.

FADER, in their review of the listening party for 808s and Heartbreak, similarly struggled for a point of reference, and came up with The Eraser, Thom Yorke’s solo album.  The comparison is tempting because (a) both albums feature emotional, gloomy singing over electronic tracks and (b) both musicians are considered pretty cool in music circles, despite (or in addition to) their tremendous mainstream success. But the comparison falls flat because (a) Thom Yorke can sing, (b) The Eraser is well-produced in the conventional sense, and (c) Thom Yorke draws upon alternative and indie rock influences, whereas Kanye is clearly drawing upon R&B, hip hop, and even the blues.

Of course, the whole reason I wrote this is because I finally came up with a good comparison for 808s and Heartbreak. It’s Cody Chesnutt (the guy at the top of this post).

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On a lighter note, did you notice what he was wearing? I guess if Kanye was ever going to get arrested, he was going to do it in custom Louis V.

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Oh yeah, and for the record, I’m as excited about The Blueprint 3 (download the live version too, I like it better) as everyone else.

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