[14 July 2008]
At this point in Kanye West’s career, it’s safe to say that, as a producer, he is as extraordinary as he is relentless. Like other producer luminaries (namely Brian Burton a.k.a. Danger Mouse, Timothy Mosley a.k.a. Timbaland, and William Adams a.k.a. will.i.am), West’s deft ear perfectly and repeatedly balances bass, rhythm, space, era, culture, and ontology to forge timeless pop. West embodies the title music mogul, but hardly because his balancing act is any more graceful than the next chart-topping and genre-defying producer. Rather, his dominance is grounded in his natural business and marketing acumen. It isn’t enough to simply produce the next insatiably addictive track. One must know precisely where to place it and how to breach our bubbles with it.
In the past, activities that were sung about were mostly metaphorical, alluding to something else. So the intention from Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go” was not to ride around in your automobile, but to reminisce about failed dates. This, of course, did not deter marketers from later exploiting these tunes for their apparent interpretations. But West takes an electronic esteem booster with socialist morale in “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, by the venerable French dj duo Daft Punk, and tailors it into the mobilizing and empowering victory march “Stronger”, suited for a world champion athlete. He has adapted to the times and, similar to product placement, intentionally puts certain activities and themes into his music, creating a subconscious association with his music when doing that activity. In other words, West’s activity placement generates music perfectly complimentary to that activity. Or so we think.
In years past, other hip-hop stars have dominated the charts using a similar modus operandi. Specifically, in March 2005, another rapper with an equal business affinity, 50 Cent, claimed three of the top five Billboard Hot 100 singles with “Candy Shop”, “Disco Inferno”, and “How We Do”, the first time ever for a solo artist. All of 50’s gems were indelibly linked to the same activities, more or less: clubbing, courting, stripping, and other obvious debauchery. The songs flourished in those realms and then quickly permeated the mainstream. (No wonder, then, that 50 and Kanye made - or rather, manufactured - headlines for a “rivalry” by simultaneously releasing their albums last fall).
In West, “Stronger”, “Good Life”, “Touch the Sky”, and many other tracks are also party-ready and club-tested. Like 50 Cent’s hits, they are resolutely associated with going out and succumbing to vanity’s vices. Not only that, but they also foster a false sense of justification and accomplishment in doing so, e.g. “Stronger” and “Touch the Sky”.
For West, however, this is only the starting point. He honors a pop tradition of activity placement but takes it further, calculating precisely what to incorporate and how it may prosper. Consider “The New Workout Plan”. A broadly appealing track from his seminal masterpiece, The College Dropout, it features dynamic production—Yiddish fiddles are strident yet alluring in contrast to the lurching electro-bass—and routine lyrics. Most importantly, its title tacitly obliges the listener to place it in their iPod Nano’s “Workout” or “Gym” playlist—all the more facilitated by Nike and Apple’s (and soon Adidas and Samsung’s) lucrative partnership. West’s brilliant but explicit sleight of hand fuses a complimentary relationship for the consumer/listener between exercising and listening to “The New Workout Plan”, and the strength of this correlation, and others, is what repeatedly launches West’s tracks to the top of the charts.
Activity and product placement has remained a consistent contributor in music for decades, but only in earnest and largely figuratively, never so deliberately—as in literature, television, and films. Take Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz”. Even though the Mercedes and all the materialistic objects she wishes from God are palpably satirical, the auto conglomerate waited only 25 years before securing the rights for an advertising campaign. The song is discernibly less marketable for driving, per se, but Mercedes rival BMW relented by making an ad in which the driver tosses the tape out of his Z3 after hearing the name “Porsche” in the song. Likewise, “Baby You Can Drive My Car”, despite its irrevocable title and lyrics, was only an old blues euphemism for sex. It would have just as easily been about diamond rings, not cars, had Lennon and McCartney not already written about diamond rings on “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Feel Fine”. Still, countless drop-top cruises have embarked, many a vehicle has been modeled, and VH1 consistently pimps rides to this famous tune. Paralleling the Beatles’ innuendos, Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” is simply a metaphorical power-pop piece about a one-night stand with a promiscuous woman, not an automotive American icon. Inevitably, Chevrolet has referenced and used it in their ads some 20 years later. Bruce Springsteen’s homage to the Elvis mobile, “Pink Cadillac”, was no hit itself, though it proved successful as a foil on his 1984 Born in the USA tour. But the song did reach number five on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988 as reworked by Natalie Cole into a suave, contrived 80’s R&B pop number.
What is true of cars and driving is also true of sports and victory. In spite of performing in myriad sports stadiums, Freddie Mercury didn’t imagine the fleeting seconds of a football victory—especially not American football—as the setting for Queen’s iconic, and also perfectly complimentary, “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions”. Originally, Mercury wrote the latter as a unifying anthem, something that their fans could unite and participate in concert with, and was himself surprised that no one had written a new sports anthem to usurp it.
In 2003, the Episcopal Church took slightly more equivocal ideas from U2’s catalog when parishioner Sarah Breuer of Baltimore led a communion service with U2 songs in lieu of traditional hymns, thus dubbing the “U2Charist”. In its current manifestation, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” open the U2Charist, segueing into “Elevation” as the song of praise and “One” as the congregation’s sermon response, and concludes with “Beautiful Day” as the closing hymn. No matter how obvious, U2 never intended certain metaphors as the foundation for a religious service. It’s only a matter of time before “Jesus Walks” is the basis of a clergy.
West, in contrast, intentionally chooses titles and subject matter to facilitate mass consumption. In fact, West and an entourage of brutish rappers made a remix of “We Are the Champions” last year, but its clutter and speed (the Queen sample sounds like the Chipmunks) undermined its mass-market appeal. By comparison, his second attempt, “Champion”, from Graduation, is a natural musical compliment to sports marketing—though Queen’s “We Are the Champions” is undeniably the all-time, er, champion. As an accompaniment, “Champion” provides West’s renowned appeal with retro vocal hooks, contemporary beats, and bright synthesizers. But by singing about success, victory, and simply using the magic word, it becomes a perfect compliment to ESPN’s highlight reels and game ads. So much so that it was quickly featured in SportsCenter’s “Ultimate Highlight” segment.
Key to Kanye’s success is adapting to the new information landscape as quickly as it has evolved, and he’s done so by understanding the stress of permeating culture quickly, virally, and subliminally. Success isn’t to be force-fed down listeners’ throats via payola and TRL, but nursed by understanding our needs and habits and producing complimentary music for them. (West’s parent label, Universal, however, has been associated with such notorious practices, too.) In an age of digital and accessible information, learning and networking, songs that can fulfill the listener’s demands—like music for working out or sports—are destined for financial success.
That Kanye West is first and foremost a producer, not an MC, further supports his overt manipulation. His agenda, I imagine, looks something like this:
1. Drop insatiably addictive beats
2. Achieve and sustain global superstardom
3. Rinse and repeat
Naturally, number one is a means to achieve number two. Therefore number one must not only be musically catchy (there are, after all, hundreds of well-written pop tunes that never seep into ubiquity), but it must also, and most importantly, trigger a complimentary demand, at once subconscious and explicit, insatiable and precise—something his predecessors would never have thought of.
West has absorbed not only the sounds of pop history, but also the consequences of its mostly inadvertent activity placement. By seizing those results, he has conspicuously and willfully propelled his music into the mainstream. His approach is especially effective in an era of diminishing song length and preference for succinct sound clips that can instantly saturate the media and marketplace. Looking forward, the DC rapper Wale, who recently signed on to Mark Ronson’s Allido Records—which incidentally got called into the majors by signing a distribution deal with Interscope—plans on memorializing Seinfeld with a “Mixtape of Nothing”. Whether this will be the next evolution of activity placement, or simply a rhyming Seinfeldian lexicon remains unclear, but I can already imagine “The Supermarket Song” and “Make Me a Venti Bee-atch” pumping through our pods. In any event, West’s impression to music association is indelible and undeniable. Is it coincidence then that the playoff-happy Toronto Raptors, Final Four-decorated Texas Longhorns, and history-defining Super Bowl Champion New York Giants were all introduced to the sounds of West’s courageous “Stronger”? The New York Rangers certainly didn’t think so. They vested themselves in the rejuvenating track on their quest through the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs.