Graduation announces a thread that would become more obvious from that point forward: the investigation of surfaces. West’s first two, which add ‘live’ instrumentation to the sample-rich template of his commissions, also stage a conversation between the mediated times of musical authorship and listening: the crackle of vinyl reveals itself every listen not to distract from the recordings housed within the damaged format, but to permeate, and encompass them. In practice then the material sample is both an invasion by and portal into the pains and ecstasies of the past.
This is of course not news: dub (from which it is well known hip hop descends), routinely calls on the imagery of hauntings and bush magic where sampling is concerned. The more a recording appears already technologically altered (the more its edges blurred), the more immaterial it becomes as a ghost or echo, a past traceable but now forever transformed from its point of origin. For artists and writers in Afrodiasporic sound cultures, the material surface heard in the recording dissolves temporal and geographic distance — a shout from the past, an impossible home, a ghost that is remembered and summoned by the technology of the sound system. The deterritorialised voice can never go back, but it can shape-shift — stretch, clip, bark — its every appearance announces a home that cannot be returned to, but also a new one that has been reached.
In even his most lush and immersive projects, Ye has been sensitive to this expressive sound tradition. His appreciation of the spectral voice has driven some of the most daring vocal-centric production in American music, all in negotiation of recording surfaces, and all in search of capturing the ever retreating ‘moment’. This has been gradual but constant: even with the digital effervescence of Graduation the studio vocal is still presented as a ‘live’ event held apart from the artifice of the soundworld, in much the same way verses on The College Dropout clearly navigate the material warmth of soul’s recorded past.
808s & Heartbreak as a future shock accelerates things by drawing attention to the post-processing or pastness of the ‘live’ event. By dramatising its journey through recording, mixing, and editing processes and amplifying the resulting human-machine hybrid, the voice is aligned with the digital drum, also compressed into jagged bits. Within the thematic context of the record, each percussive sound (its surface distorted and impenetrable), becomes known as a ‘heartbreak’, the digitally altered voice its wail (as the instrumental rhythm was the body to be invaded by ‘the sound of ghosts, the sudden dead’ in the disembodied vocal dub (Chude-Sokei). The idea of not being able to stand up much less express grief without technological mediation is enforced by the record’s cybernetic imagery, an emphasis that holds even when the gimmick drops.
Where the past was once sampled, made ghostly, West here gives the ‘live’ the same treatment, anguish as an always already mediated occurrence, the mechanics of sound recording as an expressive tool. Hearing it flick between asserting itself on the beat before dissolving into the cold night of Street Lights will always be moving, but its boldest and most devastating series of moments is in the vocal solo that ends Runaway, this era’s most human summation. The medium is not sonically augmented words expressing grief as it in 808s, but the grief of sound itself. It also happens to be one of the few times in his music that a cry for help receives an answer, that being pain is everywhere and pain will leave on its own terms. It is no wonder My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is his most popular album.
These cries through Yeezus are suspended, left until the artist forgets them and moves on. They’re left for us. Where (aside from a few notable experiments such as Runaway) MBDTF mostly codifies the voice in recognisable studio aesthetics (the baroque, Wall of Sound), Yeezus‘ approach is an uncompromising assemblage of cut up and ‘raw’ takes. On one hand there is a chorus of disembodied, garbled voices at play, crying out to be recognised — it was Lou Reed who recognised that instead of using noise to extend tonality, Yeezus uses tonality to make noise itself weep — and on the other, these abrupt performances that in West’s and Rubin’s accounts cut through the noise of the studio. On first listen it is Ye’s aggressive, unconscious raps that define a mechanically shallow listening experience: dick jokes, weak rhymes, and distortion. It is only in time that the sea of lost voices, of street lights render it so deep it’s hard not to get lost with them.
Curiously a ‘post-Yeezus liturgical music’ has not meant pursuing that live-dead, mixed-unmixed threshold further, but isolating the yet-to-be aestheticised performances that make a published recording sound unfinished, shallow. The sudden performances that irrupted through Yeezus before the ghosts caught up. This shift is jarring, but not without precedent.