Off Site: Kanye West and Daft Punk's Collaborations on Yeezus
Kanye West's Yeezus is filled with vocal outbursts but it's most memorable scream doesn't come from the rapper's larynx. The distorted squall that opens West's latest album likely emerges from the guts of this arcane machine. The hulking stack of wires and knobs is a custom built modular synthesizer that Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter of French duo Daft Punk used to recreate the electric disco sounds of artists like Giorgio Moroder for their recently released Random Access Memories. An analogue instrument like those used by Moroder himself in the 1970's, it's difficult to control often producing unpredictable, unique results each time it's switched on. Like much of Daft Punk's studio and many of their musical touchstones, it's willfully and strategically anachronistic. West, who lives part time in Paris, enlisted Daft Punk's talents, their gear, and its out of time outbursts for his new album.
After leaking two weeks ago, Yeezus has received near universal praise from critics and produced its fair share of controversy. Spare and abrasive, the album is startling in its sonic adventurousness, even for West. Veering from boorish misogyny to politicized outrage, the album is also lyrically confounding, and often infuriating, even for West. Daft Punk may have had little to do with the lyrical content, but they were central to the sound of Yeezus. As with Kanye's last album, 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the credits for Yeezus include dozens of names for each track with everyone from Glaswegian producer Hudson Mohawke to Bon Iver's Justin Vernon playing a part. Still Bangalter and Homem-Christo's sounds stand out amongst the crowd of contributors, shards of dance music's grittier past embedded in a high budget hip-hop fabric. That opening synth scream transforms into the decimated arpeggio of "On Site," an acid techno track at hip-hop tempo. The French duo's distorted kick drums undergird "I Am A God," but they're sustained growl is more akin to Belgian hardcore, than the booming 808 samples typical of 2010s hip-hop. The effect is only emphasized by the rave stabs punctuating the rhythm. It's a bit more difficult to make out what pieces of "Black Skinhead" and "Send It Up" should be specifically credited to Daft Punk. But the heavily reverbed synth that brays like a troubled elephant throughout the latter is likely to have come from their studio with a timbre reminiscent of wild-eyed 90's European techno. At first RAM's breezy funk and disco seems to have very little in common with Daft Punk's aggressive production on Yeezus, but they share a common, contrarian relationship to the ubiquitous digital sheen of mainstream EDM.
Daft Punk have become arguably the most visible dance music revivalists, holding the torch for genres and production techniques of various yesteryears and implicitly critical of contemporary trends. In Jonah Weiner's recent Rolling Stone feature on the pair, Bangalter described some current EDM as "an audio energy drink. … It's like someone shaking you. But it can't move people on an emotional level." Poster boys for what critic Simon Reynolds has called 'retromania,' their albums are recreations of house, techno and disco from the past few decades. As many critics have noted, much of RAM could plausibly been made by a band like Chic in the early-80's. On Yeezus these retro maneuvers are thrown up against West's use of soul samples, dancehall, trap and rock rhythms and the rapper's own heated verses. The resulting montage is something difficult to classify, and, arguably, more interesting than Bangalter and Homem-Christo's more accurate generic studies. It's combination of hip-hop and hard-edged dance music has antecedents in the indusrial sounds of Nine Inch Nails, and the experiments of Techno Animal and more recently Death Grips. But unlike any of these predecessors Yeezus is a traditional hip-hop album at heart, and Daft Punk's work is folded into its generic rules. Sixteen bar verses are broken up by catchy, repeated choruses, West's rhymes take center stage, and the tempo runs at a steady 80-110bpm, rather than the 120-130bpm more typical of house and techno. The duo's painstakingly recreated techniques and sounds are pulled out from their stylistic origins. The result is neither entirely at home in 2013 or 1983, nor in Paris, Los Angeles or New York, but always en route between destinations.
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