For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a Hip Hop head. What started as curiosity in Marshall Mather’s warped mind and polysyllabic lyrics grew into an infatuation; my age and Rap connection are directly correlated. Life’s dynamic nature exposes extreme uncertainty, but no matter how much time passes, no matter how much music develops, in my life, one resounding truth remains: I’m deeply, truly in love with Hip Hop.
My appreciation for the rhythmic genre extends past the music itself and into the vibrant culture it perpetuates. At nine-years-old, I didn’t know the meaning of cultural appropriation. When I sported a Heinz Ward jersey, black jeans and a du rag to Hebrew school in 3rd grade, I was emulating Method Man, not thinking how I’d be perceived by my White Jewish peers. In my eyes, I was just trying to inject myself in what I thought constituted Hip Hop life. At 24, I now know what cultural appropriation means. I may have retired my du rag, but my love for this music hasn’t faltered—it’s strengthened and evolved.
Despite conjured up slander against the man, Kanye West is a genius. His ability to convert a Church song into a club hit reflects his acute sampling ear and transcendent, inspirational musical style. He’s revered for his music pallet’s depth and breadth, and his ability to channel that knowledge into countless masterpieces. “Jesus Walks,” “I am a God,” and “Lost In The World,” are the Venn diagram of Kanye West: they’re contrasting sonically, yet are all pieces of art, each evidencing West’s musical command. The latter hit, “Lost In The World,” features Kanye staples: challenging production, a catchy hook and an unconventional Hip Hop element, materialized as featured artist, Bon Iver.
I can admit it: I’m very stubborn. This Achilles heel character trait has hindered my development in many ways, from costing me a promotion to limiting my music consumption. If it’s not Rap, I don’t want to hear it. If there aren’t dexterous bars flowing over a mesmerizing beat, I don’t want to hear it. If it’s not… You get the point: Rap and I get along well—too well.
Recently, while conversing with my musically inclined friend—one whom can appreciate Rap and Rock (crazy, I know)—he said, “Dude, just please listen to this new Bon Iver album, 22, A Million—I promise, you’ll like it.” To which I responded, “But bro, do they spit bars?” After the disgust washed away from his face, he informed me that Kanye West frequently cites Bon Iver as an influence. My ears immediately perked up. “Oh, Kanye likes them? Hm, maybe I should give them a shot,” I contemplated to myself. I went home that night, synced my phone and Beats Pill, searched 22, A Million on Spotify, apologized to Biggie for cheating on him and hit play on the first track, “22 (OVER S∞∞N).”
Bon Iver greeted me with a serene, cinematic sounding track that transported me from my small Manhattan bedroom to a grassy meadow, peering out over a mysterious pond. As the mist rose from this imaginary body of water, the sweat from my Hip Hop infidelity evaporated, suggesting that this “Bon Iver experience” might not be so bad; in fact, it might be a growth journey. As “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” continued, a gentle, auto-tuned voice revealed the deep inner-workings of Justin Vernon’s (the group’s front man) complex, insecure mind: “Where you gonna look for confirmation? And if it’s ever gonna happen, So as I’m standing at the station, It might be over soon.” Chills. The cinematic production was eventually accompanied by a tranquil clarinet, forging a strong friendship. The parallel between Bon Iver and Kanye West was forming.
Mirroring one of Kanye’s cornerstones, Bon Iver enlists an intriguing sample on the introductory song: Mahalia Jackson’s live version of “How I Got Over,” played minutes before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s such a talent: the ability to hear something so distant from the eventual product, and know that its presence will fittingly serve as the song’s framework. Also like Kanye, Bon Iver is no stranger to using clashing sounds to form a cohesive entity—similar to Kanye’s vision for Yeezus.
If “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is akin to a serene meadow, then the successive track, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T X X,” resembles an electronic-induced ceremonial tribal salute. Rapid and hostile percussion dominate this song and reflect Vernon’s aggressive mindset, contextualized by his quote, “[This track is] broken down and messed up. Because personally, with what I’d gone through and what other people I knew had gone through, I wanted to break down and crush something and do something aggressive sounding.” While I was initially taken back from the radically different instrumental, I was intrigued by the duality of sound and musical versatility.
The themes of diverse sounds and cerebral thinking inhabit the remainder of the project, comprising a very intriguing journey. After the tenth and final track, “00000 Million” winded down, I looked up and stared at the wall before me; my face displaying a medley of emotions mimicking the dichotomy of sounds that I just met: happy yet sad; uplifted yet discouraged; a clear outlook yet a murky vision. I felt the former positive feelings because I was overjoyed by the incredible project I consumed. I felt the latter negative feelings because I missed what I never knew—my stubborn attitude deprived me of this high-caliber music for most of my life.
But I didn’t let these negative emotions high-jack my rational thinking—I sunk my teeth into Bon Iver’s archive. Almost immediately, the Kanye-Bon Iver comparison was further illuminated. Arguably Kanye’s best album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is like the Danielson to Bon Iver’s Mr. Miyagi: Yeezy drew so much influence from Justin Vernon’s composition and auto-tuned aesthetic. From less overt inspirations like “The Wolves (Act I and II)” to near carbon-copy samples like “Woods,” it’s clear that these transcendent musicians share similar styles and aspirations: to produce musical excellence. They are kindred spirits.
One reason why I respect Kanye so much is because he’s been a focal music industry player since his 2004 rookie project, The College Dropout (began his producing career in ’96), and is more relevant than ever today. His style is marked by progression and inclusiveness, formulating consistently innovative, challenging and beautiful music. Although I still have a lot more Bon Iver to consume and reflect upon, it’s clear that they’re walking that same innovative, challenging and beautiful music path—one that few artists have voyaged across. Yes, I will always be deeply, truly in love with Hip Hop, but after hearing Bon Iver, I think I can open my heart to different genres. I’m excited to begin this open-minded journey.