Rock column, Mail on Sunday, September 9 2007
Mercury, out tomorrow
Relentless, out tomorrow
O2 Arena, London
Hip-hop is in crisis. Sales have reportedly fallen 30 per cent in a year in America, and even more over here. Various explanations have been floated, which amount to much the same thing. Rap has fallen behind the times – it’s too sexist, too materialist, too neanderthal.
Kanye West would probably give another reason: the absence of a new album by Kanye West. His first two records breathed new life into hip-hop in 2004-05 by combining hooks with brains. Kanye wasn’t just brighter than the average rapper; he was more fun.
But intelligence doesn’t necessarily equip you for the giddy heights of stardom. (Amy Winehouse has a sharp brain under her beehive.) Success simply went to Kanye’s head. When he missed out on a prize at the MTV Europe awards, he stormed the stag, shouting: ‘If I don’t win, your show loses credibility.’
In the event, only one party lost credibility and it wasn’t MTV. So Kanye has something to prove now, and he knows it. He can’t stop thinking about his own image. He quotes himself, he reminisces about interviews, and he thinks the most interesting aspect of Hurricane Katrina was what it prompted him to say. Being a producer himself, he has nobody to tell him when to shut up.
Musically, Graduation displays all his talents. It fizzes with eclecticism, sampling Steely Dan, Laura Nyro and Can as well as Michael Jackson and Public Enemy. Kanye deals himself some big cards and plays them with skill. The moment when Steely Dan pop up, at the start of track two, is beautifully done.
Stronger, the album’s first hit, stands accused of being a mere cover of the song it samples – Daft Punk’s Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger – but if you play them back to back, Kanye’s version is more urgent and more dramatic: stronger indeed.
He falls down only with his lyrics, which have become the opposite of the music – introverted and self-obsessed. The odd flash of wit (‘my head’s so big you can’t sit behind me’) comes amid clouds of tedium. It’s like being stuck in a bar with a cast-iron bore – who keeps going to the jukebox and putting on great records. Graduation will be enjoyed most by fans who don’t speak English.
KT Tunstall’s second album starts with a shock: on the cover, she wears a spangly white mini-dress and wields a silver guitar. The clear implication is that she has abandoned folk-pop for glam rock. In fact, Drastic Fantastic is Eye To The Telescope, part two.
At first it feels like a watered-down version, offering nothing as sparky as Suddenly I See. But soon this album too feels like an old friend. The music is conservative, but that plays to her strength, her no-nonsense decency. And there is nothing safe about the lyric to Funnyman, which tackles mental illness.
Rock royalty are queuing up to try the O2, London’s new mega-arena. The Stones have been and gone, Bruce Springsteen is coming, and on Wednesday Elton John dropped by for the European premiere of his Las Vegas show, The Red Piano.
We think of things in America as being outsized, but at Caesar’s Palace, this show plays to 4,000 people a night, whereas here it was five times that. The transition was too much. To most of the crowd, Elton was a portly ant. Usually in arenas, those who can’t see can at least hear properly, but the sound was terrible.
So the main event was the lush videos specially made by David LaChapelle. These were at least visible, thanks to a giant panoramic screen. They ranged from the riveting – two lovers dancing a furious pas-de-deux to Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me – to the queasily autobiographical, as an actor stuck his head in an oven for Someone Saved My Life Tonight.
LaChappelle supplied props too, which started off sentimental (colossal red roses) and ended up phallic (bananas, hot dogs). If it wasn’t quite a feast for the eyes, it was food for thought. Elton pounded the eponymous piano with unfading gusto, but the emotional punch that you should get from classic songs played live never came.