Respecting Artistry: Beck Hanson Vs Beyonce Knowles (feat. Kanye West)

Posted: August 30, 2015 in Music, Reviews & Ramblings
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Morning PhaseBeyonce

This was going to be a review of Morning Phase, the ninth studio album by the artist, Beck. But in order to review Morning Phase, I realised I probably have to talk about Beyoncé Knowle’s most recent release, Beyoncé, as well.
Let me say straight up that I am not and never have been a fan of Beyoncé Knowles. I kind of liked her song Crazy In Love, and the trashy and titillating cliché of a film-clip that accompanied it, but none of her music has ever been in my music collection. I also think Kanye West is a massive douche, which probably tells you which direction this review is going, but more on that later.
My thinking was that, given the broo-ha-ha surrounding Beck winning album of the year at the 2015 Grammy awards, I should find a copy of Beyoncé and hear for myself what all the fuss was about. I mean, (at the time of writing) 876 of Beyoncé’s fans had signed a Change.org petition demanding that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences “Rightfully Give BEYONCÉ the 2015 AOTY Award or Disband,” so it must be something pretty special if so many people feel that strongly about it, right?
Seriously though, there is no questioning Beyoncé’s talents as an entertainer, and musically, Beyoncé, I have to admit, is a reasonably entertaining listen. In fact, there were several moments of this album that I actually enjoyed. I particularly liked the tracks that Pharrell Williams co-wrote and produced, Blow and Superpower (featuring Frank Ocean). I half expected to hear the chorus from William’s song, Happy, or his collaboration with Daft Punk, Get Lucky during Superpower.
But despite William’s influence on those two tracks, and the fact I am a fan of some of William’s work with his band, N.E.R.D., as well as his solo stuff, Beyoncé’s music, taken as a whole, is not the kind that I would generally choose to listen to, and not only because it speaks to a different world of tastes that I feel like I have no connection with.
Intellectually, there are moments where Beyoncé shows there might be more to her music than all of the declarations of her fondness for heterosexual sex. Because there’s no denying that this is a sex-soaked album. As David Amidon from Pop Matters puts it, “Beyoncé is filthy on this album.”
Now, women embracing their sexuality is a good thing: yes. And I do like Amidon’s assertion that in this album Beyoncé has made “music that makes the men want to hear what she has to say and the women feel like they can say it to men as well.” But I’m having trouble understanding how all of the overt sexuality equates to Beyoncé being a shining example of strong feminism. Because, other than all of the sex, there is but a single sample from a TEDx speech by Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in one song, Flawless (in which Adichie tells us that women can be sexual beings and have aspirations and ambitions other than simply wanting to marry a good man,) and I’m not sure that really adds much to the claims of overarching feminist themes.
So I’m afraid I tend to agree with the view Annie Lennox put forward after Beyoncé called herself a feminist at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. “I would call that ‘feminist lite’,” Lennox said, later adding (and I tend to agree with her on this too) that, “twerking is not feminism.”
Any messages that might be taken from that one track, Flawless, are undone, I think, by underlying themes of insecurity elsewhere on the album – that a good girl should always aspire to please her man (and pleasing him sexually is a good way to do that) otherwise her man might run off with another woman.
I have to say, though, that my thoughts on the content of Beyoncé are really, in the context of this review, basically redundant. I have an unwavering bias against Beyoncé in this whole Beyoncé versus Morning Phase debate, and it is all due to one person: Kanye West. This is Kanye West, the pop-singer, songwriter, record producer, fashion designer and (most of all) ego, who revels in speaking about himself in the third person, and who has made so many breathtakingly arrogant statements over the last few years that they have inspired a “Kanye self-confidence generator.” The Kanye West who has compared himself to, amongst others: God, Jesus, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso, Michael Jordan, Andy Warhol, and Shakespeare.
When I heard about Kanye West’s feigned hijacking of Beck’s acceptance speech for album of the year at the 2015 Grammy awards (a none-too-subtle attempt to remind those watching of his theatrics during the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards – when he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video so he could tell the audience that “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time,”) my initial thoughts were Oh no! Beck has been caught up by the stage-managed, self-promotion/ego-stroking monster that is Kanye and the mainstream commercial pop-music-industry! How grubby and cheap! How nauseating! This was, after all, the same mainstream-commercial-music-industry that Beck claimed made him want to smoke crack way back in 1993.
And for some reason the whole thing made me think that this was exactly the kind of behaviour that Beck was satirising all the way back in 2002, in his song, Hollywood Freaks, from the album, Midnite Vultures, saturated with allusions that poke fun at the modern R&B pop scene that the likes of Kanye West and Beyoncé inhabit.
Then I read about West’s post Grammy Awards rant in which he said that Beck should “respect artistry” and hand his award over to Beyoncé. Needless to say, it was that single moment that made me determined to like Beck’s album even more, no matter what.

Back to the music: If Beyoncé is Beyoncé’s sex album, then Midnite Vultures (released in 2002) was Beck’s. But where Beyoncé is explicit, Beck was obtuse. Beyoncé sings, “Bringing work up on top of me, I’mma let, let you be the boss of me. I know everything you want. Give me that daddy long stroke.” On the other hand Beck sings, “I’ll feed you fruit that don’t exist. I’ll leave graffiti where you’ve never been kissed. I’ll do your laundry, massage your soul. I’ll turn you over to the highway patrol.”
Critics celebrate Beyoncé’s overt “grown woman” sexuality. In Midnite Vultures, Beck celebrated sexuality too, albeit in his own ambiguous, Dadaist bricolage kind of way. The whole album is sex-obsessed. Through this album Beck showed us that sexuality is weird, that there is more to the world than the hetero-normative sexual conventions we see portrayed on Beyoncé. “I want to defy the logic of all sex laws,” he sings in the opening song. In Midnite Vultures, straight sex or otherwise is not always totally clear. As Giacomo d. Lee wrote for Yam Magazine, “Beck’s persona on the album is a complete subversion of masculinity. The entire record is a subversion of sexuality, in fact.”
That is one of the things I love most about Beck and his music. He takes a thing, whether it be music, whether it be sexuality, or working for minimum wage, being a massive rock-star, how we might feel on the last day of the world, or the gloomy dystopian future that could come after, and he subverts every norm, every stereotype, everything you’ve ever thought about the thing, and all with, in the words of NME’s Louis Pattison, an “absurdist dog-on-a-bicycle charm.” But, as Paul Schrodt makes the point in Slant Magazine, the main thing that Beck does, that makes him, in my view, a thousand times more listenable than the likes of Beyoncé, is that he “asks us to look past our conventional views of what something should or shouldn’t sound like.”
Beck is renowned for masterfully fusing and mixing musical genres. Like the gender-bending of Midnite Vultures, Beck does genre-bending too. Ever since the early days when he was the “baby-faced cassette terrorist donning stormtrooper masks and riffing surrealistic rhymes about burger joints” (as described by Spin magazine’s Jason Gubbels,) a country tune full of banjos and slide-guitar would disintegrate into a break-beat rap song, or a blues song with a house beat, or a rap song with a funk hook.
In Morning Phase, however, Beck has returned to pure folk, in what he has called a companion-piece to his 2002 album, Sea Change, and the allusions are clear. In fact, the opening tracks of Beck’s Morning Phase, Cycle and Morning, could have been called Lonesome Tears (Reprise) and The Golden Age (Reprise), and slotted seamlessly into the Sea Change track-list.
As the artist responsible for producing, arguably, the greatest break-up album of all time, Beck could be forgiven a certain level of nostalgia and for dipping again into that great well of melancholy. But in Morning Phase these tracks, though they exude the same heart and soul as their Sea Change predecessors, are not about loss, loneliness and the end of things. Though there is still a vulnerability here which hints at the earth-shattering grief that brought about Sea Change, Morning Phase is about renewal, light, and the start of a new day. And aren’t we all just a little bit vulnerable and fragile first thing in the morning?
As Gubbels also wrote, “anybody looking for Beck the abstruse poet will be as disappointed as those hoping he’ll break out some old skate-punk moves.” All of this sunlight imagery compliments what is a palpable homage to his Southern California heritage, channelling the “toked-out vibrations of 1970s Malibu, Topanga Canyon, and Point Mugu” along the way.
Lyrically, the songs are all about light, and repeatedly speak of the sun (“high as the light of day,” “Your eyes get stung by the rays of the sinking sun,” “Away from the daylight, Into the afterglow,” “Reaching for sunlight,” “When the morning comes to meet you, Fill your eyes with waking light.”)
Of course, there is the irony of Beck’s play on words, suggesting perhaps that after the sea-change comes a period of mourning for what was left behind; which makes me wonder if the album title, not to mention content of the songs, was at all influenced by the obscure 1971 self-titled LP by the equally obscure prog-folk-rock duo, Mourning Phase. It is an understatement to say that Beck’s influences are widely diverse, and he has made his name by way of his bent for reappropriation, pastiche, sampling, simile and bricolge, so perhaps it is just a simple coincidence that the Mourning Phase LP also happens to document the warts-and-all romantic travails of a troubled couple with a similar unwavering display of heart on sleeve.
But Morning Phase is more than just its title and opening couple of tracks, and there are no end of similarities with other artists to draw upon. On this album you will find elements of Neil Young (the acoustic guitar and banjo-ey twang in Say Goodbye,) Simon and Garfunkel (Turn Away,) Bjork (Wave,) and Serge Gainsbourg (Heart Is A Drum, and all of those sweeping orchestral undertones), just to name a few. Others have spoken of hearing shades of David Crosby, Gene Clark, and Bob Dylan in this album.
Here’s the big, if not the biggest thing for me in this whole Beck versus Beyoncé debate, though. It hasn’t been Beck and a whole suite of writers and producers and studio musicians and technicians making his amazing albums all these years. All along it has been Beck plus a handful of band-mates and at most one or two producers (when he hasn’t been doing the job himself), and Beck has written and performed the songs – lyrics, music, musical arrangements, the lot. You might hear some hints or allusions to other artists, but they are all “Beck songs.”
Beyoncé, though she does write some of her songs, gets a lot of help to produce her albums, and as a result Beyoncé sounds like a compilation album – made up of tracks by the likes of Pharrell, Jay Z, and Timbaland, that happen to feature Beyoncé on vocals. I found it impressive comparing the lists of personnel involved on Beyoncé to that on Morning Phase. One reads like the credits for a multimillion dollar Hollywood CGI special effects blockbuster. The other reads like the liner notes for a great album. By Beck.
Morning Phase may not be Beck’s greatest album, and whether either Beck or Beyoncé are deserving of album of the year is debatable in my opinion. One thing I feel strongly, though, is that Morning Phase is an album of far greater substance than Beyoncé, so if I had to select one over the other as album of the year, “to honour artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position” (as per the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences guidelines,) I know which one I would choose.

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Comments
  1. Tony says:

    You’re back!!

  2. Giacomo Lee says:

    Thanks for referencing my YAM Magazine article. Great piece. – Giacomo Lee

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