A couple of issues ago, Rolling Stone called Vampire Weekend’s latest album Contra a project that harkens back to the classic Paul Simon work Graceland. Since Graceland stands as one of those albums that defined my childhood, I had to give Contra a try. Maybe the review already planted a seed in my head, but Simons’s fingerprints are all over the album.
West African drum patters are strewn across the album while lines delivered in “White Sky” sound like they were read from one of Paul’s book of rhymes. After the first few listens, I loved Contra. Even though the worldly sounds of tracks like “Cousins” sometimes devolved into noise midway through. I’d become a Vampire Weekend fan and could finally surprise people when they ask me what I’m listening to these days.
The February issue of Rolling Stone (the one with John Mayer on the cover: in case you’re counting, two of their last three issues have featured half-naked men on the cover. What is the mag’s demographic exactly?) featured an in-depth look at my new favorite band.
And then I started to hate them. The article, entitled “The Polite Genius of Vampire Weekend” left a bad taste in my mouth. Through the course of the article, each member begins to sounds a little pretentious. The group comprises four Columbia grads that are damn excited about the things they learned in school. And they will show you what they learned through various unprompted diatribes on the origins of language or third-world economy. When I finished the article, Contra became a new album.
The aforementioned international sound became distracting. The orchestral and synth breaks of “Cousins” and “Horchata” became unbearable. The use of Auto-Tune in “California English” as a meta, tongue-in-cheek, anti-Pop reaction to what’s hot right now became forced. It just sounds so…contrived now. VW is proud of its knowledge and willingness to take chances with new sounds. They want you, the listener, to appreciate their smarts as well. So much like that annoying recent graduate that clutters his sentences with extra, complicated words to impress you, VW cluttered its album with these now jarring melodies.
With this aesthetic, VW brings to the table the same dilemma that has made Hip-Hop so frustrating. The same inclination that makes “Rapper A” 73x more likely to talk about how awesome he is–makes Vampire Weekend want to jumble their songs with reminders of how cultured and musically informed they are. Both artists are flossing in their own way. I have to parse through endless “poo” metaphors and “diamonds as big as your niece” rhymes from Lil’ Wayne before I get to his syrup addiction, father issues and laments over the state of New Orleans. By the same token, I have to ignore the M.I.A. sample bouncing aimlessly around the background of Vampire Weekend’s “Diplomat’s Son” as just intellectual posturing.
This may explain why the most profound moments of Contra are the album’s most musically naked. “Taxi Cab” and “I Think Ur a Contra” are the most emotionally sincere moments of the album and feature minimal instrumentation (the latter is the band’s first acoustic recording). “Taxi Cab” features truly penetrating lines like “in the shadow of your first attack/ I was questioning and looking back/ you said baby we don’t speak of that.”
The two songs are heartbreaking and recommended listens for anyone looking for that essential break-up theme song. The vulnerability present in the line “I just wanted you” from “I Think Ur a Contra” is the type of honest emotion perfect for a truly heart wrenching track.
Listening to this song makes me wonder: if Vampire Weekend can let their guard down long enough to create music sans self-gratifying references and pseudo intellectual samples for these songs, then why can’t Hip-Hop break from its blueprint to create music that truly gives us a take on loss and heartbreak that comes from dealing with the opposite sex?
Think, what was the last Hip-Hop song that truly broke your heart? I’ve gone through my fair share of break-ups but I have never turned to Hip-Hop to express those feelings of loss. As always, there are bound to be examples, but the truly heartfelt, emotional albums about loss and break-ups are few and far between. Is this because Hip-Hop is built on two pillars, shit-talking and unrelenting masculinity, that prevent its artists from allowing listeners to know when a woman has truly broken their hearts?
Eminem usually channeled his heartbreak into stories of murdering his on-and-off lover Kim. Andre 3000, Mos Def and Kanye chose to sing their pain away. Hip-Hop by its nature of “I’m so tough” braggadocio seems to be the main obstacle keeping the art form from, for the most part, tapping into this basic, yet complex, emotion instead of “I left my old bitch/ on to the next one” rhetoric.
Until then, I’ll have to turn to other genres. And for now, “I Think Ur A Contra” is the remedy I’ll turn to next time I need musical healing.
Vampire Weekend – “I Think Ur A Contra”