Head-To-Head: a new feature where we bring together two music writers with divergent opinions to duke it out over a topic of note.
So far, we’ve debated the merits of Tyler, the Creator’s Wolf and the Boards of Canada mystery campaign. Next up: FACT’s Chal Ravens and Chris Kelly take on the new album by the ever-divisive Kanye West.
Chal Ravens: Let’s start with something we’ll surely agree on – Yeezus sounds great. Judged solely on the production – the beats, the hooks, the samples – it’s fair to say this album is a match for any of Kanye West’s previous releases. But over the past few years, it seems Kanye has come to believe he has transcended to a status greater than the sum of his parts. No longer is he a talented producer, an engaging rapper, a stylishly attired young man – he believes he is an exceptional case, an epochal visionary equipped with an almost gnostic insight into the true state of things; he believes he is destined, quite literally, to change the world.
If that was only evident in his lyrics (“I am a god”; “I know [Jesus] the most high, but I am a close high”), we could take it as the slightly tongue-in-cheek braggadocio of the consummate multi-platinum-selling rap icon. Trouble is, he says this kind of hopped up shit all the time, and has done for years. Take last week’s eye-popping interview with the New York Times, in which he calls himself “the Michael Jordan of music”, says he’ll step into Steve Jobs’ shoes the way Jay-Z stepped into Biggie’s, and states he made the “first black new wave album”, a claim that I believe Prince would have something to say about.
This wouldn’t be so problematic if he was just talking about how big is dick is and how refined his taste in couture luggage is. But Yeezus is supposed to be Kanye’s most explicitly political album yet, from the confrontational song titles (‘Black Skinhead’, ‘New Slaves’) to the clunky Black Power references, sprinkled like confetti to give the impression he’s the reincarnation of Malcolm X. But they’re just soundbites, crafted for quotability and utterly superficial. On ‘Blood on the Leaves’, he uses a sample from ‘Strange Fruit’, a hugely significant civil rights era song, as a backdrop to a tirade against “second string bitches” who stitch men up by getting pregnant and claiming child support. The message of equality that underpins ‘Strange Fruit’ is subordinated to Kanye’s anger against his mortal enemy, the female “gold digger”. The political grandstanding has gone out the window; this is a vendetta.
I will say, though, that it’s the best album Daft Punk have released this year.
Chris Kelly: You’re right; we’re in agreement on one thing, at least. Yeezus is a production masterpiece that touches on the high points of his catalog — the perfectly-chosen soul samples of his first albums, the paradigm-shifting Autotune of 808s and Heartbreak, the operatic grandiosity of MBDTF — while pushing towards an industrial edge rarely heard in mainstream hip-hop. If Daft Punk had shown a fraction of this desire to challenge their audience, Random Access Memories would actually been a worthwhile listen (but that’s for another Head-to-Head).
Yes, the braggadocio is back and more intense than ever. And why shouldn’t it be? Isn’t that what we want from pop stars and cultural figures? The moment that someone stops aspiring to be the Michael Jordan or Steve Jobs of their field, that’s when they have accepted complacency. Commercial hip-hop is plagued with it, and Kanye should be celebrated for bucking the trend.
When reading the Times interview, I don’t see a person glibly stroking his ego for his own sake — I see an artist who truly believes that he can use his music and his art to make a positive change in the world. I find his passion enthralling, and his personal goals admirable: “I think that’s a responsibility that I have, to push possibilities, to show people: ‘This is the level that things could be at.’” Similarly, in an insightful piece for Buzzfeed, Heben Nigatu suggests that there is a populist underpinning to Kanye’s vanity: “This isn’t about ego; this is about boldly asserting yourself in a world that is not meant for you,” she writes. “This is a vanity that is rooted in bringing the community up with you.”
In that way, the medium is the message. His Black Power lyrics are “soundbites, crafted for quotability” because this is pop music, not a treatise, and he has his audience in mind. The lyrics are meant to start a conversation, not end it. Isn’t “by any means necessary” a quotable soundbite, too? And while I’m not sure why Kanye would sample ‘Strange Fruit’ on a song about “gold diggers,” it certainly seems engineered to elicit a reaction (mission accomplished). I also suppose that, for a significant part of his audience, this will be their first encounter with ‘Strange Fruit’: the college dropout gets to educate listeners about civil rights (albeit in a roundabout way).
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CR: Unfortunately, were this my first encounter with ‘Strange Fruit’, I doubt I’d be any the wiser about the song’s meaning or context. Conflating “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze” with having to cough up cash for the children you’ve sired is ill-judged at best, and Yeezus is littered with clangers of this sort.
On ‘New Slaves’ we find Kanye chastising aspirational black people for their label lust (“spending everything on Alexander Wang”), for yearning after the luxurious things he’s always helped himself to (from customised Louis Vuitton backpacks to diamond-encrusted masks). Kanye, of course, is enlightened enough to appreciate these glittering things without falling under their spell. There’s one rule for Ye, another for y’all – it’s basically just an upper class fear of the nouveau riche and their tasteless purchasing habits.
He gets tantalisingly close to joining the dots on his almost-political statement in order to accuse the “swallowers” of false consciousness, of prioritising their material wellbeing over their spiritual wellbeing – but of course, standing there in his haute couture, he was never going to deliver the revolutionary clarion call.
I would even suggest that the appearance of teenage drill king Chief Keef has more to do with furthering Kanye’s didactic message than injecting some fresh talent into the show. The way Keef’s half-sung hook is positioned on the album – right after ‘New Slaves’ – frames him as just another of these misguided slaves, fucked on weed and syrup, voice ragged and slurring, patched up with Autotune. Then Kanye’s clean and unaltered voice comes in, declaring: “Bitch I’m back out my coma.” Someone here is awake, and guess who? But instead of honing in on the previous song’s set-up, we get a long rant about fucking an ex-girlfriend one more time “so I can own ya”. Kanye again confuses righteous political fury with a vicious personal attack – instead of being angry at the bleak race situation in his country, he’s wreaking revenge on the uncontrollable women in his life. Kanye, mate – think of the bigger picture. What would Steve Jobs do?
CK: My reading of ‘New Slaves’, including the Alexander Wang line, is entirely different. Those lyrics follow the “rich n*gga racism” invocation, where the lyrics’ unnamed character asks “What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain? / All you blacks want all the same things.” It’s a satire of how the white establishment sees “aspirational black people” — not an admonishment by Kanye.
Once again, I believe that Kanye’s aims are more populist and democratic that you give him credit. “I don’t believe that it’s luxury to go into a store and not be able to afford something,” he says in the oft-quoted NYT interview. “I believe luxury is to be able to go into a store and be able to afford something.” Undoubtedly, even Kanye would admit that his wealth puts in the upper echelon of society, but there’s no part of ‘New Slaves’ that suggests he’s aiming his fire anywhere but up. To paraphrase Chris Rock, Kanye is rich — the corporate gatekeepers above him are wealthy.
As I argued in my review, Kanye includes Keef not as a contrast but as a kindred spirit. Keef has been castigated as What’s Wrong With The Youth Today, similar to how Kanye has been derided in the press for his allegedly outlandish statements. Likewise, the first couplet is Keef’s (“I can’t control my n*ggas / And my n*ggas they can’t control me”), and the second is Kanye’s (“You say you know me, my n*gga / But you really just know the old me”). While a literal reading of the lyrics turns ‘Hold My Liquor’ into a “vicious personal attack,” an allegorical one paints a picture of the doubters, haters, and dreamkillers who Kanye sees as obstacles to his success. Misinterpreting Kanye’s songs reduces them to Rap Genius annotations, missing the forest for the trees.
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CR: Judging by his only two recent interviews, in a broadsheet and a glossy mag, Kanye is actually celebrated as much as derided in the press for his endless stream of facepalm-triggering statements (you referred to them as “allegedly outlandish”; make what you will of the latest in W Magazine: “I’m the number one living and breathing rock star – I am Axl Rose”).
Perhaps you’re right, perhaps we shouldn’t take his lyrics so literally. Perhaps ‘Hold My Liquor’ isn’t a vicious personal attack or a fantasy of misogynistic domination – but then we’ve not got a lot left to go on, have we? Kanye isn’t a poet, he’s not even much of a storyteller, at least not anymore – he’s a meme-generator, a jester, a guy who’s willing to make himself look ridiculous (“I am a god”) in order to set up a quotable joke that’ll live on long after the song has shuffled off your playlist (“hurry up with my damn croissants”).
Really, I would love to escape the literalism and gain access to these deep, allegorical meanings that apparently pulse under Yeezus‘ skin – but I’m digging down, I’m looking hard, really I am, and they just aren’t there. So far the critical reaction to the album’s tangled thoughts, half-baked sloganeering and puerile humour has been utterly credulous – “just trust him, the dude who wrote ‘All Falls Down’ must know what he’s doing!” – but Kanye, I’m afraid, is no longer that dude.
As he’s become more famous and more powerful (but still not powerful enough, given this week’s announcement that he plans to use his unique skill set to bring us operas, product packaging, amusement parks and a new Jetsons movie), Kanye has revelled in confirming his achievements to himself as the rest of the world looks on, giggling awkwardly as his grip on reality slowly fades. And on Yeezus, his spectrum of emotions has narrowed to rage and lust, as if fuelled by an insatiable cocaine bone, until eventually they become confused and he starts to conflate anger with sex; fisting with a raised fist. And the more he shouts, the less he has to say. In his own words, the album is “a one-man gang-bang” – the year’s biggest wank-fest.
CK: Outrage is in the eye of the beholder: the pronouncements in the interviews, and more importantly, the lyrics on Yeezus, share the same devil-may-care DNA of Jim Morrison on the Ed Sullivan Show or Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at Monterey (the other — and more apt — comparisons that Kanye made in the same interview).
I don’t see how Kanye calling himself a God is any different than Jay-Z crafting a nickname from Jehovah or Nas naming an album God’s Son, or historically, Lennon calling the Beatles more popular than Jesus. Kanye has reached similarly lofty heights in his musical career, and he wants the same rules applied to him. “Nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go,” he says of the incident that inspired ‘I Am A God’. “To even think they could tell me where I could and couldn’t go is just ludicrous.”
God or not, he’s certainly a man, complete with contradictions and fears and weaknesses, just now his self-love has outpaced his self-doubt. Kanye’s humanity is what has always made him so compelling: the tangled thoughts, puerile jokes, and du jour punchlines are inseparable from the daring truth-telling and the refusal to be controlled. Yeezus is Kanye West cranked to the proverbial 11, the kid in the pink polo and a backpack, fully realized.
For now, that means an album that is heavy with rage and lust, sounds likes nothing in pop music, broaches racial subjects without political correctness, serves as debate fodder on blogs and in the streets, tops the charts without radio singles or traditional promotion, and stands as a strident statement of cultural dominance. That’s how you pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist.
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