Yeezus and Jesus: Part 2

July 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Before I discuss the two most important religious songs on Yeezus, I do want to address some of the questionable religious lyrics on this album. I’m not going to gloss over them, but I want to point out how even though Kanye seems to be using them as ammunition for jokes or his angry diatribes, it’s worth noting that the vocabulary of Christianity is still very much a part of his lyrics, as it has been since 2004’s The College Dropout. (side note: I’m not trying to turn Kanye into a beacon of religious excellence, but I do want to provide perhaps a more nuanced perspective to how some religious people view him.) Outside of the obvious religious nature of “Jesus Walks,” The College Dropout features an interlude of “I’ll Fly Away” and “Through the Wire” invokes spiritual ideas near its end: “I must got an angel, cause look how death missed his ass…So I turn tragedy to triumph, make music that’s fire, spit my soul through the wire.” Late Registration and Graduation also have a number of songs that reference spiritual concepts: “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” “Hey Mama,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” and “Everything I Am,” to name a few. Religious ideas keep popping up in Kanye’s lyrics, and often in very strange places, as I’ll point out later when I bring up MBDTF, but rarely are they as negative or offensive as some of the references on Yeezus.

I want to tackle these few moments, because while they are certainly offensive, I would hesitate to call them blasphemous or sacrilegious. I’ll start with “I’m In It,” easily my least favorite song on Yeezus and perhaps in Kanye’s entire discography, which contains some questionable comments on religious ideas and figures. In a song that is basically only about sex, it would be hard for these lyrics to carry any kind of beneficial religious significance, and the way Kanye uses them here make that a near impossibility. Let’s just say that invoking God’s name when talking about your girlfriend, ahem, revealing certain portions of her anatomy (“thank God Almighty, they free at last”) may be a fine reaction to have in private, but I’m not sure it should be immortalized in song. I could probably spin this line in a positive light if the rest of the song wasn’t so vulgar/misogynistic, and if the final lines of the song didn’t reference “getting head by the nuns.” Really, “I’m In It” isn’t funny or intelligent, but it is interesting to see a reference to God pop up in a song of this type. Later in the album on “Send It Up,” another track ostensibly about sex, Kanye offers up this line: “Yeezus just rose again.” Now, whether this is merely a sophomoric joke (I’m sure you are smart enough to figure out what that could mean) that ends up treating the resurrection as a comic matter or whether ‘Ye is trying to be Jesus, this line again shows a very important piece of Christian doctrine being employed by Kanye to add further levels of depth to a fairly meaningless song.

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In fact, this particular fragment of a lyric may be operating on multiple levels of meaning. For example, it could be a joke that nonetheless reflects a religious idea to which Kanye still ascribes or gives some credence. Ironically, the song that best demonstrates this idea is “I Am a God,” where, according to certain critics, Kanye suggests that he is a deity. However, a closer listen to this incredibly compelling song reveals something else entirely. First of all, I find it difficult to claim this song as Kanye elevating himself over God, oh, I don’t know, maybe due to lyrics like this: “I am a god, even though I am a man of God, my whole life in the hand of God, y’all better quit playing with God.” Outside of proclaiming himself as a god, this is a shockingly orthodox statement of trust in God, and in the next verse ‘Ye talks about chatting with Jesus. That kind of discussion would not sound out of place in any evangelical church service, which makes this song so bizarre, and why I read this song as more of an indictment on claiming to be a god. I mean, come on, “Hurry up with my damn croissants”? If that’s not a suggestion that the idea of being a god is superficial and absurd, than what is? Also, “I Am a God” is punctuated by violent screams and gasping for breath near its end. If claiming to be a god leads to a nervous breakdown, then take me off the list.

The album closer, “Bound 2,” takes up some of these themes as well and extends a theme from MBDTF‘s closing track “Lost in the World,” bringing all of what I’ve been discussing into clearer focus. Most evidently, I think that “Bound 2” pulls back the curtain for a moment near its end, allowing Kanye to shed his persona for a moment, much like he did at the close of MBDTF—what’s behind the façade is someone a lot like you and me. Why do I think this is the “real” Kanye? Well, two things: one, “Bound 2” is the only song that sounds like old Kanye, dripping with soulful samples and goofy lyrics; and two, a couple lines in the song seem to be addressing the listener directly. For example, “admitting is the first step, eh, eh, ain’t nobody perfect,” confronts those people who have called Kanye out for his stupid decisions and who would give the same justification for their own poor decisions. Then, one of the final lines, “I’m tired, you’re tired. Jesus wept.” The exhaustion of keeping up this persona has finally caught up with Kanye on this final track, and this line treads similar ground to one from “Lost in the World”: “Let’s break out of this fake-ass party, turn this into a classic night.” This “party” shows up again in “Bound 2” and provides an answer to the reason Kanye invokes the image of Jesus weeping. “I know you’re tired of loving, with nobody to love, so just grab somebody, no leaving this party with nobody to love,” goes “Bound 2,” foregrounding the idea and importance of love. The weeping Jesus is the human Jesus, the one crying out of love for his friends. And this is the Jesus Kanye chooses to leave us with as Yeezus closes.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Biblical story, Jesus weeps and then raises Lazarus from the dead, leaving some puzzled as to why Jesus would be crying when he knew he was about to perform a miracle. Perhaps Kanye’s reason for titling this album Yeezus and concluding it with such an evocative image of Jesus is just as puzzling to some. What’s clear to me, regardless of whether or not this music is edifying or not, is that religious ideas, notably Christian ideas, still float throughout Kanye’s music, even on an album (given its title) that should not be taking religion seriously. Furthermore, one of the final images of Yeezus is not Kanye parading himself as a god, but a picture of Jesus as a human, deeply connected to humanity and sharing in its sufferings out of a deep compassion. We all need more of that kind of compassion, regardless of where or who it comes from, and Kanye is admitting that here. The most startling aspect of this admittance is that I don’t hear it more often.

For my take on Jay Z’s latest, check out my review at the Mockingbird Blog.

Yeezus and Jesus: Part 1

July 9, 2013 § 1 Comment

Six months later, I return. Part 2 should be around next week.

You know, the internet doesn’t really need another review of Kanye West’s new album, Yeezus. If you are looking for a review, go check Pitchfork or PopMatters: they’ve got some solid takes. So, this won’t be a review, although my aim here may be as absurd as actually trying to come to a consensus about this bizarre, disturbed, compelling piece of music from Mr. West. Let’s face it, Kanye titled this album Yeezus and it contains a song titled “I Am a God,” so, whether you like it or not, Kanye has made religion an explicit part of this album. While it may be a fool’s errand, I want to draw attention to Kanye’s use of religious ideas (Christian ideas in particular) on Yeezus and illuminate some of the intriguing religious statements made by ‘Ye. Is Yeezus dark and hellish? Yes. Sacrilegious? Perhaps. Devoid of religious worth? Not at all.

Of course, all of this lyrical/religious analysis needs to be grounded in the music of Yeezus, because the music tells us a lot about how to interpret some of the religious references that Kanye makes. Additionally, Yeezus does not stand on its own, bereft of the context of Kanye’s previous albums, but is deeply connected to both 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. To be fair, most of the religious references on Yeezus come on a handful of tracks, but the music (outside of “Bound 2”) is consistently dark and industrial, occasionally punctuated with soulful samples and extended musical outros, which bring a glimpse of beauty and hope amidst the dark soundscape. I would posit that the music on Yeezus reveals Kanye’s (or his persona’s) fractured psyche and his attempts to sort through some of life’s spiritual, mental, and physical issues. First, I’m going to look at some of the interesting musical decisions on Yeezus, and then, in part 2, I’ll turn more fully to the lyrics and focus on “I Am a God” and “Bound 2,” the two most spiritually significant songs on the album.

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There are two emotions coursing through Yeezus: anger and regret. Opening track, “On Sight,” is a vitriolic blast of electronic blips, distorted drums, and profanity: “How much do I not give a f—? Let me show you right now before you give it up.” The angular electronica is broken up by a brief children’s chorus, a momentary reprieve to the bleak soundscape. Is this Kanye showing how much he doesn’t give a f— or is it something else? Considering moments like this pop up over the course of the album, I would venture they serve a larger purpose that simply messing with listeners. The explosive intro to “Black Skinhead” marks another anger fueled track, as relentless drums, random guitar squeals, and primal background vocals cavort behind Kanye’s screamed lines. “New Slaves,” while being slightly less manic than “Black Skinhead,” still features ominous synths and a barrage of a bridge, which is followed by another strangely melodic outro, featuring Frank Ocean. Contrasting so strongly with the preceding music, the glorious strings and reverb heavy vocals and drums lead to some questions: where is the real Kanye on Yeezus? Is he in the rage or the calm? Do these peaceful moments serve to prevent the anger from overwhelming the entire album? Do they stand as moments of enlightenment on an album that is mired in the dirty realistic crap of life?

For the most part, Yeezus is not a happy album. If ‘Ye isn’t angry, he’s obsessed with his past experiences, and the music slows down, enveloping him in a haze of reflection/regret. Along with this, when the music takes this reflective turn, it develops a feel similar to Kanye’s work on 808s & Heartbreak, relying on auto-tuned vocals and electronic dithering. The connection to 808s is key, as a number of tracks on that album show us a deeply injured and insecure Kanye searching for meaning in life. On Yeezus, the effect is largely the same, breaking up the braggadocio and vulgarity with some honesty and vulnerability. On “Hold My Liquor,” the moody ambiance, supplied by Justin Vernon’s vocals and Chief Keef’s auto-tuned, echoed hook, feeds into Kanye’s narrative of his latest heartbreak. In fact, the triumphantly depressing second half of “Hold My Liquor” would fit in perfectly on 808s, and songs like this on Yeezus let us see behind the egotistical persona that Kanye has cultivated for himself. In the same fashion, the second half of “Guilt Trip,” with its repeated refrain of “if you loved me so much, then why’d you let me go,” drips with regret before ending with delicate strings over a glitched out drum line. This is the kind of album Yeezus is: hate morphs into regret and bitterness, yet juxtaposed against all of these terrible, draining emotions are moments where it seems like beauty and goodness are still trying to break through into the proceedings. Are these moments Kanye screwing with us or are they the things that he can’t escape from? Are these moments grace finding a way through the morass?

Kanye West: Celebrity and Insecurity

November 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Regardless of what you think about Kanye West, there is no denying his celebrity or his meteoric rise to fame in the past decade. It’s quite possible that, at this point in his career, Kanye is more infamous than anything else, due in large part to certain incidents involving George Bush and Taylor Swift. Some might think he is simply another celebrity with an enormous ego, making vacuous music to garner profit from the masses. However, if we actually consider his music, especially of the past four years, Kanye is quite a complex figure; he is a person with real feelings and real struggles, who, even with all his fame and fortune, seems to be searching for something more in this life.

Beginning with his first album, The College Dropout, Kanye’s music has always been deeply personal, highlighted by songs like “Through the Wire” and “Family Business.” His next two albums, Late Registration and Graduation, would follow in a similar manner, balancing the personal with typical rap braggadocio, always backed by fascinating beats. This pattern is so irrevocably severed, lyrically and musically, by 808s & Heartbreak that it comes as a shock. It is with this album, an intensely personal reaction to a painful break-up, that Kanye begins to reflect on his fame and celebrity, and his vulnerability and honesty are surprising.

The auto-tuned electronica that comprises the majority of 808s & Heartbreak allows us to see a different side of Kanye. The cocky exterior is gone, replaced by a broken human being, questioning his life. “Welcome to Heartbreak” illustrates this with a certain profundity, as Kanye takes a different perspective on his material possessions than normal: “My friend showed me a picture of his kids/ And all I could show him were pictures of my cribs/ He said his daughter got a brand new report card/ And all I got was a brand new sportscar.” This lament is tinged with regret, a common theme throughout an album concerned with lost love.

The song I find the most interesting on this album is “Pinocchio Story,” a live freestyle from Toyko, Japan. Kanye repeatedly mentions his desire to be a real boy, wondering if he has missed out on “real life.” Once again, he sings about the inability of his possessions to bring him contentment, “There is no clothes that I could buy/ That could turn back the time/ There is no vacation spot I could fly/ That could bring back a piece of real life/ Real life, what does it feel like?” For a hip-hop artist who constantly references his style and material wealth, this is an incredibly candid statement. However, with his next album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye, perhaps in an attempt to drown his sorrows and inner demons, dove headfirst into the deep end of celebrity.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is opulent, reveling in its luxury and gigantic production budget. Filled with A-list guest spots, it nonetheless remains Kanye’s show, magnifying his ego and celebrity even as it delves into some of his deepest struggles. Contradictory and profane as it is, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy reveals the insecurity that still remains in its creator. Pop culture and designer style references abound, the possessions that Kanye hides behind. However, on songs like “Gorgeous” and “Power” he takes aim at those who have made fun of him in the media, offering a harsh defense of himself and his actions. In fact, it seems as if Kanye can’t take a joke, as he directs profanity laced rants at those who “tried to black ball” him, South Park writers and the cast of SNL.

Indeed, the end of “Power” hints at suicide, with its coda, “Now this’ll be a beautiful death/ I’m jumping out the window/ Letting everything go.” Clearly, all of the “power” that Kanye possesses cannot banish his problems. It’s very easy to lose these moments of honesty amidst the sheer force of ego that Kanye normally exudes, but they are there to be seen. “Monster” is a hard hitting track with multiple guest stars, where Kanye assumes the title of “motherf—ing monster” as a badge of honor, turning the insult back around on those who have talked about him behind his back.

Kanye’s sensitivity seems to be a recurring theme, as “Runaway” and its chorus evidence: “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags/ Let’s have a toast for the assholes/ Let’s have a toast for the scumbags/ Every one of them that I know.” Given the multiple times this is repeated and the many different names Kanye gives these people, there seems to be quite a few of them. In many ways, this album is a send-off to the haters, but the vitriolic language disguises something that hearkens back to 808s and that will come into focus on this year’s collaborative album with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne.

The last song of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, excluding the bizarre outro, offers a note of transition to Watch the Throne. In “Lost in the World,” Kanye raps, “Lost in this plastic life/ Let’s break out of this fake-ass party/ Turn this into a classic night/ If we die in each other’s arms, still get laid in that afterlife,” which is followed by a woman’s voice singing very clearly, “Run from the lights/ Run from the night/ Run for your life.” So, we come full circle, and Kanye is still looking for love, even though he knows that his life and all the parties can’t offer him the validation he seeks. He knows he has to run, break free, but he is trapped by other’s opinions of him.

Watch the Throne is much less of a personal opus for Kanye, and he seems to be having fun making music with Jay-Z, but issues of insecurity still surface. Now to be sure, Jay-Z has his share of songs where he is dissing others, but they don’t carry the same emotion as Kanye’s. Even on a peaceful, uplifting track like “Made in America” Kanye can’t resist mentioning his haters, “South Park had ‘em all laughing/ Now my n—— designing and we all swaggin’/ Ignore the critics just to say we did it/ This ain’t no fashion show, motherf——, we live it.” In an insightful review of the album, Calum Marsh point out that this is “the second time that Ye’s indignantly referred to that good-natured South Park ribbing from, what, two years ago?” Marsh goes on to mention how this shows how even a little joke can have unexpected outcomes in celebrities.

Marsh is right, of course, but Kanye’s reaction reveals more than just injured pride; we see ourselves mirrored in his reactions, as we all search for acceptance and love. None of us want to be judged, why should Kanye be an exception? The words he spits on “New Day” are poignant and resonate with me, even though I am a poor, white guy, who can’t even imagine the life that Kanye leads. Speaking to a future son, he raps, “See, I want him to have an easy life, not like Yeezy life/ Just want him to be someone people like/ Don’t want him to be hated, all the time judged.” These few lines speak volumes.

Positive Hip Hop: An Introduction

February 1, 2011 § 3 Comments

While the debate over the artistic/moral validity of hip hop has decreased over the past few years, there are still those who see hip hop as merely a vehicle to promote misogynistic and hedonistic lifestyles that revolve around drugs, alcohol and violence. While I am not discounting the abundance, in some manner of speaking, of this type of hip hop, to discard the genre as worthless without first exploring it more in depth is a grave mistake. Over the next few weeks (months?) I’ll be highlighting some hip hop artists that make compelling, challenging music and showing how this oft-maligned genre is capable of speaking with the same depth and power as any other genre of music.

Before embarking upon this series of exposes of individual artists, I want to speak to the overall state of hip hop in general, and how there is positive and uplifting hip hop even within the mainstream and from artists you may not expect. While I am certainly not the most qualified to speak to the state of current hip hop, I think I can give a fair picture of where the genre currently stands at least in terms of its impact and potential impact, both positive and negative.

Positive, often termed socially conscious, hip hop has not always been on the forefront of the genre, and I would daresay it still is not, but its presence is being felt more and more. Mainstream, radio hip hop is still often full of content that one would not consider uplifting or encouraging to a way of living that is concerned with deeper issues, but we must be cautious of labeling every artist or every song as things which are not worth attention. To make this point I’m going to point out some great, thought-provoking songs from some of the more morally derided hip hop artists of the past few decades. Let’s clear our minds of the assumption that every hip hop artist, mainstream or otherwise, regardless of their reputation, makes music that is irredeemable.

I’m only going to be tackling a very small cross-section of mainstream artists here, looking specifically at Eminem and Kanye West. Let the record show that I agree there are a number of artists making rather meaningless music, but a knee-jerk reaction is not something beneficial to either our critical thinking skills or to art in general. Even artists traditionally known for producing “offensive” music have their moments where they shine light onto some important issues.

Eminem is not known for being a very positive emcee, as he is probably most well known for his violent, profanity-laden and at times racist and sexist lyrics. But those who stop there, condemning Eminem without a second thought, miss out on some poignant commentaries on modern hip hop and on his life that reveal a thoughtful, introspective side of Eminem that has some important things to say. The song and video above, “Like Toy Soldiers”, tackles the issue of violence within the hip hop community, as Eminem points a finger at himself and the entire culture that surrounds so called “battle” raps. The song speaks to the violence that has been propagated by this culture and concludes with Eminem rapping, “I’m just willing to be the bigger man/If y’all can quit poppin’ off at your jaws well then I can/ Cuz frankly I’m sick of talkin’/I’m not gonna let someone else’s coffin rest on my conscience.”

Other songs from Eminem such as “Mockingbird”, “When I’m Gone” and “Stan” stand out as tracks that offer more than just profanity and shock value. In “Mockingbird” and “When I’m Gone” Eminem spits about his daughter and family and how he wishes some things were different, taking a very candid look at his own life and evaluating it. “Stan” warns of the danger of celebrity worship, by over-exaggerating Stan’s admiration of Eminem and showing it for the dangerous thing that it can actually be. And while Eminem’s output hasn’t been markedly less offensive after “Stan”, it seems that in the song  Eminem is realizing the potential negative  impact his music can have on those that listen to it. While Eminem’s music is still not for those easily offended by profanity, some of it is quite profound and provides us with insight into a man who has some beneficial comments to make.

Almost known more for his public outbursts than his music is Kanye West. Famous for having an ego the size of Jupiter, Kanye is often not taken seriously thanks to the persona that he emits. However, if we look past that, we can see that some Kanye’s music has a great deal more depth to it than just the ravings of an egomaniac. “Jesus Walks” got a lot of publicity when it was released due to its rather up front spiritual message and listening to it again today provokes much of the same reaction if one can separate their bias for or against Kanye from the equation. Apparently, Kanye has released a new version of the video for “Jesus Walks” but I like the old version much better (please excuse the video quality). It seems as if Kanye grasps the Christian message of grace for everyone in the song and video better than some Christians. The song is also an indictment of the mainstream hip hop scene’s unwillingness to grapple with spiritual issues, as Kanye raps, “So here go my single dawg radio needs this/They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?”

In addition to “Jesus Walks,” Kanye has a number of other songs that deal with issues such as self-confidence, materialism and poverty or other social issues. Also on his first album The College Dropout, are songs like “All Falls Down” and “Family Business,” which touch on topics such as Kanye’s self confidence and his relation to his family. On his second album, he explores conflict diamonds and the wars fought over them in “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” with Jay-Z and raps a heartfelt song for his mom with “Hey Mama.” Graduation boasts plenty of braggadocio, but also contains some uplifting tracks like “Homecoming” and “Big Brother” and “Everything I Am” finds Kanye looking back at his life and asserting, “Everything I’m not made me everything I am.” Kanye is still immature at times, and certainly isn’t providing deep content every time he rhymes, but he has his share of songs dealing with serious things and trying to spark change in his listeners.

I hope that this brief introduction to hip hop has shown you that not all hip hop is crude and profane, but contains music that is meaningful. Admittedly, at times we must look through the rough exterior to see what is within, but I believe that is a worthwhile endeavor. As we continue on in our look into positive hip hop, the artists I’ll be spotlighting will more consistently comment on social, political and religious issues than Eminem and Kanye. They will approach these issues from a variety of perspectives and come to a myriad of conclusions. These artists all have something important to say and are deserving of an audience who is looking at their work critically.

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