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.
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.
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.
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?
January 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
Three albums and three mixtapes for your listening pleasure. If you missed my top ten, check it out at the Mockingbird blog.
good kid, m.A.A.d city-Kendrick Lamar
Really, I can’t offer Kendrick Lamar many more accolades than the ones he has already gained last year (this was my favorite album of 2012). His major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city is unlike any other hip-hop album that came out in 2012, balancing emotion and technical mastery perfectly and asserting itself as something new in a crowded hip-hop culture. Lamar is an immensely skilled emcee, and he shows off his many different modes of rapping throughout the album, varying his voice and cadence to suit each song. Moreover, this is an album in every sense of the word, as Lamar tells a story of living in the streets that ends with unexpected redemption. Don’t miss this one, kids.
Best Songs: “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Money Trees,” “m.A.A.d City,” “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”
R.A.P. Music-Killer Mike
R.A.P Music opens with easily my favorite hip-hop track of the year, “Big Beast,” a driving, forceful explosion of a song that stakes Killer Mike’s claim to the best straight-up hip-hop album of the year. With great production from El-P, Killer Mike effortlessly weaves his way through a variety of topics on the album, never afraid to speak his mind, especially on tracks like “Reagan” and “R.A.P. Music.” In many ways, this album is a throwback, devoid of any Drake-like crooning or the variety of production tricks on good kid, m.A.A.d city, and this stripped down approach lends credibility and brutal honesty to Killer Mike’s scathing lyrics. You probably won’t agree with everything he says, but you’ve got to respect the way he says it.
Best Songs: “Big Beast,” “Go!,” “Reagan,” “R.A.P. Music”
Cancer 4 Cure-El-P
Dark and atmospheric, Cancer 4 Cure blasts its way through its twelve song running time, replete with booming bass and fractured percussion. In both his production and rapping, El-P seems one step from the edge, the virtuosity of his technical skills belying the rage that simmers just below the carefully constructed madness of his music. Like label-mate Aesop Rock, El-P’s lyrics are a conundrum, a maze of wordplay that obfuscates more than elucidates, yet repeated listens eventually reveal his preoccupations; for instance, “The Full Retard” offers up a somewhat satirical look at hip-hop and politics, while being the most radio friendly track on the whole album. It’s contradictions like this that mark Cancer 4 Cure as one of the more compelling hip-hop releases of 2012, and one to be listened to on high volume with utmost attention.
Best Songs: “The Full Retard,” “Drones Over Bklyn,” “Tougher Colder Killer,” “True Story”
Probably my second favorite hip-hop album of the year, BBU’s mixtape is an exercise in not sacrificing style for content, with music that is a perfect complement to the group’s politically charged lyrics. Hailing from Chicago, the group tackles a number of issues plaguing inner-city Chicago, yet they manage to approach those topics with some lightness, keeping the mixtape from becoming too weighed down. BBU knows how to create a hook, and they rap the heck out of every track, ensuring that their message gets embedded in your consciousness. The group also has a wicked sense of humor, most obviously present in the album’s interludes, where they make fun of mainstream hip-hop and record labels, just to name a few of their targets. The constant interplay of the three members keeps each track fresh, and the serious issues they bring up in their lyrics are worth thinking about, if purposely controversial at times. A wonderful blend of craft and consciousness, bell hooks is everything a mixtape should be.
Best Songs: “The Hood,” “Jumpers,” “The Wrong Song,” “Please, No Pictures”
4eva N a Day-Big K.R.I.T.
After showing up on two of my favorite hip hop albums of last year (Undun and Oneirology) as well as releasing a mixtape, Big K.R.I.T. made his mark on 2012 with another mixtape and his major-label debut, Live from the Underground. While Live from the Underground has its moments (particularly “Cool 2 Be Southern,” “Porchlight,” and “If I Fall”), 4eva N a Day is far more consistent and thoughtful throughout, making it the best Krit album to arrive in 2012. 4eva N a Day delivers more of what we’ve come to expect from Krit: silky smooth flow, consummate production, and a keen awareness of the problems in hip hop culture and his own place in that world. Tracks like “Package Store” and “The Alarm” speak eloquently to the struggles Krit sees all around him, accenting the album art of a young child stuck in between a church and a liquor store. Another great mixtape from a perennial overachiever.
Best Songs: “Boobie Miles,” “4EvaNaDay Theme,” “Package Store”
Attack the Block-Talib Kweli & Z-Trip
Unfortunately, Kweli’s new official album was delayed until 2013, but Attack the Block, named after a fantastic film from 2011, is more than enough to tide me over until P.O.C. gets released. Complete with an incredible list of guest spots (Black Thought, Jay Rock, Killer Mike, etc.), Attack the Block is a surprisingly consistent effort from Kweli, especially considering the mixed bag that was his last album, Gutter Rainbows. The best moments on Attack the Block are the unexpected ones: “The Corner” sampling R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”; the five killer guest spots on “That’s Enough”; and the slow-burning closer, “Fly Away.” To me at least, Attack the Block shows that Kweli still has something to prove, and it makes me even more excited for P.O.C. this spring.
Best Songs: “That’s Enough,” “The Corner,” “Getting to the Money,” “Fly Away”
November 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
Here’s a poem I wrote the other day. Thought some of you might appreciate it.
Pencil, pen, sometimes in combination
Scrawled along the margin
Underline, asterisk; surely important
At least for now
Books, paper, clothes, on the floor
Like leaves in the fall
I have two weeks
I keep telling myself
I have four weeks
My voice echoes
I have one life
The dogs howl
Charged through with ether
Where I teach and where I live
Too often, in my heart
In the routine, the mess
This world shimmers
This fluidity dancing around me
It ends and begins; the wine and the bread; the new and the old, bursting forth.
June 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
In which I conclude my letter to Thrice.
After Vheissu you decided to raise the bar and pursue your most ambitious project to date—The Alchemy Index. I remember being so excited that you were applying your musical acumen to a concept album revolving around the four elements, matching the sonic qualities of each disc (Fire, Water, Air, Earth) to the qualities of the elements. And while they didn’t end being my favorite thing you have ever done, the songs on each six-song disc sounded remarkably what I imagined each element might sound like as music. Fire was heavy, bludgeoning at times, yet carried a delicate beauty; Water was bathed in electronic blips and synths while buoyed by ethereal vocals and melodies; Air was light and peaceful, yet occasionally hit with the force of a tornado; and Earth was acoustic, steeped in folk, delivering an earthy, homey set of songs. Oh, and ending each disc with a sonnet from the perspective of the element was a brilliant touch.
My favorite songs from The Alchemy Index are scattered across the discs, with Air probably being my favorite of the four. From Fire, “The Arsonist” and its serpentine guitar riff is my favorite with “Burn the Fleet” being a close second. Water’s high points are opener “Digital Sea” and the gorgeous, melancholy “The Whaler.” For my money, Air is the most consistent, each song worthy of mention, but none more so than the soaring “Silver Wings,” one of the most beautiful songs I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. The highlight of Earth is “Come All You Weary,” especially as the full band kicks in near the end of the song. Yet, the true fun of The Alchemy Index is combining the songs in different ways, and listening to them in a different order, experimenting with placing the disparate elements next to each other to attempt a kind of synthesis.
Luckily for us, you created the very synthesis I am describing with your next two, and unfortunately last, albums—Beggars and Major/Minor. Beggars is rough and tumble rock and roll, incorporating qualities of The Alchemy Index into a more streamlined, gritty soundscape. It’s easy to hear the southern rock and blues influence on songs like “The Weight” and “Doublespeak,” yet it never overtakes your unique approach to music. Beggars had just dropped when I got the chance to see you live for the first time in Pittsburgh during my junior year of college: an incredible experience, even if the venue was jam-packed and uncomfortable at times. The subtle play between the harder elements of your past music and the newer, more melodic nature of some of the newer material on Beggars offers up some of its most intriguing moments. The title track is a slow-burner which eventually turns into a grungy mess of a song, highlighting the central message of the song and the album: “We are beggars all.” To hear such a resonant statement in the midst of the shiny, superficial music that often populates people’s iPods was, and still is, a breath of fresh air.
However, the songs on Beggars had a tendency to bleed together, lacking the sonic diversity that marked an album like Vheissu. Major/Minor solved this problem, and in many ways seems like a culmination of your music. There are heavy moments juxtaposed with soft, fast with slow, angry with peaceful: such is what I expect from a Thrice record. It’s smooth, almost effortless; clearly, you know how to make an album. I stayed up until 11 (CST, baby!) and downloaded the album as soon as it was available—the only other band I’ve done that for is U2. I don’t have much more to say about Major/Minor other than remarking about the palpable sense of finality that seems to pervade it. Especially now, looking back on it knowing this was your final album, there are moments that act as a closure to some of the themes, musically and lyrically that you have been exploring for your entire career. Indeed, you concluded the May 27th show with “Anthology,” a farewell song if there ever was one, including a multitude of references to previous songs from your discography. The chorus, directed at your fans at the show, says it all: “Oh, you know me and I know you. And I know we can see this through.”
So, at the end, it comes down to this. You are the first of my favorite bands to break up. Sure there were other bands I enjoyed who have parted ways over the course of the past ten years, but they did not have the same impact on my life as you did. For all you’ve meant to me, all I can offer is this—thank you.
Your devoted fan,
June 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
Part One of an open letter to Thrice, my favorite band, on the occasion of their farewell tour.
I can’t believe it’s all over—you’re not making music any more. I first met you in 2005, at the tender age of 16, just after you had released your fourth album Vheissu, which remains one of my favorite albums of all time, even now with seven more years of music listening under my belt. Shortly after this, I discovered 2003’s The Artist in the Ambulance, its hard-hitting music perhaps only overshadowed by its lyrical bite, and it wasn’t long before you became one of my favorite bands. You have remained so until this day, growing in my respect as you refused to sell out, but continued to push your music in new directions with what came after Vheissu. And if the show I was at on May 27th is indeed the final time I will see you, I wanted to write you this letter to thank you for what your music has meant to me throughout high school, college and, even, grad school.
What you probably don’t know is that your music came to me at a time I was breaking away from the maudlin Christian music that constituted the majority of my music library up until sophomore year of high school or so. I was discovering artists like U2 and Sufjan Stevens, broadening my musical horizons, and then I stumbled upon your music: heavy, deep and beautiful. Once Vheissu began with “Image of the Invisible” bursting from the ether, I was hooked: this was something different than I had heard before. And the album keeps hitting—“The Earth Will Shake,” “Hold Fast Hope,” and “Dust of Nations” just to name a few songs. Yet, it exquisitely balances these heavy riffs and harsh vocals with lighter tracks like “Atlantic” and “Music Box” before ending with “Red Sky.” I remember thinking to myself, “This is art. This band knows how to make deep, inspiring music without sacrificing artistry.”
I soon began listening to the rest of your music: the fantastic, stirring The Artist in the Ambulance; the fast-paced, aggrieved The Illusion of Safety; and the raw, energetic Identity Crisis. While Identity Crisis and The Illusion of Safety certain do not rise to the heights of your later work, it’s evident that from the beginning of your career there was something special, a certain spark in your music. For instance, “Phoenix Ignition” and “T&C,” the two songs from your debut album that you played at the show, contain passion and energy without resorting to manufactured anger. Then there’s “Deadbolt” from your second album, ripping through its two and half minute running time with a relentless focus and intensity before fading to a remorseful 30 seconds of piano, expertly highlighting the song’s interplay between passion and regret. My personal favorite from The Illusion of Safety is “So Strange I Remember You,” another song that balances slower passages with torrid drumming and guitar work to excellent effect.
As entertaining and exciting your first two albums were, nothing, for me at least, can compare with The Artist in the Ambulance and Vheissu. I don’t think there is one bad song on The Artist in the Ambulance, and many songs on that album were instrumental in helping me make sense of my final two years of high school. “Under a Killing Moon,” the inspiration of my Xbox gamertag, takes Arthur Miller’s The Crucible/the Salem Witch Trials and transforms their stories into a blistering rumination on standing up for your convictions. In fact, you almost sound like a different band—more confident, bolstered by better production values and improved music and vocals. Without letting up, the album moves into lead single “All That’s Left,” a story of faith lost due to a lack of room for questions, “We are the dead, a ghost of everything we thought but never said.” What you couldn’t have known is I was searching and asking questions of my faith, and this song and “Stare at the Sun” gave me the courage to keep asking those questions at a crucial point in my life. I remember singing along to the chorus of “Stare at the Sun” with all my might, just as I did the other night: “Cause I am due for a miracle, I’m waiting for a sign. I’ll stare straight into the sun, and I won’t close my eyes, ‘til I understand or go blind.”
To be continued…
February 22, 2012 § 1 Comment
I thought it appropriate to share some of T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday with you all today. Had my old computer not bit the dust, I would have shared a poem I wrote about Ash Wednesday a couple of years ago. Two stanzas in particular stand out to me from the first section of the poem.
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
The refrain of “teach us to care and not to care, teach us to sit still” is repeated as the poem comes to a close, and it seems to me to be the motivating force behind the poem. Indeed, this plea embodies the spirit of Lent, and it is my prayer for this Lenten season.
For the whole poem: http://www.msgr.ca/msgr-7/ash_wednesday_t_s_eliot.htm
January 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
Just wanted to let all of you know that my top ten albums list is posted over at Mockingbird Blog (link here). Also, I’m pleased to announce I’ll be contributing to their fine blog from time to time so make sure to check over there frequently to read my contributions as well as the other excellent posts from their contributors at http://www.mbird.com. You can also follow them on twitter @mockingbirdnyc.
Also, be on the look out for a post later this week about some honorable mentions in terms of my favorite music of the year and hopefully in a couple weeks I’ll post my top ten films of the year.
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.