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?
September 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
I just finished my latest re-reading of Annie Dillard’s incredible Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the third of which I have done over the past two years. Now I’m quite sure that Mrs. Dillard or her 1979 Pulitzer Prize winning book don’t really need any more compliments, (leastwise not from a fledgling graduate student) but that’s not going to stop me from praising this masterpiece of writing for its exuberance and beauty. Perhaps it may even spark someone’s curiosity who is unfamiliar with Dillard to take a chance and dive into one of the most life affirming texts I have ever read.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a memoir of sorts, concerned with a year that Dillard spent living in the woods of Virginia as she observed nature around her and wrote. She is our tour guide, teaching us things about nature that most people would never suspect, from the egg laying habits of dragonflies to the best way to stalk a muskrat. Most of all, this is a book about being truly alive and letting life seep into every part of your being as you walk in this strange, beautiful world.
This book is wrapped up in the present, both as a moment in time and also as an idea. Dillard speaks of the present as a character, hurtling through space and time, trying to get us to notice its machinations before it disappears into the past. In chapter five, appropriately titled The Present, Dillard invokes the present with such verve that it is impossible to think of it in the same way again: “The present is the wave that explodes over my head, flinging the air with particles at the height of its breathless unroll; it is the live water and light that bears from its undisclosed sources the freshest news, renewed and renewing, world without end.” Elsewhere, she describes the present as a form of grace, constantly giving us a second chance, as newness is birthed every instant.
When we can learn, or attempt as in my case, to see the present as Dillard sees it, it opens up the store of the world’s beauty to us. Along with that beauty, however, comes the realization of the horrors of nature: death, violence and pain. Dillard does not shy away from these things, examining this decrepit world with the intensity of an investigative journalist searching for answers. In Intricacy shes firmly lands on the side of beauty, while in Fecundity she is shocked at the excess of death present on earth. Her answer to this dilemma comes in the final chapter, The Waters of Separation, in a declaration of life and mystery: “It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”
This world is both terrifying and glorious, the mystery lies in how these two things can be combined in such a paradoxical way, existing alongside each other without overwhelming the other. Which has the final word? Death or beauty? Perhaps, as Dillard suggests, the answer is not as important as we think, for here we are surrounded by both, yet never truly noticing either. Before we cede control to death and march on our way, let’s search for beauty: it’s very existence may change our minds about everything. Every beautiful or grotesque example that Dillard gives points us to a world that, although broken and run-down, is filled with glory bursting from its seams. This is the planet we inhabit—an extravagant mess—and it is begging for us to realize this.