May 2014

Arts & Letters

The world’s biggest rock star

By Anwen Crawford
Kanye West at the Grammy Awards in 2006. © Kevin Winter / Getty.
Kanye West and ‘Yeezus’

Kanye West is the world’s biggest rock star, and he knows it. Like rock stars before him, he is obnoxious, contradictory, absurdly egotistical and famous to the point of surreality. He was meant to tour Australia this month, but has postponed – ostensibly to finish his next album, but most likely just because he can.

West sometimes refers to himself in the third person, and it can be hard to tell whether, to him, “Kanye West” is a person, a character or a brand. “The idea of Kanye and vanity are like, synonymous,” he told the New York Times last year, and he wasn’t wrong. West has won 21 Grammy awards, been upbraided by two US presidents, and recently landed himself – alongside his equally famous fiancée, Kim Kardashian – on the cover of American Vogue, fashion’s most sought-after podium.

He is (in case you’re wondering) an enormous musical talent. Yeezus, his sixth solo record, was one of the most critically acclaimed – and hotly debated – albums of 2013. It is by turns abrasive, electrifying and sharp as a knife, much like its maker. “My mind move like a Tron bike / Uh, pop a wheelie on the Zeitgeist,” West raps on ‘I’m in It’, which is another way of saying, as he also told the New York Times, “I understand culture. I am the nucleus.”

Ten years ago West released his first album, The College Dropout. It took four years to make and runs to 76 minutes, crammed full with guest MCs (Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Common), skits and the sped-up vocal samples that are one of West’s hallmarks as a producer. In the decade since, his albums have veered between baroque maximalism (Late Registration, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and barbed minimalism (808s & Heartbreak, Yeezus). An enjoyable album will be followed by a distinctly unenjoyable but nevertheless compelling one. West commands attention but seems indifferent to being liked. In a world where multimillionaire stars enjoy performing fake humility, his imperiousness is curiously refreshing.

It doesn’t get more imperious than ‘I Am a God’, from Yeezus. “I just talked to Jesus / He said, ‘What up, Yeezus?’ / I said, ‘Shit, I’m chillin’ / Tryna stack these millions.’” West began his career as a producer, not as a rapper, and it still shows in his delivery: he favours full rhymes, and usually emphasises those last, rhyming syllables in each line. This gives his verses a repetitive feel, but what he lacks in dexterity he makes up in forcefulness. And his production work can stop you in your tracks. ‘I Am a God’ feels like peering down an elevator shaft. A massive electronic bassline and kick drum provide the song’s foundation, while synthesisers, distorted screams and panicked breaths stab upwards through the mix.

‘I Am a God’ samples the Jamaican dancehall star Capleton, which adds a towering braggadocio to the song’s tense atmosphere. West has been credited for bringing an open-minded, debonair masculinity to the often straight-laced world of hip-hop, so it’s notable that he chooses to sample dancehall vocalists like Capleton and Beenie Man on Yeezus, both of whom have been criticised for their virulent homophobia. Yeezus is, lyrically, West’s most sexually aggressive record – the target is not other men, but women. Plenty have called this album sexist, but it’s not that straightforward.

West’s father was a Black Panther. On ‘Never Let Me Down’, from The College Dropout, he told us: “I get down for my grandfather who took my mama / Made her sit in that seat where white folks ain’t want us to eat / At the tender age of six she was arrested for the sit-ins / And with that in my blood I was born to be different.” The language and the legacy of the Civil Rights movement is his inheritance. On ‘New Slaves’, from Yeezus, he turns his anger on the white executives who profit from the increasingly privatised US prison industry – one in three American black men will be imprisoned during their lifetime, and West himself is currently on two years’ probation for punching a paparazzo. The retaliation he imagines takes the form of an affair: “Fuck you and your Hampton house / I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse / Came on her Hampton blouse / And in her Hampton mouth.”

It reads nastier on the page than it sounds in context. West, like many rappers, takes his exaggerations right up to the point of comedy. The revenge fantasy of ‘New Slaves’ also reminds me of quite a different star: Jarvis Cocker, from the British band Pulp. On Pulp’s brilliant 1995 song ‘I Spy’, from the album Different Class, Cocker also directs his ire at an unnamed rich man, and imagines sleeping with the man’s wife: “And every night I hatch my plan / It’s not a case of woman v. man / It’s more a case of haves against haven’ts.” West is up to something quite similar. For both of these men, class antagonism is played out through sexual conquest, but for West, as a black man, there’s an extra edge.

Fear of sexual congress between black men and white women runs deep in American history. The 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who dared to flirt with a white woman in Mississippi, was a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement, while spurious rape allegations – in the South and elsewhere – fed straight into the racist stereotype of black men as uncivilised beasts. When West raps “They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor / They gon’ come to kill King Kong” on a song called ‘Black Skinhead’, or samples Nina Simone singing ‘Strange Fruit’ on his ‘Blood on the Leaves’, you can be sure he has all this in mind.

West’s deft sampling is a way for him to display his production skills, and his samples often form a kind of meta-commentary on his lyrics. Sampling also opens up to his listeners a world of African-American social history – in this respect he is reminiscent of hip-hop’s greatest political provocateurs, Public Enemy. West’s use of sampling is less didactic than Public Enemy’s, as if he trusts his listeners to draw their own conclusions. If we argue over West’s songs, it’s because he invites the argument. West is fully aware that the history of popular music is, in large part, the repackaging of black subversion as white cool – “Middle America packed in / Came to see me and my black skin” – he spits on ‘Black Skinhead’, and now that he’s top of the pile, the transaction seems to be even more poisoned than he might have feared.

He knows that when it comes to ‘Strange Fruit’, that most potent of protest songs, he’s playing with a loaded weapon. ‘Blood on the Leaves’ is a strange concoction indeed: Simone’s contralto voice is sped up to chipmunk pitch, while West feeds his own vocal through AutoTune – a device he has used before, with polarising results, on 808s & Heartbreak. The overall effect of these two heavily manipulated voices is queasily psychedelic, which is fitting, because the lyric is partly about taking ecstasy. Perhaps only West would be audacious enough to join ‘Strange Fruit’ to his own tale of drug-taking and failed romance.

A synthesised melody lurches through ‘Blood on the Leaves’ like a brass band trapped inside a digital hell; hi-hats skitter anxiously. Yeezus shares with some of the best contemporary dance music a dystopian coldness: for all the sex and conspicuous spending, anhedonia lies at the core of this record. The icy electronics are sampled from a track by the production team TNGHT, a duo of Hudson Mohawke and Lunice, who also served as “production consultants” for the album. Nearly every song on Yeezus involved the work of at least half a dozen producers, and the whole thing was pulled into shape by hip-hop impresario Rick Rubin, founder of Def Jam – the label of Run-DMC, Beastie Boys and, of course, Public Enemy. Like those colossi of hip-hop’s so-called “golden age”, Kanye West bestrides the world – collaborators are his for the picking. Yet his fame has become a kind of one-way mirror, and Yeezus is the sound of it – a man trapped inside a brightly lit room, struggling intermittently to see past his own reflection. By the end of ‘Blood on the Leaves’, West’s vocal is so distorted as to be almost incomprehensible, but one word comes through: “lonely”. 

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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