Kanye West. Image credit: Nick Knight / New York Times.
Why Kanye West’s Yeezus might be the right album for our times, and not in the best way.
*Warning: Racially and sexually offensive language — all quotes, just to be clear.
. . .
Last Sunday, Anthea Butler, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at UPenn, blogged that George Zimmerman’s acquittal finally convinced her that America’s god is a white racist:
God ain’t good all of the time. In fact, sometimes, God is not for us. As a black woman in a nation that has taken too many pains to remind me that I am not a white man, and am not capable of taking care of my reproductive rights, or my voting rights, I know that this American god ain’t my god. As a matter of fact, I think he’s a white racist god with a problem. More importantly, he is carrying a gun and stalking young black men.
Predictably, the trolls exploded. “Who’s the real racist here?” they demanded, as they defended themselves as “race-blind” while calling Prof. Butler “nigger” and “cunt.” “Anthea Butler – and most professional black racists like NAACP – are FURIOUS that the OFFICIAL MYTH of RACISM is CRUMBLING,” tweeted TeaPartyStance. Slicknick51 tweeted: “you aren’t fit to teach a dog to sit much less at an Ivy League school. Don’t you dare call God a racist. He is the #Almighty.” And so on. Bizarrely (though unfortunately not surprisingly), many kept harping on her use of “ain’t” in a post that was consciously and emphatically written in the black vernacular. (LancerT114: “‘aint’ aint a word, you racist c word.”)
Oh post-racial America, where did you say you were again?
. . .
Meanwhile, in the world of pop music, light years away (or not?), Kanye West offered up a frightening alternative to the white racist god in his new album Yeezus. “I am a god,” he snarled. “Hurry up with my damn ménage. Hurry up with my damn croissants!”
Then he let loose a scream from hell.
When I first heard Yeezus last Thursday, I found myself slammed against a wall of industrial shrieks and noise. While the album’s aggressively bleak soundscape reached back into the past (Chicago deep house, freaky electro, and grindcore, throwing in some Chicago drill for added nihilism), Yeezus bum-rushed the show into an unrelenting, dystopian future. Critics have called it music unlike anything else on the charts, but that’s not really true – even if you didn’t follow pre-“EDM” electronic music in the ’80s and ’90s, you’d still be able to catch the older sound of familiar acts like Prodigy, Crystal Method, Nine Inch Nails, and Marilyn Manson (whose rollicking military stomp “The Beautiful People” shows up pretty much verbatim in Yeezus’s “Black Skinhead”). At the same time, sonically, at least, Yeezus is a brutal, groundbreaking album from a bona fide mainstream superstar, which is why it’s no stretch of the imagination to call Kanye “pop music’s most complex star.”
After Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict came crashing down last Saturday night, though, listening to Yeezus turned out to be an entirely different experience. Mainly because I actually started listening to the lyrics. I’m not normally too turned off by Kanye’s wounded bombast and braggadocio (see my thoughts on his last album here), but this time I found myself way more pissed off than usual at his sexual wordplay, which transcended, as it were, the typical juvenile b.s. about raunchy, porn-tastic conquests (though believe me, there was plenty of the typically juvenile – eating Asian pussy with sweet and sour sauce? And yet another joke about getting head from nuns? Why do I always have to be reminded of how much it sucks to be a female who loves hiphop?).
No – the worst part was the way that Kanye’s lyrics reduced the language of black civil rights and liberation movements into mere metaphors for the “woes” of celebrityhood and sex. In the song “I’m in It,” Ye raps about shoving his fist up in a lover “like a civil rights sign” until she comes, and shouts, “Thank God almighty, they free at last!” at the breasts of another woman, liberated from the shackles of the bra. When I heard strains from Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s devastating song about lynching (“black bodies swinging in the southern breeze”), framing the lyrics of Yeezus’s “Blood on the Leaves,” a story about an ex-girlfriend, I almost choked. At one point in the song, Kanye bitterly spits out, “Now you sittin’ courtside, wifey on the other side / Gotta keep ’em separated, I call that apartheid.”
Let us be reminded that Kanye’s last album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy ended with the late, great Gil Scott-Heron urgently chanting, “America was a bastard / The illegitimate daughter of the mother country / Whose legs were then spread around the world / And a rapist known as freedom, freedom…Who will survive in America?” (Dorian Lynskey takes a critical view of Kanye’s use of this sample, but it doesn’t take away from the force of Scott-Heron’s own words.)
Here, equating the separation of an ex and a wife at a basketball game with apartheid? Are you fucking serious, Ye?
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Small wonder, then, over the backlash against the lyrical content, and the questioning of Kanye’s overall sanity, in the weeks since Yeezus’s release. HuffPo surveyed the critics a few days after the album came out, all of whom echoed Al Shipley’s cutting observation that “increasingly, Kanye West’s lyrics feel like the result of a gross misunderstanding of the phrase ‘the personal is political.’”
But whether in defense of Kanye or in disgust, most folks have tended to attribute Kanye’s “fascinating” failings to the man himself: He’s an artist. He’s unpredictable. He’s a crazy, out-of-control megalomaniac. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
Whatever the assessment may be, however, I can’t help feeling that it’s too easy to dismiss or praise the contradictions in Kanye’s work as the result of one man’s “crazy” or “genius,” or both. For Kanye’s confusion between the personal and political – and even his “flatten[ing of] the troubled history of black America” into his own image, as Lynskey so eloquently puts it – is itself rooted in something much larger than just the personal. Heben Nigatu has already written about Kanye’s dandyist obsession with fashion as a form of “populist narcissism,” or black self-love as a political act. In support, Nigatu quotes the poet Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Of course, this view of Kanye’s “vanity” can become too optimistic and return us, wrongly, back to Kanye himself. (Nigatu, for instance, takes at face value Kanye’s absurd self-alignment within the artist-activist tradition of Scott-Heron.) But I argue that there’s another way of tackling his contradictions without giving too much credit to Ye himself – i.e., from the collective perspective of black experience, as well as from those who are looking from the outside.
Of all the audacious comparisons Kanye has made between himself and other icons (including in his recent much-mocked New York Times interview), the one he gets most right, perhaps, might be Picasso. In the painter’s famous work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, five nude prostitute-Muses, some with African mask-like faces, are flattened against a 2D-plane and stare out (and are stared at) from dizzying and contradictory perspectives. Their direct outward gazes are frightening, aloof, hieratic, contrasted with the formidable sensuality of their bodies. And the angles are all skewed – figures that appear to be standing up are actually lying down, viewed from above, while another figure whose legs seem to be spread wide open to the viewer is in fact twisted around so that all we see are her face and back. I might’ve called it striptease-like in its conceal/reveal, except that these women are so brazenly confrontational and terrifying that playful seduction seems to be the last thing on their minds.
Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
Similarly, Yeezus refracts multiple perspectives of the black man (figured through Kanye, or some version of “Kanye,” along with a host of other collaborators) at jarringly contradictory angles, screaming from the depths of noise, but also internalizing and then spewing back white America’s fears and desires. In “Black Skinhead,” which he calls “my theme song,” the pronouns keep switching as Kanye both performs blackness and watches others watching him in the lines
They see a black man with a white woman
At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong
Middle America packed in
Come to see me in my black skin…
By the end of the song, he’s trying to revive the bodies of dying brothers, as he addresses them directly, then switches to address a different audience:
Come on homie what happened
You niggas ain’t breathing you gasping
These niggas ain’t ready for action…
In the more problematic “New Slaves,” Kanye bombards listeners with a history of grievances against black people (segregation, slavery, “broke nigga racism,” “rich nigga racism,” corporate power, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Corrections Corporation of America, in that order) without establishing clear relationships or hierarchies. (Is being “enslaved” by the designer goods of Alexander Wang supposed to be somehow equivalent to actually being enslaved, according to the lyrics? Is modern-day racism against “broke” vs. “rich niggas”?) At the same time, the assaultive delivery and cascade of sufferings, transformed into a revenge fantasy at the end of the song where Kanye comes in the “Hampton mouth” of a rich man’s wife, renders the track (together with all the other problematic tracks) into something of a smashed kaleidoscope where shards of distorted images of the stereotypical Black Man – caged, beaten, predatory, oversexed, monstrous – are reflected back at Middle America.
(Update 7.22.13) Screenshot from “Black Skinhead” video on kanyewest.com, directed by Nick Knight.
If we read all this as autobiographical, then yes, Kanye is crazy. No doubt. But if we read all this confusion as a symptom of something much larger, then it might start to make a little more sense. Don’t get me wrong – I think stic.man of Dead Prez is being too generous when he says (in a Facebook post responding to Kanye’s yet another self-comparison to the Dead Prez) that Kanye “looks at contradiction as the way things really are. He doesn’t want to fit in any one sided box. I think for him he has found his lane which blends a lot of points of view that are often polarized but with ye’s art it becomes one.” In my view, to call Yeezus a coherent and unified work is totally wrong, because it means pretending all the inexcusable personal/political confusions aren’t there, which they obviously are. Yeezus is not Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, despite the similarities.
At the same time, in a month-long span in which the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Detroit declared bankruptcy, Chicago’s yearly homicide rate passed 200 while 28 Chicago public schools had their doors closed for good by the Board of Education, 30,000 inmates in California’s prisons kicked off a statewide hunger strike, 250 female inmates in California were revealed to have been sterilized by the state since the late ’90s, and, of course, George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, it’s hard to say that Yeezus’s fractured visions aren’t symptomatic of what’s going on in large swaths of the black community, and especially among black men (if not so much women), in America. As linguists like to say about language, Yeezus’s nightmares are definitely descriptive, not prescriptive.
Kanye West wearing a hoodie from his old Pastelle line.
Is it a troubling reflection of our times that the most exciting and provocative album out right now is filtered through the persona(s) of a black egomaniacal superstar who thinks he’s a god who hangs out with God and uses civil rights iconography as metaphors for sex and greed? Uh, yes.
But the real tragedy here, if there is one, is that Kanye West consciously performs himself as a black man who’s reached the apex of the American Dream, yet is more self-alienated than ever. (And maybe possibly even murdered for it – the final song “Bound 2” ambiguously ends with what sounds like multiple gunshots when the old pimp Jerome from the ’90s show Martin walks in on Kanye doing his girl.) Less consciously, but more ominously, Kanye also disenfranchises himself from the legacy of civil rights at the very moment that he appropriates its symbols in a display of hetero black male swagger. As if these options – success and blackness, civil rights and black masculinity – are either/or choices in America.
Speaking of success and blackness in American popular culture, the two choices seem to be clearly embodied by the differences between Kanye and his “big brother” Jay Z. Go corporate, feed PRISM, lose your soul? You get the Queen Bee, a trip to Cuba, and the direct number to the President. Keep stoking your black rage while accumulating wealth and glory? Well, you might just get slapped with a felony charge to bring your ass down.
In other words, if the latter is the case for Kanye freaking West, then how much more hopeless is it for a young black teenage man who’s wearing a hoodie and navigating the hostile streets of America?
Well, we know the answer. No wonder Prof. Butler calls America’s god a white racist.
But unless we can come up with a more merciful and benevolent one, Kanye’s megalomaniac god of Yeezus is, unfortunately, one of the few alternatives we’ve got out there right now.