Tuesday, June 6, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 28: Kanye West: The Dreamer Versus The Dream

Yes, even Kanye floats....
I spent more time wrapping my head around Kanye West than I have done with most artists in this series. Based on the intensity of some of his fandom (a person, who shall go unnamed, but who swears he wouldn’t cry if he broke up with his girlfriend, figured he would cry the first time he saw Kanye). People as invested as that might hear a little voice in his/her head telling him/her that Kanye’s music just makes me, a middle-aged white-guy, uncomfortable. That’s true, but only a one specific level:

A lot of people view West as a genius…and I can’t get there. On that level, I'm uncomfortable. Or awkward with it, really.

Unlike a lot of acts I’ve reviewed over the 27 prior volumes in this series, a lot of Kanye’s music just doesn’t stick for me. When I walk away from it for a while, I don’t get a lot of, “damn, this track? Why haven’t I listened to this since last [insert fondly remembered moment of your choosing]?” when I come back. Still, I’m impressed by Kanye’s body of work, deeply too, and I like a lot of his work. I don’t think that he’s ever made a bad song. He’s only made songs that I don’t like. Or even hate sometimes. And, more often than not, that’s an issue with the subject matter. There’s this song, “Blood on the Leaves,” and it just gets under my…

Kidding! To pick up the actual thread, one song on The Life of Pablo plays for me as Kanye Distilled: “I Love Kanye.” Self-referential, self-obsessed, and aggrieved: that’s what actually bugs me about Kanye. At his best, he projects those meditations outward; overall, though, he seems to wallow more and more in his grievances as he ages, and that’s doubly-weird, for me, precisely because he’s so revered. 

Still, I’m fascinated by “I Love Kanye.” I read a couple different reviews earlier this week (first one feels relevant, somehow) – and about a very different song – and, outside that, I tracked some of the comments on the genius.com notes that run over the songs playing on Spotify (and Kanye gets more of those than any artist reviewed so far; see general notes on adulation), and a clear argument runs through it. The idea is that fans and the smarter critics understand that he’s in on the joke that is the performance of his ego. Viewed through that frame, “I Love Kanye” comes off as a “fuck-you” masterpiece, a thoroughly self-aware prank on everyone who cringes at that performance of ego.

A week of listening to Kanye has carved a deep annoyance with the word “hater.” I get that braggadocio plays a big role in rap, but, the more time I spend on hip hop, the smarter the packaging of that stuff needs to be. Kanye just got weird with fame, but even that’s a tricky case to make, because the straight-line path for a musician becoming an icon almost demands a celebration of his own magnificence, on living bigger than life. Kanye nails that part, but…this is where the question posed above comes in – is Kanye in on the joke? Genius addresses that in their notes over “Blood on the Leaves,” quoting Vulture’s Jody Rosen: “Kanye is well aware of how audacious it is to interpolate that sacred song into a monstrously self-pitying Auto-Tune strafed melodrama.”

My first thought on that is, maybe, and my second thought is, I don’t care. I’m happy to give any artist a wide berth, but, if there’s a through-line in Kanye’s work, it’s petulance. When fans, and even critics, give an artist that broad of a pass, and against that backdrop? I’m going to lean toward the first-level interpretation. He’s still this guy, revered by millions, but still fixated, even if indirectly, by what’s really a pittance of critics/peers, and he seems to spend a lot of time on grievances. And, as elaborated below, that’s both good and bad.

To wrap up “I Love Kanye,” yes, I liked the Old Kanye better. And it’s only this deep in – the beginning of what I want to say – that I realize that I’ve only just begun to touch on all the things I want to say about Kanye. Now, is that the definition of genius? Obliquely, sure. It actually puts the sharper question to a cultural construct that is, basically, accidental – i.e., the popular conception of genius.

A week spent listening to…just a fuck-ton of Kanye West’s music only confirmed something I was confident in already: The College Dropout is, and remains, my favorite of his albums. That’s less a commentary on quality, than a mental space I relate to. (That’s a comment on me – seriously, if you’re actually following this, file that shit away – but how can music avoid being personal?) The personal/life puzzles Kanye works out on The College Dropout simply feel more relatable than the success/paranoia blend that bleeds all over his later work. That’s a natural progression on one level, because shit gets more and more real with age (well, at least until that happy second childhood…wait, is it happy?). The deeper point, though, is that most people will ever know the stratospheric/different-world level of success your actual rockstar/rapstar/Kanye West achieves, and that’s why (to give you a baseline) I will always get more out of a song like “Spaceship” than I will out of, say, “FML” (There’s also this weird lyric in “30 Hours” about waking up and making his breakfast and a smoothie and going to the gym and…why? Why do I need to know the man's morning routine?).

Again, music is personal. And with Kanye, and with just about any other piece of art, I’ll always connect more to the Dreamer than I do with the man Living the Dream. There’s just more romance in it. (Still, his “Real Friends,” a late track, talks about eminently relatable stuff, specific details aside.)

Before diving into the rest, I want to get something out of the way: I don’t think much of Graduation and I will actively avoid 808s & Heartbreak till the day I die. Blame Auto-Tune for the latter – I couldn’t even hear the damn music (yes, it’s that distracting) – but Graduation felt like Kanye’s first, and clumsy step into the themes he’d address with more depth in later albums (Yeezus pours the cream, in my mind). Songs like “Stronger,” “Good Life,” (really? on the audio?) “Barry Bonds”…just most of the album, carries this feel of gloating resentment. It’s just, when you’re basically a household name, tales of your struggle can’t help but fall flat a little (or more than a little).

Even so, this makes for a great spot to loop back to an earlier point – i.e., the idea that Kanye doesn’t make bad songs. It’s actually better than that: I can usually find one element in any Kanye West song that impresses me. Whether it’s a smart passage (say, the melodic break in the middle of “Drunk and Hot Girls”), a catchy loop (“Champions”), or just solid atmospherics, even if it’s tripped up by hitting the same damn theme (“Can’t Tell Me Nothing”), Kanye almost always slips something to appreciate into every song. To go to something earlier – specifically, Late Registration, an album I rank second in his work (wait. shit. maybe third) – I think “Celebration” sucks as a song, but I love the insouciant, “fuck you, you love me” in those first four lines enough to have fond memories of the song. I also rate “Addiction” as one of Kanye’s worst songs (flow bugs me), but stealing that tiny snippet from “My Funny Valentine,” is genius precisely because it’s a detail (as in, he’s paying enough attention to get that in).

There’s a dark side to that level of detail, and I’d argue it comes with the end of “The Blame Game,” which is as interesting a song/theme combination as he’s produced…until the end, when the whole thing devolves into the messy egoism of that outro…again, I’m sure Kanye’s in on the joke (“Ph.D. = “pretty huge dick; I get it; I got it every time; maybe it’s a question of when the joke gets old?).

Kanye didn’t start making bad music later in his career. “Black Skinhead” comes somewhere in my Top 3 out of everything Kanye has done, but there’s a simple logic to that – e.g., I’m a rock guy, first and foremost, and with “wall-of-sound” tendencies, so what’s not to like about a track like that, especially with the smarter lyrics in play? (And, speaking of the good, good things Kanye slips into any song, Kanye repeatedly barking “GOD!” into the mic at the end of “Black Skinhead” makes for one of the smartest flourishes.) The weight of that song carries through the rest of Yeezus, his most coherent work (in my mind) since Late Registration. “I Am A God” feels like a follow-up, as if the “God” at the end of “Black Skinhead” foreshadowed it (and “I Am A God” feels like his smartest meditation on fame). I have links above to “New Slaves” (5th actual paragraph), the song I remember getting the most in terms of deconstruction when Yeezus came out (NOTE: I am not anywhere near the center of this universe), and it’s worth the analysis; it means he’s still challenging people…again, is that genius?

I really struggled with The Life of Pablo. My kids put “Ultralight Beam” in a lofty enough pantheon to lift me up to fondness (and it is good) and the one song I actually like is “No More Parties in L.A.”…and, won’t lie, my theory for why I liked that song dissolved at the fourth or fifth listen today; as with “Famous,” (goddammit, Vevo), the meditations/criticisms on fame, no matter how smart (or annotated, cross-referenced, etc.), have this way of losing their impact now that he’s been hitting only slightly different variations on the same theme for years.

To frame that between two songs that actually span his career, “All Falls Down” touches on a lot of the same themes (success, materialism, status, and how race can short-circuit all three, etc.) as “New Slaves,” only from a different perspective – one (“All Falls Down”) is aspirational (but still wise), while the other (“Black Slaves”) clearly uses starker, more charged imagery (and Kanye adds a layer about exploitation of black musicians/musical forms), but both songs speak from the same awareness; both songs talk about chasing the same things, and out of the same desperation, only now he’s re-examining those shortcomings, even the betrayal, from a place of wild success, but still without acceptance. And, yes, holy shit, I’m not pretending that argument isn’t fraught. I don’t live that experience, and can’t. It’s more like, “message received and, no, I don’t know what to do about it either.”

Then again, and this gets back to what I genuinely value about Kanye, what’s more personal than examining the totality of one’s experience, to look at it from all sides? Whatever I don’t like about him doesn’t stem from his (genuinely) relentless self-examination, but from how he translates that in his music.

Yeezus worked best of his later work (can we all agree to a standing “for me” with every opinion I present?), because, more often than not (or more often than on The Life of Pablo), Kanye expanded his experience by passing it through the lens of racial/political consciousness. That small shift in perception alone made it more interesting. For some perspective on how much that matters, I could actually listen past the Auto-Tune on “Blood on the Leaves.” And that’s even with the notes/doubts on his actual intent above in mind.

And, to pick up a lead buried way up high, most of the songs I like best came off The College Dropout and Late Registration. There’s an Unbearable Lightness of Kanye that infects both albums and, whether it’s age or disposition, I can’t help but like that better. It comes through in songs like “Family Business,” “We Don’t Care,” and “School Spirit”- that I’d love to hear poke its head out now and again in Kanye’s later work. Look, I just want the guy to be happy…if only from time to time. I’m all for righteous anger. And self-reflection. I just want a break.

There’s a natural progression in all the above; if you’re older, just look around at all your friends and tell me you can’t see the way the weight piles on them. And, to make an assumption – not sure where it’s coming from – Kanye has felt some pressure of late, just some strain of life stuff that might, y’know, take him to darker places. And, to float a potentially (probably thoroughly) bogus example, listen to “Heard ‘Em Say” (from Late Registration; also, Bill Plympton?!) and “Good Morning” (from Graduation): both songs happen to be title tracks, and they bear some similarities (maybe?), but “Good Morning” slips into a tone of dread after the intro, while Heard ‘Em Say” feels spritely, lighter on its feet. So, yeah, I’m arguing it hit that early in Kanye’s fame cycle. (Mmm....listening again, and maybe I'm stretching that point...or the video's just super cute.)

His self-doubt feels central now, and that’s fine, that’s just another version of expression; for a musician making a career of it, the only active question is how many people relate to it and buy it. And there, Kanye is golden: he’s still an icon and, for me, a pretty solid one. Sure, he can grates from time to time – and he has a decent record of saying/doing stupid shit - but he’s bold, figuring shit out, and exposed – holy shit, are his guts all over. And he’s famous. Seriously, how does one stay well-adjusted in that simultaneously enormous and claustrophobic space? Maybe that’s one of the hooks with Kanye – i.e., he’s growing up with his fans. Only he’s doing it in front of the world. And under insane pressure to…do everything and, like, all the time.

If the above is muddled, so is the subject. To answer the question of whether or not Kanye’s a genius, I have a collection of other artists – in both hip hop and rock – who feel no less creative, and interesting, and, frankly, I like more of what they do better (e.g. Quasimoto/Madlib, Willie Evans, Jr., Open Mike Eagle (not yet)). So, yeah, if he’s a genius then they are too…unless “genius” is just about moving units. And that’s not an unfair theory, that’s all I’m saying…

In the end, I don’t know if Kanye West is a genius or not. I’m not sure it matters in the short term, either. He’ll live on in one way or the other, and he can go on for a long time as far as I’m concerned.

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