Citizen Kanye

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We must begin with the simplest of thoughts.  No matter how you view Kanye West, we all have our own criteria, conscious and subconscious, that makes music either good or bad.  One of my favorite pieces of musical advice came from The Fiery Furnaces’ frontman, Matthew Friedberger, who told me music would always be extremely special to the individual because we all go into an album, song, or live performance with a unique idea of what we’re looking for.  It’s in this notion that I present my first frustration surrounding the Yeezus discourse.  Those who dislike the album aren’t “haters” or trying to be controversial.  Rather, the artistic document simply didn’t fit their individual criteria for quality music, criteria that they've developed with every listen and experience from their life.

To highlight this point, let’s take a look at my own relationship to music.  From an early age my artistic obsession was completely focused on film.  This obsession was rooted in storytelling and slowly morphed into a fascination with the form of telling a great story or making a great statement on a specific theme through the written word.  Knowing this, I can see how this has impacted what I find good or bad in music.  Combing through my favorite albums, the works I hold in high regard all feature strong lyrics that either communicate a fascinating narrative or approach a universal theme with a unique perspective.  This is my own personal criteria formed from my life experiences and the common debate over the opinion of an album typically downplays its importance. 

Which leads us right back to Yeezus.  I love this album.  I hate this album.  West has presented me one of the most complicated listens in recent memory, one that perfectly highlights both my positive and negative criteria for an album.  Every track, I find myself captivated and emotionally struck by the backing music and West’s infectious passion, but right as I’m about to fully let the song take me over, West violates every inch of what I hold in high regard in music, the lyrics.  Song after song, West throws out horrible joke lines, historical inaccuracies, and misogyny.  He rhymes the same word with the same word.  He approaches multiple themes without ever settling down and giving them the proper inspection they deserve. 

West isn’t the only one guilty of these lyrical faults, but very few others are considered geniuses and given the artistic accolades he has received.  I want to make it very clear that my obsession with lyrics is my personal problem and explains why I’ve never been able to hold any of West’s works in the high regard most of my peers do.  But, the juxtaposition of these lyrics with West's supposed genius leads me to the point of this piece, and it’s actually a question for West supporters: “Why don’t you demand more from Kanye West?”  This sounds like a crazy request considering that West, even to his biggest detractor, puts his full self into his craft and constantly pushes sonic boundaries, from his immaculately produced My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy  to the bold, risky 808s & Heartbreak, and now with Yeezus.  How could anyone request more from someone who tries as hard as West?

The answer is right there in Yeezus.  Let’s start with “New Slaves.”  The song opens with a wonderful comparison and analysis of the oppression of West’s mother in the past and the new form it takes in modern consumerism.  West has set the listener up for a thoughtful song with an amazing backing beat... you start to feel as if this is a song that can change the world.  Then, just as the brilliance is starting to build, West tears it all down with a few blowjob jokes and a downright idiotic reference to Adam Sandler’s character in The Waterboy.  WHY?  Why does West seem to sabotage his own abilities?  Why don't his fans hold him accountable for it?  Finally, what other genius would do something as patently stupid as using a fluff comedy like The Waterboy as a reference in a song that comes close to approaching an honest, interesting take on a contemporary issue?

The biggest frustration is developed by West himself, who references the Abel Meeropol poem turned Billie Holiday song, “Strange Fruit” both in “New Slaves” with the line “Blood on the leaves” and as a sample on the track with the same title.  Obviously the written words in the poem and the intensity in which Nina Simone uses in her cover of “Strange Fruit” struck something in West.  The poem reads:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

It’s a devastatingly important poem, and both Holiday and Simone bring the pain out of the words.  Why then, with the ability to recognize such high art, does West insist on dragging his own down throughout Yeezus with barely sophomoric lyrics smashed against an exploration of hard to tackle themes?  More importantly, why isn’t even his most devoted fan pointing this out as a negative?  The answer is, they do… but it’s with a shrug and a move on to West’s strengths or the common practice of defection by projection.  From Pitchfork, “Without much room for levity, Kanye's complicated and distrustful view of women is unrelenting on Yeezus. And while there's no real excuse for flat oafishness like "eatin' Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce," many of the album's most powerful moments have him broken down, insecure, and bloody, railing against an ineptitude with the opposite sex.” 

This leads us closer to an answer.  Those who can easily ignore or spin the lyrical content that bothers West’s detractors are constantly framing such as Kanye being Kanye.  For them, Kanye dealing with the complexities and complications of Kanye is interesting, and thus makes any slips an artistic comment on the flaws of the artist himself.  It’s a non-debatable fail-safe for West’s supporters, and a mute button for them to use against anyone who finds such lyrics as worthy of serious criticism.  The biggest problem with this positive claim is an easy comparison to Charles Foster Kane from Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane.  Kane is a heavily flawed character whose own ego ultimately prevents himself from true happiness in the form of any type of love.  The character isn’t supposed to be admired, but, like the film itself, which stands as a cautionary tale about what's truly important in life, he's brilliantly crafted.  He isn't a genius, but the creator of this flawed character, Orson Wells, most certainly was.

Now we have the answer to the ultimate division between West supporters and detractors.  Is West Kane or Wells, or is he both?  Most importantly, does the creator understand the hubris that prevents his character from succeeding?  This is where West - the actual person - has ruined any possibility of favor.  The context of who he is having a child with, the Taylor Swift interruption, and everything else is misplaced.  Keeping it strictly in the world of music, the question those who label West as a genius should ask is why the hell would a musical genius care enough to interrupt not one, but two MTV awards shows with such trivial and petty justification?  Why should West care about how many Grammy snubs he has?  This is the same artist being praised for releasing an album without a radio hit, for stripping down his packaging, and for railing against corporations.  The same hubris in West, the main character of his songs, exists in his real life choices and adds fuel to any detractor's debate that West isn’t self-aware enough to fit the positives his fans outline.

I’m not asking for anyone to stop liking Kanye West or to deny his genius in the eyes of millions.  What I am asking for is an understanding of both sides.  The opinions surrounding Yeezus (and, more importantly, music in general) are bigger than quantitative scores, worth more than tweeted one-liners.  They shouldn't be brushed off and shrugged aside.  They're subjective reactions to a piece of art, and they deserve more than a bullish, closed-minded response.  We all can only speak to our own opinion and if I’m to accept West as a genius, as one of the best musicians of our time, then a lyrical growth and a better understanding of the division between character and artist needs to take place.  If a West supporter doesn’t want to address these concerns or argue against them with evidence into fact, it’s still okay to admit them and illuminate your own listening habits.  I truly believe that the simple difference between myself and a Kanye West fan is the ability to shrug off immature lyrics.  I don't have it.  The great thing about music is that we’re all built to like and dislike music differently, neither is right, neither is wrong. 

5 comments:

  1. Zach, I think the key divide between you and a lot of people praising Kanye's lyrics is the notion that works of genius require cohesion and precision. From its astoundingly uncouth title to Kanye's transposing of language associated with black liberation onto unflinching misogyny, the intent of Yeezus is to offend, to be sacrilegious on a profound level. The obscene and demeaning sexual references and acts and the cringeworthy pop culture references aren't meant to bolster Kanye's (what I feel to be) genuine frustration at the ills of modern society. The purpose of the juvenile lyrical tangents is to show that despite being a deity and despite being a vocal opponent of racism and consumerism, Kanye is just as deplorable as what he identifies as evil. The culmination of the chaotic, cacophonous production, the impassioned screams against injustice, and the twisted egomania of Kanye as narrator is what makes Yeezus a resonant work.

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  2. To Anonymous above:

    First off, thank you so much for commenting with a very interesting perspective and engaging in the type of debate I plead for in the piece above.

    I think your point is true across all art forms. I'm a huge fan of the cinema of agitation and it seems to fit with what you commented. For me, the truly successful pieces in this category display self-awareness, which in my opinion is absent with West...which lead me to the Kanye as Kane or Welles question. It's one of those "in the ears of the listener" subjective moments where if you take it the way you did...then it's justified...if you take it the way I do...it isn't. But, once again, thanks for your well written comment and spending the time to read this long piece.

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  3. "West has set the listener up for a thoughtful song with an amazing backing beat... you start to feel as if this is a song that can change the world. Then, just as the brilliance is starting to build, West tears it all down with a few blowjob jokes and a downright idiotic reference to Adam Sandler’s character in The Waterboy. WHY?"

    My guess is that he is trying to illustrate a point about Duality Consciousness. I've noticed a lot of that in hiphop this year. Jay-Z explicitly mentions Duality in this new Magna Carta Holy Grail video. Look into it for yourself, just my assessment. /|\

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  4. I personally gravitate toward the second "Anonymous" comment, so thank you for that.

    This album is a big departure from his previous works. It's intentionally brash, harsh and vulgar. He's got something to say in all of these songs, and he's going to get his point across however he can.

    This article makes me think of Eminem, who to many - myself included - is considered a genius, as well. His lyrics tell incredibly intricate stories, most of which include hard subjects to communicate. And if anybody has been a target of criticism for their artwork, it's Eminem. His lyrics are straight CRUDE - they're disgusting, vulgar, violent and illustrative. Illustrative is the key word. Em paints the craziest pictures using his lyrics, and, in my opinion, Kanye doesn't even approach the level of offensiveness on Yeezus as Eminem has in the past.

    So, is it silly when you hear a line about Adam Sandler's The Waterboy? Sure. Do you shake your head when you hear Kanye talking about using sweet and sour sauce when going down on a girl? Of course. But that's Kanye's approach to telling whatever particular story he has to tell. Personally, it's nice and fun when he cuts his brutal lyrics with something you can relate to and quickly laugh about.

    Thanks, Zach, for your article. Nice to hear somebody approach an album with a challenging question (and comparison, in this case) as opposed to a straight review. Keep it up and I'll keep reading.

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