Monthly Archives: May 2008

Kanye West: Rock Star, Hipster, Rainbow Brite, Anime, Avril-Lite?

[Originally published @ Birdseed Shirt, 29/05/2008]

I wrote the following think piece a week or so ago and was going to tinker with it before posting it, after showing it to a few people, but I haven’t found the time, so I’ll leave it as it stands for now. At some point I’ll adapt this to a MUCH shorter form as one of the test articles to pitch to Leah and Max for that Daily column…

“The meteor shower wasn’t enough. If we want to restart the ship, we’re going to need the biggest star in the universe!” This is the culminating moment of Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark Tour, and the moment it became clear that Kanye is the latest, and quite possibly the first, rap artist to transition into the role of POP STAR. West’s set was an elaborate (and nonsensical) stage show, consisting of ‘Ye traveling through space with his computer Jane (shades of Ender’s Game, perhaps?). Kanye crashes on a planet and the ship breaks. He sings. Aliens show up and try to fix the ship, but don’t have enough power. The aliens realize that Kanye is the BIGGEST STAR IN THE UNIVERSE and can power his own spaceship all the way back to earth. In the interim: “Jane, I haven’t had a woman in SO LONG. I need some pussy!” “Maybe I can help you with that.” “How can you help me? You’re nothing but a stupid broken spaceship that won’t fly” Cue holographic Gold Woman Cyborg thing. Cue Gold Digger. Kanye has sex with a hologram. Kanye dreams about his mom. The ghost of Rihanna sings Don’t Stop Believin’. Kanye goes home. The End.

Throughout the entire show, Kanye remains the sole person on stage, the sole centre of attention, bathed in light and synths and sound, larger than life, lonely, exuberant, and eager to please. Hip-hop shows, more often than not, lean towards a block party vibe, emphasizing a sense of community and connection with the audience. Frank Kogan characterizes this as a standard aspect of black music from church through to funk in his book Real Punks Don’t Wear Black: “the audience is part of the form of the music, the structure; no audience, and the call gets no response.” In the fall, Talib Kweli opened his shows with a DJ spinning a set of ‘classic’ hip-hop, vocals dropping out frequently, allowing the audience to take over. Montreal, London, Washington, might not be Kweli’s native Brooklyn, but membership in the community of hip-hop is established via knowledge of the past. Halfway through the show he brings Jean Grae on-stage to join him for a song and do three of her own. Dizzee Rascal trades lines back and forth with his hype man. Kanye stands on stage solitary and unreachable, the self-proclaimed biggest star in the universe, and thus (supposedly) unassailable and unable to connect with anyone else.

The College Dropout is a classic because it epitomizes hip-hop and bridges the gap between its disparate factions and false dichotomies. Kanye brags that he’s “the first nigga with a Benz and a backpack”, able to “take Freeway, throw him on tracks with Mos Def / call him Kwa-li or Kwe-li, I put him on songs with Jay-Z.” Packed to the gills with guest appearances, from the people who gave ‘Ye a leg up to those to whom he’s paying it forward. From political screeds about education and AIDS to sex jams to braggadaccio to family dinners, The College Dropout feels detailed, lived in, real and warm, using soul samples and bringing them into the hip-hop template. Kanye feels like a multifaceted, real person. Kanye’s fears and neuroses aren’t poverty or violence, but respect and relationships. Respect from critics, respect from his family, respect from his peers and respect from the world at large. Success is relative to the perception and expectations of others. “Ain’t nobody expected Kanye to end up on top / they expected that college dropout to drop and then flop.” Not look at my money (which he already had made as a producer). Not look at my popularity. Not look at my attitude. Not look at my strength or my gun. But this: I defied your expectations: love me!

Ambition groundless, the next album is the first indication that Kanye wants to ‘transcend’, to be more than just a rap star. In Renegade, Jay-Z, the only other rap artist who has so consistently crossed-over into the popular culture, “penetrate[s] pop culture / bring[ing] ‘em a lot closer to the block.” He recruits Lil Orphan Annie and makes her sing a Ghetto Anthem. Kanye wants to break out of the ghetto. Bringing in Jon Brion to decorate the album with strings and marimba, Late Registration aimed for critical respect, stretching out songs to 8 minutes plus, layering them with musical intricacy and multiple levels of meaning. While Late Registration keeps the soul and jazz samples that are the bread and butter of New York rap production, the samples begin to dominate the songs, functioning as the chorus (Gold Digger, Gone), or overwhelming the verses (Touch the Sky) and almost always providing the fundamental structure and tone of songs. And Kanye spends both the album’s lead single and much of the album self-consciously defending his own extravagance and public behaviour, dedicating an entire track to haters, Bring Me Down. His social conscience is muted and usually in service of illustrating his inner conflicts, rather than vice versa, and his two ‘family’ songs Roses and Hey Mama are as much about him as they are about others, in contrast to Family Business.

By Graduation, Kanye’s abandoned guests raps on all but one track, eliminated all traces of skits (which can be tiresome, but can also be funny and are a staple of rap albums) and pared album length down to 13 tracks (from his previous albums’ 20+). Gone too are Kanye’s lyrical specificities. Kanye’s self-obsession proved fascinating on his first two albums in part due to their detail. Intricate stories that previously sketched complete pictures of internal conflicts, tensions between religion, family, success, and politics are replaced with Dr. Phil-ish platitudes about YOU. Any discussion of “I” is characterized by the obnoxiousness that had previously existed only in exaggerated caricatures of Kanye. The music reflects this. Viz. the musical backdrop, a friend noted that Kanye:

“is the first proper big hip-hop act (who’s come up via the trad hip-hop route, unlike eg MIA) to treat other genres in an indie kind of way though – ie whereas hip-hop traditionally subsumes other genres into itself and makes them wholly hip-hop, as opposed to rock or bhangra or whatever, Kanye’s all about trying to dress up in their clothes, trying to be them except not too much.”

The pre-release mixtape Can’t Tell Me Nothing looped Peter Bjorn & John’s ‘Young Folks’ and turned the whistling into not just a hook, but the melody of the whole song. ‘Stronger’ doesn’t incorporate a sample of Daft Punk and transform it. It rides the sample for the whole song and turns rap into French house, pulling the opposite trick that Jay does in Big Pimpin’ or Hard Knock Life. Dizzee’s opening salvo on Maths + English might be “there’s a world outside of the ghetto and I want you to see it,” but Kanye doesn’t bother stating it, but instead just kidnaps you and takes you there. I’d argue that this impulse might be “indie” but is also very pop. Nonethelesss, he loses something in the process. The entire album is built for world conquering. Swathed in synths and designed to be played in stadiums, songs off Graduation are initially as subtle as being hit in the head with a brick, or drinking a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. The best example of the result is Homecoming. Home, the earlier version of Homecoming with John Legend (from College Dropout era mixtapes), rides a bittersweet soul sample mourning fallen comrades that’s ambivalent about Kanye having left his community to pursue his dreams, begging “never leave me alone…I’ll be coming home.” Two albums later, the song has become Kanye’s triumphant return to a Windy (Wendy) City that hasn’t always appreciated his greatness (should he even show up to this fake shit?). This generalism and self-caricaturisation might seem grotesque to those of us who fell for the aw-shucks self-deprecating Kanye of the first album, but the transmutation is a necessary bit of alchemy that morphs Kanye into a pop star. Or at least tries to.

Kanye wants absolute respect, but also love. To be an undeniable fact of pop life, unassailable from critics, haters, or fans. The problem is, no matter how successful he is, he can’t quite shake his eagerness to please, and his fear that he hasn’t. I’m not sure if this makes him a better pop star, or if the hollowness behind the “Fuck you!” prevents him from becoming one, but it certainly makes him a more interesting larger-than-life figure. With the detailed introspection and intelligence removed from his lyrics in pursuit of broad-based relatability, Kanye’s insecurities have taken over his public persona. The last fifteen minutes of the Montreal concert were dedicated to a rant about a bad review an earlier concert got from a music magazine.

Kanye’s response? “FUCK YOU! You think you can review something without emotion, when I made it with emotion? This isn’t a term paper. I made this with emotion and you can’t tell me it’s not perfect!” Pleading with the audience to reaffirm his value, stressing that “artists have feelings,” even when they’re successful. Made with emotion. Miles from Jay’s response, which posits his work as addressing concerns of the ghetto and its inhabitants, pretending to make no claims to Kanye’s ambition, declaring himself indifferent to critical response: “how you rate music that thugs with nothing relate to it / I help them see their way through it / not you.” Jay’s “Fuck a critic” is punk, pushing away his pop audience, and simultaneously drawing them in, all the more attractive because he doesn’t need them. Pharoahe Monch “sold wood in the hood” while “you sold platinum ‘round the world…but when [he’s] in the street, then shit is all good.” Broad-based popular acceptance is not only absent, but less important than the respect of the hip-hop community. And if popular acceptance and success leads to critical derision, well, as Jay says:

Rap critics they say he’s “Money Cash Hoes”
I’m from the hood stupid, what type of facts are those
If you grew up with holes in ya zapatos
You’d be celebrating the minute you was havin’ dough

Jay’s aspirational. Success is money and money is success. If critics don’t like it, at the very least they can’t knock the hustle.

But Kanye wants to be a pop star AND a rock star AND a rap star AND a hipster. He wants everyone to know his songs, but he wants them to fuck off, but he can’t tell them to fuck off because they need to love him. He wants love from Pitchfork and hangs with Kid Sister and listens to Young Folks. His favourite part of the Grammies is taking pictures with Feist (!) and posting them on his blog. He wants respect from the hip-hop community, significant portions of which still see him as a mediocre rapper. He wants critical acclaim and acknowledgement of his genius; he craves it. But he also wants to tell them to fuck off so they can love him. The problem is he can’t make up his mind. So Kanye’s critical fuck off comes off as an overachieving teacher’s pet begging for a cookie. (I’m halfway through Real Punks and Frank might say that I hate this about him because it reminds me of myself, and he’d probably be right.) Nonetheless, his desperation is ridiculous and unnecessary. How much did we pay for even the worst seats in the house? Yeah. I thought so. How much are you making every night of this tour? Thought so. How many people are here cheering for you? Exactly. And you want my pity? You can call him crazy, but as you’ll learn from the free Kanye-penned self-help book handed out after the show, “crazy is a label that the average put on the exceptional.” Exactly.

Addition: Maybe I should be distinguishing between pop star and um…icon’s not the right word either, but maybe it’s more descriptive of what Kanye is shooting for. The key for me is he’s not simply transfering genre but making some kind of an attempt to transcend genre, and I suppose in this case when I’ve been saying “pop” I don’t just mean the pop charts or songs your mother knows (although that might be closer) but instead POP the all-encompassing cultural behemoth. Or something.

The key attribute of how Kanye seems to see pop stardom and thus how I’ve been reading it is “the biggest star in the universe”. An undeniable fact. A singularity in the pop universe. A force of gravity that pulls in all aspects of pop music while remaining itself. Does that make Kanye a musical black hole? Don’t know.

Also for your reading pleasure, platitudes from Kanye West Presents: Thank You and You’re Welcome, his self-help/advice book:

Know Your Worth

Get Used to Getting Used (to “mis” “over” or “ab” use someone is negative. to use if necessary and if you can’t be used you’re useless)

If Everybody Thinks It’s Right…You’re Doing Something Wrong!

Believe in your FLYNESS…conquer your shyness

Sometimes when I see a bad performance and people still clap I wonder if they’re clapping because they liked what they saw or because they’re happy it’s over?

When I see people with messed-up teeth, I want to be that one person who tells them the truth like the kids told me, “Your teeth are big and white like a horse!”