Article/artwork by David D. Robbins Jr.
Their Bated Breath
Sometimes it’s tough for music fans to decide if Kanye West is a genius or a hyped-up half-hack. You can count me a fan of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, a record showcasing both West’s grandeur and his colossal insecurities. It’s difficult to say this about an artist that’s sold over 30 million digital copies of songs, in a genre where boasting is king, but it has to be hard being West. He’s always forced to try to outdo himself, invent the next act — not too much different than David Bowie, Madonna, and other mega-musical shape-shifters before him. On Friday, in a building-sized marketing campaign, West streamed the new music video for “New Slaves” on the sides of 66 buildings around the world’s major cities. He’s most certainly aware of the irony of ambitiously selling his next record by demanding he’s in no way for sale. Or is he? So what exactly makes West the reigning superstar of music, able to scale tall buildings with a single projection? He might be the first to admit he can’t rap as well as Tupac, Ice Cube, Biggie, or even Slick Rick. Or that there are other musicians who make better music. Even his current marketing campaign concept has been done before and bigger. (I’d seen a group jump a digital rabbit from building to building in a major downtown, projecting it from a moving van a few years back.) But so what, right? Maybe he’s just good enough. Let me start by saying West is a medium-is-the-message kind of artist. And I don’t say that pejoratively. His style is a marvel to some, maddening to others.
But no one seems to combine music, spectacle, performance, the art world, fashion and media better than he does. West’s music doesn’t exist by itself. It’s symbiotic to that big package filled with things as incongruous as Prada, religion, marathon shows, blackness, and a mercurial personality. In a way, being strong in the medium aspect can veil his weaker message elements. For example, if you don’t like the new song “New Slaves”, you’ll more than likely be impressed by the sheer scale of its presentation. I’ve only purchased one West album (“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t an interesting character to me. Just listen to his music and you’ll hear how complicated and contradictory he is. It took me awhile to admire some of West’s gifts, and I still remember the exact moment. No, it wasn’t the powerhouse trifecta “The College Dropout / Late Registration / Graduation”, with its spin on collegiate life, economics and culture. But it did set the stage. Who wouldn’t bend an ear to a sound filtered through a giant ego, where Louis Vitton is religion, and music can be medicine as well as protestation? For me, the moment of realization came late, partly while watching his incredibly-spirited Coachella 2011 show, but mostly when I watched the 30-minute plus video for “Runaway”. It’s artistic, bizarre, fascinating, metaphoric (in a West-world kind of way), and epic. My favorite part is when the Common-esque female soul harmonies fall silent (12:57 in the video) in “Devil In a New Dress” and we see West and a set of well-dressed friends eating at a table in a warehouse, when a dinner guest turns to him and asks, “Your girlfriend is really beautiful. Do you know she’s a bird?” West responds, “Thank you. I never noticed that.” Then he walks over to a piano and plays some echoing, beautiful off-key chords (the beginning of “Runaway”), which are further offset by elegantly choreographed ballerinas and the introduction of a heavy bass beat. It’s wonderful stuff really.
Judging by the comments I’ve read on Twitter and on YouTube about the new songs, his fans are saying the early Kanye is back, minimizing the chatter about Lambo Mercys and Perrierin’. Well, sorta. “New Slaves” is angry and spitting, laying claim to African-American disenfranchisement right from the opening lyric: “My momma was raised in an era when clean water was only served to the fairer skin / Doing clothes you would have thought I had help / But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself / You see it’s broke-nigga racism that’s that, ‘Don’t touch anything in the store’ / And this rich nigga-racism that’s that ‘Come here, please buy more’ / What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain? / All you blacks want all the same things / Used to only be niggas, now everybody playing / Spending everything on Alexander Wang / New slaves.”
His second released single, “Black Skinhead”, also touches on race, with West exalting in the love of white fans, while still creating a harsh distance: “You see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong / Middle America packed in / Came to see me in my black skin.” There’s a lot of contradiction here. But it wouldn’t be West’s music without it. Is West saying it used to be whites that were greedy racists, now everybody wants a piece? Is he dissing a slavish consumer-culture, while also feeling envious his blackness still keeps him separate from the real old-school U.S. wealth? “New Slaves” finds Yeezy tossing out familiar high-end lyricism about a Maybach, the Hamptons (which receives the venom of some of his wilder end-rhymed verses), and a character (Bobby Boucher) from an Adam Sandler’s film, “The Waterboy”. Or maybe it’s just more irony, that the ghetto boy locked up courtesy of the CCA is thinking about a Maybach ride as much as privileged girl from Beverly Hills. “New Slaves” may not be great music, but it is provocative, if not strange, ending on a completely unconnected high-falsetto outro by Frank Ocean. There are some wonderfully incensed lyrics, accented with ominous electronics — but in West fashion there are some dud verses too: There’s hardly anything clever about a line like, “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.” Say what you will about West’s talent or the actual music underneath the veneer of everything glittery and Gucci — but he is intriguing. I can respect provocation, as long as it’s part of a message. However, as far as singles go, I prefer a “toast to the douchebags” to “smashin’ reporters’ recorders” because it shows a sense of humor with an honest touch of self-deprecation — but I still look forward to hearing new West music.