Tag Archives: theory

What the hell happened Saturday? – Pt. 2: Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, Chance’s better angels, and Kendrick’s Grammy performance

This thinkpiece1 is the second of a tryptic of posts trying to wrap my head around what happened Saturday. Quick recap: The night started out with a GOP Debate that was clearly written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. During this time, the greatest NBA Slam Dunk competition in the history of ever happened (and by extension, the best overall mini-games day of All-Star Weekend in recent memory). Then, Chance the Rapper killed Saturday Night Live—like I-was-transported-to-an-otherworldly-church killed—presaging the release of Kanye West’s latest album, which is singularly the most erratic, momentarily brilliant filament of platinum I’ve consumed in a long time. Needless to say, I stayed up late trying to make sense of it all. I’m still digesting.

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“What if Kanye made a song, about Kanye?

Called “I Miss the Old Kanye,” man that would be so Kanye” – Kanye West, “I Love Kanye”

“[T]he mind of the mature poet differs from that of the immature one not precisely in any valuation of “personality,” not being necessarily more interesting, or having “more to say,” but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations…The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the [oxygen and sulfur dioxide] are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. – TS Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”

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Of course the tragedy that is Kanye West would ensure that The Life of Pablo was always going to be disappointing, but fortunately, Kanye brought Chance the Rapper with him on SNL, lifting him and us up to new heights. TLOP has proven to be a decent album peppered with near-genius production, largely held up by a simulacra of emotional and intellectual depth that ultimately kept it coming up short and out of water.

Produced by any other hip hop artist, TLOP would be a fine work worthy of much praise. But Kanye is not merely another hip hop artist. Kanye is influential. Kanye is genre-defining. Kanye is enigmatic as hell, and Kanye, through Kanye’s sheer force of will, changed hip hop.

Kanye spends most of his time waxing about how Kanye is all these things.

I think I’m over Kanye.2

Alas, Kanye wasn’t the only thing to happen to hip hop since Saturday. The Grammy’s came and went. They weren’t the train wreck the Oscars3 were. Still stifled by its own injustices, we at least got to witness Kendrick Lamar perform one for the ages and hopefully the first of many cute, clever way to take shots at Kanye.

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I miss the old Kanye,

Straight from the go Kanye

Perhaps more than any other rapper since the turn of the century, the experience of listening to Kanye’s music matters. I remember a 15-year-old me falling onto my pillow with Late Registration pumping through the lightweight headphones of a JVC CD player. I spent the months after college playing pickup in the heat of a summer sun, blasting Yeezus to the displeasure of unsuspecting straight-laced park patrons.

Kanye was all about experiences back then too—even when his albums became more self-centered.4 Kanye didn’t just care about the experience of struggling and ultimately failing to keep a promise to his mother or the experience of turning that failure into an advantage or the experience of imposing your identity politics on a world so shockingly prepared to embrace you. He cared about the experience of listening to his story; old Ye wanted to make sure you heard yourself in him.

Ya. I miss the old Kanye. I miss the catalyst and product Kanye, the platinum and acid Kanye. I miss the “more finely perfected medium” Kanye.

I miss the old Kanye who cared about the people around him—not because he was a philanthropist or represented the struggle—but because that was his pallet, the subject matter he rapped about. For old Kanye, those stories mattered, and he was giving them voice. Kanye’s focus on fashion, and most recently, tech, has come to consume him. As a result, his singular vision—centered on what Kanye can do, what Kanye should do—has replaced what was truly remarkable about him in the first place.

Finally listening to TLOP after midnight, in the wee hours of Valentine’s Day, was unremarkable and flat. The album was supposed to drop Feb 11 after his fashion show. He added six new tracks though—in large part thanks to Chance. Fine. This pushed the release date to the 12th. Which meant I spent the day periodically checking his website, Twitter, Tidal5 to no avail.

Then somewhere on one of my timelines, the SNL performance popped up:

 

First impressions are dangerous. I kept asking myself, What the hell, Kanye? This is what you made me wait for? This is what you’ve been perfecting? But then the whole tone and texture of the performance changed when the other voices came in—the choir, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Chance the Rapper—to lift him and the rest of us all up somewhere we’ve never been.

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I hate the new Kanye

It’s not the misogyny in the music, the bumbled release, or the sheer hubris it takes to say and believe “I am a God.”6 It’s not even the pre-pubescent lack of focus, which is, in large part responsible for the expansiveness and underlying disorder of TLOP. I don’t care that his words aren’t saying anything we haven’t heard before. 7 At least he’s saying enough to not tank the whole damn production.

   West excels at bringing people and styles together and assembling them in uncanny ways.

If there is brilliance in this latest iteration of Ye, it’s that TLOP is his first real synthesis. Each project before was distinct in its style8 and for the first time, he pulls together those influences in a single album. TLOP is a good album—an A-/B+ by Ye’s standards.9 He even captures and expands on the syllabic tripling made popular by Migos and now Future to set a pace which largely been unheard to this point.

What’s most striking about this Kanye project is that Kanye is at his best when Kanye’s not at the center. It’s no coincidence that the best parts of TLOP are when Kanye’s not rapping.10 West excels at bringing people and styles together and assembling them in uncanny ways. TLOP is the ultimate manifestation of this skill. Only Kanye could so convincingly tie the myriad of loose ends that are the samples, features, bloops and bleeps of his latest album into something semi-lucid enough to be considered whole. Kanye as composer. Kanye as fulcrum. Kanye as medium.

If that proved to be Ye’s legacy from here on out, that would be enough to crown him GOAT. If he remained the catalyst that pulled these previously disparate voices together, he’d be platinum for life. Think about the opportunity to continually influence the next wave of rappers and producers and then bringing them onto the next project to influence the next cadre of hip hop artists. Kanye’s own personal self-fulfilling echo chamber. What irony is this that the lack of Kanye’s presence could amplify Kanye’s impact.

He’ll never figure this out though. Tragic Kanye continues to hold GOAT Kanye back.

More insidious than anything is the work Kanye’s done to mar the window into Kanye’s creative process—a perspective I am always grateful for across any genre.11 Kanye, by being Kanye, has ruined Kanye’s music for so many who would otherwise adore Kanye and Kanye’s music, and that sad-ass fact is starting to impact my own perception of Kanye’s music12

There’s an established school of thinking in art and literary criticism that says any work is and should be independent from the biographical information of the artist. I wholly abide by this. We are all creatures of consumption, and if we had to question the morality, judgement, and character of every author of the things we consume, the whole world’s economy would seize into paralysis. I hate that Kanye makes me want to abjectly reject such a fundamental theory that’s underpinned my whole conception of art—largely on the weight of disgust. It’s not the type of questioning of assumptions Kanye should be proud of.

Kanye needs a break from Kanye—at least a breather or a step back.

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See I invented Kanye.

It wasn’t any Kanyes.

Now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes

“Ultralight Beams” is one of Kanye’s rare gems that rely on heavily on pace and layers.13 This is in large part due to all the features. Even the song title foreshadows the ambivalence between utter lack of substance and beam-me-up-Scotty transcendence. Which makes sense if you accept UB as a conversation with and within church. Within communion and congregation, in song or in practice, you accept the range of voices from the small-minded to the stoic to the soaring. This is in-the-room music for every room.

When they come for you, I will shield your name.

I will field their questions. I will feel your pain.

They don’t— they don’t know.

They don’t know. (Chano on 79th)

It’s no coincidence either that UB features more artists than any other track on TLOP. Each new voice represents an incremental tonal shift that traces the arc of rapture. First, Kanye’s trepidation as his “dream” falls out of pitch. Then enter The-Dream’s quiet restraint that sets the foundation for Kelly Price’s flight to a higher plane. And of course mid-air, Chance swoops in to reframe the very thing you were listening to, plucking these wings made for flight, pointing out you’ve been swimming this whole time.

Chance, who’s spent his entire waking life looking up to Kanye, casts his Lot with Genesis, imagining himself a righteous man of God. Generations above Jesus, he skips across the surface of genealogy like it ain’t no thing in the service of a lighthearted pun, a sincere dig at young love.14

I’m just having fun with it.

You know that a nigga was lost,

I laugh in my head because I bet that my ex lookin back like a pillar of salt.

Ughhhhh. (Chano on 79th)

In rhyme, rhythm and spirit, this 22-year old layers remarkable resonances until they falls back on themselves. A cascading kaleidoscope of shimmering light playing with our ears, signaling something about the way we listen: texture.

If you don’t like Kanye’s music, it’s easy to gloss over Kanye, to make Kanye the butt of every joke, and ignore Kanye’s hold on young minds.

In the shadow of Price’s reassurance, “that you’ll take good care of your child…we look to the light.” Enter Chance the Ultralight Beam. Throughout his verse, Chano reflects and imbues his relationship with a higher spirit with the love of daughter. At once, he is both father15 and child,16 teacher17 and student,18 at home19 and abroad.20 and the rest of him freewheeling into the present,21 Chance finds himself at liberty, squarely in the tradition of crafting new combinations. South side of Chicago folk hero Kanye West sets the stage for Chance—literally, in the case of the SNL performance. When Chano stops rhyming in the middle of the song, he insists that it’s his time to speak. He takes, occupies, and fills up the space Kanye once held while the old head looks on, smiling and struck by the spirit.

If you don’t like Kanye’s music, it’s easy to gloss over Kanye, to make Kanye the butt of every joke,22 and ignore Kanye’s hold on young minds.

One of hip hop’s loudest voices in 2016 croons in full-throated invocation of a higher power—full of rainbows and gosh darns, awe and power, soda fountain musicals and grand mama’s hands.

Ya, for sure, I love Chano like Kanye loves Kanye.

Every Chano cut pushes forward the boundaries of hip hop, this thing that we always thought we knew so well. He indulges fully—an approach ripped straight from his predecessors23—his better angels. And for that,24 we owe a great debt to Kanye.

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Still no one likes jazz rap

Kendrick Lamar gave a Grammy performance for the ages on Monday night. In nine minutes he compressed the sweeping expression of modern black culture that is To Pimp a Butterfly. He even added an air of theatrical plot development—yet another genre-bending move worthy of music’s highest honor.

The performance was painful, celebratory, and relentless.

It stole the coming days’ conversation but the Grammy voters stole his award.

After all, no hip-hop song has won record or song of the year at the Grammy’s. Only two hip hop artists have ever won Album of the Year, and one them beat out none other than your boy Kendrick. The institutional racism that uses a Kdot performance to boost ratings and credibility while denying him it’s top honor for a universally acclaimed album that skewers institutional racism among other things is an irony I cannot bear.

Taylor Swift is nice, happy, and marketable. I wish her all the commercial success in the world.25 I also wish her a fierce rebellious phase that rejects the comforts she’s been afforded.26 I wish the self-awareness and courage to recognize and publicly address that she wasn’t the underdog this time, probably wasn’t really ever27 and won’t be anytime soon.

I’d like to scream into the wind and whip up a fervor. I’d like to foam at the mouth. I’d like to disabuse ourselves of this duplicitous notion that the Grammy’s are about high art and not the safe, commercially successful alternative. But I’ll save it for next year when Kendrick loses AOY to the next Adam Levine.