Kanye is both product and critic of our time.
Pulling off the I-405 N and dipping down into Westwood where we’re staying for the weekend, I look up through the evening sky at the Hollywood sign and think about our messiah sitting up there, watching over us. Kimye’s home is located in Hidden Hills, a gated community in the San Fernando Valley. Its celebrity residents provide the ideal context for the century’s poster-child celebrity couple, and its altitude and longitude situate Kanye West perfectly above and apart from an adoring, or frowning, world. Even though I can’t see him, I feel his presence.
Kanye is an example of all that is problematic and yet necessary in contemporary art. Sure, he is a product of our individualistic society and a proprietor of the cult of celebrity, but he is also their victim and critic.
With The Life of Pablo aftermath well under way, it’s a good time to meet with the “greatest living rock star on the planet” on his own terms. Definitely, Kanye sets himself up for public scrutiny and by no means can you narrow him down to the records alone (er, hello, Yeezy Season 3 over here) — just kidding, I don’t have a spare $500 for a pair of shoes. However, to avoid generalizing, I’mma let you finish, Kanye, by going straight into looking at the music itself.
Photo by Kevin Mazur via WireImage.
Pablo is classic Kanye and is an important contemporary record for one simple reason: it’s sample-based. Cue angry old people shouting at trains that it isn’t really music and he’s stealing or that he, not Beck (who actually plays instruments, jeez), doesn’t “respect artistry.” Like it or not, sampling has been a dominant form of creativity since, well (drumroll), forever. Even the likes of Shakespeare lifted sections from other texts. It’s a type of reference: the listener is asked to connect different moments in time and space, observing their shared concerns of love, loss and struggle, and learning from the lessons of the past.
Two halves of a whole, “Father Stretch out My Hands Pts. 1 & 2” are great examples of the diverse sources Kanye collages into his own voice. These Pablo openers juxtapose ’70s gospel artist Pastor T.L. Barrett with verses from contemporaries Kid Cudi and Desiigner, an aside by downcast trapstar Future and a laconic outro by Pulitzer winner Caroline Shaw. They join West’s parents’ era with his own as each voice expresses some sense of seeking purpose. For the former it’s God or religion, and for the latter it’s material wealth (hence Desiigner’s “Panda” sample, a track which centers around, and I’m not making this up, the image of the BMW X6 resembling, you guessed it, a panda bear).
These tracks embody the album’s conflict between sourcing one’s self-worth from either objects or relationships. West’s lyrics lament selfishness and its impact on family — “same problem my father had… People get divorced for that” — and reflect on the tunnel vision often involved in pursuing your personal goals and how materialistic they can become: “all he had, in what he dreamed, all his cash.”
Correspondingly, Barrett’s repeated “you’re the only power” lyric and the track’s title gesture at the idea of submitting oneself to something bigger than you, overcoming pride. The songs prefigure the record’s ability to juggle opposites — selfishness and selflessness, individualism and communalism, minimalism and maximalism — without necessarily choosing one, simply posing the questions. Shaw’s finale: “How do I find you? Who do I turn to? How can I bind you?” supports this and completes the sense of West relentlessly seeking value and validation.
Dr. Donda C. (Williams) West and son Kanye, 2004. Photo by Frank Micelotta via Getty Images.
Whatever you may say of his self-obsession, the album’s egotism is accompanied by a kleptomaniacal level of collaboration. So maybe he’s narcissistic, but he’s no control freak, nor is he delusional enough to think he can take on the world alone. Ye’s selection of cowriters communicates a desire to pair the scrutiny he directs at himself with the guidance of other artists, turning the record’s focus outward.
Pablo is a searching, intentionally unfinished record whose experimentation and collaborative effort speak as much to the neurosis as to the egomania of its protagonist. Maybe you’d opt for another term like introspection or self-awareness, and I’d agree with you that it’s not as simple as “Kanye is this” or “Kanye is that,” but however you want to qualify his navel-gazing, it’s there. “Pts.1 & 2” include Ye’s hook: “I just want to feel liberated”; in “Low Lights” he claims “it feels so good to be free, to be accepted for who you are and loved no matter what”; “FML” contains the line “only I can mention me”; and, best of all, there’s the track “I Love Kanye.” What’s interesting to note, though, is the focus is less on his greatness than on a desire to feel in control of who he is. He’s caught between seeing the source of “liberation” in people or in things and is at once emancipated and enslaved by his own “power.”
Opening night at The Life of Pablo concert. Photo by Jamie McCarthy via Getty Images.
In an era of the gif, the meme and the 140-character political commentary, this allusive collage looks the internet age in the face and asks which way is forward. Its messiness is indicative of the many and often conflicting ways that our everything all of the time culture has resulted in as many problems as solutions. West, the man, shares this yin-yang duality: one moment “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”; the next, an apology. One moment he’s denouncing corporate power in Yeezus’s “New Slaves”; the next, signing a deal with Adidas. The music and the maker have precedents in one another, but really the latter does a worse job of what the records actually execute fairly well: mapping the dynamism, immediacy and excess of our time. Capable of knee-jerk emotional outbursts that a record, by nature, is not, West is as antagonistic as the best Reddit troll and fuels celebrity scandal like dinosaurs do Ferraris.
The man’s contradictory nature, however, can actually tell us as much about where we’re at as the music does, just with less intention. We live in a time when only a strong voice is heard, but the strongest voices often come from a false idea of the individual as the be-all and end-all of the world’s problems — as if the kids in Africa’s schools aren’t a solution because they’re not producing Turbo Grafx 16. West’s point, in the Zuckerberg tweet incident, was that the Silicon Valley CEOs were making hollow gestures and could cut to the chase by funding “real artists,” i.e. West. Trouble is, even if you agree, it points to Kanye’s trademark mistake: though driven by a sincere belief in the social benefit of art, Kanye is prone to thinking his judgment is final, his enterprise is singularly valuable, and anyone else is just a false “profit.” Maybe this size of I/me/my is necessary in a world so oversaturated with opinions, but it can also feel like someone who unconditionally treats their personal goals as synonymous to society’s, or is simply afraid of the spotlight moving off them. It’s like a clown who, for all their ability to show us our shortcomings, feels forced to perform because they fear that, no longer watched, they’ll disappear for good.