[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t is a truly American concept for an artist to be able to control, or even completely fabricate, his or her own narrative; to invent a life story, and then use art to give outsized exuberance to waking up every day and going to bed every night. For the art of rap, doubly so: every word, every phrase, every pose is all in service to tightening up a total package, a story about oneself that will captivate and yet still rhyme. So it is, for instance, with KANYE WEST: if one knew nothing but the lines in the songs, he a fantastically successful producer and artist who dove into the world of high-prestige living, indulging in everything and everyone he desired on the road to complete and utter fantabulism and self-glorification. By the time he released 2010’s aptlytitled My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he was, if one believes the rhymes, like Napoleon, crowning himself emperor as a throne room of admirers and supporters looked on cheering. It would then follow that this summer’s follow-up, the decadent and blown-out Yeezus, represents the spoils of conquest, mixing sexual gamesmanship with revolutionary zeal.
And lyrically, that’s exactly what’s on the page. But before getting into any lyrics sheet analysis, consider this: that this album, and the one before, actually represent a significant slide into oblivion for Kanye in terms of actual album sales and hit singles. If one takes a dispassionate look at the statistics, it is clear that West’s career, as a major label rap recording artist, peaked in 2007: flying high on the chart success of his third multi-platinum album, Graduation, West hit Number One in America with “Stronger”, a buoyant and crushing anthem set on top of a Daft Punk tune that, along with ‘Ye’s day-glow sunglasses look, captured the imagination of the minds and ears of a worldwide public. Two years earlier, West had a worldwide number one smash with “Gold Digger,” the kind of ubiquitous monster hit that everyone knows and sings at work karaoke parties. His 2004 debut album, The College Dropout, sold nearly half a million copies in its first week, went on to sell more than three million copies in the U.S. alone, and spawned five hit singles.
2010’s Fantasy eventually sold a little over a million copies, many of them digital copies through Amazon at drastically reduced price meant to spike sales figures, a tactic also used by Arcade Fire and Lady Gaga at the time to get themselves to that platinum finish line at a time when the record sale terrain was cratering all around, like that scene 30 minutes into 2012. The megahype surrounding the album, especially in the wake of ‘Ye’s VMA/Taylor Swift PR debacle of the year before, meant that as a pop cultural phenomenon, Kanye West was a conversation piece in a way that he’d never been before; the fact that it didn’t translate into actual sales or radio hits was a fact that was seldom reported. Maybe because it didn’t really matter: after all, no one sells albums like they did in 2004 anymore, duh; more importantly, in today’s pop culture climate, being talked about is how one monetizes one’s art, or “art,” or “celebrity.”
If Fantasy was West’s self-coronation as rap’s king at a time when, in reality, he was anything but, then Yeezus is, in West’s own self-hagiography, the first era of despotic rule. Cue up the throbbing bass-scuzz of “I Am A God,” for example, to see ‘Ye in full-on imperial mode, converting his petulance and disturbed id into the powermad whims of a tyrant. “Soon as they like you/Make ‘em unlike you,” he spits out at the start of the first verse.
In that line, he kind of lets us in on his tactic in this post-blockbuster music biz era: if you can’t just sell millions of records because of hit singles anymore, you have to make yourself the center of attention for a fractured pop culture so that people continue to click on your picture on websites and hashtag you on Twitter and play your songs on Spotify and all the things that modern artists have to do to eke out an existence without just falling back on the mountains of cash that pop stars of yore were able to.
Of course, West doesn’t want you to really know that he does any work or isn’t just living the life; to wit, the same track contains the following couplet: “I just talked to Jesus/He said, ‘What up Yeezus?’/I said, ‘Shit I’m chilling/Trying to stack these millions.’” It’s all so casual, isn’t it? In fact, if there is one over-riding principle of Yeezus, at least in its inception, it clearly was to not try too hard. The record was rush-produced, in the end, by Rick Rubin, brought in at the last second to turn a bunch of half-finished junk into a real record. In an recent interview with, of all people, the Wall Street Journal, Rubin gives this account of the rush job that is this record:
We were working on a Sunday [the same day West attended a baby shower for girlfriend Kim Kardashian] and the album was to be turned in two days later. Kanye was planning to go to Milan that night. Five songs still needed vocals and two or three of them still needed lyrics. He said, “Don’t worry, I will score 40 points for you in the fourth quarter.” In the two hours before had to run out to catch the plane, he did exactly that: finished all lyrics and performed them with gusto. A remarkable feat. He had total confidence in his ability to get the job done when push came to shove.
The finished product sounds, in so many places, like an album that was thrown together in a few hours without a whole lot of hand-wringing; especially once you get past the halfway point, past the Daft Punk-produced numbers, to, say, the hackwork of “Blood On The Leaves,” and its autotune-Nina-Simone pointlessness. And especially especially on the lyrical ridonkulousness, with West spouting the silliest sex raps and tortured metaphors and just leaves them out there, withering in the sun over a frosty and stabbing synth backdrop.
Much has been made, for instance, of “I Am A God’s” most ridiculous lyrical moment, with West, belligerently taunting his underlings in escalating fury, finally spitting out “In a French-ass restaurant/Where the hell is my damn croissants?” Similarly, in the vaguely political rant-tune “New Slaves,” West returns a few times to the line “There’s leaders, and there’s followers/But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.” The thing is, though, that these kind of lyrical clunkers have been West’s calling card since day one: he’s never been afraid to be “bad” to get attention, and as his career has progressed and he’s had to be more daring to keep the spotlight, he’s continued to foreground these kind of boneheaded lines.
It’s part of his manufactured lyrical persona: a tell-it-like-it-is buffoon dedicated to being rad at all times, no matter the cost. In a recent New York Times interview, West was asked if the Taylor Swift thing “led him astray”; his reply is telling: “It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times.” Never mind that he is in a tight spot, forced by the new market to innovate, reinvent himself, confront a sagging rap economy and stay ahead of a crowded and competitive field where complete outsiders and independent nobodies can suddenly charge and conquer out of nowhere. In his mind, in his songs, in his carefully manufactured reality, he is charged to be awesome, and he must oblige, no matter the cost.
And so he does. The album, in conception and practice, charges ahead as if albums matter and lyrics matter and being a badass matter; it’s worth noting, for instance, that the album packaging, a blank CD-R in a clear case, will be seen by most people as a pixelated image on a smartphone screen, a proxy for a real CD-R, looking more like an outdated iTunes logo than the postmodern prank the cover was no doubt intended to be. Throughout the tracks, dark distorted screams tear at your ears, reminding you that this is a “dark” album even if its comedy and slapdash rhymes seem more last-minute than horrific. Many have harped on the alleged minimalism of the sound, but to my ears what it most resembles is “My World,” the final track on Guns N’ Roses’ bloated quadruple event-album Use Your Illusion; Axl Rose worked in the studio without the other GNR-ers, and in a fit of NIN obsession, put together this psychotic piece of something:
There are a lot of parallels between West and Axl Rose, and between Use Your Illusion and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: but suffice it to say that both famous musical artists eventually got to a point where a twin obsession with artistic grandiosity and expressing their darkest deepest feelings began to alienate their public at the same time as those same obsessions made them both really interesting as celebrities. Yeezus, then, finds West on a precipice: like Axl, he is waist-deep into a world of fine art and adoring groupies and designer fashion labels and lyrics that reveal a self-aware loathing of his own celebrity. He may not go full-on Howard Hughes the way Axl did, spending more than a decade on what eventually became the much-derided Chinese Democracy; mostly because no record label will ever fund that kind of boondoggle anymore.
Kanye, then, in the end, is forced to accept his situation, forever bound to this character he created, and he must continue to “be true” to this id of his, even as he becomes a parent and an adult and whatever else will drag the real him from the fantasy Kanye that populates his records. “I throw these Maybach keys, I wear my heart on the sleeve/I know if we the new slaves, I see the blood on the leaves,” West spouts, because what he is really a slave to is being open, in song, about his most craven desires, spewing silliness and inappropriate hubris while trying to transition into a life as a grown-ass adult in front of a world that loves to encourage his worst tendencies.
In that same New York Times reply, West continues on the theme of “awesomeness”: “[Incidents like the Taylor Swift debacle have] only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness. That’s all it is.” And in a sense, he’s right: finding beauty, truth, and even awesomeness in depraved behavior and rampant narcissism is at the heart of the popular music machine that West is and will always be an indentured servant to; if he chooses to occasionally lash out in his art in a way that he can never do in real life, can’t we all just luxuriate in the dream with him for a little while?
Daniel Brockman is a staff writer for Vanyaland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @thebizhaslanded.