Monday, February 9, 2015

In Defense of Kanye

Last night, maybe you heard, Kanye West did a thing at the Grammys. In a callback to his VMA harassment of Taylor Swift, he pretended to cut off Beck - who had just beaten out Beyonce for Album of the Year - only to cede the stage and allow Jay Z to laugh again. Then, after the show, he went on a brief rant about awarding artistry. That rant, like many of the things he does, was a cocktail of truth mixed with megalomaniacal delusion strained through an omnipresent, self-loathingly conscious desire to be taken seriously. In it he attacked Beck and defended Beyonce. Suffice it to say, people are upset at Kanye. 

People are always upset at Kanye.




He certainly has done his share to earn a certain type of person’s ire: the aforementioned VMA incident, saying “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on live TV (Bush called it the worst moment of his presidency!!!), his relationship with Kim Kardashian and repeated insistence that she’s a genius, his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel where he excoriated the host for his treatment of the West/Kardashian brand and stanned for his wife’s fashion bona fides, his Twitter blow-ups, his contradictory desire to be world-famous and left alone by paparazzi whom he has physically assaulted and on and on and on. His public life and his music are marked by an audacious and deliberate ability to make people uncomfortable, and he’s constantly aware of how little self-awareness he has.


He gets away with it because - I might have buried the lede here - he’s the greatest musical artist of this century. Of his seven studio albums, only 808s & Heartbreak would not automatically crack the canon of hip hop, much less popular music. And even that album is a stripped down, emotionally raw experiment in restraint mixed with boldness. In many ways the precursor to Yeezus, 808s sees Kanye step out of his "rapper" role to sing some of his most personal songs: odes to his late mother and regrets over a failed relationship sung in a voice modified and obfuscated by Autotune. Working within a minimalist palette, Kanye creates atmospheric, neo-futuristic grooves with his star 808 drum machine, stripping away the many layers (or production, of artifice, of ego) that had previously marked his work. True to form, his next album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was his most lushly and exquisitely-produced. Still, 808s is Kanye's worst album and it's an essential window into the mind of a troubled star experimenting with new forms. It’s brilliant and mildly delusional. It’s Kanye.

I don't need to spend the time repping the rest of his albums. They're brilliant and paint a portrait of a constantly-searching artist. Listen to them.



Of course, Kanye’s musical audacity carries into the explicitly political message of his more recent songs, too. When Beyonce puts on a 20-minute medley at the Grammys where she towers in front of the word FEMINIST, she manages to make a political stance apolitical. That’s her gift, to smooth the edges, to be so blandly, incandescently perfect so as to undercut any chance of making people change the way they think. Considering her perch as America’s most beloved pop star comes as a black woman in our current racial climate, this is no easy task. But compare the power of her singing a Gospel tune at the Grammy’s last night while impersonating an angel (Kanye would have been vilified for that, for what it’s worth) to "Blood on the Leaves" or "Black Skinhead" from Yeezus. Beyonce’s rendition was admittedly beautiful, a moment manufactured to make you feel both world-weary and uplifted, in which she sang, of course, excellently. Kanye’s songs makes you want to riot.


He gets in trouble because his approach to music is evident in the rest of his life, and he makes people nervous. Here’s where the racial double standard comes into play. Kanye’s certainly not the first egomaniac in pop music, nor the first political-minded artist. He's not the first to augment his art with publicity stunts, nor the first tabloid star uncomfortable in that role. But he’s black and he is all those things. Since the Grammys alone, I’ve seen him get crap for all of it and more.


His rant last night certainly didn’t help. I can’t defend all of it, certainly not that Beck needs to respect Beyonce’s artistry and should hand over the award. However, Kanye’s correct that awards shows (which are meaningless, but of course he would care about them) tend to skew white in the actual awards and congratulate themselves heartily anytime they don’t. This comes even as the most hyped artists last night were all black, with the exception of backup singer Paul McCartney. The bigger issue, though, is that Beck and Beyonce have as much to do with each other as Mad Men and Game of Thrones, to pick one example at random. They’re both the same format, but they exist worlds apart. Beyonce put out a great pop record, a smash hit, and Beck put out an understatedly beautiful indie record. Beyonce's was culturally more important and probably achieved its goal as well as Beck's, but awards are dumb. Regardless, Kanye spewed for about 90 seconds and, per usual, managed to sound self-confidently deluded even as he was clearly clamoring for respect. As always, he was very Kanye.




The level of animus hurled Kanye’s way is completely out of proportion with his “crimes.” (Click here if you don’t believe me. It’s better than what I’m writing, for sure.) Want to talk publicity stunts? John Lennon once put out an album in which he and his wife posed naked on the cover, and they also had a bed-in. That was his second wife, I should clarify; he beat the first one and abandoned her with his child. Want to talk lyrical content? One of the Beatles’ first hits was “Please Please Me,” which if you can’t figure out the subtext then probably stop reading. I’m sure John Lennon was criticized often, and his assertion that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus was greeted about as well as Kanye’s game of dress-up in the “Jesus Walks” video, but Lennon is a culturally beatified icon. Some of that is time, some of that is privilege.


Let’s go through the greatest hits of criticism in just the last day:


Kanye can’t sing - this comes about because he uses Autotune. He’s not a great singer, even with the device, but I also don’t give a shit. His songs are great and even though we’re biased toward people who actually play the music, not many can touch his production. He’s a fucking musician, and a great one. Also, you know who else used effects on his voice because he didn’t like it unadorned? Why it’s John Lennon, again!


This also gets to the heart of the racial component, namely that black music has always been culturally devalued. Just as black athletes (THERE, A LINK TO SPORTS) are talked about in dehumanizing terms that downplay their intelligence/preparation, so is black music devalued as simplistic, overly sexualized, raw, even "not music". By contrast, white culture - and its basketball players - gets to cling to a veneer of intellectualism. Kanye doesn't get the credit that a band like Radiohead does for constantly innovating, but he's really smart and knows he can’t win this battle, so he makes people accept him on his terms.


Kanye’s a jerk - yep. If that’s a deal breaker then that’s a deal breaker. If you look a couple paragraphs up you’ll note he’s not the only jerk in pop music history.


Kanye’s a media manipulator - two words: Bob Dylan.


But his wife… something incoherent that borders on sexist and racist! - this one is pretty much out and out racist/sexist all the time, actually. Plenty of people have made sex tapes, and plenty of people have had reality shows. Plenty of people have also been famous for no “legitimate” reason, as if legitimate reasons have anything to do with it. Most don’t stay famous, as Kim has. Most also don’t have to suffer the racist abuse that is nearly mainstream in discussions of her.


So yeah, he shouldn’t have come after Beck last night or interrupted Taylor Swift (he was right in that case, though). Yeah, he’s out of control at times and his neediness, which drives some of his best songs, often comes off as self-obsession. He isn’t a traditional rock/pop star (Prince, of course, plays all his own instruments). He wants mainstream acceptance but he doesn’t want to be safe like Beyonce, even as he defends her because he must know how difficult that job is. 

He just wants to be Kanye and he wants you to take him seriously.

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