Why I Love Kanye West
"This that prom shit, this that what we do don't tell your Mom shit, got a fresh cut straight out the salon, bitch."
There is no producer or artist more influential in the last decade than Kanye West. He has progressed Rap and R&B in ways that no-one else can compare with in the last fourteen years. Kanye has come under some scrutiny recently with comments in favour of Donald Trump. I am unsure if he genuinely means them, or if he is just following in the footsteps of contrarians like one of his unexpected influences, Lou Reed. I think it's probably the latter. Kanye knows the art of playing an old school wrestling heel. He tells you things you don't want to hear, but yet can't help but need to hear his new music.
I am not pro-Donald Trump by any stretch of the imagination, but it reminds me that while people on the left have supported the right of artists to state their political opinion when it agrees with theirs, they are sometimes very disgruntled about anyone who veers from that track. I feel it is a mistake to look to artists for moral guidance or to expect great artists to hold similar views to your own. Look what happened when people did that with Bob Dylan. It's foolish, short sighted and fairly childish. Kanye's work speaks for itself, without a need to make yourself aware of his personal views. The work is the thing, and the work is incredibly diverse, focused and inventive. From the trend setting production to performance to the content of his lyrics, Kanye West has few true peers.
Kanye West was the man that allowed Rap to grow up. No longer was Rap the exclusive domain of bigoted, homophobic, women hating goons. Here was a man who was middle class, didn't have a suspicious hatred of gay people, and who was generally not a murdering psychopath. His touch for great melodies and sampling genius - seriously listen to Slow Jamz and try not be stunned by the savvy, deft touch on the Luthor Vandross A House Is Not a Home sample - helped push Rap beyond its identity as a gruff and rough street language into a higher Art. His album 808s and Heartbreak basically invented the new R&B. Without Kanye West, there would be no The Weeknd or Frank Ocean. He revived a dying genre and breathed new life into it. Other than T-Pain and R. Kelly, who else was making R&B a relevant thing in 2008?
Some people will argue that Kanye West didn't invent these things and should thus not be thanked for them. Well, yeah there were some fairly obscure rappers pushing things forward in lyrical content and use of melody, but NONE of them did it on the big stage, speaking to millions of people. Without Kanye doing his thing, we wouldn't have some of the best rappers of all time, working today. We wouldn't have Drake or Kendrick or J. Cole. This what-aboutery can be said to be a product of obscurantism; an attempt to muddy the waters by offering up mostly irrelevant information in an effort to tear down an artist by way of a weird fetish of obscure music.
Let's talk Yeezus, because JESUS is that album powerful. You will no doubt be aware of the wonderful review of Yeezus written by the legendary Lou Reed. It is so right that Reed would love Kanye, given their similar love for artistic provocation and generally being out of step with social norms. I feel that Kanye on Yeezus produces a work of such power and beauty that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Drake's Take Care and Kendrick Lamar's DAMN, as one of the greatest Rap albums of the 21st Century, and in my opinion, even greater than that. You will be aware of the single Bound 2 of course, and the ribbing that the video of that song got from Seth Rogen. Leaving the somewhat embarrassing video aside, the song is a pure classic, up there with two of my all time favourite Kanye tracks, Can't Tell Me Nothing and Slow Jamz. To get to why Bound 2 is so good, we need to examine the context in which it occurs.
Yeezus is a dark, bleak album with a production style that is staggering in its ability to transform the listener and to communicate long held but seldom spoken truths about life in the modern world. The really hard synths on the album reflect the harsh reality of life, especially that of a black man in the United States. The opening song On Sight immediately hooks you and drags you down into the depths of a personal kind of hell. "How much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now before you give it up. How much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now before you give it up." The coarseness of the the following verse is a key to understanding Yeezus, which is like the work of Bill Hicks about the cathartic release of every evil, shitty thought that runs through your mind. "Baby girl tryna get a nut and her girl tryna give it up. Chopped em both down. Don't judge 'em, Joe Brown. One last announcement. No sports bra, let's keep it bouncing. Everybody wanna live at the top of the mountain. Took her to the 'Bleau, she tried to sip the fountain. That when David Grutman kicked her out but I got her back in and put my dick in her mouth." This is the excoricising of demons. The out of control nature of the vocal delivery is something that knocks you over. Going all out and loving it.
Black Skinhead follows and knocks you the fuck out."Stop all that coon shit. Early morning cartoon shit. This is that goon shit. Fuck up your whole afternoon shit. I'm aware I'm a wolf. Soon as the moon hit. I'm aware I'm a king. Back out the tomb bitch. Black out the room, bitch. Stop all that coon shit. These niggas ain't doin' shit. Them niggas ain't doing shit. Come on homie what happened. You niggas ain't breathing you gasping. These niggas ain't ready for action. Ready-ready for action. Four in the morning, and I'm zoning. I think I'm possessed, it's an omen. I keep it 300 like the Romans. 300 bitches, where the Trojans? Baby, we livin' in the moment. I've been a menace for the longest but I ain't finished, I'm devoted and you know it, and you know it." People way underrate Kanye's lyrical ability. On Yeezus, as on all of his albums, his lyrics hit hard like a cement block with hard won insight and funny, shocking turns of phrase.
New Slaves is perhaps the best song on the album, not only for the stunning production and performance, but for the lyrics which are among the best of Kanye's career.
"My momma was raised in the 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 in, 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
All this talk about Kendrick being the Bob Dylan of our times, and people forget just how visceral and poetic Kanye was on Yeezus and New Slaves in particular. I also love the sample that comes in about three minutes in, with a gorgeous melody to boot. This was his battling with his identity as a rich, black man, and finding that even while things were more than fair in terms of the money he was making, there is still an insidious prejudice about his race. The hate directed against Kanye is interesting because his main contention that people don't appreciate his art as much as they should is completely right. There is indeed a prejudice against his work that has nothing at all to do with the quality of the material. It is entirely wrapped up in the belief that a black man like Kanye should be happy to make the money he does, and shouldn't dare suggest that he is the most important, influential artist of his generation. This is something that people like Lou Reed and Bob Dylan know all about, yet because of their skin and the support that comes from establishment outfits like Rolling Stone, don't have people questioning their position as the greatest of all time. Kanye is one of the greatest of all time, and has done more for Rap and R&B - the two most vital, significant genres in music today - than anyone else in the nearly fifteen years since he first hit the scene.
Let's talk synths on Yeezus, because fucking wow are they vicious! On Sight starts things off in a supremely heavy manner. New Slaves follows it up. This reminds me quite a bit of Vangelis, who did the original soundtrack to Ridley Scott's Neo-Noir Science Fiction masterpiece Blade Runner. This is Noir Rap, which explores the dark impulses of nature in a way that gets to the bottom of why we behave in abhorrent, reprehensible ways. That synth drives it all. This is a sound quite unlike any currently happening rap, and something that Kanye and his team of producers deserve serious credit for. This is a unique sound that sets him apart from all of the other rappers in the game. This is some futuristic shit, dystopian landscape stretching out, the poor on the bottom, the rich drinking champagne in a penthouse apartment.
Blood On The Leaves, using a sample of Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday, is the return of the autotuned, gorgeous melody approach of 808s. This style of rapping into singing, back into hard as fuck rapping is something that Kanye did more than anyone else to popularize. Drake can thank Kanye for his whole style pretty much. This is a great progression of the genre, because it understands that good rapping now has to be melodically aware. And to all the foolish souls who think that use of autotuner is a sign that the singer can't sing: get off that tired, conspiracy minded bullshit. Autotuner in R&B and Rap is a stylistic flourish, like use of the vocoder or talkbox. Kanye may not have the greatest, prettiest voice, but he does have an incredible sense of melody that puts many rappers to shame. Guilt Trip follows Blood On The Leaves and further solidifies Kanye's reputation as one of the great vocal performers of modern times. The comparison to Lou Reed is justified, not only in terms of the contrary, provocative approach but also the emotional complexity that is ever present in his vocals.
Back to Bound 2. After the sheer epic journey through the dark night of the soul, we get respite. We get a vision of love and sex that is all done to a judiciously used sample of Ponderosa Twins Plus One's Bound. This sample is unusual on Yeezus, as it calls back to Slow Jamz and all of the floor fillers that marked Kanye's early career. It is a revival of the old sound, in order to emphasize the emotional journey that Yeezus takes the listener on. It is a bright spot in a dark, dark world. For this reason, I understand why Kanye was so hurt by the negativity and cynicism around the video for the song. He genuinely loves Kim Kardashian, and he was confused as to why people were not happy about that. Yes, the video is silly, but it's sincere, and the song itself is one of the great Rap songs of modern times. Check the transition between the verses and the hook: shifting all gears and contrasting the aggressive nature of the verses with the pleading, sublime beauty of the melodic switch.
Kanye West shouldn't just be defined by Yeezus of course. He has a supremely impressive catalogue. 808s and Heartbreak is a classic and should be listened to by all who prize the new R&B that has taken the music world by storm in the last seven years. Songs like Can't Tell Me Nothing and Slow Jamz will live for as long as there is music. It is on Yeezus however that Kanye West solidifies his reputation as the greatest, most important, most influential music producer of his generation. No-one comes close. Leave his contrary, provocative Twitter comments aside, and appreciate that we have one of the true greats, making Art that will live as long as there is Art to appreciate. "Jerome's in the house so watch your mouth."