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Thursday, June 20, 2013

32

Are Gods Boring?: Wanting More From Yeezus

This is a conversation about Kanye West's new album, Yeezus.

Emma: I've been listening to Yeezus nearly nonstop since Friday, and I've enjoyed it, even though I've heard plenty of people say the album is "unpleasant" to listen to. I disagree—I think it's full of these moments (even if they're brief) where Kanye is completely in charge of the production and the sound and, accordingly, the listener. Sasha Frere-Jones wrote about this a bit this week, but you can almost imagine him standing over the soundboard, pulling you along when he's ready and stopping it short when he feels it's needed. (Frere-Jones called it "fiercely edited" and praised its "lean vibrancy," which gets at the quality of the sound pretty well.) Sonically, you have to respect that amount of concision and care, even if, like me, you don't know the origins of those sounds very well.

But before I heard the album a friend asked if I was excited about it and I said something like, of course I am, because Kanye never does anything halfway. That was a throwaway comment, but I thought of it again over the weekend while listening to the album—its second half, especially. I'm not ready to call his line about undressing being "free at last" or "eating Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce" subversive. I'd argue it's lazy. And it's confusing to hear a man who I'd argue is usually pretty good at bringing nuance and care to his lyrics rap a lot about his own perceived slights without acknowledging what he's saying to women the entire time. Kanye made an album you have to be patient and committed to to get through, because it doesn't sound like anything we're used to (from him or from anyone else on radio), but I don't think he was patient and committed to his own writing.

Kiese: That's it, Emma. Does Kanye West really "not acknowledge what he's saying about women the entire time"? I respect the "amount of concision and care" in the production of this album so much that it might be best album of the year for me… if only Kanye's voice, in it's current iteration, wasn't on the album. You and I talked a lot over the past seven years about Kanye being our favorite artist, and really that one artist we trust to push us and culture into unexpected artistic places. But before we even get to what he's saying with his voice on Yeezus, can we talk about what he's doing with his voice?

For someone so attuned to sound and composition, why can't he do more interesting things with the sound and rhythm of his voice and the texture of his rhymes? I remember and loved how College Dropout Kanye who was super anxious and really sensitive about “every motherfucker saying that I couldn't rhyme." That sensitivity, or self-consciousness, helped propel him into phenomenal lyrical feats on Late Registration, parts of Graduation, parts of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and parts of Watch the Throne. Remember when he out-rhymed Lil Wayne during Weezy’s reign on “Barry Bonds”? “Top five emcees, you ain’t gotta remind me,” he rhymed. “Top five emcees, you gotta rewind me …” He got so good at rhyming that the only emcees to really out-rhyme him on tracks in the last five years were Eminem on “Forever,” Jay-Z on the “Diamonds” remix, and Nicki Minaj on “Monster.” So how does a dude so dedicated to being a formidable emcee give such a mediocre rapping performance on an album he calls Yeezus?

I'm really asking.

I emailed with Jay Smooth over the weekend about what Kanye is actually doing with his voice on the album, and he was so right. He said:

I think his ‘aspiration: minimalism’ vision for the album is also detrimental, because he's not the type of emcee or vocalist who benefits from a stripped-down spotlight. He needs those lush/bombastic Kanye arrangements to play up his strengths and hide his flaws, on the mic.

Then he just nailed it, Emma.

Mostly though I'm with you on feeling depressed by where Ye's head is at. It gets hella daunting/frustrating sometimes that as we grow older, half our best artists (who are practically our age!) still sound like 15-year-olds holding court from the he man woman-haters treehouse.

Does this album hate you?

Emma: Does this album love anyone? I don't hear it that clearly. I know it doesn't have to. There's love for Chicago, in featuring both Chief Keef and King L, and for Justin Vernon, and for Martin. It's a strange stance, isn't it, for Kanye to pitch himself like he's coming out with the most political album of the year—and those first two quasi-singles had me convinced, too—and to then come at women so aggressively. You hear two women on the entire album, I think—the Nina Simone sample on "Blood On the Leaves," and the Brenda Lee sample on "Bound 2" (though more are credited in the extensive credits). But he doesn't honor those samples in any meaningful way. "Blood On the Leaves" is specifically manipulative. How do you take maybe one of the most meaningful songs in the history of American music and make it about alimony? "Gold Digger" had comic relief; "All Falls Down" was sensitive to the psyche of its female subject to an unheard-of extent. "Blood On the Leaves" has no such tact.

The hypocrisy is worth drawing out: Kanye successfully hyped his album as an anti-corporate/ anti-industry work of art, and he did that on a tablet that blames or ignores women, much like the power structure he's halfway attempting to critique. I don't trust that story. I also don't believe that Kanye isn't really capable of sounding older than the 15-year-old, as Jay Smooth mentioned, even if he thinks he’s “always the five-year-old.” It makes me think less of songs that I used to take semi-seriously, if only because they seemed like exceptions—"Runaway" and "Blame Game," for example. Or "Hell of a Life," which has a lot in common with Yeezus both sonically and narratively, but is at least couched in his dark, twisted fantasy. "One day I'm gon' marry a porn star," he rapped back then, but: "Never in your wildest dreams, never in your wildest dreams." In "I'm In It," in which Ye talks about a woman in language that verges on assault over a beat that has a woman "oh-ing" (presumably in pleasure?), he raps, "Black girl sipping white wine/Put my fist in her like the civil rights sign." Similes deserve better. Women deserve better. Kanye, I think, is better.

"I know you're tired of loving, of loving," Charlie Wilson sings on the "Bound 2" hook, "With nobody to love, nobody, nobody." It’s a rare moment of soul on the album, and the quintessential Kanye moment where the bravado breaks down, drastically, and that insecurity comes out. As the tenth and final track, it comes as a relief because the sound—and, I think, the sentiment—is so much more familiar to us.

Kiese: All of us are both what we say and what we do, right? Kanye did a lot of the production on this album. But he also did nearly all the rhyming, and even if he got help with the writing, it proves to me again that he's so much better at showing than telling. Even if you start with provocative what-if questions, and even if you’re committed to exploration, it’s still hard to make lyrical art that’s not boring and clichéd. What if a God became a New Slave? What if a New Slave became a God? What if a God got bored? Kanye West tells us—and, I guess, shows us—that he’s a God and New Slave on this album. His lyrical approach and execution of this telling is just so cliché, and so boring.

Are Gods boring? Maybe.

So yeah, there’s a weird dissonance between the “fiercely edited production” and the super boring lyrics about sex and race and being dope, but that dissonance doesn’t really interest me. I’m not mad at Kanye West. I just know, or hope, that he’s far more lyrically interesting than he’s letting on. And the shit he’s doing with masculinity and femininity is just so, so, so tired, and so old. My problem is that in my imagination, dude is my friend. So after I stole the album, I listened to it for five days straight and I had one-sided conversations with dude.

Kanye, do you really hate the white man? Really? So you’re gonna fuck his woman to get back at him? Really? Go further than that, homie. Do you think the white men who run these corporations you're critiquing really gives a fuck about you dissing, fucking, fisting, choking white women? That’s a real question. But it’s a boring question, too because, as you already told us on “All Falls Down,” “the white man gets paid off of all of that." You might have a different answer now, but I’m more interested in why you’re still interested in that question. How does it feel to have new generations of producer-rappers like Big KRIT and J. Cole potentially creating more lyrically interesting art than you?

Emma, there are all these "why's" I wanna see him explore lyrically. And I'm only asking because he's Kanye West. Why are you talking about fucking Asian women and sweet and sour sauce? I get the porn obsession, but folks don't really watch porn; we use porn. Like you said, why is he pornographically using a “Strange Fruit” sample to tell that tired-ass story? Why would he use “apartheid” so recklessly? The why’s are what I wish he would explore. Even if he’s exploring them with tired-ass rhyme schemes, I’d prefer those wack rhymed explorations over the wack rhymed exhortations we get on this album.

After Kendrick comes out with one of the most lyrically interesting albums ever, how in the world do you put out something like this? Is this what Gods do when they're sad? Do Gods have soul?

Sitting alone with your memory and imagination is tough, which is why most Americans go out of our way to avoid that experience. It gets even harder when you’re tasked with filling blank pages and empty space with configurations of that memory and imagination, which is why most of our popular American artists are bloated hacks constantly burping up clichés. Kanye West is the greatest populous American artist in the world, partially because he routinely fills those empty spaces with odd-shaped feelings, sounds, and sound structures that make us feel, make us think, and make us go, “How in the fuck?”

But on most of this album, he’s a shiny lyrically typical American hack. And corporations, ironically, love shiny artistic American hacks. Eminem already did the fuck-the-listener song sprinkled with potent misogyny and porn. And he borrowed from Ice Cube’s “Nigga You Love to Hate” for those concoctions. Why is Kanye doing that shit again, but just adding a little more sex this time? Obviously, he doesn’t care about being lyrically irresponsible or lyrically destructive, but I just thought he cared about being lyrically boring, you know? Why isn't reducing women to conduits to get at the white man, or markers of your Godliness, or conniving pieces of pussy out to get all your money boring?

But the problem is that it’s not boring to us. It’s not boring to straight men and it appears not to be boring to straight women. So actually, maybe this boring-ass shit Kanye just dropped says more about us and sex and race and porn and growing up sad and sensitive than it does about him.

I don’t know, Emma. I’m confused.

Ever since I heard that the album might be called, I Am a God, I remembered Ceelo from 1998:

So how can you call yourself God when you let a worldly possession
Become an obsession in the way you write your rhymes and can't follow your lesson
If a seed's sown, you make sure it's known, you make sure it's grown
If you God, then save your own, don't mentally enslave your own
If you God, then save your own, don't mentally enslave your own

Emma: There’s so much there, and any time I come away with a solid thought about the album I find myself wondering, “but was it intentional?” which says a lot about my expectations for Kanye's work. Jeff Weiss wrote this week about the album, and he introduced the troll theory—he imagined Kanye emailing Tyler, the Creator after the album dropped “with the subject heading: this is how you troll" ("of course, one man’s troll is a would-be Zeus’s provocation," Weiss adds.) If that’s what Kanye is pulling off here (and it makes infinitely more sense to me than, say, calling it “a sweet fable about true love” or pinning it to a final spinout before fatherhood), then I guess I’m impressed, but that doesn’t make it honest, and that’s always been Kanye’s greatest virtue, on wax and off. We always want more from the artists we really respect and love and who have made us go, “How in the fuck?” in the past. We should have those expectations, even while we embrace our favorite artists’ personal artistic evolutions. I loved 808s and Heartbreak for the narrative shift it brought to Kanye’s music, and to hip hop. I’ll love Yeezus for the sonic shift you can predict it’ll eventually bring to hip hop, and for sounding like the longest, most challenging 10-track thesis statement in music production that we’ll probably encounter in a long time. But I’ll probably always wish that it showed some love back.

 

Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Kiese Laymon is the author of the novel, Long Division and a book of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. He is an Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at Vassar College.

32 Comments / Post A Comment

Judith Slutler

kiese laymonnnnnnnnn

on the hairpinnnnnn!!!!

I'm gonna have to read this later today, but just saying, yes!

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Bread_White

I have to say I disagree with the reaction against his use of Nina Simone. True, he doesn't say anything in particular about lynching or do much work to make apartheid mean anything serious, so I understand the charge that he is trivializing this canonical and historically important American song. But lynchings are connected, in my mind, to public accusations of sexual misdeeds perpertrated by blacks, and the story Kanye is telling is ridiculous and fictional (cf All of the Lights. But why does he write about having kids and making child support payments so often?). The song seems to me like an over-the-top account of the high-profile sexual indiscretions of a famous black male, which I don't think is unconnected with the theme of lynching at all. Of course, the song is also frustratingly literal at points.

v=ir

@Bread_White
What Would Nina Simone Do?

Take some serious issue with the phrase "Now you sittin' courtside, wifey on the other side, gotta keep 'em separated, I call that apartheid"

adorable-eggplant

This was an amazing conversation. Thank you both. I'm also still going around in circles about why sexual violence and objectification in lyrics isn't boring already? This is part is kicking around in my head: "It’s not boring to straight men and it appears not to be boring to straight women." My first reaction was of course I'm bored of it-- it's so omnipresent, but then how can you be bored of something that shapes the contours of your life? That you can't escape?

SarcasticFringehead

@adorable-eggplant It's almost come around to the point where I'm bored with caring about it - not in the sense of "that's just the way it is, why doesn't everyone shut up already," but in the sense that it just feels like a grind. "Oh look, another song that hates me. Must be a day that ends in y." Which is not an attitude I want to have, but there it is.

adorable-eggplant

@SarcasticFringehead Totally, although I'd say that's fatigue more than boredom. I feel it too.

iceberg

yeah it's funny, I don't really care about someone like Lil Jon or Lil Wayne and their misogyny, because it's just like, background noise I guess, but I know Kanye knows better and can do better, so it's extra disappointing. You just want to be like, "You know your mother was a woman right? Your mum that you loved and respected?" I don't get how that cognitive dissonance can exist between the women he loves from his family and the "everywoman" that he hates and disrespects constantly.

jaimebee tho

y'all are on another level with this. THANK YOU.

travelmugs

@jaimebee tho Who reupholstered your hairpin?

AMc
AMc

@jaimebee tho I've never even seen this part of Hairpin town before!

j-i-a

JUST WANT TO SAY HOW MUCH I LOVE THIS

pizza mom

Thank you! This is wonderful. I love Kanye, but there's been a bunch that's bothered me about this album, and you guys have hit the nail on the head.

allofthewine

they named their baby NORTH WEST. I repeat, North West.

It's incredible.

iceberg

@allofthewine OH MY GOD. that poor child. Pun names can never end well.

RK Fire

RK Fire's Kanye West survey, question 2: Which name do you prefer for Kanye West's daughter, North or Khaleesi?

RK Fire

@allofthewine Also, no indication of middle name? I am dying at the thought of "North West" but I was kind of hoping "Donda" was going to work it's way in there, like the early rumors had suggested. Same for Georgia.

allofthewine

@RK Fire Oh man, from this crazy article:

Early reports following the baby’s June 15 birth said the name definitely began with a K, and was given variously as Kai Georgia Dona, Klementine Star, and Kaidence Donda. Some people actually suggested that the baby be called Kimye or Kardashia.

But now it seems that in the end Kanye got his first choice: North (no middle name) West, with the nickname Nori -- Japanese for seaweed.

adorable-eggplant

@allofthewine I love plant names and actually think Nori is a beautiful one! I'd also be happy to name a boy-child Briar (not planning to have kids, but if I were say a godmother who got a vote, for instance) and Hazel is one of my favorite names for a girl.

ETA: I'm so-so about North, but I do actually like the my name is a noun thing. It feels powerful to be connected to some thing or concept by a name.

EpWs

@allofthewine "Kardashia West"

Queen Elisatits

Can we just all agree that the only acceptable "lazy jokes" are fart and/or poop related jokes, and even then only sparingly. No more lazily hating on people for who they are or who we think they are. We have been doing that FOREVER, it is not edgy, it is not fresh or bold, it is soooooooo tired.

yeah-elle

This is such a good read!

Fodforever

Yes, this exactly! After going back over Kanye's music, you really see this shift over time toward... I don't know, this weird intense playacting? He is so genuine and heartfelt up through 808s. I don't know if the shift came with Donda's passing, but now he is like a shadow of himself.

Even on Watch the Throne I remember for example listening to No Church in the Wild and feeling like Jay was trying to say something, and Ye was just going through the motions about cars and some girl in a club... what does that have to do with Frank Ocean's hook:

"Human beings in a mob
What's a mob to a king?
What's a king to a God?
What's a God to a non-believer,
who don't believe in anything?"

Hot Doom

So good! I loved this conversation! I really, really enjoy Kanye, and I was so impressed with College Dropout- I just hadn't heard rap like that. His lyrics seemed so thoughtful- HE seems so thoughtful, but then he'll bust out with some nasty stuff about women. When I listen to his newer stuff, I'm like "hmmm, am I a terrible feminist for loving this beat despite the bonkers shit he just said about women???". I really think he can do better, and like @iceberg said above, the dissonance between the derogatory things he raps and the obvious respect and love for his mom is just bizarre.

Legal

Ugh. Kanye.

Awful rap / song delivery. Less than mediocre lyrics. Formerly okay producer of the gimmick-y sped up soul song variety of track. Now producer of mostly bombastic tripe, with a listenable bit here and there.

SOOOOOO many better rappers, singers, musicians out there. WHY oh why do people think this guy's so great just because he tells them he is?

shantasybaby

I don't know! I do in fact think he's great but it's hard to put into words. I think he's funny, first off, and his production is interesting (for better or worse) but he's a pretty bad rapper by any metric. I think it's 2 parts swag + 1 part wit + 1 part seeming to be in on the joke. What joke? The joke of rap being all women-hate and being a baller, maybe? There are certainly "better" musicians but that doesn't make me find him any less entertaining or fascinating.

Legal

@shantasybaby I totally find him entertaining too! In a soap opera sorta way though, not in a musical way.

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jaaane

Emma writing about hip hop makes me so happy.

mannda

I loved this conversation!

shannnonn

Kanye?uhmmm. passable..
But there were lots that are better,not his genre anyway i like.

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