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Kanye West: The Crazy, Ranting, Inarticulate Genius

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America, y’all have to see me.  Y’all have to get used to this face.

Imma stand for everything I’ve seen in my life.  And Imma try to express that to yall the best I can.  And I feel like I’m creative enough to make it work.

In my heart, there’s so much stuff I want to say to the world…it’s like I really got a lot on my mind.  I’m not using rap as a way that I’ll get paid or something.  I’m using it as an opportunity to really say some stuff that I think needs to be heard.

I probably don’t have to tell you who I’m quoting here.  In part, because his confidence and passion have echoed the same message throughout his career.  And perhaps even more so, because clips from his interviews have been circling the web for weeks.

 But these quotes aren’t from recent interviews, they’re excerpts from Kanye West’s hour-long interview on MTV’s You Heard It First (YHIF), in 2002. 

Two years before he released his first studio album, The College Dropout

Four years before he went on a nationally televised telethon for Hurricane Katrina and uttered the famous claim “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” a moment that the president would later claim to be the worst moment of his career. 

Seven years before he jumped on the stage at the VMA’s and interrupted Taylor Swift’s speech to announce that “Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.”

And eleven years to the present, 2013, in which he’s projected videos screaming injustice and present day slavery, ranted at concerts about corporations and media misinterpretation, gotten into feuds with the likes of Jimmy Kimmel over a parody sketch of his BBC interview, and broken out into screams in several live interviews.  And how could I forget, Kanye released his sixth studio album, Yeezus.  A work that projects the rapper at his most angry, violent image to date.

Yes, America, I think we’ve gotten used to this face.

And plenty of Americans have turned against Kanye, either because they don’t like the aggressive sound of his new album, or they don’t like how he continues to rant on interviews or denounce the same corporations that he participates with. He’s even been labeled as crazy, idiotic, and childish, when in fact, he’s none of these things.  He’s a producer-rapper-fashion designer who, in everything he’s done artistically, has expressed the grave racial injustice that has slowly been hushed, systemized, and  subsequently accepted by the American mainstream. 

What makes you think Kanye is crazy?  Because he rambles in live interviews, and looks like he might cry every time he exhales? Because he breaks off into tangents about the white hierarchy of the fashion industry when asked why he worries so much about money? 

What makes you think he’s unintelligent?  Because he can’t fully compose himself to articulate a message that has been misunderstood and hushed and concealed for decades? That he can’t come up with a perfectly eloquent answer to a question like “How are we slaves if we have a choice?” A question that requires a multilayered response, dipping into commercial control, the roots of slavery and white manipulation, and a thesis full of other complexities. 

Kanye West is not a teacher.  He doesn’t aim to educate the masses or start a career in public speaking.  Instead, he’s an artist, whose art has ignited flames of misunderstanding and confusion.  Because Kanye is taking chances, and sending messages that no one else has been brave enough to even consider, he feels compelled to explain himself to the masses.    

What makes you think he’s childish?  Because he strings together anecdotes that appear to have no correlation?  Because he starts yelling when an interviewer suggests that he’s going about things all the  wrong way? 

Sure, Kanye is egotistical and loud and persistent.  At times, he’s out of control and often, he has trouble articulating his message.  But he’s also more brave and passionate to stand against the entire industry of American racial injustice more than any other artist of our time.   There are things that are severely wrong with our country.  Money determines everything. Corporations have ridiculous amounts of money, and use to perform pathetic puppetry on the government. White hegemony has grasped a stronghold on American wealth, and uses it to carry on a nepotistic system that praises familial or fraternal connections over work ethic or achievement.

In an interview with New York City’s 105.1 program The Breakfast Club, Kanye spoke out on this deficiency:   

“You know we don’t know nobody that got a nice house. You know we don’t know nobody with paper like that we can go to when we down. You know they can just put us back or put us in a corporation. You know we ain’t in situation. Can you guarantee that your daughter can get a job at this radio station? But if you own this radio station, you could guarantee that. That’s what I’m talking about.”

White families more often live in neighborhoods in which the property tax funds better education for their children, ensuring that they can go to college based on their plethora of opportunity and financial support. Neighborhoods that aren’t policed and racially profiled by cops who are eager to put black people in jail to maintain systemic mass incarceration, fueling further economic gain through privately owned prisons that make their money from collecting inmates. Sounds a little like, oh, I don’t know, slavery?  If you think Kanye is crazy because he’s stating these truisms, then I urge you to reevaluate your perception of the role of racism in the American hierarchy. 

There’s plenty more in The Breakfast Club interview.  Kanye speaking on his futurist views, and how he compares himself with Steve Jobs and Walt Disney.  Speaking on his disputes with corporations such as Nike over royalties and fashion boundaries.  Claiming that he’ll be in the history books in a few decades. 

And yes, Kanye often struggles to articulate his thoughts in a linear form for interviews.  Does this make him unintelligent?  That he can’t come up with a perfectly eloquent answer to a question like “How are we slaves if we have a choice?” A question that requires a multilayered response, dipping into commercial control, the roots of slavery and white manipulation, and a thesis full of other complexities. 

Kanye West is not a teacher.  He doesn’t aim to educate the masses or start a career in public speaking.  Instead, he’s an artist, whose art has ignited flames of misunderstanding and confusion.  Because Kanye is taking chances, and sending messages that no one else has been brave enough to even consider, he feels compelled to explain himself to the masses.    

Sure, plenty of Kanye’s claims dismiss any sort of humility on his part.  But we’ve never loved Kanye for his humility.  We’ve always seen him as an egotistical maniac who could care less about what people think of him, or what he’s supposed to say, or what kind of music he’s supposed to make.  That very ego fueled a decade of brilliant music production, several momentous occasions in the public spotlight, and some a few ruffled presidential feathers.  You can see the hunger in Kanye’s eyes in the 2002 interview with YHIF.  It’s the same hunger he carries with him today, a burden to throw injustice back in the face of white America. 

If that makes him crazy, then what does that mean about us?

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Review: Kanye West’s Yeezus

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We were halfway through the curriculum in my Revolutionary Milton course in my senior year of college, and the next item on the reading list was none other than Paradise Lost. My professor–a wise, humorous, and blunt woman who has read the epic 12-part poem countless times—had a proposed method to tackling the literary giant.  “Pour yourself a glass of scotch at dusk.  Open the book and start reading.  Don’t stop, and take your time on the liquor.  You’ll be done with the poem by dawn.” I know, you’re probably wondering why I started a review on Kanye West’s Yeezus with a nerdy English major anecdote about reading 17th century poetry. The point is, I wanted to hear this thing from start to finish.

Yeezus isn’t one of those albums that you skim through, picking out songs that might earn spins on the radio, or certain tracks you think you will hear at the club.  Like every Kanye West work, modern-day concept albums, Yeezus is something you need to listen to all the way through while you attempt to process 1) what the hell he’s talking about it, 2) Where you recognize this or that sample from, and 3) if you even like it or not.

Well there I was, pouring a glass of scotch, waiting for the Yeezus leak to download in my iTunes (Forgive me, but I bought it on Tuesday).  The album certainly didn’t take me an entire night to finish, but by the time the last track, Bound 2, came to a close, it only felt right to start over again.  By the fourth listen through, I was buzzed; from the scotch, sure, but I was more intoxicated with cycling thoughts on how to digest the album.

Yeezus is one, continuous assemblage of cacophony; a ten-part thread of self-assured fury, cynical blasphemy, and raw sexual destruction.  Amid this dark, vicious blend that puts Kanye among music’s greatest rebels–Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and Ministry to name a few—West manages to mix political protests against racism and consumerism with silly one-liners about impatiently waiting for croissants at a French bakery.  Compared to the symphonic greatness of Kanye’s last album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus is completely stripped of pop choruses and flashing lights.  Kanye must have been offended by Twisted Fantasy’s commercial flop (he should be, it was the best album of 2010), so he ditched all efforts to satisfy radio’s hunger for mainstream pop.

What emerges is a more confident, twisted, politically roused reinvention of 2008’s 808’s and Heartbreaks. And just like the mainstream’s initial reaction to 808’s, Kanye fans expecting to hear anything reminiscing College Dropout or Graduation are in for a surprise.

Yeezus’s  best track, “Blood on the Leaves,” circles around a racially charged  Nina Simone sample about lynching.  Just when you think Kanye is gearing to spit a manifesto on present-day racism, he picks up where he left off on Gold Digger” to vent about money-hungry women and gloomy relationships doomed by pregnancy, all of this on top of a bass-breaking sample from TNGHT’s “R U Ready.”  That’s when you know, to quote Yeezy, “something strange is happening.”

Speaking of strange, there’s “Hold My Liquor,” featuring Chicago’s own gangster child Chief Keef and indie icon Justin Vernon on the same track.  Whereas we know Chief Keef for his cocky, glock-slinging songs of rebel gang violence, he appears on this track as a sad rapper grasping for control in the spotlight of newfound fame.  Alongside Vernon’s trademark crooning, the duo produces a depressing chorus to parallel Kanye’s drunk escapades of car crashes and one-night stands: “Late night organ donor/After that he disown ya/After that he’s just hopeless/Soul mates become soulless/When he’s sober it’s over.”  While Kanye seems, at times, fully in control of his patented antics and self-glorified proclamations, he stops here to admit his imperfections in one of the album’s scattered moments of self-destruction and guilt.

For critics shouting blasphemy, twisting religion isn’t something new for Ye.  This is the same guy who came into the rap game shouting “Jesus Walks,” and penned the line “make a nun cum, make her cremate, yeah.”  “I Am A God” is next in the catalogue, as Kanye claims his crown as “the only rapper compared to Michael” before he has a conversation with Jesus about stacking millions.  While the track surely touts greatness, Kanye is not nearly as cocky as you might expect from the title.  Instead, we find him burdened with his iconic power, struggling to convey a message of truth to an audience of doubters.  He doesn’t exactly hide the Christ parallels.  The album is called Yeezus, after all.

“New Slaves” gives us the album’s most politically fueled verses, which is perhaps why Kanye chose to project the song on a worldwide platform (both on buildings and on his live SNL performance).  Here’s a world famous icon throwing present-day racism, in form of controlled consumerism and mass incarceration, into the crowd of countless white spectators.  It might be aggressive.  It might be angry.  But it is certainly not false.

Kanye decides to close out the album with its most Kanye-esque track, “Bound 2,” with his patented soulful repetition, clever comedic punches, and an angelic Charlie Wilson bridge that comes out of nowhere.  This far from a coincidental ending.  After an album’s worth of rule-breaking rebel rants and civil-rights-laced sex scenes, he steps back into his comfort zone to remind us that he can still reach back to his old College Dropout self, even when he’s exhausted: “But first, you gon’ remember how to forget/After all these long-ass verses/I’m tired, you tired, Jesus wept.” The point is, Kanye can break endless boundaries, step out of his own trends, take rap to weird, seizure-like levels, and we’ll still be bound to his music, his story, his life’s work.

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