I have a bit more leeway writing this than something like a proper record review or even a feature for a magazine. This is sort of a feature, but not really; it’s about Kanye as an artist generally, sure, his history as an artist, certainly, and ye as an album, of course. It’s triggered by both his work and his social/historical relation to it. It belongs in a canon of other critical writing I’ve done on Kanye, sort of a mainstay of writing of mine.
But just as much as it’s about those things, it’s about me. I have a personal relationship to his music, one informed by my suicide attempt and recovery, and one that responds to Kanye’s work in a secret, personal resonant core regardless of the storm he sometimes surrounds himself and his work with. Sometimes, it is buffeted by that storm, such as following Hurricane Katrina or the silly non-controversy of his feuding with Taylor Swift. It’s hard to deny his actions taking daggers to his work now, however. And while others are able to write him off, I have too much history for it to be that easy. So: an exorcism, or an examination, whatever this winds up being.
This is not an essay about Kanye West or about his actions or about his record ye. This is an essay about me. Don’t get that twisted.
The most obvious place to start would be why I care enough to write something like this. And as uncomfortable as some of this is for me, it’s both nothing I haven’t shared before and is a good way to underscore that this is an essay more about myself and my personal relation to Kanye’s work than about him or his record in specific.
In the summer of 2010, I attempted to kill myself. I was about a year or a year and a half into a fierce battle with my depression, something that had lain dormant inside of me for the first 19 years of my life before roaring into being in my 20th. One day, without any real cause that I can recall, there was a psychic suppuration within me, and within the negative space of the mental tear I spied the darkness of death, the same abyssal chasm that had haunted me at the age of 6 when my step-grandfather died, triggering my long childhood walk through the halls of faith and fear. Over time those thanatophobic religious pangs had faded and I had reconciled myself with the presence of death, even as my grandmother passed, classmates, and eventually even a very dear friend of mine from high school taking his own life in my freshman year of college. Depression was more or less psychic wall paper, a lingering churlishness coiled up in rot within me (it is hard not to write purple prose describing the interior experience of depression, or at least certain manifestations of it). And then, at once, the opening, and my collapse into that void.
I spent a few days (my memory says about a week but my roommates say it was only a day or two; the way time works in the midst of depression, etc.) curled in my bed, leaving only to go to the bathroom, shuddering visibly from anxiety when awake, trying desperately to sleep so that my mind’s eye would at last turn away from the great dreadnought of time and death, the enormity of those impersonal forces, and my fated nature to be swallowed up and dissolved entirely. When at last the strangehold began to loosen, even if just a bit, I called my parents and told them I was coming home and to make an appointment for me with the doctor I’ve seen since I was a baby. By the end of that weekend, I started anti-depressants.
That moment enunciated my initiation into the world of mental illness proper. I had, in retrospect, been clearly bipolar for quite some time; spontaneous laughter would choke me and I would write automatic prose, pouring myself out onto the page in psychedelic dream-logic swirls. It is easy to see how mania (not just hypomania, but full-blown mania) fueled a lot of my youthful creativity as much as it fueled my hyperviolent explosions of catharsis. Like a lot of other people, I dealt with abuse and neglect growing up, and those always seemed to be the most logical locus for my violence when I would visit it upon others or myself. The notion that the hypersexual aggressive bursts of manic fits might have played a part did not come clear until much later. Bipolar disguises itself; it is easy to spot anger, or aggression, lashing out, depression, anxiety, easy to spot all the component constituents of bipolar disorder, but surprisingly difficult to sincerely assemble them into a thought-image of the cause of mental suffering.
My brain and body would, for a period of a few years following that suicide attempt, begin to degrade at a rapid rate. My dog of many years had died previously, one of the few anchors in my difficult household growing up, and the shift in persona in me following my breakdown and the death of my dog caused my girlfriend of four years to (rightly) leave me. Being young and stupid and male, I did what anyone does in my situation; I fell headlong into a drinking problem, medicating my isolation and sorrow in booze and blackouts. It was in the midst of this that, one night, I scoured my family’s home in search of the gun my father had bought not too long prior; luckily, my family had noticed my worsening temperament and had quietly relocated all the guns elsewhere. I had another breakdown when I could not find the gun. The next day, I checked into a mental health facility; one year later, almost to the day, my dad died.
All of the Lights (Interlude)
It was during this process, between the strikes of the threefold hammers to my psyche (breakdown, suicide, parental death), that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out. I’d followed the drama with Taylor Swift, as I was in college at the time, and the reaction to it seemed overblown; people were sincerely calling for an end to Kanye’s career despite what seemed, to me, to be clearly a drunken outburst. Uncouth, yes, but hardly something worth terminating a career as fertile as his.
I remembered the debut of the video for “Through the Wire”, tearing up as the Pop-Up Video-style word bubbles slid onto the screen alongside pictures, describing the near-death experience of Kanye over a ebullient reworked gospel beat, tearing up over the story. I remembered a friend buying The College Dropout, listening to it together as he got high and I accompanied. I remembered “Gold Digger” and “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” dropping off of Late Registration, a record I likewise respected at a distance. (I was diving headlong into prog rock and metal at the time).
I remembered the single “Stronger”, dropping just before Graduation, an album that came out just as I entered college. That album soundtracked, along with Radiohead’s In Rainbows and more prog and extreme metal than I care to recall, a great portion of my freshman year. At the time, I roomed with four other people in one large room, more or less a converted lounge with multiple beds and desks shoehorned in. The record would play on repeat, one of the few albums all of us could agree on, prog-approved Can and Steely Dan samples next to smarmy lyrics about drunk and hot girls and cheap Chicago baseball references. At the time, Kanye was still considered more or less mainstream rap, the man who pioneered Jay-Z’s seminal The Blueprint having yet to be reframed culturally as a hip-hop auteur (for better and worse), and so I hadn’t paid him as much attention as I should have, my ideal rap at the time having been committed to wax by Snoop, Dre, Pac and Biggie like any 18-year old white college freshman might have said. But Graduation turned my ear, just like many others, and made me eat crow about the value of mainstream rap.
808s and Heartbreak, with its sleek art design and completely reconfigured sound and heartbreaking narrative about the loss of a mother, touched me at the time more than my roommates. Rappers in the mainstream hadn’t yet adopted an open-heartedness and a bearing of wounds; it was present in forms within gangsta rap and underground rappers and backpackers have been doing it since the invention of the genre, but like the mainstream forms of almost any genre, hip-hop had moved pretty firmly into formless, nameless sensation, parties and drugs and sex but few details. This was before Drake and the like and, more importantly, I was still a kid; it was still magical to me then because I hadn’t heard a lot of the reference points he was drawing from. The closest I could think of at the time was something like Whitney Houston fronting 80s King Crimson, or Kraftwerk with Nate Dogg contributing vocals, some hybrid of R&B and the more robotic and motorik of prog rock’s synthetic fringe. Like all great music, the reality and history of it mattered less than the illusory affect, the impossible false image conjured inside my head, divorced of context but still married clear to keen melody and rhythm.
So I followed with some attention when Kanye announced a new record coming after a reclusive several months in Hawaii. He’d earned attention, I thought, and I was incredulous (to say the least) that I should really care about the Taylor Swift situation, especially as much as everyone else seemed to.
The first single he dropped was “POWER”, or at least one minute of it. The video, if you haven’t seen it, is more like a surreal postcard of imperial sacred imagery, the gold and pageantry of pharaohs playing out in post-apocalyptic Biblical psychedelia around a black king Kanye. My eye was caught (always a given with Kanye) and he set up a powerful and rich tapestry for the record to draw from in terms of visual counterpoints. Visuals, generally speaking, are a seemingly critically-unnameable intrinsic component of records. The design of the sleeve, of logos, of videos, of fashion inform records, inform our responses to them. Even the punks, who strove hard to strike this out and focus on being real, eventually turned to a pageantry; years later, the term “normcore” would, with the blades of irony in one hand and sincerity in the other, eviscerate the concept that being without pretension was not pretentious. Art is pretension; it is a lie, a willful aesthetic untruth, predicated on the notion that the emotional value of the aesthetic will outweigh its untruthfulness. So to see Kanye, ever an aestheticist since his debut, indulge so fully in pseudo-psychedelic psychosomatic meshwork imagery made me giddy.
My roommate at the time, someone I met in my freshman year of college and lived with off and on for the next six or so years, would routinely get chewed out by me and my other roommates (lovingly, of course) for being financially irresponsible. He worked to put himself through school, at least partly, and a common theme for him was assembling an arrangement of jobs in order to scrape together enough money to cover at least one of the semesters without borrowing. (In retrospect, he was the smartest one of us in that way.) Despite this surface level responsibility, and his interpersonal miserliness, literally recording down to the penny the money he lent to others in a note on his phone, he would almost always blow his tax return every year on useless shit. One year it was a fancy computer. The year relevant to this story, it was a new sound system for his car.
It wasn’t as profoundly loaded as the sound system for his next car, again bought with tax return money, but it was still probably the best sound system I’d heard outside of a professional venue. There were something like nine speakers all around the car, creating a throbbing womb of sound, bass rumbling and punching and mids/highs sharp enough to slice through that static. It was in this environment that, in the midst of one of my more severe depressive fits, that he invited me for a drive to get some food. At the time, I slept on the mattress my father used when he was sick and one day soiled due to not being able to get out of bed, flipped upside down onto the bare wooden slats that supported the padding. I guess when you’re depressed enough, your body responds differently to physical sensation and discomfort doesn’t bother you that much anymore. I didn’t have sheets on my mattress, which sat on the floor. I would at times crawl lethargic to the living room and curl up on the couches to sleep or, others, simply sleeping on the floor in the middle of our only common room. It was, to be brief, disruptive. But my roommate was a dutiful friend and, when he noticed another downward turn in me, he invited me out to lunch. Plus, he had a record he wanted to show me.
The key turned and the CD started to play, picking up from where it had been last left. Horns bursting in 5.1 around my head, a valkyrien overture, then a choir of a thousand voices. It reminded me of hearing “Stronger” for the first time in similar circumstances in my childhood friend’s car before leaving for college, the alchemical union of the teenage freedom of cars and camaraderie with Wagnerian hip-hop backing. The song (both songs, really) were and are joyous, not without pain but transcending them, exploding into light, the same kind of light I would later find in Carly Rae Jepsen’s music. If Kanye’s work was sometimes an apocalypse of sound, this was something more like a Big Bang. I cried in the passenger seat as the chorus hit, sobbing in time with the tune. It’s cliche, but it’s true.
My Black Hole
After a while, the money ran out, I couldn’t hack it in school having panic attacks everyday, being paralyzed on my couch, fading in and out of consciousness from the meds and from my shotgun blasted psyche, and so I had to return home. It was there that I began a period that at first felt like a kind of recovery; my meds had begun to make me manic by that point, elevating my seratonin too high, and so I began to taper and taper until at last I was totally free of them without a collapse back into depression. I was listening to and making music again; I was writing; I was reading; I was happy. I was not social, but that was okay, because it felt like the pieces of myself were coming back together. And then my dad died.
I was sitting at my kitchen table, watching a YouTube video of metal riffs that sounded alike. I had my eyes closed, feet tapping on the linoleum, fingers drumming away on the round wooden kitchen table that had been the centerpiece of the room since as far back as I could remember. I was a drummer first, at least in terms of music, and though I hadn’t been able to cart a full drumkit around with me from dorm to dorm and apartment to apartment, it was an instrument I still felt connected to, still practiced, even heading to Guitar Centers and local music shops to pretend to be shopping just to be able to jam on a kit for a while again. Drums are a thing of peace for me; rhythm overwrites the brain, no matter whether that rhythm is funky or jagged, odd time or even, thought intensive or simple. There is a rhythmic symbiosis to drumming at its peak that feels, for me, the most natural musical outlet, next only to singing, which I think every musician does whether they’re good at it or not.
I closed my eyes, tapping the table to Megadeth, that iconic drum intro from “Rust In Piece…Polaris.” A slamming door. I jolt my eyes open. My mother is in the dining room some thirty or forty feet from me. I glance at the clock; it is just past 1. It is the weekday; she works about an hour away. It is too early.
My father was in the hospital for pneumonia, an issue that, as a chronic drinker with cirrhosis as well as just a human with recurring lung problems (partly from a lifetime of heavy smoking and partly from bad genes that caused an overproduction of music, genes both my brother and I inherited and cope with still), was a source of perpetual medical attention. The process for those with chronic pneumonia is relatively simple; a heavy dose of antibiotics, monitoring, intravenous fluid intake tapering down to traditional bland hospital food and sealed paper cups of juice delivered on plain pale plastic trays, and then a discharge. Cirrhosis makes your liver weep fluid into the abdominal cavity; the liver rarely even stops processing toxins from your blood entirely but, when scar tissue builds up, it weeps, unable to keep it in. This causes an inflation of the belly, close to a sphere (aren’t hydrodynamics grand?), which compresses the diaphragm and lungs and can make chronic lung issues even more severe. So it became not uncommon for my father to go and get his belly tapped and drained in addition to the antibiotics. Normally it would take a week or two; he was nearing the end of this time.
My mom took a few scattered steps, visibly shaking. Her mouth was open slightly, panting like she’d been running. “Mom?” I said, music still playing from my laptop’s tinny speakers, confused, face tensed and eyebrows tightened around my eyes. I knew before she said it, but at the time, there was no-thought, a total void, a white absence in my head. “Langdon,” she said, staggering to me, dropping to her knees, taking my hand in hers. My mom is not the dramatic type normally. Looked me in the eye, shimmering with tears, vibrating. “You’re father’s dead.” The quiver of the lip, the blubbering, crying. Meanwhile I was blasted out of my body, like my consciousness stood up and walked to the living room without me, watching from afar. It plays like a movie in my head, not a memory.
It was a heart attack. Spontaneous from our end, but not uncommon in alcoholics; neuropathy develops when unfiltered toxins due to liver or kidney damage start being deposited in the tissues furthest from the brain, starting with feet and legs before moving to hands. The body kills off capillaries in the area, trying to strand the toxins stored in the fat cells to isolate them from the brain to preserve itself as long as possible. Death of capillaries leads to nerve death and, from there, numbness and difficult motion. The trunks of nerves that control movement are largely centered in limbs, with branches heading out; those trunks are left largely unaffected, but the ancillary web of nerves that give feedback on muscle response and control are dead and gone, making motion seem drunken and sloppy even when sober and fully alert. This is also what leads to the necessity for amputation in alcoholics and diabetics, the two groups most commonly afflicted with neuropathy, as capillary death leads to a tougher time fighting off/minimizing infections and in more severe cases for flesh to begin rotting while still on the body.
My father, like many alcoholics, develops neuropathy in his legs that would waver in severity near the end of his life. When he drank less and paid more attention to diet and exercise, the neuropathy would wane and he would gradually regain sensation and motion in his legs as nerves regrew; when he relapsed, the progress would be reset, his legs growing totally numb sometimes all the way up to his knees. At just under 6' 6", that’s quite a lot of flesh with dead nerves. We set up a bed for him downstairs, in the living room, the same mattress I would later take with me to my first apartment. He would lay there on that bed, legs up or legs down, more or less unable to move from it on his own. A nurse would come and make him exercise his legs, would tell him to wear certain special socks for a few hours a day. Said it helped with blood flow, a particularly nasty and specific issue for those that were bedridden as he was. When she would leave, he wouldn’t wear them, wouldn’t keep up with his exercises.
Apparently, she wasn’t kidding. He built up a bloodclot in the veins of his thigh, curated by motionlessness and the horizontal tilt of his leg. His healing from the damage of alcoholism meant more mobility, which meant more motion in the leg, which meant the calcified blood anchoring the large saddle-shaped clot to the walls of his arteries began to weaken and one day, of all circumstances, shook loose and traveled to his heart, killing him, as he rose from the toilet.
This was the moment of my sharp collapse. My dog had been my anchor in high school through years of abuse and neglect, wounds since healed with years of therapy and suicide attempts and screaming matches and the kind of good-hearted persistence of love you cannot expect to find either in those who abused you or within yourself. In the years after, before this healing had begun, it was my father; as imperfect, crooked as he was, he understood me, perhaps better than anyone else in the family. We have the same mind, bipolar with fits of startling intellect disrupted by senseless babbling, false memories, collapses into vice and malice, tendency to self-isolate and to alienate as well as an equal tendency to fall prey to the vicious and baseless paranoia of our minds. We both had the same pernicious and answerless fear of death, not of dying but of the notion of being dead, what being dead meant, how we would be erased. I spent a lot of time writing through my dad’s eyes, understanding his trauma, the things that led him to drink and hide within a shell of anger, his childlike love of science fiction and fantasy his only reprieves sometimes, images and visions of better worlds or at least worlds that were different. How his love of Dandelion Wine, Bradbury’s novel, seemed to mirror his own relationship with my great-grandmother, one of the few people who was kind to him in the brutal years of the 50s.
My father was the first person that I reconciled with in my immediate family. Like me, he took a screaming to well; as much as he could dish and as much as he could sulk later, he was also a glutton for verbal abuse. It confirmed a rottenness in him, something he sensed within himself and tormented him with shame and a sense that all of the things he was paranoid about he deserved. I was able to press into these tender spaces within himself, as they had been pressed within me, excoriating him for the absentee parenting of work abroad and alcohol at home and how it had left me as prey to the vicious abuses I had suffered within the walls. I told him how he abandoned me to that violence. And I saw him, after one too many screaming match of this type, break down in sobbing human tears, telling me he was scared of who abused me too, scared sometimes for his life, and that he’d done what he could, and that he didn’t think I could ever forgive him for failing me as a father. You have to be one hell of an inhuman son of a bitch to hold a grudge after that.
We worked at it. The past can’t change, but the present and the future can. Things between us got better. I loved my dad. I still do. There’s too much there to deny love.
Losing him was like having a hole ripped out of my head.
While I had reconciled with my father prior to his passing, and the final words we said to one another were “I love you, Dad” and “I love you, Son,” as picture-perfect an ending as available, I had not yet reconciled with any of my other family members. I had not yet discovered my deep well of loathing and anger towards my mother, and my brother and I had not even come close to beginning the tremendously difficult road to reconciliation that we have, thankfully, miraculously, since traversed together. I lived at home with my mother, herself an island in her grief pouring forth negating black waves wherever she went, a hideous black train of loss following her as she slept in her too-large bed alone and crept slow along her too-large house. I was sucked up, drowned in a black hole. My brother threatened me with violence if I didn’t look after my mother. There was no road for me, no possible coping. So, like my father, I began to drink.
I was not unaware of the irony of following my father’s footsteps down that dark path. There was a part of me that (darkly, stupidly) wanted to walk that road, one that was chewed up by grief and still tender and sore from my own suicide attempt (or whatever you might call scouring the house for a gun with the clear intent to blow my brains out at the kitchen table of the family I hated at the time, garbage bags and brain matter against the kitchen walls and me dead in my brother’s seat). I wanted to be sucked up, broken down, dissolved, dead. I was too scared, though, my brain too crooked. So I drank.
I had started a novel the day after my suicide attempt a year earlier. It was my lifeline, more or less an extended suicide note in fiction chronicling all the crooked shapes my brain had taken and why I desperately wanted to be dead. It was, in terms of its literary value, a sub-literate Bret Easton Ellis-meets-Phil K Dick style angsty genre romp. But that was fine; it existed for a purpose, and that purpose was not necessarily to be read. It was the most honest thing I’d written in years, something ugly and broken and stupid. There’s a bravery in that, brave by necessity precisely because of how stupid it is. (We do not say things that are without danger, risk, or stupidity brave.)
I had become a cliche, drinking at writing at the kitchen table, attempting vainly to wash away the guilt and grief and rage of being trapped in a house where I could not grieve and could not heal in a worthless and angsty novel. It was a ritual bleeding, a magickal act of contained suffering, hoping to get closer to some sense of closure or finality if I faced it again and again, day after day, my novel twisting from something about my inner stupid rage into a demon of grief and alcohol. I drove my friends away somewhere between isolation and alcohol abuse and the shitty behavior I adopted. I was, more or less, dead; the dark years where my brain went rotten. I wrote about this a lot already, in other places; I probably will write about it more in the coming years. It’s hard to look at something that effortlessly, endlessly rich and stop writing, even when you’ve run out of ways to examine and describe it. I was an evil seed radiating poison into the soil. I was exorcising something. A lot of things. I was not succeeding.
All of the Lights
I finished the novel of my radiating black poison and started another (outlined but as yet unfinished). My girlfriend at the time encouraged me to return to school to make something of myself; the way it was phrased at the time was that I was going nowhere and wasn’t worth being around. So, after she left me (for reasons that, in retrospect, are sound, given my state at the time), I enrolled myself back in school. The problem was, in order to keep my credits in order and to minimize loss from transfer, I re-enrolled at a lower credit load at my initial college, which was a bit over an hour away by car, and with no real financial hope of on-campus housing or an apartment in the area. So, I put my job at Wal-Mart on hold and decided that I would cinch up my classes to two long stretches on Tuesday and Thursday and would simply commute the 1–2 hours each way in an attempt to get my life back on track. But to do this meant I needed something to kill all that time in the car.
I’ve never minded alone time in the car. When I was 17, a junior in high school, I started dating that first serious girlfriend of mine. The issue was she lived in Pittsburgh while I lived in Spotsylvania, a five-ish hour difference by car if traffic and the speed limits obeyed. At first, this distance was crossed by my mother driving me halfway, to a rest stop in Maryland, where my girlfriend would have driven from her college in Gettysburg to pick me up and drive me the remainder; as a passenger, I could get by with books and naps and food. Once I went away to college myself, however, I got my driver’s license, having been able to put off the endeavor for long enough due to friends and family giving my rides where I needed to go, and in getting my license took it upon myself to make the long, long drive across three states to visit my girlfriend.
Those hours were passed with what was the beginning of my personal collection of music; I would take with me a literal canvas bag filled with CDs, theming some drives as being chronological explorations of certain artists discographies while others would be built around prog rock, bebop, electronic music, death metal, avant-garde music, or any other theme I could think of. It was a 10-hour canvas to cover; I could survey the pop radio landscape for two full hours and still have time to spare to memorize charts and hits on lengthy, complex jazz tracks, practice the drum parts to IDM tunes, or teach myself dutifully how to sing. Being somewhat on spectrum makes socializing hard, but being alone is easy; my brain is a mouth that never shuts up, and when its me and that voice alone, I am able to harmonize with it and make music with it.
So the first step to making the commute practical was a trip to the record shop to find something to build my commute around. Music and mood are codependent for me, one feeding into the other, like colored lenses laid over all of the lights of the self. I needed something to gird me, to bind me in psychic armor, something that would not deprive me of my rage or my self-loathing or my wickedness but would allow me to forge it weapons, to arm myself with the things within me that had hurt me for so long; I had lived too long in denial to place those dark things back inside of me and was too experienced by that point with grief and anger to know I could ever really put them away, tied so deeply to my personal history as they were. So: something to perfect them.
There was a red border around a pixelated image and a gold bas relief cardboard album cover. I picked up My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne for 9.99 apiece. Roughly two hours of music for my two hour drive. Perfect.
I listened to those records every single day on my commutes, one record for the drive up and another for the drive back home. Something about the resplendence of it all, the gaudiness and prog rock bombast married to hyper-intricate album structure, hip-hop callbacks and references, the choir of a million famous voices, and the razorsharp edits and layering of sonic details made it swarm around me like fireflies in summer, pinpricks of light in total darkness. I felt lost and confused and angry and aimless and hopeless and worthless and still not yet convinced that I wanted to be alive. I was 22 or 23, alcoholic, derailed, unemployed, and full of anger. I discovered feminism and anti-racism and anti-colonialism shortly after that; my politics grew in the absence where my Self had been. And, as a beam of light in this black night, I had Kanye.
Time crept on, as time does, and my perfect armor in Kanye’s two records My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne saw me through that difficult first semester. They soundtracked, in large part, the springbreak trip I took with my childhood friend Mark to Atlantic City to help cope with the passing of both of our fathers in a short period in a failed attempt at boozed out revelry and gambling, a trip that instead was a bloodsoaked nightmare waltz into salt, fog, night, mugging, and the darkest trenches of my soul-destroying alcoholism. (It’s a story I’ve chronicled elsewhere.) They were the records that stood as twin guardians as I began to make a name for myself on Twitter the first time, before I fucked it all up by being a horny 20-something artsy white dude with a drinking problem.
For better and for worse, I idolized Kanye. There was a bravado there that I needed, a fuck you to the darkness that threatened to drink me up and that, in my worst moments, I fed with my paranoia and narcissism and toxic desire to be loved. I looked at Kanye, so thirsty for love and admiration that he’d thrash and destroy the things he’d built for himself, and I saw an exaggerated and richer version of myself. It had been a long, long time since I’d had that kind of reaction to an artist, all semblance of rationality falling away only to be replaced by an uncanny psychic parallelism. I wasn’t much for fandoms, even as a young nerdy kid, too cynical and corrosive to commit myself in that way to anything and risk getting hurt. I was a child of “but”, not “and”, my joy coming from creation and contradiction, from the construction of and wanderings within labyrinths, not from community (though, like any child, belonging and social safety being the thing I craved most).
The idiot paradox of Kanye was like a spear through my psychic armor of therapy and self-awareness and over-education and deep cynicism. The man who was too smart for his own good, would get so caught up in the act of making something beautiful that he’d ignore and hurt everyone around him until it wasn’t worth anything anymore, sounded like the story of my dead father, the story of me. It was something I knew so intimately it drove me crazy, literally to the point of scouring my parents’ house for a gun and then collapsing, years later, into a miserable alcohol abuse that only caused my mental tenderness to fester uselessly within me. Someone smart enough to know the answer to their problems but too stupid or too lazy or too addicted to how feeling bad felt like a kind of martyrdom to actually fix their life. I was wallowing in misery, happily, like a pig in shit, and Kanye seemed to me to be the diamond in that pile of dirt, the beautiful alchemical transmutation of that wicked base matter into holy gold.
I rode that wave out of my mother’s home, reuniting with my college roommates in a townhouse just a few miles down the road from my college. They had jobs, proper jobs, and I did not. To make ends meet, I took a job at a local sandwich shop. My head was more or less still a stinking hole, and days disappeared over some invisible horizon that threatened to likewise swallow me up and kill me, erase me, if I made a wrong footfall; I spent interminable days doped up on sedatives to keep the panic at bay, wavering in and out of withdrawal effects from my maximum strength antidepressants (which never seemed to cut the depression or the rage much of any at all) when my doctors or insurance agency would decide I no longer qualified for them. The meds were expensive, too; almost $250 a month, but the only thing that seemed to keep me even barely alive as I was.
There was a meltdown on St. Patrick’s Day. I swore off drinking. It would not be the last time.
I Am A God
We moved from that previous house, which had been in many ways the house of dream, haunted by my crooked head, bathed in fog and birthplace of novels and stories. It was raptured in ghosts; a too-cold purgatory, all harps and angels tapping on windows, the Cure blaring loudly in my bedroom, memories of my two friends with guitars and bass crammed in as we jammed slow doom tunes and black metal rippers, the heathaze of daydream where I would jot notes on yellow spiral bound notebooks and transformed them as best I could, the smoke of old fireworks choking the cul-de-sac as children with sparklers ran within that thick gray cloud, all distant shriek and inexplicable light. I was alone there, surrounded by friends, making out with my friend’s girlfriend in the woods after we both had too much to drink and I’d inadvertently sang Bruce Springsteen in her ear. I was waking up from the dream. I did not want to dream. I wanted to be real.
(There was a trip to Richmond, two trips, to visit a girl in the car my dad used to drive when he was still alive. There was an electronic music show in an old church with her, playing Rez on her old television next to her Hello Kitty microwave, beers and Moldoror in the bedroom, a kiss, and then — waking, like the shuddering of cold that jolts you from dream. Nothing dark, nothing evil; just nothing more. A night, and then we both moved on.)
It was shortly after the move that Kanye released his next record Yeezus. The record leaked a few days before it dropped. It was like a shotgun blast. The record was brash, in turns minimalist and maximalist, twisted, distorted, artful anti-art, a punk lofi industrial rap album followup to the grandiose and immaculate true heir to Stankonia’s prog/psyche-rap throne, but no less decadent. It was like lightning in the veins. These were the days when Death Grips were just starting, Ex-Military and The Money Store setting the music world alight in the wake of a somewhat disappointing record from Radiohead following up the likewise culturally enormous In Rainbows. There were no singles. There was a nightmarish and pitch-perfect SNL performance, streamed videos on the sides of buildings in metropolises in Europe and America, and then — boom — the album, with no artwork, no CD label, and no tracklisting.
At first, it satisfied me. For a long time, it was the only record I had on my phone (before U2 surprise uploaded a middling record to everyone’s iPhones). The verses were, for the most part, bad; but I enjoyed Kanye mostly for the musicality of his work and the artful album-oriented function of a lot of his work, and on that regard Yeezus did not fail to deliver. It was a pipebomb to the world Kanye had built for himself, as much as reaction to MBDTF as that record was to the spare syntheticism of 808s, itself a reaction to the impersonal pop sheen of Graduation. The embrace of such hateful and abrasive anti-art was a potent mirror to my own arc in my life, having emerged from the seasick daydream of the previous year into something more physical, something that dared to hope again.
I had, against reason, fallen in love with a married woman, and this act of stupidity on my part led to some of the best personal decisions I made for myself. As part of an agreement with her, I returned to therapy for the first time in years and began, through great pain, to unravel the tightly woven trauma, anger, and hurt that had haunted me and driven me to substance abuse, self-destructive social behavior, and an inability to cope with the jaggedness of the world. I tapped into a hellfire rage that I’d suppressed for decades up to that point, a mirror to my abusive brother’s own. My ears were filled with Swans, skramz, grind, and black metal — and Yeezus. It was an imperfect record, but it was a nailbomb, and that’s what I needed most in my life. It would be a long time before I recognized what my roommates at the time said about it being less of a record than it was being tauted; over the following years, it dimmed for me, feeling less substantial over time than similar works by Dalek or the aforementioned Death Grips or even the less abrasive and more surreal rap works of Shabazz Palaces.
It was, functionally, the end of the road for me and Kanye for a very long time.
The next two years passed slowly. The span from July of 2010 when I had my suicide attempt to July of 2012 when I finally moved out of my home is the slowest time has ever passed for me, a black eternity stretching between those two years, marked as they are by death (of my psyche, of my relationship, of my father, of friendships, of opportunities, of who I was before all the dying). The span from July 2014 to July 2016 passed with similar glacial pace, days slurring together into an interminable, illegible smear, as I exited therapy for reasons of financial duress and sank deep into the nihilistic hole of poverty. I lived with a friend from college who had only just began the process of transitioning and another friend from college who likewise had struggled with severe depression; in practice, we were a toxic brew together, caring for one another but being incapable of any real care given the tender state we were in. So, we all drank. A lot.
We moved into an apartment in the same neighborhood I lived immediately following my suicide attempt. There was admittedly an attempt at closure on my part there, placing myself in the same neighborhoods so I could overwrite that black memory with one graced with a bit more color. Another component was a group of friends of mine from college lived in the neighborhood as well and, given the referral program, we could cut about 500 bucks off of each of our rents for one month if we moved in. At least that way we’d also have a neighbor, someplace to go outside of the home to get away from things if they got too heavy. And so, as mid-20s white men and one woman in America, we sought solace in our rage and confusion and sorrow in communal alcoholism.
Each Friday, me and my roommates would walk over to our neighbors’ place and then, as a group, walk to the 7–11 about a quarter mile or so away and would each buy ourselves 40s, Four Lokos, Mang-o-Ritas, cases of beer and bottles of wine, a bounty of booze to crucify ourselves with so that we might finally bleed ourselves before our fellow sinners. The goal was, admirably enough, not to drink alone as we all each had at one point or another but to lacerate ourselves psychically in the presence of each other, to work ourselves into emotional lather, and then to express the unnameable sensations and terrors and pains and desires and joys that haunted us. Men in America are not taught how to be emotionally forthright with one another; for a while, we needed a hammer.
Words flowed easily. We would soundtrack our evenings to strings of records, Spotify queueing up album after album as we drank ourselves into oblivion. The explicit goal was to black out, every week; as such, we didn’t want party tunes, or at least not purely party tunes, but anything that would soundtrack that moment at that time, to propel us to the next moment, whether it be via joy or suicidal despair. Two of us had made attempts; three of us had thought about it. All of us dealt with issues (as everyone deals with issues). It was bonding. Bonding via negation, certainly, but bonding nonetheless. And there is a perverse power to bonding over the wounds you sustain that, until then, had remained unnameable, expressing themselves only in the way you lash out at the world, redirected anger from things victims of your hateful hand can’t possibly even guess at. You get tired of hurting people for something someone else did that you never figured out how to process. And, in a space without access to therapy, I grabbed at what was available.
This pushed away the last great remnant of friends that I had that were less receptive to this side of me, for better or for worse. Honestly, I was a bad friend to a lot of them; I had reasons for doing what I did, but that doesn’t mean they were good reasons and no reason necessarily means that someone has to find those behaviors acceptable. There was some additional rumor mongering about me, things which were untrue, but a general state of distrust I brought on myself by drinking too much, being unmedicated, my bipolar spiraling further. I was in a pit, and it felt like getting stabbed in the ribs by someone I trusted in an hour of trial, but in retrospect it’s hard to argue I didn’t deserve it, at least in some way. It did, however, shove me deeper into this black spiral.
There would be a suicide attempt by my roommate. He confided this in me through tears. We’d been through too much together, including the occasional fist fight. He wanted to leave the lease, to go home to his mother, to recuperate. The choice was clear. We signed the paperwork and sent him home.
What followed next, in brief, was a lesson about filling room vacancies with Craigslist randos.
My remaining roommate and I barely had much in the way of furniture between us. There was a cheap card table we used as a kitchen table, some folding metal chairs we used as kitchen chairs, two broken recliners we had parked in front of the TV, which was stacked on top of a milkcrate, and then our bedrooms full of our personal furniture. The apartment looked cramped and ugly and, due to an issue with the building, there was only one bathroom in the whole place that would be shared between all occupants. So, our attempts to find a replacement to our college friend, who had been amenable to the situation largely through years of friendship alone, were difficult. We spent an entire month on Craigslist bringing in people to interview about the place, offering them keys and pleading with them to stay, young couples and professionals and people with keen interest in contemporary film and music, anyone that seemed stable and interesting and trans-friendly and decent. They all, one by one, found better places with more space and more privacy, and politely declined.
The two people who came to live in our apartment brought hell on us. Or, rather, the boyfriend of the straight couple did. Both of them were addicts, something I’ve dealt with on a personal level, with friends, and in my family, and so I refused then and now to judge them on this bare fact (unlike how my other roommate felt). However, despite the sympathy to the difficulties of addiction I have, I also know from personal experience the difficulty of living with addicts who do not always check their addictions or how they effect others. They would be strung out, get in loud arguments at strange hours, and (worst of all) would hassle my roommate over the early stages of her transition. Worst of all, the boyfriend would physically abuse the girlfriend, though we had difficulty proving this for a long while; locked doors and muffled sounds and evaded eye contact being all we had to work with for a long while. The blame for these issues lies at the feet of the abuser, and not the abused; he takes the singularity of my anger for that period.
I had to become a protector in my home, acting as shield both to his girlfriend and also to my other roommate, who no longer felt safe in their presence and whose paranoia ran to an intensity that I would sometimes get woken in the middle of the night or called at work with false alarms. This compounded my unmedicated bipolar and deep drinking problem; there was no place, not even my own home, where I could unload any of the fractures from the contortions within me. It was twisting, perpetual twisting, brought on by my job and poverty and mental illness and addiction and trying to do the right thing in my home while my personal life fell to shit. I still have a lot of anger over that period, of feeling taken advantage of, but there’s no place really to aim that; I can’t be angry at the abused, nor will I let myself, and while a lot of the danger my trans roommate perceived was just jumping at shadows, I can understand the shape of that terror enough to respect it. So there is no place, now or then, for it to go.
Eventually, after my trans roommate had arranged for her own early move out, I would finally catch the boyfriend in the act of violence. We called the police; at the trial date, the girlfriend rescinded her testimony, something that was frustrating but not unheard of in domestic abuse in long-term relationships. He had feigned an apology and emotionally manipulated her, with edges of threats. The prosecutor, the judge and I all shared the same look; there was no blaming the girlfriend, given the myriad ways he had manipulated her into dropping her testimony. But it was frustrating.
Then a plain-clothes officer arrested him in the courtroom on charges of threatening violence against someone else, an instance with numerous witnesses. The boyfriend was led out of the courtroom by the bailiff in handcuffs anyway. It was good enough.
I would escape to a friend’s apartment, when I could, and in that space I would bring the black and neon of my Self, clad in the heavy leather motorcycle racing jacket my brother had given to me (once owned by our uncle, our father’s brother), and I would scowl as people five years younger than me drank and made merry. I was filled with so much irrational anger at how sour everything had gone, how it had all rotted in my hands, and how I didn’t know any way out. I wasn’t suicidal then, not anymore; just angry, the anger and hopelessness of poverty. I would wield my unmedicated nature like a cudgel, the fact that I couldn’t afford meds or therapy my wrathful knife to cut the flesh of the world in stupid, violent, aimless slashes. There was a lot of crying in that space, too, both my own and that of friends in parties in that apartment, tucking themselves into corners to get away from the music and the darkness and the people. We would huddle together, wounded animals, and gnash our teeth.
I would carry with me even in those moments the Kanye records that had gotten me through. Black metal and death metal were my armor and my weapons, doom metal my aggrieved spirit, psychedelia my confusion and aimlessness, prog my yearning heart. But Kanye was that bipolar voice in me, the Satanic spirit that would not surrender or die, the gold in me that refused to disappear in death until I had divested myself of it. It was stupid and vain, as all youth is, especially youth wasted in the ways I wasted mine, but it was mine. I had found it through Kanye, but it was mine, and after a lifetime of abuse and being led by the nose making me lose track of what was inside of me versus what I was told to do, to think, to say, to feel, knowing something was mine was like having an undying beacon in smoke and darkness and the strange glow of distant neighboring fires.
When you find that secret gold, the ember of the soul that glints within you, alchemical fire that bends and presses into your nerves, your veins, your blood, your flesh, your hands, your eyes, your tongue, you no longer fear any darkness or any dousing waters, knowing in your heart that there is no force that can extinguish you save death, no manner that you could ever be silenced again. Even if it could not be shared, it would roar within you; even if it was incommunicable, you would feel it. You become plural, like a king, like a queen, the royal We, your Self and this unnameable thing within you. A manic fit would say its God or an angel or some great spirit. It’s not, of course; it’s just another part of the self, the knowing of thyself, Self-gnosis. You become immoveable; the world becomes a sea that roars around you, waves of fire cresting against your body, bending, breaking, while you remain resolute. It becomes something that does not crave to be expressed; it is just you, as plainly yourself as your body or your name or your presence. It does not need to be seen or recognized. You make it recognized automatically, by embodiment.
This is not something I learned purely from Kanye. I spent a lot of time in the wilderness, as a child grappling with death, as an adolescent grappling with God and godlessness, as a young man grappling with death, and now as a man grappling with the void and the unsolvable sensation that it simply wouldn’t matter if I ceased to be. But Kanye seemed in those moments to me as a patron saint of this thought; the Nietzschean Self-becoming, rising up through the sea of fire, a dancing star breaking through the waves by the force of its own superior will, not superior to the will to others but instead superior to the force of the world. He was fallible, imperfect, human; he was a musicalgenius, but interpersonally stunted. I was not musically a genius; my intellectual gifts seemed to lie somewhat uselessly in the world of metaphysics and hermeneutics and ontology, general philosophical acumen instead of anything practical or present, but the interpersonal difficulty was something I shared.
I didn’t look up to him in that darkness because I thought he was someone to emulate. He seemed instead to me to be someone who survived their own bipolar, crafted with manic fire and lightning and cloud when able and showed sincerely the depths of the shadow of cloud cover in depression. It was less about wanting to precisely mirror that figure than an admiration of how he made himself legible to the world, to accept or reject as it would, sure in the knowledge that there would be no secret doors left, no stone unturned, no well of the self hidden within the contorted labyrinthine contortions of the interior self. He would make all of himself manifest, every inch, Kanye’s corpus an effort to render himself as flat and knowable as possible, the artists’ dream to disappear entirely within his work and make his body and personal history superfluous to that artificial, more immortal body.
Whether it is good or not, it’s the same coded suicided I desired (and still somewhat desire). Writing becomes a way to flatten myself, to map the criss-crossing corridors within myself and lay them bare. It is why I’m willing to write such long-winded, winding, aimless and masturbatory pieces like this; they are not intended to be read but instead to be total-maps, ways of excising thoughts and moments entirely. I don’t stop writing when I’ve told the story; I turn it over, again and again, in piece after piece, until I’ve exhausted it utterly, wrung every last sentiment and thought from the moment, not for the sake of a reader but for myself, that I can finally put things away. I’ve gotten treatment in the years since, but I still possess mild OCD as an anxiety response. However, my obsessions and compulsions have to deal more with system-complete thought, mapping and maps of maps and maps of maps of maps, concatenated, conjoined, twisting, melting, burning. My head is on fire and my dying cry is a map to someplace I have never been and you can never go; it is worthless and unintelligible, better left unsaid.
My running joke for a long time was that Miles Davis picked up a baton, passed it to Prince, who passed it to Kanye. It was less about creative pace and more about savant-level musical creation and vibrant, mad, manic expression of the self. None of those three were perfect people, though Prince seemed to be the only one of the three to actually try to be a decent person, at least in his later years. Artistic genius doesn’t often correlate with moral or political decency, mostly for cultural reasons rather than anything inherent to artists. There’s plenty of artists who toil and produce quality work and are decent people, but it’s hard (not impossible) to convince a decent-to-good person to seek to possess that ineffable, impossible spark that will burn them alive and martyr them to mad genius. It’s a Faustian bargain, and one that plenty of working artists have proven over millennia of work that you don’t need to make. The cult of the genius is, after all, a coded suicide.
But I’m a suicide survivor. It’s familiar territory for me. It’s not meant as something smart or rational; it is the direction the heart tears toward in vast, human yearning.
The Life of Pablo
No record exemplified those thoughts in Kanye’s discography as well as The Life of Pablo. The record dropped in early 2016, six months after moving in with the friends I used to drink with, each of us deciding on our own that we were done with that communal self-violence and instead sought to, at long last, recover, the cyst seemingly drained and the pressure gone. We were entering our late 20s, and the violent contortions of youth seemed to at last be uncorkscrewing themselves, making themselves flat and straight. We were not without problems, but things seemed finally to working themselves out naturally, without additional violence. And so a perfect mess of a record was delivered to me from my art-saint.
I’ve written at length about the record already. In brief, The Life of Pablorepresented a messy constellation of Kanye’s ideas up until 2016, from his albums to his sole mixtape to his guest verses and executive production of the records of others and even a touch of his punk-inspired design work. Kanye, like a lot of the indie artists and designers he was influenced by at the time, was beginning to see the hybrid form of high and low art, the barrier between the two dissolving; trap and art-house (ha!) electronica paired next to sleazy, off-the-cuff rhymes and brief but poignant midnight meditations on the fallibility of both ourselves and the people we surround ourselves with; a crooked, broken world, of crooked, broken people, assembling to a sometimes beautiful and sometimes frightening mess, and no great castle or palace to speak of.
The messiness of the record, including its rollout, inadvertently said something about the cult of genius that already ensconced Kanye and which I played my own very small part in cultivating. It was cracked like him, and not deliberately; like other great messy records of the past, like Tusk, like Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, like Sign ‘O’ the Times, it was not a genius expression of the contorted nature of the human psyche in joy and panic, mental health and mental illness both, because of intent but by the inherent nature of kaleidoscopic art. You can’t assemble shards of thought together, bound by a vague but present invisible architecture, without it amounting to something; that’s an automatic function of art. And here we had Kanye not so much admitting to his imperfections, his exaggerations, his ugliness, as getting comfortable with them. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was all of the beauty and majesty inside of him; Yeezus all of the venal wrath and roughed-up, unloveable vanity. The Life of Pablo was an attempt not to pretend himself into one space or the other. At the end of the day, Kanye is neither a prog-rap auteur like Little Brother, Q-Tip or the Neptunes nor is he an avant-garde punk-rap handgrenade like Dalek or Death Grips.
Kanye’s an artist. He makes honest art from where he is at the time, intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically. He just has… a very different palette than a normal person, for reasons of fame and infrequently treated mental health and grief and persistent anime fandom and all sorts of other things. He speaks out pretensions with his mouth, but his hand is devoid of them. It’s just art. It’s just records. And while The Life of Pablo was deeply uneven and fractured, it also contained some of the best and most honest songs of his career.
This was a lesson I needed. You grow up gifted, both intellectually and creatively, a tag you never ask for and that adults give to you because they want to feel proud of themselves either for birthing you or for tutoring you, and you get puffed up with inhuman expectation of yourself. Even decent grades are for other people. Having to work for what you have? That’s for plebians; it comes as natural from our hands as air from the sky or dirt from the earth. We effervesce success and art; people are drawn, love you, cheer for you, all automatically.
Except, obviously, it’s not like that, at all, even from the inside of the experience. When you’re 6, you don’t want to be a genius; you want to ride bikes with your friends and watch cartoons and eat cereal and go swimming. You wouldn’t even know what to do with genius, or what it would even mean when the hardest thing anyone is asked to do is clean up a room and do some simple arithmetic. Nobody wants to be the frail kid in gym who can barely run a mile without passing out. And, looking back, it’s not even really the fault of the other kids for having the malice they did towards you. They were kids, too, after all, and they were told they were worse than you, and for what? They didn’t follow abstract shapes in a test they don’t even remember taking?
But while those that aren’t victimized by this stupid (and, as we’ve learned, racist) hierarchical structure eventually find themselves reconciled against the world, being the vast mass of it themselves, formerly gifted kids have statistically found themselves at a steep social disadvantage. Being more or less isolated in those critical years, by parents and peers and teachers even themselves, they wind up entering their teens and adulthood with a far more limited social palette than a lot of their peers. Social skills are just that; while some have a knack, it’s ultimately something that can be learned, at least by most, given diligence and a willingness to listen and be observant of how your actions effect the moods and manners of others. But it’s too, too easy to get in your own head about this, to tell yourself that you just aren’t a people person, and to retreat inside the sacred shell of loneliness, curved and polished like a conch’s, reflecting a distorted image of yourself creeping up the heights of that vast arcing surface into which you cower.
Adulthood and my mental collapse, all of those pitch black years, from my suicide attempt to the loss of my father to the isolation I half brought on myself, helped bring this painful lesson into focus. We don’t owe ourselves to everyone we encounter in this world, but we have more of a say in whether they like us than we sometimes tell ourselves, and if we want we can change more about ourselves than we think. I spent years trying to force myself into shapes that were not my own, and while temporarily taking those forms I learned both of my own malleability and my stiffness. It was Deleuzian; the metaphysis of my body having certain densities and rigidities that did not allow for expansion, and which shaped the expansion around me, and yet other spaces that were empty and infinitely able to be shaped and reshaped, again and again, without end.
At some point, though, when the booze runs out and you get over your damn self, you seek to take some kind of shape that is your own, and finally accept that some people just won’t be your friends and that this doesn’t mean they’re any better or worse than they would be otherwise. I learned to take my own shape and to stop panicking about some deep need to settle my contradictions; not in some sexy literary way like I might have when I was in my early 20s, but just as some dude, fully embracing that to most people I would be but a passerby, some background figure or chance encounter, and that this was okay. The grand shape began to matter less than moments, little arcs, and that settled a lot of anxieties in me. Magnum opuses are immature; they deny the perpetual change of being-in-time, and Hegel, Nietzsche, andDeleuze all agree that contradiction arises through organicism and are reconciled into the body (of history, of flesh, of memory, of spirit, of heart) again and again and again, and they don’t agree on much. It’s the engine of self and being; if there’s any kind of definition of consciousness, it’s that ability to feel anxious over contradiction instead of the mere automatic reconciliation and archive of the unconscious world.
Did The Life of Pablo teach me that lesson? No; it was learned in parallel, one I picked up by time and frustration and getting frustrated of being frustrated. It was, for me, as all things are, an act of grace, some invisible epiphany that did not strike me like a bolt in some euphoric Blakean moment of perfect insight but instead accreted slow, recognized in rear-view.
But it was a synchronicity, one I thought about as I listened to Kanye’s new record in 2016. Is it something he could have predicted? No. Any responsible act of music criticism would call me to omit this insight of my own from any discussion of Kanye’s record, parallel as they were, one not arising directly from the other. But within me, in the experiencing/perceiving I that engages with art, it sat there, facing me. I could deny it no better than I could deny that I had the record on; not as some sign of Kanye as an ineffable genius of art, master of creation, anything silly and pretentious like that, but instead something more human, an artist that always seems to connected with my spirit, wherever I am. There’s an element of chance there, and that makes it matter more than his deliberacy. You cannot simply summon meaning into being. You make the art you make and you cast it out; it will resonate with some and be meaningless to others, with neither being more correct that the other. You control it about as much as you control the tides or the wind.
But just because Kanye was not responsible deliberately for this doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t recognize the event and feel a fondness. It’s a fondness that gets me in trouble, wraps me up in an artist who sometimes does very, very stupid things. But that’s where it comes from. I can’t deny that it’s there. I can’t discuss his work past or present and, in all seriousness, omit that deeply personal connection to his work. It makes my thoughts on his work make less sense, not more, to omit the self.
Criticism in general works this way. We pretend at an objective sense of critique, some immutable valuation derived from an even-greater valuation of all values. It’s a meta-structure that emerges ab nihilo, because in its value-of-values it gestures beyond the bounds of the real; no compendium of value exists in the real world, no archive of goodness and badness. It does not mean that we cannot or should not engage in the process of valuation, but we also shouldn’t bullshit ourselves or others that these are somehow more objective than they are. The subjective is real; the subjective has value. The Event is objective history; the Experience is subjective history. And when we consider the moments we treasure and the moments that make us miserable, we are talking about experiences and not events. There is a more complex relation between the wholly-/objectively-real and the internally or subjectively real, sure, and philosophy and the social sciences and psychology and art are our way of navigating that complex set of relations. But we sometimes treat it as purely algorithmic, some puzzle that can simply be solved rather than a series of organic negations and affirmations, reactions and spontaneous generations. Algorithms and puzzles occur within this meta-set, but are not its entirety. The world refuses to take so simple and monoform a shape.
Peace and War
The time between The Life of Pablo and the Wyoming series passed slow and painless for me.
Politically, of course, the country went to shit, with a fascist ascending to the White House and Nazism on the rise in America. I got positions writing music criticism for the second time in my life, and this time it seemed to finally situate itself well; I grew in esteem as a music writer, people actually read what I was writing, and it seemed like finally things were moving forward in terms of writing for me. I tried, as best as I could, to do something politically; I started a serialized sci-fi novel and a serialized comedic novel to bring as much of the edge off of things as I could while, with my body and my money, I contributed to local causes. I did what I could. Others did more than me. We were, and still are, in a stinking bucket of shit, and there’s still a ton left to do, and things seem to get worse over time. Concentration camps are back in America, locking up people for the sin of being brown. Cops are still killing black folk, brown folk, Native American folk, disabled folk, and trans folk. Laws protecting women and their agency over their own bodies and health are being rolled back.
Which makes it a matter of social guilt that, for the first time in a long time, my life got easier instead of harder. I got health insurance. I got medication again. I started dating my girlfriend, who acted as a great stabilizer in my life and a sign that things were getting better and not worse for me. Things seemed a last to ease themselves together for me, after years and years of them being a horrible fucking mess. Which made looking outside my window to the world around me that much harder; how much joy can you feel about your own life finally coming together when there are Nazis goosestepping and calling for the eradication of brown people in your country? Around the world? It’s a necessary kind of guilt and shame you feel when you are privileged enough to not be the aim of their attacks, and were this anything other than me talking to myself I’d feel guilty even including it. But it makes you feel bad. Angry. Angry at yourself, too, because you feel like there has to have been something you could do or have done or be doing. Something to stop whats happening.
Heather Heyer didn’t give her life as much as she was killed. There was a frightful anxiety in the air, leftists discussing acquiring guns and training with them to protect their communities should something happen and people start knocking on doors; then ICE did start knocking on doors and rounding up our neighbors and sending them to concentration camps, separating children and infants from parents, deporting people who’d spent months and years and decades here. Heather dying signified something, underscored a tension that had been present since Occupy was broken up globally by masked militarized police kettling protesters, teargassing and assaulting Black Lives Matter marchers, very probably assassinating key activists in those movements.
There was no longer a quiet struggle for the heart of America. Fascism was no longer the secret face behind the mask. The mask was off. We were in an openly fascist America, the same fascist state citizens of other countries had seen for over a century as we invaded, destabilized and brutalized them for resources and sphere of influence and the Great Game. Leftists had been warning about this for centuries, too; its not an unknowable beast or unknowable evil but, more frightfully, a deeply known and fastidiously recorded one. And yet: here we were. Far, far too much to do, far, far too much to combat, liberals too limpid and weak to be much help and too distracted chasing their tails to face down the looming evils around them, comfortable in their middle-class and better lives, in white neighborhoods devoid of all but the token minority, enough to let themselves feel tolerant and superior to their conservative kin but practically act no better.
It was in this newly transmogrified America that I had the easiest two years of my life, the base brutality of my day-to-day working class life gradually easing as the world worsened outside my window beyond what felt like my control.
It was also into this newly transmogrified America that Kanye holed himself up in a Wyoming compound and, over the course of a little over a year, recorded the five brief records that would comprise the meta-project of Wyoming.
It was also into this newly transmogrified America that Kanye spontaneously turned into a conservative shithead.
MAGA Hat Fuckface
A brief history of Kanye’s 2016–2018:
- Alienated most of his friends.
- Had multiple public breakdowns (this happens sometimes).
- Publicly supported Donald Trump.
- Met with Donald Trump.
- Start wearing a MAGA hat in public.
- Publicly endorsed not one but several right-wing fascist shitheads, on Twitter and IRL.
- Hosted said shitheads at his Wyoming compound.
- Said slavery was a choice on national television.
All in all, a pretty fucking bad year for Kanye and, honestly, more than enough for people to write off his upcoming work without engaging with it. There’s more than enough art in the world, and far, far too much made and released every single week to miss losing a handful of records. Would it change the shape of the world to lose specific works of art and specific artists? Of course; we don’t like in a solipsistic world but an interconnected and auto-networked one, one where we emerge already within the context of space and history and culture which conditions us from before our creation to after our death. But would something fill that space? Yes; this, too, is an automatic function of time’s arrow and space. We may judge these parallel worlds as better or worse than one another, but there is no way to stop their automatic creation. We are slaves to this process. This is why, ultimately, shitcanning an artist is fine. And, frankly, speaking as a writer myself (albeit of substantially less repute than Kanye), it’s already arrogant enough to think people should pay attention to our work let alone to think the world would objectively be worse off without our specific contributions and influence.
But I could not let go of Kanye so easily, whether I wanted to or not, for all the reasons I’ve already stated over the past two parts of this essay series. So, in the following section, when I discuss this meta-set of five records and their value and form and function, bear that in mind. This isn’t just a record review, and it isn’t just a piece of memoir; this is my story of my relation to Kanye’s work, including those from within his MAGA hat-wearing fuckface period.
DAYTONA I: King Push — Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude
DAYTONA is Pusha T’s third studio record, originally titled King Push and a direct followup to 2015’s King Push — Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude and 2013’s My Name is My Name. Both of those records were among the best rap records of the year; they blended Pusha T’s supreme comfort on the mic, able to slip and slide around beats and rhythms like a Nas that never lost his step and enough Southern cool and quiet menace to make the lines threatening, with a forward-thinking beat aesthetic that played with the avant-garde without capitulating to it in self-absorbed mediocrity like some can do. He rose to prominence in the early to mid 90s as one half of the rap duo Clipse, formed with his brother Malice. They recorded their debut Exclusive Audio Footage in 1999 but that album wound up being shelved for a variety of reasons, resulting in their 2002 record Lord Willin’ being their debut.
But that failed debut record did accomplish something. For one, the release of the debut single “The Funeral” sparked interest in the rap world outside of their local northern Virginia audience they had at the time, and second, it established their working relationship with the Neptunes, the production duo that would handle all of their work for their first two records, the aforementioned Lord Willin’ and the Hall of Fame-worthy critically acclaimed Hell Hath No Fury, still one of the greatest rap records of all time. It was with the Neptunes that Clipse developed a taste for avant-gardeism in their sonic palette while still wielded against street-level coke rap. They grew up in the same environment as Jay-Z, selling drugs in northern Virginia as teens in the early 90s, and so instead of matching art-school beats with art-school lyrics like Dalek might, they instead went with a lyrical approach that was much more familiar to mainstream rap audiences while offering a sonic palette that was much further out.
Clipse’s final record Till the Casket Drops was a sonic change-up, parting with the Neptunes for a series of all-star producers and an overall more backpack rap feel to both the beats and lyrics. Clipse had two critically acclaimed records under their belt but clearly felt the burn from some who felt that, given their talents and clear sonic ambitions, they were failing to live up to the ability to be, say, a black Sage Francis or something like that. For being their weakest album, it’s still a hell of a rap record.
But then Malice found God. Both brothers were raised as nice Christian boys before getting into drugs and casual sex and the extravagances of the rap world, but after some close calls and enough lost friends, Malice found it within himself again, changed his name to the somewhat cringe-worthy but endearingly sincere No Malice, and officially dissolved Clipse. It had too much weight, too many connections to things he wanted to move away from, and a set of handlers and hangers-on that No Malice felt could jeopardize his newly rediscovered faith. And while Pusha T didn’t want to stop or even slow down, No Malice was still his brother; so the part was amicable, spawning two solo workers.
Pusha T began working with Kanye West, the clearest modern version of the Neptunes avant-gardeism, the yin to the polished future-pop Neptunes vibe yang of Timbaland, and signed with GOOD Music. He dropped a tape, Fear of God, and a followup EP to it, touching on the topics of the loss of friends and the split of Clipse. It was a clearing of the air and not an official statement, rap allowing a differentiation of minor and major works by the mixtape/album divide that Push took advantage of. He was still searching for an answer to the question: What does Pusha T sound like alone? What does he pursue as himself? What shape does a solo Pusha T record have?
My Name is My Name answered that question with a streamlined post-Yeezusavant-Kanye production girding verses that stood toe-to-toe with anything Push did in Clipse. It had been a lingering question, as it is in any rap group, about the solo potential of the two members, and the staggering quality of My Name is My Name verified in a way that Push’s tapes didn’t that there was a lot left to mine. The opening 1–2–3 of “King Push”, “Numbers on the Board” and “Sweet Serenade” provided bravado, stiff beats, liquid hooks and his unparalleled sense of flow, an even match for peak-year Jay-Z. Tracks like “Hold On”, “40 Acres”, “No Regrets”, “Nosetalgia” and “S.N.I.T.C.H.” ran the gamut from pop rap to dance rap to more hardcore lyrically-oriented work. It’s still one of the best rap records of the past 10 years.
Incidentally, No Malice dropped his own solo record, the gospel-informed Christian rap record Hear Ye Him. While not as superb as his brother’s solo debut, it’s still a solid record. His followup, Let the Dead Bury the Dead, improves on Hear Ye Him, bringing an informed rage toward social injustice, a topic sparked on Till the Casket Drop, married to the renewed Christian fervor of his debut. This section is about Pusha T, but let it not be said that praise was not sung for his likewise talented brother.
Which made the follow-up, the wordy-as-hell King Push — Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, a bit difficult. It’s a shorter record, for one, feeling more like an appetizer than a full-project, and it’s conflicting listing as an LP contrasting its listing as a prelude makes it difficult sometimes to know how much to invest in it and how best to frame it. It didn’t help matters that he switched up his aesthetic palette for the beats (if not the sleeve design, which remained impeccable, haute couture rap record design contributed by Kanye again). On one hand, it makes sense to move away from Kanye, to prove in a way to Till the Casket Drops didn’t quite that he isn’t made by his relationship to producers but to the quality of his rhymes. And on that front, he delivers; it’s just frustrating that the various producers don’t quite live up to the bar he sets them.
And then: silence. For years. Pusha dropped the single “Lunch Money”, a solid track and a return to Kanye production, appended with a note that Kanye’s absense behind the boards for the prelude was deliberate, that record acting more as lyrical refinement of the themes he planned on exploring on the Kanye-helmed King Push. The production process was slowed by Kanye’s issues, his battles with addiction, infrequently treated bipolar and a set of handlers that sometimes seemed more like enablers battering his productivity as much as his public image. The rap world can be patient when it comes to living legends. There is no shortage of young blood; and Jay proved with 4:44that if you show the fuck up again after who knows how many years away, people will still respond.
So, we waited.
Like all great art, DAYTONA serves multiple functions:
- The opening salvo of Kanye West’s extended Wyoming meta-project.
- The first major step at rehabilitating his public image after brutalizing it the way he did with his alt-right turn, one presaged by a comparative ego-driven narcissism in Trump. Tragically, almost every young wounded artist type tends to assuage their pain with a quietly occluded egotism, sex and drugs and narcissism building walls around their tender hearts, most learn to develop a more workman-like demeanor about creative work in order to free them of the self- and world-destructive mannerisms they developed in youth to grapple with those malformed sensitivities. Kanye never did, apparently.
- The delivered product of King Push, it’s shape having evolved over the intervening years, rendering the prelude an evolutionary dead-end, a branch abandoned.
Grappling with these in reverse order, the decision to abandon the presumed direction of King Push as outlined by the prelude for what we were given on DAYTONA feels like a minor version of Kanye’s own abandonment of the long-discussed Good Ass Job, the proposed conclusion to his college tetrology, delivering instead 808s and Heartbreak and then My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The logic of truncating a clear series right at the end is of avoiding the trilogy problem, one that ironically applies to series of any length, where the final installment always falls short of the previous. It’s not so much that endings rarely can live up to their beginnings, as true as that is, no death being as exciting as a birth, but more that in inherency we are more interested in creation than in completion or destruction. It’s half the reason why, in writing circles, it’s suggested to have as much of the work be the middle as possible, keeping the beginning as short as possible while conveying the necessary information and keeping the ending as short as possible to wrap up the threads. We are more intrigued by the weaving than the having-been-weaved, and while completed works look good on the shelf, we tend to prefer the organic, shifting form in the hand.
So DAYTONA dropped the singles that were dropped ahead of time, instead delivering a lean 21-minutes, all killer no filler, sequenced more or less like a continuous rap suite. This comes even with shorter songs, most hovering precisely at the 3-minute mark. Pusha T shaves off superfluousness, taking Slayer’s lesson on the transition from Hell Awaits to Reign in Blood and applying it to hip-hop. His verses retain the same bounce, ambiguous timing that feels less like tryhard metronymic triplet time to speed-rap boring nonsense that gets peddled and more like a jazz player hitting the notes around the beat.
At the end of the day, while we may go to rap for dance music and pop tunes, a euphoric height that any genre executed with arena-sized ambition can fulfill, the underground impulse of hip-hop that makes it unified with metal, punk, rock and roll, and experimental/underground music the world over is its ability to grab samples from sources as broad as industrial abrasion to smooth jazz guitar lines to distorted screams, taking the lessons of German and Detroit electronica pioneers, transforming any and every sound under the sun to bass hits, snare pops, cymbal sizzles and supporting synth pads. DAYTONA’s production shows Kanye at his peak, the lessons Yeezus and the refinements of The Life of Pablo finally coalescing into a post-prog approachable avant-rap production that holds the history of rap in one hand as much as it holds the outer limit in the other. And on top, you have Pusha T, a man who’s never dropped a bad verse in his life. So far, this is still the rap record to beat for the year.
As far as an elaboration on the second point, a single record doesn’t exactly fix the things Kanye did, but at least shows an artistic value left there, an excellence complicated by the brutal and sometimes stupid psychology that guides it. Kanye wants, more than anything, to be accepted; this is what guides him to drop rap classics as much as it drives him to don MAGA hats, an impossible desire to bridge the gap between opposing forces not for their own reconciliation but to increase the amount of people that love him. He is blind to the damage this does, because it is not about the world but about his ego. While he’s a more extreme example of this, the relatively uncomplicated nature of the manifestation of Kanye’s psychology in his behavior makes this relation very easy to spot and understand; it’s one I think more people should take seriously, using it as a lens to peer at their own lives and the lives of those around them, rather than simply casting him off.
There’s a powerful moral lesson there, and one that crops up in all sorts of places, people putting their ego, their image and their comfort over the necessary right action. This can be applied politically fairly obviously, but it can also apply to the malice the wronged sometimes feel, which sometimes but not always acts as a blockage to potential reconciliation and righting of wrongs. We tell ourselves sometimes that all malice is justified forever, but it’s more difficult and more rewarding to be sensitive to times when it is not warranted, and to be brave enough to release it in those moments. Malice has a purpose, as does guilt, shame, anger, and the other negative emotions; they aren’t something to be eradicated, but things to be listened to and used as tools. And, sometimes, they are wrong, and need to be put down, no matter how pleasing it may be to wield them in those moments.
And, in terms of the first point, of DAYTONA being the opening salvo: Kanye made the right call. In truth, only two of the four remaining records really stand toe-to-toe with this one if they were to be treated individually, and both of those are more experimental than this one. As far as picking an untainted figure to drop dope rhymes over inventive, innovative beats in the streamlined form these chapters of the 5-part meta-work, DAYTONA remains the only record viable. But analysis of the five records as a set will come later.
All in all, a superb record, and likely the rap record of the year.
Fuck you, Drake, Scorpion was terrible.
Ye I: +
- I like ye.
- It is the worst record not only of the Wyoming project, but also Kanye’s career.
The things I like about the record are easier to discuss because they are so few.
For one, I think the cover art is charming; it follows the punky vibe Kanye has been riding since Yeezus, adopting a tryhard Instagram photographer aesthetic with handwritten text that looks like it was doodled on in Snapchat. While I know how Kanye likely meant this to be taken (it’s not hard to smell the pretension here), I find it much easier to take this as accidental digital New Sincerity. The naivety of it I find charming, and as much as I find his thoughts on bipolar somewhat troublesome and not the best signal to send out to the world at large, as someone who deals with bipolar themselves, I don’t deeply disagree with him. There is that unfortunate contradiction to it, the internal torture that depression brings and the external torture that mania brings, married permanently to the intensity of feeling and the sometimes limitless creative energy it gives. There are aspects of it that are certainly disorderly, a sign of mental illness rather than mental health, but there are likewise moments that feel more akin to a neurodiversity, a difference in the manner and mode of thought, rather than something to be cured.
A great deal of life with bipolar for me has been seeking to find a balance of those elements, medications and changes of behavior and control of thought to curb the aspects that disrupt my life and the lives of others while intensifying the aspects that I enjoy. It’s an imperfect system, but I feel more comfortable with Kanye’s messy, contradictory take on life with bipolar rather than a lot of the more comfortable but less human and less real stances people tend to give, which often feel more like a therapy textbook than the thoughts and feelings and experiences of real people. So the sentiment “i hate bipolar its awesome”, while infantile and almost deliberately crafted to be misunderstood by those who don’t live with the illness, doesn’t strike me as egregiously incorrect.
The first half of the opening track “I Thought About Killing You” is easily the best part of the record and, had it been released on any other Kanye album, would be lauded as one of his masterworks. It blends an awareness of his ego-centrism with a frankness of the kinds of fucked up and irrational things mania and depression can make you think. He doesn’t seek to justify himself on the track, but neither does he seek to strike himself out. It is neither affirmation nor negation; it is observation, left uncomfortably bare. As a result, it acts like a mirror.
The second half of the track doesn’t live up to the eerie beauty of the first half, and frankly most of the rest of the record doesn’t either. But, even in moments that feel half-baked, Kanye seems checked in again for the first time in a long time. His verses aren’t always gibberish, his flow seems to have returned to a respectable level rather than the meme rap wave he seemed to be riding for a while, and some of the hooks and themes are built to be more explicitly about engaging with life with mental illness and the difficulty of having a mic so loud pressed up against a mouth that can’t always be trusted not to be in a manic fit. It doesn’t quite fix the problems he set for himself but, again, as someone else with bipolar, the arc of saying shit you only kinda-sorta meant and accidentally torching your life as a result is painfully familiar. This isn’t a mea culpa of a record, even if it should have been; it’s “this is where I was coming from even though I fucked it all up.” And while, again, a mea culpa would have been better, I think there is value in someone at least laying out what their thoughts and intentions were. Kanye’s never promised us a loveable version of himself, only that he would be pathologically honest. It’s hard to deny he’s failed that, even if now we’re seeing more of his ugliness than his beauty.
The production, likewise, feels like a coalescing of what on The Life of Pablohad been shards of mirrors that didn’t quite fit together. ye isn’t as well shaped as DAYTONA, not by a long-shot, but it least feels aesthetically similar to itself. It is not only on the formal conceits and release schedule that we begin to sense a unity to the Wyoming records; the fusion of avant-Kanye with chopped-soul Kanye Classic continued on ye, hinting at a greater aesthetic unity at play. And, for the first time in a long while, Kanye clearly gave his best beats away to others. If any major critique could be made of Kanye over the past ten or fifteen years, it’s that the former production prodigy that helmed The Blueprint and Be and touched so many other artists became so focused on his own verses and records that we lost this potent creative workhorse. Before Kanye was lauded as the premiere rapper of white music bloggers, he was a living legend of hip-hop beat production, and in that role it was hard to describe him as selfish, a descriptor which fit his solo material like a glove even if you aren’t one to think artist’s are required to be selfless. Wyoming seems different, however; a weakness of the record in specific, certainly, but a greater architectural strength, that Kanye might see his own solo record as the least essential of the five.
There is a pastoralism present in the work that hasn’t been present on a Kanye record before. He’s been urban, suburban, haut couture and secluded in his bedroom. But ye feels rural, like a long walk at night as the mind unspools in the air, thoughts no always leading anywhere, insecurities rising, voicing themselves, summoning taunting ghosts, and then departing. On every other record, Kanye has had answers to the questions that plagued him, or at least some self-skewering insight that crucified himself upon his ego, bleeding him of his ego-centrism that he might rise above himself, even temporarily. That is not present on ye; he is human, fallible, confused. It’s a cry for help. As someone who follows his work and feels as deeply intertwined with it as I do, it’s impossible to deny the power of that, to see someone I once thought so highly of brought low in such an understandable, human way.
He fucked up, loudly, into a hot mic tuned to millions, while keyed up on manic brain chemicals, drugs, alcohol, and also some really fuckin’ poorly thought out decisions about what to say. And now he doesn’t know what to do. He knows where it all came from, and he knows he can always sit down and make art. That hasn’t gone away. But anything beyond the board suddenly seems so vast and confusing, like the overwhelming blanket of purple and black that is the swarming Wyoming sky, pressed upon the blue of the distant mountains and the green and the grey of the craddling earth. It’s the same kinds of thoughts that black or doom metal might deal with, but filtered through radically different origins.
It’s beautiful, in it’s way. Almost. There are some issues, though.
Ye II: -
There is only one real weakness of the record, but it is a systemic one, effecting nearly every song on the record; none of the ideas feel fully finished. While Yeezus and The Life of Pablo saw Kanye moving toward this messier, rawer style, ye feels like a collapse into it rather than a triumph, and without the forward-thinking sonic experimentalism that made the most self-indulgent and songless moments of those two prior records work. Any given track on ye could in theory be workshopped into a great song. The raw material is here. But it’s hardly ever given the polish it deserves, leaving the record feeling sleepy, unfocused, like a heathaze daydream issued from Kanye’s mind. It’s fascinating in that way, feeling in certain ways more personal and real a document to him than, say, the grandiloquence of MGDTF or the sly charms of his first two records. As a Kanye fan, his weakest record still takes on a personal enough shape to be rendered a necessary component of his discography. But it’s hard not to be frustrated at how poorly it assembled.
The negativity of the previous few months of Kanye’s life seemed to bear down on the tracks, some of which were clearly finalized only days prior to release given the recency of some of their references. There is a lot of detail given to the personal blowback to his conservative turn, one likely caused at least in part due to his newfound proximity to Caitlin Jenner, a lifelong Republican, and social isolation from the Chicago leftist circles in which he came up. I’m not one to think artists owe us their politics, if only because I think asking for good politics from artists is a foolish business; we should want them, of course, and we should hold them accountable to the politics expressed in their works and from their mouths, but an expectation steps a bit further than we reasonably can and assumes, wrongly, that the only people who make art (or even compelling art) are those with the same politics as us. We are allowed, culturally, socially, personally, to excise work and artists and declare them untenable and unbroachable for political reasons, but shock that the arc of Kanye’s life, from Chicago suburbs with his activist and PhD-holding mother to French fashion worlds and LA hyperwealthy enclaves, would somehow see a shift in his politics just feels silly and unrealistic.
But, having said that, it’s hard to hear such a half-assed set of mea culpas come from his mouth on the record. It would be easier to respect him and the album if he didn’t address the issues at all. After all, DAYTONA passes without a single mention of its’ producer’s issues and is none the worse for wear because of it. But on ye, Kanye chooses (rightly) to tackle the issues head on only to deliver a set of responses more mealy-mouthed and self-forgiving than he deserves. He digs into himself hard at moments, but in a manner that feels pitiful coming from someone his age. There’s an earnestness to him staring down how his bipolar fucks up his life, sure; but I’m more than a decade younger than him and I’ve already learned these lessons. We all learn at different rates, but it’s still difficult sometimes to respond to someone well into adulthood learning thing they should have much earlier.
What makes this worse, transforms it merely from a lesson learned late to a piss-poor apology and lyrical approach, is the fact that Kanye has been here before. The topics of mental health have been subliminal since the beginning of his career and explicit since Graduation. The intersection of substances and bipolar, as well as the hell they can play alone, have been examined by him as being the roots of almost every televised outburst of his and a substantial amount of his private ones. But there’s a lack of responsibility in these statements from him on ye, avoiding approaching these insights as the roots to problems that need to be addressed and instead taking the stance that they are the outcomes of an artist’s temperament, something the world just has to deal with. And it isn’t. And he should know better by now.
It would be excusable if the songs were better, if the ideas and production seemed to come together. But there are vocal lines that feel like they are missing effects implied in their delivery, mixing and mastering issues that make the cuts seem more raw than makes sense. It’s a fascinating psychological capsule, one that lets us diagnose not Kanye the genius but Kanye the man, the working artist, who submerses himself in multiple artistic industries. And it’s compelling how fractured and scared and confused it paints him as. But that’s also all meta reads of the album; the songs don’t hold up, and the energy is more than gone by the end of the mercifully-short 20 minutes.
It is, by a country mile, the weakest of the Wyoming records and, by an even wider margin, the weakest of Kanye’s discography.
Kids See Ghosts I: Kid Cudi
The third record in the Wyoming series is the long-gestating duo record between Kanye West and Kid Cudi. Plans for a collaboration between the two started to be floated shortly after the delivery of Man on the Moon, Kid Cudi’s phenomenal debut record, but the general arc of their solo material combined with the slightedness Cudi felt at being left uncredited on several Kanye records, both for songwriting and production touches, soured their relationship and contributed to the long fallow period of their collaboration as well as Cudi’s departure from Kanye’s GOOD Music label. Among the fallout of Kanye’s calamitous The Life of Pablo tour, in which he had breakdowns leading to rants on multiple nights, was thankfully the seeds of the reconciliation of their relationship. In an emotional moment, Kanye, breaking with tears, offers one of his rare mea culpas to Kid Cudi, apologizing for hurting him, calling him on of the greatest of a generation and asking him to reach out so they could reconcile things between them the way that Kanye and Jay so far seem to have been unable to. And it worked, as evidenced by the appearance of this record.
The desire for Kanye to work with Kid Cudi is understandable when you look at the arc of Cudi’s early career. His first tape, A Kid Named Cudi, was a critically acclaimed work that gave him the pick of the litter when it came to record labels. One of the people that expressed early interest in Scott Mescudi’s material was Kanye West, who was riding high on the impeccable early run of his career, charting from The College Dropout through Late Registration and its companion live record Late Orchestration to Graduation. West quickly signed Cudi to GOOD Music and began working closely with Kid Cudi. Cudi’s own emotionalist and synth/prog and art-rock inflected tastes in beats and composition wore off on Kanye, heavily influencing the radical shift on 808s and Heartbreak on which Cudi made an appearance and having writing room presence on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Likewise, Kid Cudi welcomed Kanye West with open arms to the sessions and production desk for his critically acclaimed debut The Man on the Moon: The End of Night.
So, after producing their greatest works with one another, Kanye’s MBDTF and Cudi’s Man on the Moon, things between them began to sour. Though still signed to GOOD Music, Cudi wouldn’t work with Kanye in a production capacity for his remaining three releases he produced on the label; Kanye would use recorded lines from Cudi, but would rarely work in the same studio and would often import years-old lines for work rather than directly contact Kid Cudi to perform the lines fresh. While Kanye’s work would fair well from Yeezus on, Cudi’s work largely fell to self-indulgence. Self-indulgence is the first step to great art, to transcendent art, but is likewise the riskiest one, the moment where the absolute most can go wrong. Given the work of the Cudi-helmed rock project WZRD debut, the psychedelic aimlessness of Satellite Flight and the garish, incredibly displeasurable and highly unwise double-disc post-grunge record he would produce, it is hard to argue that Cudi’s self-indulgence had faired him well.
So, once Kanye became publicly embattled, and Cudi himself released the reputation-repairing Passion, Pain & Demon-Slayin’, it only made sense that the two would patch things up following Kanye reaching out during a concert breakdown to Cudi. During the Wyoming sessions, they would hunker down in Kanye’s mountain bunker in secret, miraculously keeping leaks practically to zero, and began work on the record that was meant to be their collaborative follow-up to The Man on the Moon: End of Day (a game-changing and great art-rock emo-rap debut) and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (the greatest rap record of the 2010s, with only Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly offering serious competition).
Big shoes to fill.
Kids See Ghosts II: Kanye West
While it would be foolish to say that Kids See Ghosts matches the two records it strove most to live up to, it’s fair to say that it did them proud.
The album is return for Kanye to the baroque art-rap style that typified his masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, complex song-structures and layered effects creating suites-in-miniature like ELO-meets-Wu-Tang or Yes-meets-Tupac. The sonic lessons learned on Yeezus, with it’s experimental avant-gardeisms and abrasive textures, as well as the stylistic ranginess of The Life of Pablo see themselves reconciled in Kanye’s classic production style. Mike Dean, ever Kanye’s secret weapon, also sees his role increased dramatically on this record, which once more is precisely 7 tracks running just below the half-hour mark.
One gets the impression listening to this record that it was perhaps these songs that shaped the overall arc of the Wyoming records, each of which (save one) are seven tracks and about 25 minutes apiece. These songs make a smooth, continuous sequence, the only major downside being the over-repetition of the hook on fifth track “Reborn”, which likewise is the only track to scoot over the five minute mark. Kanye and Cudi see their powers return to them in full; Kanye’s verses no longer sound phoned in, corny, poorly-thought out and (as on ye) mysteriously unadorned by effects, while Cudi remains locked in, focused, but still emotionally bare and direct in a way figures like Drake can’t quite live up to. It may be sub-masterpiece level, but it’s still a knockout record, and easily one of the best rap records of the year.
It also has curious tendrils to the other records of the Wyoming series. While a critical review of the set as a singular macro-object will compromise the intent of part 4, a brief summation would be: this is clearly the centerpiece of the set, a deliberate choice to put a Kanye record dead center, one which sees the rap auteur reunited with his right- and left-hand men in Mike Dean and Kid Cudi, producing a contained rap record on a baroque, emotionalist timbre in keeping with the intense architecturalism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the hyper-vivid colors of Graduation. Of all five records, this is the one that comprises the best argument Kanye possibly could have made that, as a solo artist, he still has value and the ability to craft excellent art even in the wake of his utter shitheaded buffoonery.
In this light, ye begins to feel more like a demos collection, the unfinished feel of most of the tracks refitted as songs that were cast off from this record, the intended solo album he likely went to Wyoming to make. Push makes an appearance on track one, offering potential seed to him simply hunkering down with Kanye and taking up spare beats to craft his own solo record; a sequel song to a track on ye appears, but reconfigured with the sonic effects you could practically hear were missing from the Kanye solo version. The album seems to look in both directions, like Janus; toward the first and last two records of the Wyoming session, toward Kanye and Cudi.
In other circumstances, without Kanye’s right-wing fascist-enabling outbursts and the weaker record that came before it, it would not be hard to imagine Kids See Ghosts basking in critical accolade and being touted by music magazines large and small. But we don’t live in that world. He did do those things, and in that light, the Pusha T record feels more unencumbered by bad political action and, less severely, bad released material preceding it.
It’s a shame. But it’s a self-made hell for Kanye and, lesser, for Kid Cudi. One hopes they are wise enough to use this record as a launching bad toward rehabilitating their artist image and, in the case of Kanye, are smart enough to just keep their fucking mouths shut politically.
One can hope.
NASIR I: Evil
The best way to tell this story is chronologically. There is an anger now when talking about Nas, a hot blood-red anger, and while the event that caused this cyst of rage to form is easy enough to understand, the particular intensity only comes clear with the history of Nas. It’s like a less extreme form of what happened with R. Kelly or, in another world, Maynard James Keenan; malfeasance compounded by how much people trusted, loved, and respected somebody.
It is harder to imagine a better start in the rap game than the one Nas had. While in retrospect, Jay-Z’s debut Reasonable Doubt would come to be considered his greatest record and, over the past two decades, Notorious B.I.G.’s debut Ready to Die has asserted a Master of Puppets/Black Sabbath-level of acclaim, Nas released with Illmatic what many still believe to be the absolute greatest rap album of all time. Only a scarce few records measure up; there’s Biggie’s debut, All Eyez on Me, a handful of Outkast records, and… that’s it, really. In terms of great rap records, there’s no shortage, but in terms of things you’d feel comfortable calling the greatest of all fucking time, Nas stands with the uttermost elite. “Life’s a bitch and then you die. / That’s why we get high; / ’cause you never know when you’re gonna go.”
Singing the praises of Illmatic would be derailing on account of how long one could go on; while Nas’ first recorded appearance was as an ensemble member on the record Breaking Atoms, on which he drops some of the most absurdly alacritous and well-written verses you’ve ever heard from a sixteen-year old, his proper solo debut Illmatic sees his powers only amplified, the beat aesthetic changed to the same grimy darkness that RZA would later mine and refine for Wu-Tang’s gamechanger of a debut only a few years later. Illmaticnot only raised the bar lyrically but saw a shift in aesthetic from the bright and gaudy rap of the late 80s and very early 90s, when it first had its brush with mainstream acceptance and success, turning inward toward social and psychological darkness and distress in a way that mirrored the similar scalding psychic terror of extreme metal or the more extreme wings of hardcore. Illmatic’s contributions were as much musical and tonal as they were lyrical, providing an exciting new aesthetic palette that rap still hasn’t finished mining, and while it wasn’t divorced from history as some Nietzschean superhuman extension of the ego into art, the developments it brought to the work that came before it were profound enough and severe enough that it retains comfortably the accolades that have been thrown at it for the past nearly 25 years.
What followed for Nas then was a confusing career. Subtracting his Hall of Fame-level debut, he still had a career that any other rapper would crave, dropping the strong followup It Was Written, the middling but still decent I Am…, Nastradamus, and Stillmatic, another Hall of Fame-worthy record in God’s Son, another two middling records with decent songs in Street Discipleand Hip-Hop Is Dead, before coming back to searingly potent work with his untitled record and 2012’s Life is Good.
Sure, in the middle there he engaged in a beef with Jay-Z that saw him rise from embarrassment to drop “Ether”, a track so potent in its feud-ending power that its named has become the colloquialism for utterly destroying your opponent in a beef, and sure maybe Jay-Z responded with a track so brutal afterward that it felt like a total emasculation of Nas in the eyes of the world. But the records were there; even if he was spotty, most rappers (just like most artists in most fields) aren’t ever even great, and so for Nas to achieve greatness in three separate spans is still noteworthy. And, given the landscape of the rap world, the fact that he was Jay-Z’s one sincere feud is fitting; no other figure could really make so solid a claim against Nas’s throne and, lest we forget, prior to that beef it was Jay who had more to prove, not Nas, and the way that beef pushed Jay is a lot of why the latter Volume records and The Blueprint were as great as they were. We likely never would have gotten The Black Album from Jay if it weren’t for the calcifying furnace he underwent trying to beat Nas in the one-on-one raps.
While themes of the evils of white supremacy and racist violence from police, politicians, forces of capital and common people in America were always prevalent in Nas’ work, his untitled record made the point scaldingly clear. The original title of the record is not one I, as a white writer, am comfortable putting down; three guesses as to which single-word title I might be uncomfortable writing. The cover likewise as an image of Nas back covered in scars from a whip in the shape of the letter N, for both his name and the word in question. A black artist theming their work in such a manner sends an unambiguous message of rage toward the racial injustices and genocidal white supremacist violence black people have been subjected to throughout America’s history; doing so the same year that America’s first black president took office (a fact referenced in songs on the record), in which explicit anti-black racist sentiments became mainstream in an inexplicable and utterly inexcusable way, was another twist of the knife from Nas. It pushed him to live up to the title that his record label eventually forced him to drop, eventually choosing to have the album officially untitled, saying “the people will always know what to call it.” There is a compounded additional political power to making the word unutterable even as the title; you know what it is, but it is not printed, and for a lot of his audience cannot be said. You just see this image of his disfigured back and you think it, you know it, you feel it. White guilt should not be the primary motivator of white figures moving through space and history; but it should be a motivator, something to remind you of privilege and inequality unaddressed, and of the base humanity of the people of the world that has yet to fully be addressed.
And, from that moment a decade ago, Nas’ work has been fueled by a fire that televised police execution of black men, women, and children and a white supremacist neo-fascist president have only honed.
He was rap royalty. Not a king, but something greater; like RZA or Ghostface Killah or Raekwon. Something more like a god walking the earth, like if Jimi Hendrix were still alive.
And then it was revealed that he had been maliciously, horrifically physically violent with his wife Kelis.
It’s not my place as a white man to comment on the particular rage an oppressed person feels and how it may be channeled into other areas. It’s not my place as a man to comment on the cycles of abuse and how they keep the abused locked in with the abuser, even despite my own history with that subject. And I don’t feel comfortable recounting what Nas did, the length and severity of it. That’s easily Googleable too, and I encourage you to if you want the full details. Just know that it’s hard to shake the position of someone so lauded for so long unless it’s something disturbing and evil like Nas did.
In the midst of this disgrace, Nas flew to Wyoming to live and work with Kanye in secret. His forthcoming record wasn’t even announced until a few short weeks before its release. He also had something to prove in the wake of the revelations of his evil.
NASIR II: Good
It’s hard to put that hurt and frustration aside but, at least temporarily, that’s what I’m going to try to do.
While it’s hard to view this record as a top-notch record from Nas, NASIR is a solid release, above the median for Nas. The production switch-up, which sees Kanye seemingly dropping his fucking MAGA hat for his pink polos again, returning to backpacker vibes on the beats, seems to have reinvigorated Nas, who raps like he gives a shit again. The key feature of Nas’ weakest work is a sense of comfort, not being hungry anymore, treating himself more like royalty than a worker. In this way, he shares something with Jay, who performs best when under pressure, either from peers or from his wife. Hell, Kanye too produces better material when under pressure, granted Kanye’s pressure is almost always caused by his own poorly thought-out actions than something truly fully external.
The social consciousness is still here, references to deeply, unambiguously pro-black sentiment in the wake of a seemingly only intensifyingly anti-black America. And, so long as you ignore the specifics of Nas’ references, the verses have a spit and a roll to them that makes the delivery infectious, enough to remind you why Nas is considered one of the greatest.
However, a lot of his specific claims don’t pan out. For instance, he makes reference to the conspiracy theory that J. Edgar Hoover was black, a theory cleaved to as much by white supremacists as by critical black conspiracy theorists. Likewise, in the same track is a reference to Fox News being founded by a black man, which is simply untrue. These kinds of Hotep-ish conspiracy theories driven by a paranoia and unwillingness to trust popular narrative, a wariness well-earned but turned toxic here, twisting into indulgence in conspiracy, taints an otherwise well-intentioned turn at the mic. Nas clearly gives a shit, is just as motivated now as he was as a young man, and if anything only encouraged by popular figures like Colin Kaepernick carrying the torch of mainstream social resistance. But he feels sometimes too clearly outdated.
There’s also a sense, given Kanye’s appearances on two separate songs and the general beat aesthetic, that this record serves more as a Kanye production featuring Nas on the mic than a true Nas solo record, not unlike something DJ Khalid might put out. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but on considering the record as a single release and not a part of a larger meta-work, as we are for now, it definitely is a knock against it. While there are threads connecting the previous records, it is also feasible to imagine them standing on their own in another world, had they been released further apart, no mention of their common origin made. Pusha T amply lives up to Kanye, asserting himself comfortably over the tracks given to him; Ye’s solo record falters but only for feeling unpolished and unfinished, where his collaboration with Cudi shines as a clear set of finished and fleshed out thoughts. Nas’ record meanwhile feels competent, but like he’s a guest on his own record.
The longest track on the record, “everything”, a song more than double the length of 5 of the remaining 6 tracks on the record, doesn’t even feature Nas until over 2 minutes in. When he finally shows up, he offers a powerful verse about the desire for black liberation from white supremacy, a space and a moment to live for themselves and achieve themselves within the artificial limitations of racism to contend with. But the hook feels far too oriented toward events in Kanye’s life, to thoughts Kanye expressed elsewhere on other Wyoming records.
While each of the other records feel like they could be considered on their own, Nas’ struggles with that sense of self-identity. Even the title and cover, an all-caps self-titled bearing his full-name compared to Kanye’s lowercase monosyllabic nickname self-titled, Nas’ black-and-white to Kanye’s vibrant color, each of them one space away from the middle and one space from the end. Moreso than any other record, Nas’ feels like a record generated to fill a structural space in the greater Wyoming set rather than a full, coherent thought on its own. And that’s not to touch the accusations of plagiarism regarding the beat of “Adam and Eve” and the cover art, each fairly easy to source back to indie producer The Architect.
Which is all a shame. At the end of the day, these are all minor faults concatenating on one another; putting them out of mind at least momentarily will grant you roughly half an hour of solid and enjoyable rap music. This brings us a second parallel to ye; where that record felt unfinished but properly conceived, this record feels finished but poorly thought-out. It would not be hard to address either end for either record, and both have more than enough material to make such adjustments worthwhile. NASIR isn’t a bad record, not be a longshot. It’s just a frustrating one.
And then we remember what Nas did, legitimate and full crimes compared to Kanye’s shitheaded mouth-running, and all of a sudden the question of whether it’s worth takes on a totally different tenor. It would do well to reconcile Kanye after the things he said, bringing Nas’ malfeasance so uncomfortably into view. But Kanye’s at the desk working with him. It leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Sure, he’s a living legend and Kanye hadn’t worked with him before, granting an infectious late 60s prog rock organ melody matched with jazzy hip-hop drum beat for a closing track. But then you remember how big a shitbag Nas is, and how Kanye had to have known if everyone else in the fucking world knew, and all of this acts less to exonerate either Kanye or Nas and does more to make Kanye look even shittier and even more self-absorbed.
K.T.S.E. I: Teyana Taylor
A continuing theme: it’s hard not to impressed with Teyana Taylor’s introduction to the world. While often cited as being brought to broader attention by an episode of My Super Sweet Sixteen featuring her that aired in 2007, almost a full year prior her first major credit was as choreographer for the Beyonce video “Ring the Alarm”. The two worked wonders; she quickly dropped a mixtape From a Planet Called Harlem before getting offers to work in film on both the sequel to Stomp the Yard and one of the Medea films. Oh, and she also managed to worm her way into the Hawaii studio Kanye was recording My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was in when he wanted to view some of her fashion pieces only to convince him to let her record contributions, eventually sketching out the choral intro to opening track “Dark Fantasy” and female vocals on “Hell of a Life”.
Though initially derided for rising to fame in the public eye for an appearance on an MTV reality show about spoiled brats, Taylor soon showed her artistic polymath talents, demonstrating a deep internalization of the classics of black film, black music and black fashion. Pop culture, being as white supremacist as it is, tends to view these spaces in a parallel way to most other “genre” spaces like sci-fi or fantasy, lesser-than and beneath the established artful canon, but treated worse than those fantastical genres due to the additional marginalization of racism. As a result, her mixtapes, though well-regarded by those in the space, penetrated very little.
All of which led to her debut studio album, VII, to be surprise critical hit, comprised of a solid 40 minutes of arthouse electronica-influenced 90s R&B. On her debut, Teyana Taylor balanced avant-garde and experimental interests with solid, butter smooth sensual hooks and a strong sense of pacing both internally as a set. There weren’t enough fireworks to garner the kind of interest that someone like Beyonce (rightfully) garners, but it still holds up well as a record that presaged the arthouse turn a lot of contemporary non-pop radio-oriented R&B would take over the course of the 2010s. If nothing else is gained from this lengthy essay, perhaps increased exposure to her high-caliber R&B output would suffice.
After the release of VII, Teyana laid low, getting married and having a child and taking acting gigs. She dropped a short EP in continuance of her typical style, a hint that she wasn’t done with music, but for the most part she seemed to sink deep into the pleasures of the new life she’d found for herself.
Which is why it was a surprise when, on the announcement of the five records that would comprise the Wyoming series from Kanye, the last name was one many didn’t recognize. Teyana Taylor wasn’t just putting out a new record; she was putting out an album that was being forced to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Pusha T, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, and Nas. Once more: big shoes to fill.
Teyana Taylor not only delivers a solid improvement over her already excellent debut, but also drops arguably the best record of the Wyoming series. Not bad.
Outside of the context of the series as a whole, the album is a clear continuation of Taylor’s style, infatuation with the liminal state between quiet storm and New Jack Swing that typified 90s R&B kept intact by Kanye’s production. You’d be tempted to call it a deliberately more avant-garde turn for her, but it isn’t really; on review of her previous material, it becomes clear that none of the sonic ideas explored on K.T.S.E. are new to her oeuvre, just compacted. She demonstrates a better usage of space on her newest album, the constraints of limited tracks and limited runtimes forcing her to nail the essentials of her ideas and the most exciting squiggles rather than throwing ideas at a wall like her debut sometimes felt at its weakest.
Her voice alternates between a liquid smooth seductive croon and a sensual whimper, handling the erotic subject matter of most of the record with aplomb. Her acting instincts play well here, diving into the character and mood and timbre of the song for her performances rather than letting them purely be driven by melody or harmony. This is one of the strongest characteristics of great R&B, that dramatic flair that makes the songs feel like superpositioned reality rather than mere art, and she nails that here.
It’s fitting that her record, the last of the series, is the only one to get 8 tracks instead of the typical 7. Not only does it make the Wyoming sessions feel like they bleed seamlessly into whatever comes next for these artists by breaking its own mold at the end, but it also gives Teyana a bit more room. She’s clearly on a streak with this record, and it would have been a shame to cut a track.
While she doesn’t dive as far into the avant-garde as, say, FKA twigs, Teyana’s focus is more on using those avant-garde accouterments to highlight her songs in ways that straightforward production wouldn’t. She holds true to that here; it’s a sensual and powerful set capably performed, living up to its cover art and feeling fully agented. While ending this series on an R&B record may seem odd at first, given the Who’s Who of Rap approach of the rest of it, the timbrel and tonal shift is a pleasant one.
Kanye delivers some of his best work of his career production-wise here, offering beds for rich and luxurious R&B that we’ve only seen delivered from him on rare occasion prior to this full project. He meets Teyana in the middle, recognizing the power of her performances and stepping up his game in kind. It’s enough to wash away the bad taste of the unfinished nature of ye. It’s not hard to believe that, had Kanye kept his mouth shut and head down and pumped out records like this, he might have earned the good graces of society back without much issue.
And yet Kanye doesn’t loom largest on this record. Unlike Nas’ album, which felt more like a Kanye production with continuous guest verses from a legend, Teyana Taylor imposes herself on this material much the same way Pusha T did, making it feel like a coherent continuation of her body of work that Kanyeaided in rather than the other way around. It’s remarkable to see someone with so few official releases under their belt so capably assert themselves on a record positioned, both in terms of release and the social space surrounding Kanye at the time, to be viewed as anything but hers. It seems effortless for Teyana; solid performance after solid performance, solid song after solid song, and scooting under the time mark that would induce aural weariness.
Best R&B record of the year so far.
Which brings us to consideration of the five records as a single work.
It’s worth stating first that this is not a pursuit of viewing these five records as a singular five-part work instead of viewing them independently; regardless of the thoughts to come, they were unarguably released as five separate records by five separate artists. Even despite Kanye being the prime artist of two of the records, his name only graces the marquee of one, the second taking a joint title. And while the uniformity of this approach, five separate records with five separate aesthetics, has certain undeniable ties that make the set feel unified in certain ways, we also can’t deny that this marks them as separate at least in some manner. So, don’t take this as some Radiohead-esque conspiracy that there’s a secret album if only you sequence the tracks right or whatever.
The primary motive comes from a couple bare… I hesitate to say “clues”, which makes this seem more like a mystery and me more like a genius investigator, when in truth it’s more circumstances and features that are fairly easy to decipher.
First is their communal birth in Kanye’s Wyoming compound, the gated domain where he hunkered down and hammered out the production, design and overall aesthetic for all five records.
Second, the fact that these records, we’ve since learned, were produced more or less simultaneously. These were not five separate recording sessions in which Kanye would sit with the featured artist behind the boards as he worked out beats and they worked out rhymes; these were Kanye’s sessions, where others were invited (and encouraged!) to fly in and give input. It wouldn’t be shocking to learn that artists of one record offered insight and input on others, though until more detailed credits and descriptions of the recording process are revealed, I can’t table that as a serious journalistic or critical statement. It merely seems likely.
Third, Kanye’s vocal presence on all five. Granted, this one is a bit tenuous; since his debut as a solo rapper, Kanye rarely offers executive production for an artist without appearing on their record in some form, especially in the last 8-ish years. But, despite this being a minor thread, it’s conspicuous that he would appear as a vocal guest or prime performer on every single record put out under such a short period with such significant critical focus (granted, given his shit-headed and poorly thought-out comments).
Which leads to the fourth little circumstance, which is the release of these 7-track records falling seven days apart (save for Teyana’s record, falling on eight days after Nas’ album and featuring, of course, 8 tracks). This feels in certain ways like an expansion of the GOOD Friday concept Kanye has leaned on in the past, or (as supposed earlier) an expansion in a way of the Cruel Summer collaborative record released by GOOD Music before, developed into a set of solo records rather than a single work. We consider the GOOD Friday singles to be a single composite work, and Cruel Summer is certainly regarded as such, making the Wyoming sessions feel more cohesive as a composite work by context.
A fifth and significantly more minor context is how the second and fourth records in the set, equidistant both from the ends and from the center, are functional self-titled records, one from Kanye and the other from Nas, one rendered as a lowercase shortened nickname and the other as a capitalized full name. A frou-frou analysis of this would see these as complementary in a way implying that the unity is not to be found in similarity but in difference, that each piece is a shard that only coalesces into a whole in the context of all the other pieces. That’s perhaps a reach, but the arc of the thought at least makes sense.
A sixth context is the uniform length of these records, each 7 (or, for Teyana, 8) tracks and each clocking in between 20 and 25 minutes, substantially shorter not only than a typical album in 2018 but also typical records in the rap/R&B mode, which tend to run close to 20 tracks and normally peg 80 minutes almost on the nose. This makes the component records feel almost more like digestible issues of a single long-form thought, broken up in such a way so that it might be understandable rather than a single 2.5-hour long record might be. It is, at the very least, conspicuous that each records would be so brief, especially from artists that have no shied away from longer works before.
The final circumstance is a two-part song appearing first on ye only to conclude on KIDS SEE GHOSTS, “Ghost Town” finding its conclusion in “Freeee.” This one can go either way; in any other circumstance, the fact that a Kanye-led project features another installment of a song featured on another Kanye-led project would only really imply a connection between those two. But in the context of these other circumstances, it adds at least a little extra weight.
So what do we get if we do suppose that these records are meant, at least in part, as a single larger composite project?
The records as a whole read less as lyrically focused, given the disparity of performers, and instead as five aesthetic jaunts. It reads as a CV of Kanye’s capabilities, a resume of why we should care about his work in 2018. We have contemporary arthouse-tinged rap production on Pusha T’s record, lofi emo rap on Kanye’s solo vehicle, Dark Twisted Fantasy-style prog rap on KIDS SEE GHOSTS, classic polo/backpacker Kanye on Nas’ record and contemporary avant-garde R&B with Teyana Taylor. As a producer-helmed project, highlighting the capabilities of the worker behind them, it’s a strong showing. For every misstep (looking at you, ye), there is a triumph and a triumph and a triumph; Pusha T still has rap album of the year with KIDS SEE GHOSTS ranking right up behind it and R&B record of the year with Teyana Taylor’s album.
In terms of making up for the things Kanye said (things, it should be noted, he’s since elaborated on in a newer interview with Jimmy Kimmel as being based more around a well-intentioned but poorly-conceived notion of breaking from traditions of thought to be able to move more freely rather than a sincere full-throated endorsement of Trump’s policies), it does a decent job. There isn’t much that can make up for saying hundreds of years of chattel slavery is a choice on national television aside from a really fucking good explanation and an apology, but in terms of tepid and ambiguous endorsement of Trump, a good record will do. We should remind ourselves that his endorsement of the fascist, racist, misogynistic president was a wishy-washy statement about liking his “dragon energy”, a sentiment that barely makes sense and seems to be more focused on purely surface level elements of Trump’s persona than some deeper connection or endorsement of fascist ideology. It is, at best, enabling behavior, and while that should certainly be checked at every turn, it also isn’t necessarily a career ender. After all, a lesson we should learn culturally is to disinvest from Kanye’s statements, as they are tragically somewhat consistently poorly thought-out.
As a kaleidoscope of Kanye’s talents, Wyoming is a good project. It is in many ways an expansion of The Life of Pablo, honing in on what were smaller moments or singular tracks on that record and expanding them into full records, an affirmation of the kaleidoscope of rap auteur production virtuosity. Had Kanye dropped this set outside of our current political climate, or if some of the better moments on ye had been buried inside of a record like Yeezus or The Life of Pablo, it would be easier to see this getting more acclaim, a sign not of how effortless masterclass rap work is from Kanye but instead his Miles Davis-esque role as a rap bandleader, doing less personal composition than assembling the right minds from all walks and allowing their thoughts to form an assemblage in his production that would not exist were they not guided by someone like him. Between the five records, three are great; one would be decent if not for the revelations about Nas, which are impossible to ignore; one is faulty but not without merits. That’s not a bad showing.
But it still feels damning with faint praise. And that’s because, try as I might, I can’t ignore the climate these came out in. I’m aware, when I sit alone with the records, turn the volume up and stare at the walls, how I would feel if these had come out in any other time. And perhaps in a way it is also an image of how I will feel given enough time for our current climate to change so that these records can be something I look back on rather than something present. It feels like a critical requirement to seriously engage with Kanye’s work, especially a work of this scale. The notion of these five mini-albums as puzzle pieces in a larger work, a five-issue mini-series of Kanye moving through his full span of musical ideas, seems perfectly sensible to me, and it’s compelling enough for me to have sat down and written this piece over this long a span of time.
But it feels hollow somehow. It is not something present in the work, necessarily. Kanye is convincing across the five records, and in moments I can close my eyes and it all fades away. The way Kanye was able to push Kid Cudi back to greatness and the level of quality he manages to summon from Teyana and Pusha T are a sign of a master still at peak powers, a peak he discovered somewhere around the GOOD Friday sessions that saw the extra tracks from the then-unreleased My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy started dropping. But it’s harder now. Kanye has always placed blockages in front of himself, but these current ones seem both more severe than normal and calcifications of the frustrations from before.
Using the fullness of our critical imagination, separating art from artist as much as possible, at least briefly: a contemporary rap mega-project like this, with so many successes over so many styles, becomes a clear front-runner for best musical project of the year. Allowing Kanye in just a bit, the Wyoming sessions as a whole are his best project since Dark Twisted Fantasy and while larger and less shapely than that perfect record, it sits comfortably as one of his crown achievements. There’s so much brilliance here, and (for the most part) that which is not brilliant is brimming with potential. It is raw like Yeezus, a vast progressive watercolor smorgasbord like DTF, classic backpacker shit like The College Dropout, polished mainstream rap like Late Registration. It is a sign to us from Kanye that none of those voices have left him; they are just as present and (for the most part) all just as possible for him to summon, with little to no diminishment of their might. There’s even new thoughts here, peeks at new terrain Kanye hasn’t fully tapped. Musically, he doesn’t sound anywhere near done; if anything, he sounds even more reinvigorated than the absolutely brimming The Life of Pablo, which seemed so much like Kanye rediscovering the joy of making music after largely abandoning it for design work.
Even the visual aesthetics of the records feel like a coherent and fractured portrait of Kanye’s brain; the drugged-out apocalypse of Whitney Houston’s room a mirror for the psychic destruction of Kanye’s own, cheesy ass fake deep Instagram shit on his solo record a perfect signature of how half-baked and uninspired some of the thoughts he issues from his mouth can be, the childlike hyper-rich fantastical joy of the KIDS SEE GHOSTS album cover, the social consciousness and hyper-awareness of his own blackness with the Nas record and, of course, his ferocious and at times self-destructive libido with the Teyana record. It is not a flattering portrait, but it serves an apt and accurate image of how creative and how shallow he can be, how inspiring and how stupid, how brilliant and how infuriating. Psychologies are, as I’ve long written, labyrinths; it is best not to think of them as puzzles to be solved, or single images refracted through broken mirrors, but instead a million barely-connected threads forcefully knotted only by being in the same body, borne from the same brain.
Kanye is a complex figure, and this psychic map of his irreal terrain is as swampy and bizarre and flecked with brilliance and bullshit as you’d imagine. For better and for worse, the Wyoming sessions as a single project are an accurate and honest image of Kanye. It is pretentious and simultaneously really fucking good; both not as good as it thinks it is and substantially better than its critics mouth off. Like you’d guess with Kanye, most of the critiques of this meta-record have more to do with him as a person than this as a work. Given time, they won’t stick; songs and stretches from this will seep into rap playlists and inspire artists, and Kanye will by and large be uneffected.
But it’s still impossible to separate art from artist fully, and while reintegrating Kanye’s presence here at least brings the broken funhouse mirror art cyclone vibe a richness and a specific ground to refer to, it also means that we are brought face to face with a prominent black man and artist that inspires mainstream as much as underground figures who walked around in a MAGA hat and said slavery was a choice on TV and defended wanna-be-fascist alt-right talking heads on Twitter. It’s a bit more severe than interrupting a white woman on TV to praise Beyonce.
It is anticlimactic in a way. This should be a summation of Kanye’s greatness. In some other world, where everything can be looked past without too much effort (or, better, where none of those things ever happened), it’s being celebrated without hangup.
The biggest benefit of this project, taken as five albums coalescing into one, is the same as Kanye’s biggest drawback as a person, which is ironically a suffusion of empathy. He uses other rappers and singers here as he did on previous projects, brushes on the canvas, voices writing lines and delivering them in order to say something about him; in other words, Kanye effortlessly sees himself in others. And while yes that’s perhaps a bit narcissistic, it also breaks down the primary blockage to empathetic response, which is the construction of the Other. It’s tragically from this same place that a lot of Kanye’s views on Trump and willingness to engage with alt-right shitheads comes from. He does not see them in an “us vs. them” mentality, as many of us do, because he primarily sees fragments of himself in them.
This is not necessarily wrong to do. It’s important that we remind ourselves of the humanity of fascists; first, so that we do not excessively verminize and brutalize figures in the same disturbing way that they do, but second to be conscious that their evil arises through the mechanism of humanity and not in its opposite. We wish to dehumanize fascists, like an criminal, more to protect ourselves in an existential sense, to say that we could never be so evil or never be so cruel or never be so violent and wicked. The bare truth is that humanity is never abridged no matter our act, and any hand can turn wicked given the right kinds of pressures at the right time. Our great social responsibility to resist these urges and proactively build a better, kinder future (in my mind, through intersectional socialism) is a perpetual task, not some one-time enlightenment that permanently differentiates us from those we see as evil.
But Kanye doesn’t seem to have those conditioning statements. He does not seem to always see that while we condemn the acts of Trump and his administration and condemn the inherent violence of the spread of fascist ideology (which, it must be stated, is different from run-of-the-mill conservativism), we are not seeking to abridge their humanity. He is, if anything, too empathetic, to the point where his response occludes the act he is responding to. It’s not unlike anaphylaxis, where the body’s response to allergens can cause a response so powerful it kills you. He develops a form of sympathy not by having true shared experience but by placing himself into people, even those he maybe shouldn’t. Politically, this seems to get him into a great deal of hot water. Artistically, however, it’s one of the things that leads him to greatness.
This empathetic impulse is what allows him to alloy himself as a producer so capably to those he works with. Hearing the Wyoming records, I’m reminded of the Kanye who produced for Common and Jay-Z, producing beats that could sit well next to each other but had a majorly different feel in those two hands. I’m reminded of that Kanye because it feels like he’s only evolved and deepened that sensitivity to work partners, getting even better at tapping into those other spaces specifically through his work partners. (Kanye’s work with Big Sean over his last few records points toward this as well.) So while this sensitivity leaves Kanye susceptible to bad faith politics that are kissing cousins with fascist thought, it also paradoxically leads him to a deepened and more freed-up sense of artistic movement, able to flow with the feeling of his collaborators with less hangups about forcing his own voice in, assured that it will arise naturally by the end.
The driving factor of that empathy, in a certain light, is blindness. By keeping his eyes down, focused on the minutiae in front of him, Kanye is able to walk step by step into new artistic areas or revisit old ones without feeling like he’s being retro or nostalgic. Whether the projects feel complete or of quality, I’ve never doubted Kanye’s artistic sincerity; even his wack-ass lunar prison garb fashion line feels like it arises very sincerely from it, coming from thoughts of the moment rather than some grandiloquent master plan. And, when everything works out, Kanye demonstrates through this self-blindness the power of working moment to moment and that we don’t need pretentious psychic architecture to justify and curate greatness; a great craftsman while produce great art by each moment of the craft being itself great.
It is this same self-blindness, leading with love and a moment-to-moment empathy devoid of grander machinations that sometimes trip up others or wall them off to influences they wouldn’t anticipate or know what to do with, that produces Kanye’s most asinine recent political thoughts. By being left without a strong internal moral schema, he is left unable to filter out certain thinkers who are not engaging in good faith with certain arguments. In fairness, I myself don’t engage in good faith with certain political argument, and while I think my disregard for certain thought I feel comfortable labeling as fascistic, tacitly genocidal and hierarchical in a brutalizing and dehumanizing way is valid and leads to a better world, I can’t pretend that those I think are significantly worse and more fascistic people than me at least view their own thoughts the same way. After all, I don’t think one could really arrive at a (semi-)coherent fascism without some greater psychic architecture goading you toward it and forcing your thoughts to stay in line.
But Kanye, in a Dionysean fit, rejects all hierarchies, even those that are better for him. This is very much an artist’s temperament, though for many artists there is also a deliberate effort put into knowing how to contain and direct this mode of thought and being, to be freed up when creating but to know boundaries and tact when engaging with politics and the interpersonal behavior and the other realms of the real. It’s a Dionysean movement enabled at least in part by his bipolar. I’ve spent enough of my own life learning how to better regulate my at-times ass fucking backwards impulses given to me by bipolar, anxiety and PTSD to know that they are defined as mental illnesses precisely because of how they fuck with our perceptions of the world and ability to make consistent sound judgments from those perceptions, impulses that sometimes are profoundly powerful and take deliberate therapy and medication and behavior regimens to keep in consistent control. I cannot have those insights about myself that have enabled me to live a better life and deny those insights to someone else.
Which is to say, in a way, that I understand where Kanye is coming from even if sometimes I am galled and infuriated by where he goes. Artistically, at least, it has produced a wondrous and multi-faceted record that shows that, frustratingly enough, Kanye is correct in his hypothesis that he’s at his artistic peak of his powers the more he pushes to touch every corner of himself at once. He seems to lose precious little, at least artistically, in that pursuit. His losses seem instead to be purely psychic. Losses he seems fit to suffer, even if we aren’t always willing to suffer along with him.
Frustratingly, Wyoming may be a masterpiece.
The Wyoming project from Kanye, outside of the political events surrounding it, reaffirm what I have always loved about Kanye West’s work. There are a number of artists, artists whom I sincerely love, that fall into prime modalities of work. They have one or two major tricks and the body of their work are permutations on those tricks, different frames but almost always the same interior image (or vice versa). I myself fall into that category, if I’m honest; most of my creative career has been spent trying to push at and bend the edges of my skills rather than acrete comfortably from within the space I feel most skilled, but at the end of the day the actual artistic movement is relatively small and you can spot my voice without a great deal of effort if you put your mind to it.
Kanye, however, is a polymorph. The College Dropout and Late Registrationhinted at it, the radical turn of Late Orchestration hinted at it, the vibrancy of Graduation and the starkness of 808s and Heartbreak seemed to confirm it, and his career from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy onward have been exaltations of the technicolo majesty of his imagination. It is important to keep in mind here, however, that when genius is ascribed it Kanye West, it is only artistic or creative genius and not necessarily anything else; while spheres of thought indeed overlap, there is no guarantee that a great surplus of talent or skill in one will transfer seamlessly to another. And while there are some that proclaim Kanye as a brilliant social commentator beyond his artistic abilities, this was never his primary strongsuit.
Which touches on the core of art: aesthetic.
We sometimes position artists as lofty philosophers of the people, those that transmute irreal ideals and the swirling fantasy of pure genius into some kind of tangible, experienceable form, i.e. art. This has almost never been true in reality, however. The primary function of art is aestheticism; the only consistent matter of art is aesthetics. Even when understanding is stripped, aesthetics remain; a foreign film with no subtitles has a look, a poem read aloud has a sound, a song has a feeling. This is what propels art with no understandable or legible subtext. Art becomes something experienced within the solitude of the vortex of the mind, an emotion and bare, unadorned thought that which sparks itself from itself, growing outward to its natural edge based both on the work and the psychic container (i.e. audience member) that captures it.
Art may, of course, additionally have deliberate subtext, and some great art is formed through amateurish aesthetic that carries a powerful and necessary message. But it’s just as foolish to say that no art is ever made valuable by its politics or abstract thoughts as it is to say art is only ever validated by its political value. After all, the broadly “human” cannot be reduced merely down to political capital as much as it cannot be reduced to material capital or social capital. We are intersections of lines, identities, and spaces, and we all carry within us a blank, perfectly flat and perfectly spacious void where our consciousness dwells. Sartre intersects with Foucault, Fanon, Marx and Nietzsche. (This is, after all, Deleuze’s base hypothesis.)
This provides us with a basis for the organic motion of art. Life is synthesized into the psyche of artist, including the art of others but also life experience, joy and pain and pleasure and most of all confusion and mystery (art always seems to come either from documenting in fine detail or soaring out to the edges of thought and experience, chiaroscuro evocations being more difficult than either of these polar creativities) and then this synthesis differenciates (again, a la Deleuze) some new object to be synthesized into another. The audience synthesizes the art object, but rarely do we engage with the meat of the object; instead, sifting through its bones, we tend to be enamored more with our own affect of the work, like reflecting on elements of a meal we have enjoyed. One person may favor the texture, while another may favor a certain pairing of flavors, and a third favors ingredients but not necessarily how it all came together.
There is a chance, admittedly, that I am projecting here, and that my metaphor comes from missing lunch today.
Regardless, aesthetic becomes the sole constant medium between all forms of art, the lattice that upholds the art experience, preserving it that it might be perceived and experienced. What remains when cancelling out film with sculpture, or live music with novels, or performance art with found art? Only that an aesthetic binds the experience, delineating its edges, interior and exterior. (Think Hegel here, I suppose, or perhaps again Sartre.)
Functionally, what this means is that while artists may additionally be engaged in some greater deliberate psychological, political or social project and may have expertise and valid insight there, the only sole unifier is their aestheticism, to choose art-which-equals-aestheticism over, say, direct activism or day-to-day political/social work as their labor. Because, again, art is merely another form of labor, creative rather than necessarily physical or intellectual, and like all labor it draws from all wells of types of resources of the laborer but localizes their output to one primary space. (Think Marx.)
Kanye As Aesthetician
Kanye’s greatest work, the work for which he has been most lauded, is not his commentaries on black experience or working class experience. He has been insightful on those in the past, granted, and there is no denying his position as a contemporary black creative of note and influence, influence which also must be said that extends far beyond the typically contained field of black art. (Contained, let us remind ourselves, of the white supremacist chauvenism that says black art about black life is inherently worth less than similarly myopic white art about white life, etc.) Instead, his greatest work has been his keen aesthetic eye. Through the theoretical/material approach of art as bare aesthetic mechanized by psychology and sociology, this explains a great deal of his plaudits. It is not that these aesthetic projects have necessarily broken new ground but rather that they took a band-leader approach to demonstrate ground broken in the avant-garde sectors to mainstream audiences and wrapped in Kanye’s art school eye. He did, after all, initially attend college as a design student, a fact that not only underscores his aesthetic eye in the musical world but also is often omitted from his ventures in fashion design.
A secondary characteristic of this Dionysean psychological enslavement to aesthetic, message itself being a secondary consideration to his work, is that it allows Kanye to more easily employ outside writers without cheapening his work. It’s an open secret that Kanye employs ghost writers for his verses, but this knowledge doesn’t plague him with angst and defamation the way that it does Drake, partly because even when his lines are great, we do not view Kanye’s work as primarily a vessel for lyrical acrobatics and insights the way we might Kendrick Lamar or Black Thought or Common or the like. Kanye’s authenticity comes not from his words, like most artist’s do, but from assemblage, achieving a Deleuzian whole; incongruous moments are made congruent by context and what aesthetic flavor or contour they add to the overall architecture of his work.
A tertiary characteristic, the one most relevant here, is that Kanye’s specific politics often have little bearing on his work. Like someone like Prince or Miles Davis, the act of his vibrant and unabashedly black avant-pop is the bare politics itself; other elements, some intensely unsavory and even detestible, may impose themselves from outside but are rarely given space or form within the music (save, in stretches, for Kanye’s misogyny).
In the time since beginning this project of mine chronicling my personal and critical thoughts on Kanye’s Wyoming project, he has since undertaken a lengthy interview on Jimmy Kimmel’s late night show; while there, he revealed his #MAGA and pro-Trump statements as being rooted in the substantially more banal liberalism of “Try love.” The dumbness of this thought, and how baldly it falls flat of the realities of children and families torn apart and remaindered to concentration camp-like conditions and the news that the war in Afghanistan may be officially privatized and overseen by a viceroy (as opposed to being privatized behind closed doors and behind the media veil), renders it believable as the root of his sentiments. No one would really cop to something so flippant, such feel-good intellectually and morally thin nonsense unless they meant it; either they are smart enough to realize how bad their logic was and are offering it up as a mea culpa, or they are still too dumb to realize how bad an excuse it would be. Either way, the idea that Kanye’s admiration of Trump’s “dragon energy” comes more from a well-intentioned but ultimately foolish position of trying to make the most of whatever is in the world rather than a real proto-fascistic intent feels more in keeping with Kanye. Regardless of your feelings on him prior to those statements, the thought of an explicit fascist turn of Kanye toward a white supremacist felt at least a bit out of character and inexplicable, especially given previous statements about George Bush.
It is this artist’s heart of Kanye’s that both consistently creates compelling work, compelling enough to have exciting and intellectually sticky and fibrous connections to all sorts of other thoughts, as well as the primary force placing his foot in his mouth. Kanye clearly thinks about the aesthetic world first and the real world second, and his increased success has only worsened this; the son of an activist and professor seems to have surrendered himself more and more to the shape of his interior world sometimes at a loss to the exterior. But I think pathologizing him as somehow driven by evil or willing to tolerate evil due to it being inoffensive to him is a stretch. To say he finds it inoffensive is to imply that in someway he has reckoned it at all in order to give it that designation; he seems blissfully unaware of the world as it is now, focusing instead on the voices and images inside of his head.
They are compelling voices. They produce compelling art. But they are not the whole of the world. And I can’t fault someone for watching him unable to critique Trump the way the fucker demands to be critiqued and then getting tired of Kanye. But I can’t really, if I’m honest; something about him sticks in my head. It’s almost certainly part projection, but I understand him somewhat, from the outside; the thoughts aren’t good to me so much as understandable, pitiable, and in that empathetic response of mine I am compelled to return.
It is this same aestheticist urge that draws me, ultimately, to metal. There are valid interpretations of metal as a spiritualist urge in rock music taken to near religious intensity; metal as extreme body music; metal as natural aesthetic evolution and intensification of the same tendencies that differentiate psychedelic, progressive and hard rock from its softer, simpler variants. And while all of those appeal to me, and at times even become central to my desire for the genre which has defined so much of my life (the other three being jazz, electronic music, and progressive music), it is the aestheticist urge that tends to give it supremacy.
Without derailing this essay by turning it into several thousand words about heavy metal, what I will say is that one need only glance at how band logos differ in metal compared to contemporary rock music, or how album art differs in metal compared to pop, to see how of-a-piece everything is. It is a considered full body of work; the logo, color palette, and iconography of a band and its associated art, down to the titles of records and songs, are used typically to develop a central aesthetic motif. One of the big reasons you need not necessarily understand every word of a metal group is because of the desire for each element to tell a single unified story, such that explicitly understandable lyrics are not necessary to understand the emotional arc of a record. And while bands and sub-genres may differ in the types of aesthetic stories they tell, may differ between arcing for the heart or the psyche or the body or the cerebellum, what unifies them is by and large this devotion to aesthetics as a means of telling stories that otherwise would be hard to fully capture in a single stroke.
This notion, that a story may be larger than words, is part of what drives non-verbal storytelling generally. This thought extends to sculpture, painting, pottery, architecture, urban design and planning, as well as the more intuitive extensions to music and film. Representational art, long the preferred mode of narrow-minded revolutionary types, may capture certain elements of our lived world that seem to only exist in the real and not in the ideal or archetypal or abstract, little details that affect us deeply, like thorns in our crowns as much as pebbles in our shoes, but somehow disappear when the processes of abstraction are applied. But so too does representational art sometimes miss the great mythic melodramatic sweep of the psyche, the way that culture and time and history and emotional surge within us like tidal storms, far surpassing any reasonable or realistic ground or application of those same forces. Why should trauma possess and throttle us so? Why should love demand and distort us? Why do we wreck ourselves forever upon the rocks of suffering and desire? It is our stupidity that marks us most, the irrational Dionysean impulse-toward-impulse, the rejection of mere mechanic. If art were so simple as to render things exactly as they are, then there would be no need for art; we would emerge into a Borgesian world where every Thing would be the perfect representation of Itself, repeated in nested internal infinities, Pierre Menard remaking all of the world in every moment and every gesture.
(Certainly, we do live in that world, but that curious paradox works better in the world of irrationalism than materialist rationalism, and while material may give ground to all of the world, one of the things it gives ground to is the flowing air of the irrational.)
This is the same impulse that guides kaleidoscopic work, multi-lensed many-faceted wonders of thought and imagination. The sense is that, to correctly represent the paradox of thought and being, we must represent all forms of it, even when they run against each other, cancel each other out, weaken and defame each other. It is not synchrony that is sought but madness, that through cacophony of form and thought we may replicate and capture the cacophony of being. Which is all a fancy way of saying the being alive is fucked up, being born is traumatic, and the thought that we will one day die is terrifying, and adding on top the contorted wickednesses of the structures of the world, some which we contribute to and others to which we are victims, only fucks us up more. It is easier, sometimes, to make a focused work, or a realist one, something that seeks to show something simple, concrete and real. But there is a value too in something fucked up, both in structure and image, to capture how fucked up being is.
It must also be stated that, in terms of technology of art and design, rap now largely matches the pace of metal, punk, and industrial, which for the longest time had the most concerted devotion to an aesthetic ideal rather than possessing incidental aesthetics. (One could write an essay on the inordinate and illogical amount of power incident aesthetics holds on art, but that’s ancillary to this already digression-laden piece.) This aesthetic acceleration is not due solely to Kanye, and practitioners of that aestheticist ideal predated and coexisted with Kanye, but its mainstream presence is certainly due to his influence. Whether we like him now or not, one can’t undercut the amount of influence Kanye has had on both the sound and the look and design of rap, acting as design consulted on records he never touched the dials on and influencing plenty of others to present a fuller package.
The kaleidoscopic approach on Wyoming seems to be the zenith of the style for Kanye; it is hard to see him expanding the thought in some significant way beyond a five-record set, all in disparate styles and internal aesthetics assembling into a cacophonous total image of his artistic and aesthetic sensibilities. Especially since it acts as summation of his artist thoughts up until now, taking sonically from every record from Yeezus and back and marrying them to an expanded structural form garnered from The Life of Pablo. Much as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it seems like Kanye will have to move on after this; what possible stylistic followup could be left after this?
There is, of course, another answer to that question. The biggest issue Wyoming faces as a project is not the lack of quality of the material (being by and large a success, albeit one that is at times spotty), but rather the diminished view of Kanye West as artist in turn diminishing the critical appraisal of his work. It also doesn’t help that the current crop of bigger rappers, from Lil Pump to Lil Uzi Vert to Lil Baby, seem to be disconnected from a lot of the musical thoughts Kanye brought to bear in the mainstream. There is a sense perhaps that Kanye’s largest audience that still paid close attention to him was an older one, the same audience he alienated with his comments. He’s too big a name to disappear, but there’s some unnameable quality to how warily he’s viewed now, a feeling that the damage may be permanent.
I personally hope it isn’t. Granted, I also hope he realizes how fucking stupid and rash some of his comments were and makes strides to amend some of the damage from them, and I don’t necessarily think that hope is going to come true. But I think there is worth in Wyoming, and I think it shows a mind still flickering with thoughts that are yet to come. Lou Reed was producing viable and artistically worthwhile work until his passing; there is no reason why Kanye can’t do the same.
The hardest part of all of this, the thought that cannot be explicated because of how simple and bare it is, is the sensation of the depth of this wound. Perhaps it is because he didn’t release these five records as a single maximalist meta-project as I did here. (That’s my vanity talking.) Perhaps it is the political climate and the statements Kanye made. Perhaps it is working with Nas just before news of his abuse broke, or the use of an image of Whitney Houston’s drug-destroyed bathroom in a manner that feels so disrespectful to so many especially given how her own abuse at the hands of Bobby Brown played so deeply into her drug addiction, an abuse mirrored in the story of Nas and Kelis. It is, of course, likely a perfect storm of all of these.
What I do know is we received a masterful project from one of the young century’s great creators, one that will likely be remembered as more minor than it is due to factors largely existing outside of the work, many of which I agree should dampen things. I am not asking others to look past these factors. I would not agonize like this over so many words and sections if I was able to look past them myself. They are a knife in the side of an otherwise great project.
Art is fucked up because life is fucked up. There is no reconciliation here, no synthesis born from oppositional forces. Life is not theory; sometimes things just are. In fact, that is the barest state of being, the truer ground upon which even thoughts of materialism is born aloft. It is the cogito ergo sum of reality, the bareness of being without inflection.
So what is there to say?
Wyoming is good. The things surrounding it are fucked up. They make up a thorny maze that will keep many out of the project and deny them its fruits. That’s just the way it is.
A small thought, one that bears mentioning given the personal nature of this piece but one that must be requisitioned to an epilogue given its irrelevance.
My paternal grandparents, now both passed, lived for almost all of my life in an old house named Wyoming. It was erected in the early 1800s in South Carolina, likely a plantation house, before being acquired by a Confederate officer. The house was a gaunt, old thing, overly large and reeking with ghosts; I would sometimes see marching soldiers from the bathroom window, or sense the unnerving spirit of southern Christian angels of judgment drifting through the halls. It was as comforting as it was terrifying, its former owner buried in a pine box beneath the brick driveway (a condition of my grandparents’ acquisition of the property for as cheap as they got it). The side yard opened up to a small pasture, on which my grandpa kept a large tilled and gated garden. One the other side, he erected a small greenhouse, a smoking shed, and numerous smaller buildings the size of outhouses in which he stored different cooking equipment. He erected a full second building which became the garage, workhouse and where he stored his tractor and farming equipment. The back end of the property opened into a forest and, beyond that, to a second fenced in pasture with a manmade pond in the middle. There was another building in that pasture, where first my grandparents kept cattle before eventually turning it to a storehouse for a small boat for the pond as well as various other bits of farming equipment. In that pasture he erected a deer stand with line of sight of the entire pasture.
That was the house where, in fits of adolescent anger, I would escape, CD player in hand, and wander through the woods, lay in the hammocks and stare up at the vast crooked fingers of the trees as they blotted out the sun. It was at that house that my aunt had her marriage, that I discovered my love of comic books, that I received my first copies of Dune, that I came to realize I feared the angels of God more than I feared his devils, and where I learned to play the piano. It was a house bound to familial love and terror as much as it was to the evils of the Confederacy. There were secrets there and a deadly spirit.
After my dad died, I listened to the Road Salt double album by Pain of Salvation there, as well as having a heartbroken meditation to Einstein on the Beach. At that house, I discovered my love of AFI and of Yes. After my grandparents passed and it was decided that we would as a family sell the house, I wandered its property listening to Yob’s then-new Clearing a Path to Ascend; as “Marrow” pulsed, I was walking in dusk through the trees of the forest of the property, thinking how I would never see it again and how death drinks us all up, draining the world of memory more than it drains it of flesh.
There were conflicting things wrapped up in that house, great elemental love and evil. They did not reconcile themselves to each other or to any greater purpose. They simply were; life is fucked up and so are hearts and spaces and memories. That’s just the way things are.
That is what Wyoming is to me; an old fucked up house with joy and rage and ghosts and God trapped inside it. I carried that into this project, both Kanye’s records and my writing. I couldn’t not. It isn’t strictly relevant, but it is an association I have with the word that can’t be unwritten by me, and in an essay centered on how art wraps itself up in our lives and blooms in the empty caverns of our ribcages and skulls and hearts, it seemed fitting that I describe the soil in which this particular record bloomed.
(Associations like this, and MBDTF/Watch the Throne’s associations with my suicidality and the death of my father and collapse of my world before it, no matter how painful or sometimes precisely because of the pain, are why I can never really say goodbye to Kanye, whether I would like to or not.)