Wyoming (Part 5)
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 Registration hinted 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.)