Kanye West: Neoliberal or Nah?
Kanye West’s best work explores contradictions of the human condition. What’re the implications of gleefully participating in a system of political economy when you know it to be racist? How can someone hold onto their private identity in the face of an ever-hungry paparazzi? What is the meaning and obligations of responsibility? Water bottles aside, Kanye’s most recent album, The Life of Pablo, can be understood within this framework of personal responsibility. While the album’s lyrical content reiterates neoliberal discourses surrounding, it’s form and sonics serve to undermine the capitalist structures underpinning neoliberalism.
Before delving into the specifics of the album, it’s important to understand both neoliberalism and its context within the discussions of race in the United States. In short, neoliberalism is capitalism on speed. In long, Lauri Ouelette gives an excellent summary of the ideology in her piece “’Take Responsibility for Yourself’ Judge Judy and the Neoliberal Citizen” when she draws from a pair of social justice activists to define neoliberalism as a system of beliefs with five key components: “the ‘rule’ of the market; spending cuts on public services; deregulation (including the deregulation of broadcasting); the privatization of state owned institutions, ‘usually in the name of efficiency’; and ‘eliminating the concept of the public good or community and replacing it with individual responsibility.’” (233)
This last element is deeply racialized and predates the formal formulation of neoliberal ideology with the publication of an analysis of poverty within the black community written by Daniel Moynihan, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Assistant Labor Secretary. The 1965 paper The Negro Family: The Case For National Action (frequently known as the Moynihan Report) linked African-American poverty to the abdication of familial responsibility by black fathers. This supposed instability in black families has been used by neoliberals as an explanation for the futility of government action. In their view, no government program can “correct the culture” of absentee father. Additionally, this cultural diagnosis has expanded to one where fiscal irresponsibility is inherent to black culture.
Lyrically, The Life of Pablo rehashes this theme of personal responsibility within the black community. On the album’s final song, Saint Pablo, there are a pair of lyrics which epitomize this mode of thinking. The first: “I believe in the children, listen to the kids, bro/If the phone ringin’, go and get your kids ho” presents the idea a lack of support for children comes from a personal dereliction of responsibility, rather than economic factors such as a lack of paid maternity leave. The second: “Most black men couldn’t balance a checkbook/ But buy a new car, talkin’ ‘bout ‘how my neck look?’” similarly presents financial irresponsibility as a disease of the black community. It should go without saying that there is no respected study concluding that African-Americans are any less fiscally responsible than other racial or ethnic group.
On No More Parties in L.A., Kanye raps: “For all my n***** with babies by bitches/That use they kids as meal tickets/Not knowin’ the disconnect from the father/The next generation will be the real victims” This last set of lyrics evokes the idea of the welfare queen, a racially coded trope wherein poor black women have children with the express purpose of abusing the welfare system. Here it’s important to note that these ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. The Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations all used public fear of the welfare queen to slash public benefits programs.
These lyrics demonstrate how insidious neoliberal value systems are. Underprivileged Americans have historically been most damaged by neoliberal policies. Instead of rejecting the racism which undergirds the rhetoric of personal responsibility, Kanye has bought into it, replicated and given it legitimacy. This is particularly disappointing because in the past Kanye has railed against the prison-industrial complex, consumer capitalism and human rights violations within the diamond industry.
And while it may be easy to simply claim that Kanye is an outlier, this would be a mistake. These sorts of cultural arguments have purchase in the highest echelons of our political sphere within the Democratic Party. They were often reiterated by Obama who would often lecture black audiences about the importance of staying in school and not idolizing rappers or basketball players (rather than try to create reparative programs for structural racism).
Now we’re going to smoothly transition from talking about Kanye’s neoliberal lyrical content to how the form of his album actually goes against certain neoliberal tendencies. Wow! Would you look at that? We’re already there!
In Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s lecture “Habitual New Media” she contemplates the politics of forgetting our digital mistakes. What would it mean to live in a world where every single post we make isn’t (often unbeknownst to the user) cached, archived or tucked-away? These treasure troves of data are often sold to advertisers which demonstrates the commercial, capitalistic power of the data that we produce. The Life of Pablo gives us a partial answer to what it would mean for data to be impermanent.
Much of Kanye’s recent work has been interested in questions of form. The music video for his song Power was described as a moving painting while his video for Black Skinhead broke ground both for its interactivity and the fact the viewer was hit in the face with a poorly animated Kanye Penis halfway through. His latest experiment was with the form of the album itself. Rather than release The Life of Pablo as a static project, Kanye continued to update it. New songs and mixes were added after the album was released. This could easily have been an exercise in planned obsolescence. Listeners would have to purchase each additional version of the album. Or perhaps a user would buy a subscription to the work. Instead, we were treated to automatic updates, each erasing the previous one. What’re the politics of “forgetting” previous versions of the album? They’re rendered inaccessible. Users can’t purchase a The Life of Pablo anthology. The ease at which the loss of data could be monetized but isn’t demonstrates how Kanye has given into the underlying assumption of streaming, that art should be free.
Not only does The Life of Pablo’s launch upends the idea that a “sold” product must be a finished one, sonically, the album also reflects this new paradigm. Songs end with simplistic looped breakdowns, the digital equivalent of a broken record. The mixing is at times fuddled, obscuring lyrics or melodies.
Finally, despite the aforementioned neoliberal discursive modes of Kanye’s lyrics on the album, there are moments where Kanye does interesting stuff to destabilize those same ideas. Neoliberalism is an ideology totally focused on the self but there are moments of the album where Kanye is so focused on the self that it overloads neoliberalism.
QUICK CONTEXT TO UNDERSTAND HOW THIS HAPPENS:
> The Life of Pablo was originally called WAVES.
> Another famous rapper who is serving life in prison named Max B used to go around calling stuff wavy, to mean cool (I think).
> Wiz Khalifa, another more famous but less in-jail rapper, got upset Kanye was going to call the album WAVES because Wiz thought Kanye was biting Max B.
Cool? OK! So, Kanye includes a bit called “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission” on The Life of Pablo. It’s literally just Max B giving Kanye permission to use the expression “wavy”. The album is no longer called WAVES (albeit there is a song called “Waves”). This intermission no purpose other than to mollify all seven of the people who cared Kanye using the term “wavy” and to annoy Wiz. It comes without any context so only the most dedicated fans will know the history of the “song”. In an age where people can pick and choose to purchase individual songs from an album, this “song” isn’t marketable. Kanye inserted a piece which is so self-centered that it overloads the traditional neoliberal maxim of selling yourself. Rather than trying to meaningfully bolster his own bona fides with the proximity to other rappers similar to how microcelebrities do in Alice E. Marwick’s “Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy” as a sort of cultural “conspicuous consumption”, Kanye just lets the cosign stand. An equivalent action would be taking a selfie with a critically acclaimed character actress Margo Martindale (who stands outside of popular renown) and just letting it rest on your Instagram with no context. Kanye, the king of hawking a persona, basically turned around and showed something which is fragmented that it doesn’t matter. Our data and stories are only monetizable with context and this contextless piece demonstrates that.
What are we to make of all this? All this being the last 1400 words or so. Do either of those modes of neoliberalism overwhelm the other? Or do they exist in harmony? Finally, there’s the question of whether or not this is a meaningful form of resistance against neoliberalism. Personally, I’m doubtful that I’m doubtful that the form of The Life of Pablo can compensate for the lyrics. Textual analysis matters much more in the public sphere than form ever will. But by paying attention to the relationship between the two, we can complicate the narrative surrounding neoliberalism in art and avoid simplistic narratives. And that all starts by listening to The Life of Pablo on repeat for the next couple days.
Ouellette, Laurie, et al., editors. “‘Take Responsibility for Yourself ’: Judge Judy and the Neoliberal Citizen.” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, NYU Press, 2009, pp. 223–242
Habitual New Media. Perf. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun. Barnard Center for Research on Women, 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
Marwick A (2015) Instafame: Luxury selfies in the attention economy. Public Culture 27(1): 137–160