Lost In The World: How Kanye West Achieved Universality By Sacrificing Himself
Note: this was my thesis-style “junior paper” (turned in, true to form, near the end of my senior year) for my undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago. If at any point it seems stilted or overly academic, I hope that explains it, at least partly.
As an emergent artist and public figure, Kanye West’s work in the mid-to-late aughts was characterized by a wry, ironic, and somewhat detached artistic (and, more importantly, comedic) persona. That crafted brand seems to have been Kanye’s reaction to his then geekiness and awkward origin story — that of a middle-class black college dropout in a mostly mixed-race Chicago neighborhood — and through the combination of self-awareness and humor, it worked to legitimize such a background for about half a decade. But after a now-infamous incident in which West interrupted nascent pop star (and then-American sweetheart) Taylor Swift’s receipt of a music video award, the backlash — with its extensive discourse describing him as an “asshole” (and subtle contexts of respectability politics and debate over the right of certain artists to participate in the public sphere) — overtook any prior assemblage of identity he had created. After months of media discussion and a publicized retreat from public life, this chapter of West’s narrative culminated in his own participation in (and summarizing of) this discourse in his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a bid for, above all else, “respect.” The serious acclaim that Kanye desired was, in this writer’s opinion, rightfully hailed as such. Its criticality and conceptual framework has served as a pivotal moment in hip-hop and the historical tendency toward aspirational narratives in popular rap.
However, the album has also come to represent a pivot point in West’s career, an albatross for his work in the 2010s, as a result of marking his explicit participation in the public discourse about and around him. It is the discourse itself, I argue, that prevents West from returning to his more gestural, affective high ground in the mid-2000s, instead forcing him to both be joked about and, when he can, joke about being joked about, a recursive discursive black hole that both seems artistically potent and more honestly disguises the inherent separatism from reality found in the post-Fantasy work of West. While there might have been, at the time, hardly any other way for West to clear his name in the court of public opinion, by focusing what has been fetishized, self-fetishized, and reified as his masterpiece, the fate of his public persona has been sealed. So then — what the hell does that mean for us, and for him?
It’s been a while now, so it might seem set in stone at this point to a newcomer — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West’s fifth album, is his crowning achievement, a masterpiece of hip-hop, popular music, and the album as cohesive creative work. Go on any fan forum, read any critical evaluation of the 2010s, look at the 33 1/3 book on the album: wherever you go, the consensus, whether shored up or pushed against, is that this is a masterpiece, with enough encoded meaning to be analyzed ten times over. I’m not going to say that this isn’t true. However, I think that the penchant for New Criticism-style analysis of “classics” like Dark Fantasy, or even the pop music equivalent of such analysis, leaves out some of the things that make the album resonant — that is, the milieu it emerged from, the aspirational ideal it instantiated, and the way in which its very reception as a classic had unintended effects on the celebrity reportage on its maker. I’ll be doing such analysis of the album later, but for now, let’s set it aside and talk about its narrative. It’s a knotty narrative, but it’s one that can’t be ignored: whether one finds Dark Fantasy to be a peak moment in 21st century hip-hop and popular music or an overrated act of megalomania, the historical record reveals an album — and a celebrity narrative, possibly more importantly — that sent shockwaves through music criticism, hip-hop, and the way that we think about blackness and the performance of blackness in popular music.
It’s important to remember that Kanye West wasn’t supposed to be a rapper. While he got his start with local Chicago hip-hop crews and made his intentions clear from the very start of his career to peers and mentors like producer No I.D., his awkwardly “normal” (read: middle class, not “street”) background made it difficult to break into mainstream hip-hop, which was then mostly defined by the upwardly mobile conspicuous consumption of Jay Z, the emergence of rap’s club era, and the residual gangsta affectations of most “authentic” rappers of the time. As many of his colleagues at the time would note, the West of the late nineties and early aughts might try to aim for a more gangsta sound, but he was unable to achieve it — to those he was trying to impress, it came off as inauthentic and uninformed.
Instead, West first made his name on a distinctive production style, using it to author the beats for some of those premier stars even as he continued to struggle with his own desires for success. Here, though, he inserted himself in a different, less unabashedly commercial milieu — in most of his songs, he would take samples of classic soul hits, and chop them up, sometimes leaving them identifiable while other times twisting them into unrecognizable shapes. Most notably, he would also tend to speed up the vocals of the songs, creating what the rap media would call “chipmunk soul.”
In doing this, West found himself (consciously) inheriting the legacy of the soul samples of classic producers of the 80s, as well as their direct successors like J Dilla, No I.D. himself, and, especially the Native Tongues collective — that is, De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest. Many of these later producers, in a move perceived by critics as a reaction to the overt aggression of groups like N.W.A., would retrench the paths of the emerging “classic” producers — at first, as with De La Soul, by integrating the sampling approach with an emerging “sampledelia” that threw everything but the kitchen sink into the mix. However, following a landmark case in 1991 that ruled Biz Markie to have violated copywright law when he’d sampled Gilbert O’Sullivan without permission from the artist, the ability of artists like De La Soul to act so recklessly (and, arguably, innovatively) was subsequently impaired, forcing them (and the rap industry at large) to shift their tactics and act with more discretion in production. Most prominently, this led Dr. Dre’s chart-topping “g-funk” style, which emulated the sonics of Parliament-Funkadelic’s “P-funk” sound without explicitly sampling their songs. However, for the emerging school of classicists, the sound of a sample continued to resonate — now not just for its intrinsic value as a unique sonic characteristic, but also as a signifier for a bygone age of hip-hop. Dilla in particular, then going by Jay Dee, adopted a style that continued to incorporate samples, but with a more expansive and necessarily elegant mode of styling fewer samples into a cohesive whole. A Tribe Called Quest, while its first two albums predated the Markie ruling, in many ways informed this attitude to production, with a wealth of sample choices that often scanned on first listen as minimal and subdued.
In this way, the practice of sampling over the nineties became an ingrained practice, with its own rules and “best practices” that could only be broken for good reason. It made for good critical appreciation, both from a mainstream press only now coming around to hip-hop and put off by the brazen radicalism of “gangsta rap” and from a listenership now invested in creating a history for this genre that had so recently been invented. Those looking for something different than the form of hip-hop then overtaking the airwaves were able to grab hold of the vague respectability established attitudinally in the alternative hip-hop of Native Tongues and sonically in the elegant constructions of production like that of No I.D., Dilla, and Premier.
West, on the other hand, was borne into a generation once removed from this emergent critical dichotomy — and it showed in his samples. While never so brazen as he is now in the public sphere, his samples exuded not settling respectability or a reaction to gangsta rap (he would produce, seemingly, for rappers of any moral valence) but an unbridled joy — maybe not for life itself, but for the affective possibilities of music. Tracks like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” grafted the crafty chipmunking of his immediate forebears to the more ebullient emotional affect of the Native Tongues crew — and yet stuck the beat under the biggest (and most conspicuous consumer) of them all, Jay-Z. The contrast, in the case of “Izzo” especially, would serve both handsomely — Jay-Z could match his rags-to-riches narratives with a production style that was simultaneously nostalgic and flippant, and West could find a living embodiment of the narrative implied by his sampling style.
It’s not this simple, of course — even then, West’s impulses would lead him down unexpected paths — like his Doors sample for “Takeover,” Jay’s Nas diss of the same year as “Izzo.” What became obvious, as “chipmunk soul” became a style to be emulated by aspiring chart-toppers across the production game, was that West’s ethos in production was rooted less in the sonics themselves and more in the cavalier attitude of it all — that of a student of the rap game who nevertheless looked to toy with conventions more than perfect a style within them. West then found himself, through his production, even then embodying a possible third way through hip-hop, one that continues to seep in to this day — a contrast between the near-electronic production and emphasis on the sonic qualities of vocals (usually accompanied by lyrical focus on unabashed consumption) on the one hand, and the “backpacker”, retromaniac ideology of lyricists and rhymers on the other. Jay-Z had explored this narrative from the perspective of the former coke dealer and rags-to-riches hustler through his ascent in the nineties.
Now West, having carved out a sonic signature but still lacking in a stardom of his, was beginning to embody a more humble form of aspirationalism. He loved hip-hop — had learned all that he could about it. But, to return to his rapping problem, his charisma lied not in persuasive cool, aggression or smooth danger. He was, for all intents and purposes, a regular dude — albeit still a black man in America, disenfranchised and dispirited at every turn by the always-extant residual effects of hundreds of years of slavery. How, then, could he deliver a message that could square the circle of both his, to be frank, awkwardness, and his own aspirational aims.
I’m reminded of a quote from Frank Kogan’s “Death Rock 2000” essay, published January 11, 2000, in the Village Voice. In reference to Kelis’s song “Caught Out There,” specifically its “I HATE YOU RIGHT NOW” chorus, he notes:
“And that’s where the song seems more white than black — not that whites lose control more than blacks, but that whites in music lose control more than blacks, because, for some whites, losing control is freedom, breaking out of oneself and one’s world, from the inner contamination that binds one to the world. At the extreme this losing control isn’t just going wild to the beat, it’s Iggy Pop half bragging and half hating himself for being the most fucked-up guy on the block, the one who’s going to die. It’s about taking oneself out. Whereas for blacks, in general, freedom is about gaining control, not losing it.”
In saying this, Kogan predicts a shift in the signification of “freedom” in black that West would at first drive and eventually come to embody — that in the 21st century, the genres coded “black” and directed by black performers would start to lose control — and be rewarded for it by a mostly white critical consensus.
Kogan never goes far enough to pin down exactly what makes this fetishism of “control” so prevalent circa 2000, but it’s not hard to understand, especially as laid out explicitly in Jay-Z’s work in his “imperial period.” There, Jay-Z reiterates a commitment to commercial success and aspirationalism as the invested goal of popular hip-hop, and that to turn his back on that and opt for lyrical intricacy and cosmopolitan beat choices would be, essentially, just more fake.
With West, on the other hand, there was no such intrinsic sense of desperation — of the contrast between the very bottom and the very top. It’s no wonder that his gangsta affectations came across as inauthentic or practiced — while it is, in fact, possible to affect a constructed persona of “gangsta” that finds success, as former correctional officer and not-actually-a-drug-dealer Rick Ross has done throughout his oeuvre, neither West’s lived experience nor his personality made it possible for him to either authentically embody or convincingly adopt these stylings.
This first phase, which one might be able to see as a microcosm of both West’s drive and his eventual limitations, came to a head in the events leading up to the release of his debut album, The College Dropout. As related in nearly ten minutes of detail on the self-mythologizing closer track, “Last Call,” there were countless twists and turns in the recording of The College Dropout — but none that seem more evidently impactful (and characterized as “fateful”) as the car accident that nearly killed him.
Afterwards, as corroborated by a later interview with No I.D., West was compelled to rap about his accident. As No I.D. says, “He was like, ‘I figured it out.’ I was like, ‘What did you figure out?’ He said, ‘I’m going to rap about this accident. I’m going to use a song and change the direction. I’m going conscious with my music.’ […] I may have said, ’But you’re not conscious how are you going to do that?’ He’s like, ‘Nah trust me, this is going to be my direction. I know how I’m going to do it. I got it now. I figured it out.’”
As stated, “Through The Wire” is anything but gangsta rap — it’s very literally a song about a man who has to rap with his mouth wired shut. In its lyrics, rather, West’s conflicting impulses come alive, revealing a penchant for broad social critique, self-love, self-loathing, and ambition — ambition especially, in a way that scans lyrically as preordained success.
This is something that West returns to, time and time again — more than any other topic, actually. With the added context of No I.D.’s quote, though, it makes it clear that West’s primary concern is success, along whatever metric he finds himself aligned with at the time. Any social consciousness, experimentalism, or lyrical prowess is secondary to that ambition towards constantly shifting definitions of ubiquity.
Watching West’s career progress from Dropout, it’s not hard to see the twists and turns that follow him. Late Registration, his next album, was a more self-conscious paean to the boom-bap era that led him to success with Dropout. It also featured a prominent co-producer in Jon Brion, then best-known for his work with fame-conflicted songstress Fiona Apple and his soundtracks for movies like Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind and Punch-Drunk Love. It was here that West would see his first flirtations with the explicit signifiers of “maturation” as defined by the indie rock press — more self-criticism, greater depth of personal, emotional excavations, a penchant for adding arty neoclassical strings to “class” the whole thing up.
But just as he’d found success in that mode, he pivoted, it seemed, just as quickly to more anthemic stylings. Following a stadium tour opening for U2 off of Late Registration, West consciously aimed for a broader sound on his third album, Graduation, which he’s often cited as having made with stadiums in mind. As a result, the lyrical reflexivity is pared back, the sonic detail found in Registration is toned down in favor of a chunkier, more widescreen mode of production, aided by his new co-producer DJ Toomp. On songs like “Big Brother,” West even ad-libs “stadium status,” and the specific choice to sample French house crossover artists Daft Punk for lead single “Stronger” hinted at impulses to move a crowd not towards some specific personal relationship with the artist and his story, but rather towards the communalism oft-feted in dance and pop music — a mode, for a time, rebuked by the dominant critical mode of the press known as “rockism.”
This fetish for the power of “pop” would bleed into West’s interviews and influences leading up to the release of his fourth album, 808s and Heartbreak, but its inflection would change following a series of personal disruptions in West’s private life — namely, the death of his mother and his split from his longtime fiancé, who he’d been in a relationship with intermittently since 2002. Accordingly, the “pop” that West seemed to reference in 808s was not the “stadium status” flagrancy of U2, Daft Punk, or the icons of 70s stadium rock, but rather the synthesized romanticism of 80s New Pop — with cover art influenced by dance-rock band New Order, drum patterns compared to those of Phil Collins, and a singing (yes, singing) style that West ascribed at least partly to Gary Numan.
It was in this album that West found himself part of a cultural conversation around the use of the music program Auto-Tune, which was in the midst of a backlash surrounding questions of its authenticity and ability to make “people who can’t sing” into one-hit wonders. West’s use of the technique, however, along with his choice to pair it with moody ballads about the “coldest story ever told” and his anxieties about intimacy, carved out an unwittingly influential space in the world of black pop music — West would reiterate that he was “harmonizing, but always from a nigga perspective.”
West’s choice to suddenly rebuke both the traditional metrics of success for rappers and the more ingratiating melodic ideologies of mainstream R&B would thus take the “stadium status” platform he’d so recently found, along with his shaky entrance into not just the hip-hop but the broader “popular music” canon, and use it to draw attention to the anxieties that pervade that mode of success — the videodrome of pop music, how it raised up and then destroyed Michael Jackson, among others, as seen through the eyes of a notoriously rebellious and outspoken black pop star.
Now, while the influence of his hip-hop synthpop (synth-hop?) has been subject to write-up after write-up, for the purposes of this I’m more interested in how 808s instantiates a few new concepts — that is, of the anxious black pop icon, of the consciously commoditized pop voice, and of, more broadly, a conflicted relationship with capitalism and success in society, specifically informed by a minoritarian viewpoint, that would then be imitated and diluted again and again until it would become the dominant framework for popular discourse in the 2010s. Here, West invented something new.
Two years later, on Dark Fantasy (yeah, finally), West would consolidate these concepts in both expected and unexpected directions — taking the implicit conflict of 808s and unpacking it as a text to be explored, even as he seemed to lyrically and sonically gesture towards a hope to escape from that duplicity. In doing so, West would cede the possibility of becoming a pop icon in the image of Michael Jackson or Madonna — though he would continue to cite both in increasingly off-kilter ways. Instead, he would plant his feet firmly in the affective space he was already occupying and link it, more firmly than ever before, to historical racial tensions, the anxieties of modern life, and the trappings of fame.
In doing so, though, West would create a trap for himself and the aspirational mode he still held on to — a new form of exploitation that, in its affective attractiveness, would serve as emblematic of a new kind of videodrome, not of the Jacksonist, seductive, framework, but rather of the resistive, individualist one. By framing himself as “the real,” not in his lived background but in his willingness to expose his personal failings along with his perceived mistreatment by the media, West would take the sonic and affective explosiveness of 808s and attempt to put it back into the aspirational box of pop — transcendence through transgression, once again in the idiom of rockism but with the added stakes of hip-hop.
The hardest and most important thing to do in talking about this album, for me, is to refrain from doing “popular music criticism” — especially that which is inherited, as most of it is, from the Lester Bangs/Robert Christgau/Richard Meltzer school of thought. While it looks closer to New Criticism, a better frame of mind to be in might be that of the sociomusicologist, a la Simon Frith, or of, even better, the subject of a chapter in Frith’s 1996 book Performing Rites titled “Songs as Texts.” This is meant simply as a reminder to myself of my affective habits, and the depth of analysis lost when I assume a wholly shared musical experience.
So then, why don’t I spend some time looking at the encoded forms of authenticity and belonging in My Beautiful Dark Fantasy. I attempted in a first take of organizing this to take authenticity first and belonging second, but soon realized that they are far too intertwined for me to do so cogently. Rather, I will just talk about the way I perceive the two terms briefly and then proceed to note their presence in key textual moments throughout the essay. So: authenticity is something that you perform and feel on others — one can never stably, I believe, consider themselves to be an “authentic punk.” Thus, it is best noted in MBDTF through how certain aesthetic choices are played referentially, or for the sake of how they signify rather than for the content within. Belonging, on the other hand, requires one go further into the lyrics and the sounds, rather than to focus on the interlocution of the text’s characters and sonic tropes. Where authenticity is a marker applied by others, or a signifier claimed by the artist, belonging is instead a process, reified or denied not by anything one interlocutor might claim but from that which is felt as shared, both experientially and affectively.
“You might think you’ve peeped the scene — you haven’t, the real one’s far too mean. The watered down one, the one you know, was made up centuries ago. They made it sound all wack and corny — yes it’s awful, blasted boring. Twisted fiction, sick addiction, well gather ‘round children — zip it, listen!” So goes the introduction to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy from Nicki Minaj, as a chorus of vocals — at least one belonging to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon cum distorted Auto-Tune — croon around her. Already, the album has become metatextual, detached, conceptual. Authenticity, insofar as it will later be explored and interrogated by the album, has been foregrounded: Minaj is directly addressing the listener and their preconceptions (around hip-hop, fame, or even popular music in general), asserting, funnily enough, that the problem with listener perceptions isn’t that they’re dramatized or overblown, but that they’re watered down. Here, Minaj says, is the real deal — no filler. But the accuracy of her claim is less important than the zest of it — as the dichotomy goes, there are “real fakes” and “fake reals,” and here Minaj is a real fake in peak form.
To go along with real fakeness, it’s worth noting the fake realness. The immediate eye-catchers: the King Crimson (“POWER”) and Mike Oldfield (“Dark Fantasy”) progressive rock samples and the fact there are these portentous strings on half the tracks. All signify slightly differently, but they do similar work — that is, to take Minaj’s foundation and expand them into a sonic world that’s surrealistically garish. The strings (possibly live and possibly canned) are most prominent on tracks like “So Appalled,” Devil In A New Dress,” and “Dark Fantasy” — songs where West and whoever’s featured on the track emphasize braggadocio and conspicuous consumption, but always with a reflexive twist somewhere along the way. In “Dark Fantasy” it’s the vivid imagery of the devil in a Chrysler LeBaron. In “So Appalled” it’s a combination of the chorus, which has West asserting that his wealth is “fucking ridiculous” (it’s ambiguous whether he’s kidding) and the general tone of each verse, where disdain towards lesser rappers either takes on a near-parodic level due to the chamber instrumentation, or, in at least West’s case, noting “N*gg*s is going through real shit, man, they outta work/that’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt/that’s why I’d rather spit something that gotta purp[ose]” to close a verse mostly preoccupied with how good at sex Kanye West is. And in “Devil In A New Dress,” it’s the little tells — “I thought I was the asshole,” “hard to be humble,” “you love me for me, could you be more phony?” — that gives an otherwise elegant track a post-facto bitter edge.
By lyrically undermining and rendering musically both gorgeous and garish (and gorgeously garish) straightforward narratives like the started-from-the-bottom story, the I-can-rap-circles-around-you boast, and the ladies man showing off his cash, West subverts the expected and “authentic” rapping tropes of his time, rendering them as aesthetically in bad taste or based on false ideas about the security of rappers’ masculinity and wealth. West is not constructing a polemic against these rappers, per se — he simply provides them with a musical background that contrasts with their (especially in the case of say, Pusha T and his Wu-Tang collaborators) usual minimally composed trunk-rattling fare — compare “Grindin’” by Pusha’s ex-crew Clipse to “So Appalled”. Thus, in a different context, detached from standard comports of authentic expression of both a “street experience” and an upwardly mobile one, veteran rappers can get…kind of weird. In both of Jay Z’s features, he makes the usual boasts about having pivoted towards cash, but also at one point spits “Everybody wanna know what my Achilles heel is? Looooove.”
Meanwhile, the King Crimson sample in “POWER” hearkens back to a more specific period of excess — the rise of progressive rock in the 1970s, when rock music’s “being taken seriously” went from a curiosity about pop formalism as an aesthetic manifestation of the American middle class to an application of modernist artistic principles to the music. As his “comeback song,” “POWER” foregrounds his bumpy relationship with the American public, framing the song (as with the previously mentioned) as a brag, and then poking lyrical and musical holes in that preconception. Here, though, the surprise is inverted. “POWER” is explicitly not about craving power — it is a motormouth series of Freudian slips, of what happens when someone on a power trip is really aware (and scared of the fact that) they’re on a power trip — “stop tripping, I’m tripping off the power,” he says. The song is Dionysian in its lyrical conceit, but more concerned both with rapping well and rapping with momentum, thus hewing close to rockist with its sampled drum solo and spiraling guitar sample in the verses.
Between all of these examples, I feel that it’d be accurate to characterize the style of the hip-hop on MBDTF as a sort of “individualist rap” — adherent to the internal logic of the rapper and freed from any comprehensible attachment to a physical scene, and therefore compelling in a way that’s not just lyrically reflexive but musically complementary (or engaging as a counterpoint) as well. It codifies a type of hip-hop authenticity that is surrealist but not horrorcore, and garish in an arty way rather than a populist one. In this way, it bypasses the question Jay Z brings up in both his features and repeatedly on The Black Album — a glorified accusation of being a sellout, essentially — by reframing rap stardom in 2010 as a shiny mirror ball containing the artist, who admires its surface even as they feel trapped by it.
For most rappers, this reveals their core “brands,” in terms of their subject matter, favored references and tropes, and attitudinal leanings. However, West on MBDTF negotiates numerous metrics of authenticity throughout its tracks, synthesizing them while still foregrounding, above all else, his legitimacy as a Black American. Nowhere is this more apparent than “Gorgeous,” a lyrical showcase for West that finds himself making the most naked claim for authentic Blackness in the entire album. With lines like “Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon,” and “I treat the cash the way the government treats AIDS/I won’t be satisfied til’ all my n*gg*s get it, get it?” West locates his experience in the milieu of American racism, but as with his other moments of political awareness, it’s subsumed into the personal, and from a somewhat confusing perspective of someone who no doubt experiences racism, but who is also incredibly wealthy. The final verse, on the other hand, from Raekwon, is a knotty set of bars about growing up in poverty that eventually acquires an inspirational bent, closing out with a “to every young man, this is a plan/learn from others like your brothers Rae and Kanye.” Meanwhile, the chorus itself, sung by Kid Cudi, seems at first near-unrelated to the rest of the song, well-sung though it is. “Ain’t no question if I want it, I need it/I can feel it slowly drifting away from me/I’m on the edge so why you playing, I’m saying/I will never ever let you live this down, down down.” It’s only with a bit of distance that one can understand the through line from Cudi’s chorus, a likely reference to West’s then-precarity in the public eye, to West’s neurotic vacillation between self-obsession and backpacker wisdom, to Raekwon’s straight-faced advice-giving.
This chorus gets at a broader theme, and one that becomes more apparent as the album goes on. With his penchant for moving from genre to genre, shifting milieus unexpectedly, and lyrically self-dramatizing, Kanye functions, on MBDTF, as a cipher exposed, performing “belonging” as a depressive, if not a solipsist — first implicitly and wryly, then explicitly, with “Devil In A New Dress” serving as a pivot point due to its ambiguous melody and equal parts tongue-in-cheek braggadocio and self-flagellation. In this back half, West’s introspection is foregrounded and supported musically, as he vents frustration and vulnerability at, mostly the women in his lyrics as a synecdoche for his larger inability to belong.
That is not to say that the desire to belong only comes up at this point — indeed, West’s jam-packed posse cuts would seem to be ideal spaces to do so. But due to the nature of the aforementioned individualist style of hip-hop cultivated on those songs, West only finds a rapping counterpoint to explore his longing (and desire to be-longing, and to belong) with Pusha T on “Runaway.” There, his inability to connect is present in full force, along with a return of the Auto-Tuned singing West favored on his previous album, 808s and Heartbreak. Unlike on those tracks, though, here West loosens himself from the rhythm of the track itself, structuring it not like a bass-heavy hip-hop version of “In The Air Tonight” but rather as (maybe) a gothic inheritor of New Jack Swing. West is effusive and candidly sorrowful, with the Auto-Tune distortion lowered (until West’s orgiastic burst into glossolia late in the song) and a set of lyrics more self-critical than those on 808s, which tended to lash out. It’s tender, swaying, and hypnotic, and also host to two ricocheting samples — one of Rick James saying “look at ya!” and one of James Brown saying “ladies and gentlemen”. Two of the biggest icons in traditional black pop masculinity: so why the hell are they on this sadsack of a track?
It makes more sense when Pusha T comes in and completely diverts from the theme thus far. Pusha is callous, dismissive, and apparently pussy-obsessed (“24/7, 365”). It’s a complete 180 from West’s lyrical attitude, it’s gross, and yet it actually thickens the experience of the song. By situating the Pusha verse in between two of West’s, it actually creates a small dialectic between the two, lending more signification to West’s histrionics and making it almost entirely apparent that Pusha is not to be empathized with here.
Everything aside, this is a strange and somewhat radical conceit still, seven years later. By allowing both sides of the woundednesss in a rapper — the regretful and the vindictive — to speak in one track, West provided an emotional blueprint for peers like Drake and successors like Future to think critically about how they would choose to implement melody and vulnerability as a trope in their music. At risk of whacking the question prompt over the head, it really does become a question of whether (along a spectrum, of course) vulnerability will be used to signify post-MBDTF authenticity in one’s persona (Drake), or played straight as a publicly proffered wish to belong.
By the end of “Blame Game,” the drama promised by Minaj at the outset of the album has been more than fulfilled — more than that, it’s apparent that West has created a musical psychodrama, a move that solidified his status as a critical darling and ingratiated himself with audiences interested in hip-hop but more impressed by self-flagellation than the performance of control. My personal take is middle class audiences in general, but uniquely strong affective attachments to him from white suburban introverts and indie kids who would not otherwise invest in looking for hip-hop.
However, it’s important to remember Minaj’s opening monologue in all of this. While it’s since become equated with West’s public image, this perpetual psychodrama is itself a construct, a lyrical and conceptual conceit that West is, at least to some degree, toying with. Previous albums showed him entirely capable of addressing other subjects than his internal mental state, without necessarily drawing, as with “Gorgeous” here, it back to his personal attachments. Then, it was a conversation among fans — is he being ironic here? What does he mean by this? Is he a genius or is he nuts? With MBDTF, West entered that conversation, and attempted to end it in the same stroke. Is this West’s way of trying to belong? Is that okay?
It’s not just lyrical. West’s aforementioned commitment to grafting this aesthetic persona to outsized, garish pop structures and chorus mechanism allows for the textual content of most of the songs that aren’t explicitly depressive to signify, ironically, as celebratory, or for the content to be entirely unimportant — I’m reminded of a scene in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, in which the characters shamelessly and excitedly sing along to the whole of “All Of The Lights,” undeterred from its exuberance even understanding its dark lyrical content. While, as a scene in a somewhat arty film, this is no doubt intended with some irony, it is undoubtedly a scene that I too have taken part in. This is a return to the first half of MBDTF — songs that do this to me personally are “POWER” (in its references to suicide), “All Of The Lights” (in its references to abuse), and “Monster” (in its cryptic yet unambiguously sinister Bon Iver outro). By performing wholesale the construct that “Runaway” exposed as dialectical in nature, West can shorthand that aforementioned personality “cipher” into a posture and lyrical style, one that will attract both an audience (although a smaller one, sales-wise, than his uncritical pop star albums, at least up until The Life of Pablo) and, more importantly, respect.
Even so, tightening West’s brand, if that’s what he is doing, is a somewhat sacrificial act — an acknowledgment that he knows what he is good at, and is content to focus in on that. In exposing the fucked-up world of fame and performing so wholly an affected, bombastic persona, West has lost the ability to offer commentary on anything without it relating back to that construct — not because he can’t write about it, but because it wouldn’t even be him. In MBDTF, West showed us the dark underbelly of fame. He was exceedingly good at it, and good at centering all of his other lyrical concerns around it, to the point that has forever branded him.
This seems a somewhat critical interpretation of MBDTF — positing its core, with layers peeled back, as the incapability of the famous to comment on anything (or belong to anything!) without it being subsumed into their fame for the sake of authenticity of one’s “brand”, a lyrical conceit reflected musically in the popcraft and structure that does, especially in “All Of The Lights,” work to attract fans of “bangers” even as they metatextually point out the secondary nature of “lyrics” or a message in pop. It’s cynical and apocalyptic, a pragmatically expressed, bitter reflection on what it means when “your fans make you who you are.” I guess we’ve peeoped the scene.
And yet, somehow this interpretation feels contestable with the last two songs, “Lost In The World” and “Who Will Survive In America.” “Lost In The World,” a compendium of samples and references invaluable to Black popular music that emerges unbidden from a straightforward invocation of Bon Iver’s “Woods”. Lost In The World’s melody, lifted and recontextualized as it is from “Woods,” is romantic, wistful, and winsome in the way none of the other songs on MBDTF are (the two that come close, “All Of The Lights” and “Runaway,” veer into bombast and melancholy, respectively), and as Justin Vernon’s voice grows harsher and more distorted by vocoder with every repeat of the single lyric of the song, it slowly gets replaced by West’s. Eventually, the a capella reaches a peak, pauses, then bursts into a sampledelic arrangement of vocal and drum snippets from breakbeat classics as Vernon’s voice lowers an octave (down to near where it was in “Monster”). The recitation continues, now recast as anthemic rather than wistful, until finally pausing to launch into what West described as his favorite 8 bars in an October for MTV. “You’re my devil, you’re my angel/you’re my heaven, you’re my hell/you’re my now, you’re my forever/you’re my freedom, you’re my jail/you’re my lies, you’re my truth/you’re my war, you’re my truce/you’re my questions, you’re my proof/you’re my stress and you’re my masseuse.”
They’re simple bars, and for a rapper to claim them as his favorite indicates a different mindset around crafting them than the internal complexity favored by the genre’s storied poets and wordsmiths. Rather, the appeal they (and the song, at this point in its rave-up) seem to have is not unlike that of dance music — West is still himself, but the simplicity and lack of specificity in his verse allows him to escape the realist trappings of hip-hop and brush against that appeal to collectivity he seemed to crave most in interviews for Graduation. The Michael Jackson-indebted ideology of dance-pop bleeds through with a straightforward interpolation of original disco track “Soul Makossa,” the source of the “mamasay mamasay mamakossa” lyrics to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.’” The hi-hat rhythms during the chorus, meanwhile, gesture towards nothing so much as house music, albeit of the “hip-house” style of Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock (whose core sample for their hit “It Takes Two” is also sampled by West here) and of New York Jungle Brothers’ more than anything out of West’s hometown.
Interestingly, the Jungle Brothers were part of the same Native Tongues collective as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, the latter of which West said he was consciously trying to imitate when making The College Dropout. It’s not hard to create a link between the explicit politicking of A Tribe Called Quest and the more implicit politics of rhythm the Jungle Brothers were preoccupied with — and then to link both back to West’s postmodern assemblages and desires to use the power of rhythm and melody to punch past the double-consciousness narrative of Black popular music — like, seemingly/supposedly for just a brief moment in history, Michael Jackson. It’s a trap, temptingly offered — “Run from the lights, run from the lights, run for your life,” sing a chorus of female vocalists in contrast to West’s “down for the night”, as the rhythm pauses briefly before lurching forward once again.
And so less than a minute after this simultaneous look towards outlines of a mass-media dance-pop contextualization of hip-house and back at the (also Black) rhythms that got hip-hop, and all music, where it is today, the straightforward Jackson-influenced lyricism and musical ambiguity between excitement and terror — the apotheosis of West’s King of Pop aspirations — is disrupted by a sternly stated “Who will survive in America?” emitting from nowhere, accompanied by a bongo drum and a female choral line with aggressive inflections down the musical scale. The statement recedes just as quickly, followed by the bongos, while the choral line remains and assimilates into a final backing vocal for the chorus. Drums, now more bass-inflected and, together with a set of nonverbal chants from that aforementioned chorus, vaguely signify Africa — perhaps either as (generously) the post-diasporic shared cultural memory of the continent’s musical traditions or (less generously) the American mass-mediated cultural object that is “African music.” In the span of mere minutes, the song has traversed from wounded ahistorical romanticism, to the Jackson family’s aspirationalism for the EDM age, to a comedown from that high that gestures, however broadly, at the Afro-diasporic foundation (and the fetishism of authenticity and “cool” that follows the diaspora’s contemporary art-making descendants) of popular music’s utopianism, its fulfillment of that wish to belong.
Affect spent and narrative threads exhausted, West opts to leave the last words on the album to Gil-Scott Heron, whose “Comment #1” takes up the entirety of “Who Will Survive In America” in slightly truncated form. Coming after the apocalyptic “if we die in each others’ arms/still get laid in the afterlife” psychodrama of “Lost In The World,” “Who Will Survive” reads as a gnomic guide to what just happened, and a mirror — polemical, poetic politics where before it was sonic and subtly subversive, and committed, grounded, and familial where “Lost In The World” was brazen and passionate. And after eleven tracks of knottily critiquing the possibility of both feeling authentic and belonging in contemporary society, and one (“World”) that posits simplicity and unbridled passion as a possible answer to that critique (before, of course, reminding you to run from the lights) — after all that, “Who Will Survive In America” names (what are implied to be) West’s fears, social, political, and philosophical, and then utters a simplicity: “What does Webster’s say about soul? All I want is a good home, and a wife, and a children, and some food to feed them every night.” that in its subject matter and plainness, parallels and contrasts with West’s “favorite lines.” After relating so many of the trials and duplicities that avail West, either as a depressive, a Black man in a racist society, or simply as a famous person with a big mouth, and feeling his every nerve ending sticking out, the rush and comedown of “Lost In The World” and “Who Will Survive In America” once again frame West as a world-beater, but this time running for his life as people watch from the world of “real hip-hop,” South Park, American Apparel, government-sponsored AIDS, a Chrysler LeBaron, Donald Trump, indie rock, and himself, and, as Heron says, just searching for family, intimacy and stability. Most notably, as the song asserts, America will exploit this desire to just be comfortable — will make him “build a new route to China if they’ll have [him]” — but West is one step ahead at least, because he already has come to realize his position as a representative of the Black American dream is based on nothing more than “Champagne wishes, thirty white bitches” — and that it’s “fucking ridiculous.” This both frames and vindicates the gilded aspirationalism of the entire rest of the album as not using politics as an authenticity move, but rather vice versa — the authenticity move as inherently political.
“Lost In The World” aside, MBDTF doesn’t create alternative futurities to escape the commoditized authenticity it exposes Black performers as being caught in — it’s more preoccupied with painting a comprehensive picture of what the current state of things is. But plenty later works would, and can always, pick up that thread. And while by the end of MBDTF West may have exposed his neuroses and contextualized them more than he had rectified them, it’s important to reframe that in terms of what he successfully did that none of his hip-hop forebears could. MBDTF asserted a persona that didn’t decouple West’s neuroses from his fame, but rather reasoned for them and insisted on their legitimacy. It politicized, and thus, authenticated West on his own terms of losing control as the desired effect instead of the traditional seeking of control of pre-West rappers. In doing so, he became the attitudinal father of contemporary hip-hop.
One of the most top-down music critics in the world right now, Simon Reynolds, wrote a piece last year called “how Drake became the master of hyper-reality rap.” It was a detailed excavation of what exactly Drake, who picks up in his emotional and political signification where Kanye left off with more swagger and less devotional asides, has codified this idea of hip-hop as a space for the “unreal” world of fame. But in Reynolds’s descriptions of Drake’s unending fame, Reynolds misses one of the political points of such music as this. While it’s accurate to describe the lifestyles of the rich and famous as “unreal” to many, and even more pertinent to note how those descriptions have become divorced from the aspiration-oriented origins of hip-hop’s conspicuous consumption, but it doesn’t mean that the world of fame isn’t actually real. These are real stories, happening to real people — to deny otherwise is to pigeonhole oneself into the margins, to pretend that famous people are just their constructed public personas. The thing is that Drake just isn’t quite willing to allow us in, preferring in his production to opt for a hermeticism and glossiness that’s both palatable and distancing.
It’s a mode that’s familiar to anyone who’s overly invested in the internet, where the construction of public personas — one’s micro-celebrity, in a way — is the norm. It’s weird, if you haven’t grown up with it, but for many coming of age just now, it’s the new normal. It’s also not inherently negative, or sinister, despite what Drake and Kanye West might make you think.
On the other side of this generational and ideological divide is indie hip-hop success story Chance the Rapper, whose ebullience is a sharp contrast with the apocalyptic anxiety of Drake and modern Kanye (but not, it’s worth noting, with the winking exuberance of The College Dropout, which Chance cites as an influence). It’s easy, as I often have, to look at Chance and see an opportunist or manipulator, someone taking advantage of his sonic palatability to a white listening public for the easier success. But Chance’s music easily and skillfully counters that cynicism with a balance of political investment, emotional range, and a repeated invocation of his city of origin (Chicago) that doesn’t stop at symbolism. Despite now being a Grammy-winning rising pop star, Chance’s relationship with Chicago is intimate and reiterated constantly, making it clear the investment is less in vague civic pride and more in developing a strong explicit portrait of a city more often painted with broader, darker brushstrokes. He recently donated one million dollars to the chronically underfunded Chicago Public Schools, and following a tense meeting with Governor Bruce Rauner, there’s growing interest in his plans as a political actor.
None of this would be possible without West, and Dark Fantasy in particular, which explicitly interrogated the platonic ideal of a pop star and posited that, in a nation and national culture so beset by stereotyping and divisive racial and political rhetoric, the move might be to just…do it yourself. Not by disregarding the system, a la the alternative economies of zines and Ian Mackaye, but rather in a way that manipulates the symbols and structures of hegemonic industry and bends them to your will, all while admitting their pervasion throughout everyday life. If you want a big platform, you’ll probably have to have an account with Big Silicon Valley Company Twitter, Incorporated. But if you get big enough and you care, you’re in a good position to actually engage with the power players of society (like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, or @jack), instead of just prodding them ineffectually from far, far below.
This isn’t to say that Kanye West is a “political” rapper, per se — as said before, his politics are simply the manifestations of his desire for respect, approval, contextualization. His primary concern is with fame, a mode of fame that he created and yet has no interest in politicizing (which is ok). This is a fame that’s appreciative of the power of technocracy even as it grumbles (or does more) at it, which Drake has used to achieve global fame and fortune at the expense of personal satisfaction and which Chance the Rapper has grafted to a folk politics with goals and effects as-of-yet undetermined.
The dark side of this, of course, is the potential of this new form of “authentic” fame to be abused for nihilistic (or faux-nihilistic) purposes. It’s unlikely to be subsumed wholesale into the consensual sentimentality of pop stardom (although Drake gets the closest) — after all, that’s kind of exactly what it’s pushing against. Rather, the problem comes with one place where a certain brand of criticality comes in handy, against all odds: the political valence of caring about something. In many ways, Donald Trump’s modern incarnation of celebrity is predicated on the harnessing of his absurd celebrity persona into that “authentic” fame — the difference is that he pretends something’s on offer when there’s not, a Kanye dressed up as a political messiah for supposedly excluded whites.
In many ways, this is the dark legacy of West’s nü-authenticity and many of the hip musical and cultural movements of the 2010s, many of which lifted West’s ideology wholesale while ignoring its specific tangled roots in the braggadocio of hip-hop, as well as the bracketed conceptualism of MBDTF itself. In a recent, provocative essay for a small publication called Refigural, a writer named James Payne posits that such movements, such as health goth, the net art of DIS Magazine and “normcore” all inadvertently played into the rise of the “alt-right” through their subsumption of the individualist Left into ironic corporatist aesthetics — “we’re wearing Nike, but we don’t support sweatshops, obviously.”
Payne argues that, due to the proximity of these aesthetics to those historically held by neo-fascist groups and the inherent slipperiness of aesthetics (augmented by the decontextualizing power of the hyperlinked internet), these movements were instrumental in normalizing the look of neo-fascism even as they looked for supposed ways to combat what was seen as the dominating problem of the time (that is, technocratic corporatism) from within. It’s not hard to see West, whose associations with many of the fashion organizations mentioned by Payne are well publicized, and Dark Fantasy, which briefly codified the idea of “fashion rap” along with West’s next project, Watch The Throne, as part of this normalization.
But just as West might’ve helped sow the seeds of a dissolved left, so too does his anxiety hold much of the key to its reclamation. It’s a fool’s errand to wish for a return to the Kanye of The College Dropout, where not just his politics but also his identity seems the clearest, but the impulse of Dark Fantasy to link his personal struggles to a historic black experience serve as an important reminder of something unspoken that makes “authenticity fame” feel truly powerful: its linkage to, if not a lived experience, then a lived cultural milieu. West’s music, to fans and critics alike, seems most powerful when it takes his anxieties as a received wisdom and uses the significant latitude of fame to draw attention to those who might be as influential as he — if only they had that same platform.
So, of course Kanye West was a sampler first, and of course his albums now host seemingly endless lists of collaborators, and of course Pablo highlight “Fade” (the spiritual successor to “Lost In The World,” to these ears) barely featured West at all and instead highlighted a Chicago house classic and a New York garage standard. It just makes the truth all the more apparent: that beneath all the self-promotion, pomposity, and mythmaking, Kanye West is at his core a bridge-builder, and he’s (still) sacrificing himself in the process.