No One Man Should Have All That Power
After the release of 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye had some explaining to do. Although the effect of the album would be substantial for years to come, the hiphop community and the populace at large did not react well to the album. Also, that whole thing with Taylor Swift started right around this time. Still reeling from the death of his mother, Kanye did not take the reaction to the album or the reaction to the VMAs incident well. He went away for a while.
When Kanye returned to debut a new song “Runaway” on the VMAs in 2010 — the same VMAs he’d bolted from after interrupting Taylor — he has a new approach. His sparse staging and very purposeful blocking demonstrated careful forethought and planning. The production is a piece of art in and of itself, and he would repeat it on Saturday Night Live in an unprecedented change to SNL tradition. Lyrically, his self-awareness had passed cockiness and moved into apology: “let’s have a toast to assholes.” He uses real life to inform a fiction, a character and protagonist tasked with a quest from God: the same quest that I think the Kanye of Life of Pablo (third part of this article coming later) is on. Kanye from “Runaway” is real Kanye, but also not really.
I don’t want to discredit Kanye’s more recent work, but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a perfect record. Kanye West may be one of the last artists who believes in and creates great albums. Songs and tracks are assembled into a collection that makes a certain amount of sense. The feeling that comes from coming down off “Gorgeous” and transitioning into “Power” is palpable. There’s something that lies between those songs, even though there’s literally nothing there. Kanye understands the juxtaposition and uses it to create additional layers of feeling. I will demonstrate below how he uses a three act structure to elicit even more complex emotions from the full album listener.
The guest list on the album is astounding: Kid Cudi, Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Swizz Beatz, Pusha T, RZA, John Legend, Common, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Fergie, Rihanna, The-Dream, MIA, Seal, Beyoncé, Mos Def, Santigold, Alicia Keys, and Elton John* all participated in the months-long recording sessions, booked indefinitely at the Hawaiian studio where Kanye recorded 808s two years prior. The three studios were staffed 24/7 so that Kanye could be working on the entire album at the same time, working with whoever happened to be around at the time (mostly Cudi). The results are a 68-minute odyssey and what I believe to be the truest representation of Kanye’s skills as a music producer and artist.
Kanye continued to expand his outlook as a visual artist, creating a 35 minute film to accompany the release of “Runaway.” Several of the albums tracks are featured in it, in varying arrangements.
The album begins with Nicki Minaj riffing on Roald Dahl poem over a chorus of vocoder voices in a mockney accent. There is then a bold, single piano note and a choir (unvocodered) breaks in calling to God: “Can we get much higher?” Kanye begins to rap, questioning a life that is predicated on deals with the devil — drugs, sex, money — and whether there is room for him to stop himself. There is a bridge at the close of the song featuring Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, a psychedelic scene that serves as the close to the prelude to the album.
On “Gorgeous,” Kid Cudi begins to hone the focus of the hero’s concern: this is about fame. The protagonist is concerned that he may have had a misstep, and this album is his chance to make something perfect.
Not for nothing I’ve foreseen it,
I dream it
I can feel it slowly drifting away from me
No more chances if you blow this,
I will never ever let you live this down
Kanye calls this work his “Olympics” and compares his struggle to Malcolm X. He asks if being a “black Beatle” is the same as being a “fucking roach.” And he kinda has a really good point.
“Power” is the apex of the first act, where Kanye lets his bravado take front seat while he demonstrates that he is aware of his realm of influence, he recognizes its danger, and he wonders if he should just kill himself now and go out as (presumably) one of rap’s greatest of all time.
Now this will be a beautiful death
I’m jumping out the window,
I’m letting everything go
You got the power to let power go?
But thank goodness he doesn’t. He turns back on the lights.
The Hype Williams-directed video for All Of The Lights might actually be one of my favorite music videos of all time. If you don’t know it and you don’t suffer from epilepsy, I’d recommend a listen in a dark room with a nice stereo. It can be a very moving experience. There are vocals from almost every artist on the album in this one song, and Elton John’s pleading warning at the end of the song “I tried to tell you, but all I could say…” can make me cry sometimes. The “lights” in question are all the good and evils of fame: positive attention paid by a spotlight, negative attention paid by a cop’s flashlight. Elton has been there, and it feels like he’s trying to reach back through time to tell Kanye, or maybe even himself, of the dangers of the lights. I believe this is the close of the first act of the album, with Kanye choosing to press forward and face his past and future.
The next song begins with Bon Iver reappearing like a Greek chorus, bursting in to destroy the lights from the previous song.
I shoot the lights out
Hide ’til it’s bright out
Oh just another lonely night
Are you willing to sacrifice your life?
Just as Kanye surprised me with his intimate understanding of the 1988 Anime masterpiece Akira with the release of the video for “Stronger,” I was taken aback when I saw the video for “Monster,” a tribute to horror films of all generations. I should warn you if you’ve never seen — this video is reeeeallly not for the squeamish. I mean it. I’m not Kanye, I don’t exaggerate for the sake of exaggerating. It’s not super violent, per se, because most of the damage is already done? It’s mostly grotesque dead bodies, which did not go over well with, well, most people.
And this is why I think it’s important to understand Kanye in context, and that’s what no one seems to give a fuck about doing. Kanye is an artist working in an ever-expanding realm of areas of expertise, and his influence is felt everywhere — which makes him the target of critisism… everywhere. The music video for monster is actually really not violent at all — which shows you how effective the imagery is, because that whole video is still nightmare fuel, without anyone actually killing or decapitating anyone on screen. That’s genius. And the Kanye in the music video, and the “Kanye” in all of the music, is not the same person as real Kanye. I don’t think we see the real Kanye very often, I think he’s locked down pretty tight.
The characters of the song, featuring Rick Ross, Jay-Z and Minaj, are demons, beasts, vampires, and other monsters. They represent the worst of the real people — Jay’s past with drugs and violence, Rick’s eating (other rappers), Kanye’s ego and outbursts, and whatever it is that Nicki Minaj does. Bon Iver bursts in again at the song to state that they will wait for God’s judgement.
If Captain America: Civil War is “Avengers 2.5,” then “So Appalled” is “Monster 2,” adding Pusha T, Prynce Cy Hi, Swizz Beatz and RZA to the party. The song rails against the typical rap lifestyle, painting it as gaudy and undesirable. It also contains a possible 30 Rock reference in the pronunciation of “ri dic u lus,” which I adore.
The apex of the second act is “Devil in a New Dress,” a temptation presented to our hero, probably in the form of an evil temptress. There are definitely real world connotations here that I don’t need to get into, you have Google. If there’s a baby making song on this album, it’s this one. Rick Ross has a great verse to close out the song after a brilliant guitar solo by producer Mike Dean. I don’t skip most tracks on this albums, but this is one I would never skip, ever.
The second act closes with “Runaway.” The album version is the same as the live versions that Kanye had performed before the albums release except that the last three minutes of the song are beat and music with his sloppy vocoder humming over it. I used to hate it. I would skip it the moment it started. But now I love it. I don’t know what changed or how, but I don’t question it. It paints something in my mind now, and maybe it’s because I see the whole album as this huge concept now, so the music break is just another part of creating a feeling. The mouth noise is no different than jazz, it’s just a mic and a digital effect instead of a saxophone or clarinet.
“Hell of a Life” opens the final act of the album. After the long playout of “Runaway,” the opening of “Life” deceives the listener by playing notes that are not exactly the tempo of the song. When the drums come in, the song refocuses and Kanye takes off. Depending on how you read the song will depend on whether you think it’s about Amber Rose (already an ex at this point) or Kim Kardashian (still future wife but met at this point). At the time, I had no idea what to think. Now it’s pretty obvious to me that this is Kanye’s first song about Kim. Within the context of the album, the woman from “Devil in a New Dress” is more or less confirmed to be trouble. But it’s the kind of trouble that our hero seems to be interested in, anyway.
“Blame Game” is Kanye hating that he has fallen in love so hard and that everything is constant extremes. It’s kind of a break up song, if you want to imagine it that way. The end of the song reveals the reason: the woman who he slept with went back to a previous lover, and he overheard a conversation between them when she didn’t hang up the phone. In the song, the previous lover is Chris Rock for some reason, and it’s hysterical, which is really strange over John Legend’s sorrowful piano playing.
“Lost in the World” is the final track on the album. There’s actually one more track after that, but it’s just Kanye letting Gil-Scott Heron play him out. I actually think that the album could have done without that coda, because I think that “Lost in the World” covers it pretty well. Maybe it shows a little humility on Kanye’s part that he wanted Heron’s words, who he has sample repeatedly over the years.
Our hero admits his defeat in the face of fame, giving into temptation once again and letting his emotions gain control. Bon Iver once again swings in to set the stage:
I’m up in the woods,
I’m down on my mind
I’m building a still to slow down the time
The woods are the Hawaii studio. Kanye holed himself up there to recover, grow, and move on. When his lyrics come in, Kanye’s first eight lines are a poem he wrote to Kim at the beginning of their relationship, something he didn’t admit until later. He then calls for her to leave with him, escaping this “plastic life” and leave behind the “fake ass party.” This is that real Kanye that I think is so hard to find. It’s there, but it’s under so many layers of obligation and a call to greatness, that Kanye just can’t help himself, fight those monsters, or ignore the devil in the new dress.
This is the second of an apparently three part series on Kanye West. The third part on The Life of Pablo can be found here. The first part can be found here. Please recommend so others may find this article!
*This is actually not even the complete list, I left off some names that I felt like I couldn’t go to bat for.