There’s a moment toward the end of “I Am A God” where Kanye West lets out several anguished screams. Strained and desperate, they remind me of the screams that come during a nightmare – that feeling of your consciousness trying so hard to wake you up, to break free. When I hear those screams, I get a tightness in my chest, a claustrophobia that makes it difficult for me to want to listen to “I Am A God.” But I listen to it anyway.
On “Otis,” the lead single from West’s and Jay Z’s collaboration Watch the Throne, another scream is heard. This time it’s exuberant – loose and free – with a hiccup as it launches into a sing-songy cadence. West utilizes the scream as an expressions of two very different emotions: fear and joy. It documents a rupture, a point in which language ceases to convey the depth of either emotion. It’s the point at which there is nothing to say and the only articulation left is the scream.
I think of Yeezus as a prolonged scream, some of which started in 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s a scream that has been building up since the death of his mother, Donda West, and incredulously, the Taylor Swift Incident. In listening to Yeezus, I hear anxiety, stress, anger and also a breathtaking display of freedom. In an interview with The New York Times, West commented on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy:
Sometimes you don’t even know when you’re being compromised till after the fact, and that’s what you regret.
I don’t want to come off dissing “Dark Fantasy.” It’s me never being satisfied and then me coming and admitting and saying the truth. As much as I can air things out for other people, to air things out for myself, to say, “I feel like this could’ve been stronger.”
If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy found West compromising himself and appeasing others, then Yeezus is all raw edges and unfiltered ideas. Aside from the one-off love song “Bound 2,” Yeezus is not a beautiful album per se in the way Dark Fantasy was. Dark Fantasy was an opera – it’s Baroque with stunning musical arrangement. When I first heard it, it truly took my breath away. “Runaway” is a beautiful song. It’s also an apology.
Dark Fantasy hit in the aftermath of a turning point in West’s relationship with the public. This relationship began to unravel with 2005’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” comment on “A Concert for Hurricane Relief.” While it certainly took arrogance to say it out loud on national television, it also felt like a very personal form of condolence. It was a profound vocalization of the disaster of FEMA’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and pointed at the failures of the Bush Administration (even if the more accurate comment would have been “George Bush doesn’t care about poor people).
But then came the Taylor Swift Incident (TSI). Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It” video is actually a way better video than Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me.” Tellingly, I had to look up what video Swift won for, but had no problems remembering what Beyoncé’s video was.) Even if we can chalk up the TSI as a drunken mistake, that single moment shifted how West was perceived. The image of a black man grabbing a microphone away from a pretty young white woman in a pretty white dress was just too much. He became a monster. Taylor called him “mean” and trotted out that incident at any opportunity. Barack Obama called him a “jackass.” It’s the asterisk next to his name.
His subsequent apologies seemingly came to no avail. His apology on Jay Leno was painful, particularly because Leno asked: “Would she be disappointed in this? Would she give you a lecture?”, she being West’s mom. That stung. Donda West’s death still seemed too close for him as he quietly replied, “yeah.” Today whenever West does something, my Facebook feed fills with “Kanye is so stupid!” or “ughhh go away!” and other similar sentiments. For better or for worse, West’s hubris and personality have become inextricably tied to his music. This is both appropriate and also a shame.
The other day I listened to Yeezus and when “Guilt Trip” came on, I got choked up. In preparation for this article, I listened to Yeezus a lot and at that moment various emotions – tiredness, stress, an altogether unease – pooled together and I identified strongly with West. I’m no baller, I’m not engaged to Kim Kardashian. I don’t design clothes for A.P.C.. But the raw, unfiltered vulnerability in Yeezus is very real and I felt it.
Yeezus begins with a harsh, synthesized roar — I liken it to a cut. Lou Reed described it as a buzzsaw. It’s an abrasive noise that sets an immediate tone. If Yeezus is criticized for being off-putting, it’s because it is. It’s the sounds of someone unable to settle down. It’s the sound of someone pulling at their own skin, itching for more.
In the face of Jay Z and Justin Timberlake’s songs of marital bliss and contentment, Yeezus’s misogynistic lyrics are a shock and are far more critical than given credit for. The lyrics are awkward and jarring, but they are also incredibly self-destructive. West says these things not because they are right, but because they are honest and wrong. It is more powerful to see him be flawed than to see him fake perfection.
What makes Kanye West such an interesting figure is that everything is on display. He is petulant. He is arrogant. He is a snob. He’s also very much in love with his fiancé, a polarizing figure herself. It’s what makes people declare that they hate him and his music. It’s what makes Trey Parker and Matt Stone make him the butt of jokes and show him to be an egomaniac and humorless (when in reality, maybe only one of those things are true). But this is also what makes him such a great artist. His willingness to go out on a limb publicly, to make a fool of himself or just to speak truthfully, translates to great risk in the studio. He has a great ear – Yeezus has contributions from of the most exciting people in music: Arca, Hudson Mohawke, Young Chop and Gesaffelstein. It’s also the most exciting music that Daft Punk have ever made, a coup in the face of the safe and mundane Random Access Memories.
What Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter said of their record, resonates deeply with Yeezus: “We had the luxury to do things that so many people cannot do, but it doesn’t mean that with luxury comes comfort.” This comes to what I call “The Comfort Problem.” It’s something I see in my day job in the art world and it’s what I see politically in people my age (and myself as well): it’s when life becomes just comfortable enough that you stop trying, you stop striving and stop looking for new things. You stick with what you like and what you know and the exciting new art and new music and new political ideas get further and further away. What is exciting to me about Kanye West and Yeezus is that he clearly does not suffer from “The Comfort Problem.” He is always pushing, again from The New York Times:
I want to tell people, “I can create more for this world, and I’ve hit the glass ceiling.” If don’t scream, if I don’t say something, then no one’s going to say anything, you know? So I come to them and say, “Dude, talk to me! Respect me!” […]
I think that’s a responsibility that I have, to push possibilities, to show people: “This is the level that things could be at.” So when you get something that has the name Kanye West on it, it’s supposed to be pushing the furthest possibilities.
His choice of the scream is both out of anguish (as in “I Am a God”) or exuberance (as in “Otis”), it’s also a profound declaration of presence. He is saying that he is here in the rawest way possible.
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