Open Thread: Kanye West and Yeezus

Kanye West via The New York Times

It wasn’t five minutes after I posted the New York Times’ profile of Kanye West on my Facebook wall that someone commented about how racist he was in claiming that he’d never won a Grammy against a white artist. That seemed to be a general reflection of the way the internet as a whole consumed the interview– disseminating it from a whole piece into several tweet-sized quotes that sounded even more outrageous when taken out of context. On a larger scale it’s reflective of the way we’ve consumed his music.

I’m not a Kanye apologist by any means. Jay Smooth summed up one aspect of Yeezus pretty well in this tweet:

Put lightly, Yeezus is not the most feminist of albums. I’m not sure I can even replicate the face I made at the already infamous “sweet and sour sauce” line. That said, the early reviews are interesting, in that people seemed shocked at how much race, power, and his supposed hatred of women are referenced on the album. “Dark” and “abrasive” are two words being consistently repeated to describe it.

The record, which overtly addresses issues of race in three song titles – “New Slaves,” “Black Skinhead” and “Blood on the Leaves” – is the hardest, most abrasive record, both musically and thematically, of his career … This is not a man concerned with offending women or racial activists. It’s an otherwise thoughtful man in pure id mode, thinking with his groin and worrying little about the ladies’ vote. –  The LA Times

“You see it’s leaders, and it’s followers,” Kanye West tells us. “But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.” And Yeezus, Mary and Yoseph, does he mean it. Yeezus is the darkest, most extreme music Kanye has ever cooked up, an extravagantly abrasive album full of grinding electro, pummeling minimalist hip-hop, drone-y wooz and industrial gear-grind. – Rolling Stone

“It presents Kanye as nothing less than the Johnny Rotten of his generation… The raw, dark and minimalist reliance on stabbing, bristling synths recalls a sound pioneered by acts like Ministry, Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails 20 years ago. – The New York Daily News

The album is definitely different. It’s harsh. It’s not an album to launch 4-5 radio singles. But the themes in his music aren’t new if you’ve actually been listening to the lyrics. In his times profile, Kanye seems to agree:

I wonder if you see things in a more race-aware way now, later in your career, than you did then. The intensity of the feelings on “Watch the Throne” is much sharper.

No, it’s just being able to articulate yourself better. “All Falls Down” is the same [stuff]. I mean, I am my father’s son. I’m my mother’s child. That’s how I was raised. I am in the lineage of Gil Scott-Heron, great activist-type artists. But I’m also in the lineage of a Miles Davis — you know, that liked nice things also.

Just as Monster, Gold Digger and The New Workout Plan have lyrics as offensive towards women as I’m In It,  Never Let Me Down, We Don’t Care, and Jesus Walks have as much to say about race as New Slaves  and Black Skinhead. If anything, Kanye’s lyrical themes –race, family, Chicago, and his own materialism– are fairly dependable, leading me to believe that by “articulate yourself better” he means that he’s done disguising his messages behind Top 40 friendly beats that allow the listener to ignore what he’s saying in favour of concentrating on a catchy hook.

The messages may be more direct and, perhaps to some, more offensive, but they’ve always been there. Your thoughts?

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

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  • itzagudwun

    What do people think of the use of “Strange Fruit” sample in Blood on the Leaves? Is it problematic?

  • leelah

    kanye is great but I think his music is one big incomplete thought. The snark in me things its the uppers that causes him to not be able to flush out his themes. But then I remembered he started free styling his stuff like Jay z. And that method isn’t working because jay’s stuff is scattered in the exact same way. Jay and kanye have little nuggets of brilliance that you really want them to dive into but they drop them and flee right back to the safety of chains, cars, and girls. Kanye said something about wanting to bring back that jazz improvisation of Miles Davis. But I think the words, the lyrics that rap is built on does go with jazz improvisation. The meaning in words is the very reason that jazz singers chose to scat babble and nursery ryhmes because using words leads to expressing a complete thought which pulls one away from the improvisation.–Anyway Kanye has nothing new to say about race anyway. Despite his hometown imploding from the black on black violence, he still approaches race from the same standpoint. A black man from chicago enamored by his new position in high society with women who wouldn’t touch him now falling at his feet. It feels like the civl rights and black power movement all comes down to the amazement of his black body entering and conqueoring whiteness. He’s sprinkled that all through his music since Gold digger to his album cover to N in Paris to black skinhead. Its like Kanye obviously you need to talk about this so dive in and do a whole song about it. I don’t think he could focus on one theme and really flush it out so he sprinkles a little everywhere to the point it seems like a sexual fetish.Which is funny because he stays angry at Britney Spears and Taylor Swift and their white privilege but it seems like it turns him on in his music–Kanye race talk is the beverly hills race talk that is so cushy and comfy that its out of sink with our country’s current race talk of Trayvon Martin and Chicago burning. His race talk almost comes off as whining. Kanye is the black Great Gatsby.

    • Lisa

      You know, that’s a great thought and I completely agree. It seems like Kanye is conscious enough to be aware that he has completely fallen into the trap of materialism, and feels guilty about it. But not guilty enough to put his money where his mouth is and be part of any actual change. He can throw out a zinger here and there but doesn’t do any real activism.

      And to that point, I’m not surprised. I don’t honestly expect entertainers to rage against the machine that signs their check, and I’m fine with that because most of them don’t pretend to be more than entertainers. But Kanye West really annoys me because he tries so hard to portray himself as morally superior to other rappers when he’s no different. I have more respect for an artist like Lupe Fiasco who commits to portraying a message in his music, and is consistent about it even at the risk of selling less albums.

      Kanye West believes his own hype. Confidence is fine, but any artist who not only names himself an icon but also thinks that nobody else can teach him anything about his craft is stagnant. I really think that his mother was the person who was his anchor and kept him grounded, and without that he has lost his bearings. But between his watered-down race/class talk and increasingly blatant misogyny I’m completely over his music.

      • Jenna England

        You both hit the nail on the head.