The concept of vanity is so rooted in the idea of a singular narcissist that it can be hard to catch that Kanye speaks almost from a populist perspective — a populist narcissism, if you will. Granted, the thematic focus on community vs. the personal has evolved from College Dropout to Yeezus, but take a second and remember the very first song on Kanye’s first album. He has a chorus of children singing, “We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25 / Joke’s on you, we still alive / Throw your hands up in the sky / And say we don’t care what people say.” If you chalk up his “we don’t care what people say” attitude to simply his ego, then you have missed the point entirely. This isn’t about ego; this is about boldly asserting yourself in a world that is not meant for you. This is a vanity that is rooted in bringing the community up with you. To the ire of some who are so wrapped up in the anxiety of respectability, the message he gives the kids (in front of all these white folks who are listening to his music!) is not to be modest but to unapologetically laugh in the face of a world that does not care about them. The joke’s on you, white America. We made it, and we don’t even have the decency to be grateful. We’re laughing. We dare to laugh.
This is why it’s so critical to really think about how and why folks are calling him “crazy.” There’s a great Dave Chappelle quote from his Inside the Actors Studio interview that really gets to the heart of this. In a conversation about the difficulties of black celebrity life, Chappelle explains, “The worst thing to call somebody is ‘crazy.’ It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person. So they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit.” To continuously label what Kanye says as “crazy” is to dismiss him as not worth understanding and to flatten his deeply complex work and complex personality. Kanye told Rolling Stone in 2004, “I’m the rap version of Dave Chappelle. I’m not sayin’ I’m nearly as talented as Chappelle when it comes to political and social commentary, but like him, I’m laughing to keep from crying.” “Laughing to keep from crying” is a tone that captures so much of both of their work, but it’s also a survival mantra. Originating with Langston Hughes, this expression encapsulates a history of black artists who have used wit and satire to capture their exasperations and make light of the world’s absurdities.
— “In Defense Of Kanye’s Vanity: The Politics Of Black Self-Love,” by Heben Nigatu via Buzzfeed
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?