Other Ten Percent 6/25/13

Jun 25 2013

So, like the M/W/F entries the format for this is EVOLVING which means “I am editing together 5 different e-mails between Jane and I at 10:30 at night so if this sucks then SORRY.” So, for instance, this one is super duper long and so I’m splitting it into two parts with the second round of e-mails on Thursday though maybe I should just edit all these down to a respectable length? In the future we’ll probably settle into a nice groove with these “letters back and forth” OTP entries but for now I’m just trying to make them Comprehensible.

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Hey Jane,

So let’s talk Yeezus even more. I know we spent most of dinner last night discussing the album but, man, there’s just always more to talk about with that dude isn’t there?

Where the hell to even start? Since I left for dinner last night I’ve found a huge mixtape that’s been making the rounds of all the samples on Yeezus. Read two more glowing reviews of the thing and learned that Kanye’s going to tour behind this thing.
Let’s maybe start with that last one first because I guess it’s where I’ve got the least to say and the simplest question. What the hell is that tour going to look like? Part of me wants it to just be like those weird-ass projections he’s been doing. Kanye performing live in 30 cities at once as a 50 foot high face screaming at you while blinking weirdly.I read his setlist from Governor’s Ball a while back and even the old stuff he throws in there seems to suggest Kanye’s got no interest in giving an audience even a moment of catharsis when he tours with this thing. I simultaneously feel like it would be the least enjoyable concert I could imagine and desperately want to try and grab tickets.
The sample mixtape meanwhile. I wish I had these for all Kanye’s old albums because I’m only halfway in and it’s already REALLY driving home just how weird these samples actually are. I can’t tell if that’s a product of the curation or this album’s samples genuinely being weirder than they’ve ever been before from a guy that sampled King Crimson for kicks on his last album though.
The highpoint of the mixtape so far is Strange Fruit which I skipped around to immediately because, I’m embarrassed to say, I’d heard of it before without ever really listening to it. It’s one of those works I know by reputation without actually experiencing  Like how I make Cabinet of Dr. Caligari jokes without having watched it. And now, with a full understanding of the context…WOAH isBlood on the Leaves ever fucked up. I can’t decide if I like it more or less but it is insanely screwed up.
I’m kinda so used to Kanye grabbing samples from the best songs that have ever existed that you should never ever sample and somehow making them work AND Kanye thinking that kids are diabolical long-cons by women to get all your money that it honestly hadn’t occurred to me how fucked up it is to use Strange Fruit to explicate the evils of child support. It’s just one of a half dozen things on the album that seems to go SO far into SUCH disturbing territory people actually feel the need to call out sexism in a rap album.
NY Magazine‘s review of the album manages to actually grapple with the sexism on the album in a way that I think avoids most of the common pitfalls of talking about misogyny in rap by not universalizing it. The argument isn’t about how rap especially hates women (and thankfully it explicitly disarms that argument) it’s about how Kanye West specifically seems to have about 15 different confusing and REALLY unhealthy psychological hang-ups about women and sex rolling around in his head even outside of the fact the he just knocked up a Kardashian. I was going to say he’s obviously terrified of being a dad and settling down but I genuinely can’t figure out if this album is a desperate love letter to her as best he knows how or a blatant provocation to get her to break up with him. I’m pretty sure she can’t figure it out either. I’m not entirely certain Kanye’s figured it out.
Stereogum’s also pretty disturbed by the whole confusing sexual imagery stuff but they kinda bury that under heaping praise on the album for 1500 words first. Good on them because the album’s obviously great but we seem to be reaching the period of critical evaluation where everybody dances around the idea that this maybe Kanye’s best album ever even though Pitchfork literally said the last one was perfect.
We’ve already talked about how I’m not sure I’m ready to call the thing genius, something in the back of my mind is still bothered me about this album but considering it took me six months to articulate an objection to Kendrick Lamar that was basically “I don’t like his hooks that much” my last words might well be “Wait maybe it’s…remember that part on Black Skinhead where…” *DIES*
What even I can admit though is that this is Kanye’s most interesting album. Everything else he’s ever done I’ve been able to slot into a fairly consistent meta-narrative of effortless vs. effortful cool that I’ve explained to you SO MANY times at this point. This album though doesn’t work on that same rubric. It’s effortful cool level production with effortless cool lyrics. Effortful thoughts on race in modern america with effortless sex puns so crude I can’t even repeat them here in case this makes it to OTP and my mother reads it. It also doesn’t fit into the redemption arc I made up for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy either. I recall Greg being kinda skeptical of my assertion that the logical follow-up to to the long dark night of the soul in that album being a redemptive album where Kanye actually tries to reconcile all the dueling characteristics of his character.
Turns out Greg’s skepticism was well-placed since instead we get an album of Kanye paralyzed at rock bottom; he’s unable to actually enjoy the hedonism anymore (How does he manage to make sex sound like an essentially masochistic act for BOTH parties?) but unwilling to move on to anything else to any substantial degree. It’s a fascinating portrait of a guy who seems to be having about a half dozen personal crises at the moment but it doesn’t have that sense of narrative momentum I enjoyed so much in MBDTF.
Is that what’s bugging me about this? Does any of this bother you too? Are we at least reading the album in essentially similar ways? I’ve listened to this thing at least 10 times at this point and I still find it confusing more than anything else. A good confusion but an intense one.
-David
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Hey there,

So yeah, this album is puzzler for sure. I’m listening to the sample mixtape now, and I’m simultaneously impressed, intimidated, inspired, and just a little freaked out. Once again we remember that the guy responsible for those easy gross-outs and heinous sex puns also has kind of eclectic and erudite musical sensibilities you’d expect from the lead singer of Can or the guy who soundtracks all the Sofia Coppola movies. I say that especially considering the album credits posted on Kanye’s site today, that–among other revelations–correct a few pretty significant misnomers in the mixtape. Confirmed: He never sampled Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” the least graceful selection on the thing by far. Suspected: That shmaltzy pop R&B track that comes just before Strange Fruit in the mixtape didn’t actually end up on the album, and what they were going for was this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN6XvzWW57E, a more sophisticated jam actually mentioned in the credits. Also suspected: The dancehall pop song that comes after “Blocka Remix” in the mixtape that doesn’t appear in the credits should probably be replaced with this:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jkmmZZfK-I a pretty banananas reggae song with a dissonant low-fi baseline and dizzying overall effect.* Combine all that with just how eerie, arresting, and unexpectedly cohesive this mishmash all sounds on the album and it… sorta feels like we’ve got the rap game Georges Bataille on our hands here. No, fuck that: rap game Vladimir Nabokov. He may not be there yet, but man, the potential.
I agree that it’d be worthwhile to spend some time on looking at samples from his previous albums in a similar way, and as for your question about whether or not they were always this weird, it’s really hard to say. MBDTF was certainly getting there, as you alluded to with the King Crimson reference, but I feel like the samples couldn’t have reached this far across the map and choices couldn’t have been this vexed. I recognized the Strange Fruit sample right away and am pretty familiar with that song as probably the most gut-wrenching Billie Holiday song I’ve ever heard (the original version, that is), but even with that familiarity it’s easy to divorce (whatever, pun intended) the bits of Nina Simone’s version that come up in Blood on the Leaves when you hear it the first few times and not really think about just how fucked up the implications are because of what he omits and all the other drama he creates around the sample. But Jesus, Strange Fruit. Procreation as a lynching metaphor that’s like three levels deep. Though I mentioned I had a pet Rosemary’s-Baby-in-reverse theory I’d like to tease out about Kimye and the album in general, that all seems pretty misguided and trivial compared to the personally heartbreaking and systemically disturbing race and gender quagmire Yeezy sinks into here.
*Just to clarify, the goal here is not to cleverly debunk a generally solid mix someone made with the best of intentions before the full album credits were available. But, now that the information is out there we can give Kanye further credit for his well-established taste level and point to just how vast and on-point his selection of source material is on this monster of an album.
Ok, so… Totally latched onto two points in both of those reviews, neither of which get too deep into what you were originally drawing attention to (i.e. treatment of the album’s misogyny), so like, sorry about that.

1) New York Magazine’s Jody Rosen on “Blood on the Leaves”: “I’ve listened to “Blood on the Leaves” twenty times; I’m sure I’ll listen another hundred before the month is out. I can’t decide: Is it brilliantly tasteless? Or just plain tasteless? A cheap stunt? A tour de force? The worst song I’ve ever heard? The best? What other musician makes you ask such questions?”

Answer: Apparently Daft Punk, and maybe they’re the wrong questions? Maybe it’s pointless to judge Kanye on what she means by taste in this context (and not what I rambled on about in my last email). There’s a difference between aesthetic taste–something we can all agree Kanye has plenty of–and the kind of morally charged taste she’s talking about, specifically with respect to “Strange Fruit” as a sample choice. Using a famous anti-lynching song to talk about the way you believe women are manipulating you and taking your money, and just having that belief in the first place–we’re saying it’s “tasteless” but what we really want to say is that it’s wrong.

I’ve had similar gripe with Kanye in the past, particularly when it comes to the line, “This is something like the Holocaust.” “But dude,” I say, “NOTHING’S like the Holocaust!” He has this way of getting so angry, so riled up, and so resentful that he’s willing to just bandy about these epic conflations that a guy like him has to be too smart for, and it’s really easy to try to shut down and stop listening when he does it. I’m not saying I get it or that I think it’s justifiable on his part, but for some reason all the aesthetic choices he’s made around this particular “tasteless” one make me willing to follow him there. Is “Blood on the Leaves” extremely fucked up and fraught with all kinds of psychological issues? Yes. But tasteless? Wrong? Are those judgments just another way of sitting more comfortably outside the ugly windowless room he goes into to talk about women?

Or, do we really just object because the lyrics are stylistically lazier than we think they should be? Do we think his flow can get to the point where he can deliver the Blood Meridian of raps, viscerally repugnant but undeniably, exquisitely crafted? How much better does Kanye need to get before we judge him on aesthetic criteria alone, or is it just kind of impossible for anybody to be “that good” these days?

So I guess I don’t really have an answer to her question either, so one last thought on this conversation: when you consider all the baggage that the album (and this song in particular) dredges up, it’s sort of hilarious to think back on the line from that epic interview where he basically says he was most inspired by… a Corbusier lamp. Those fucking lamps gotta stop trying to trap him, man.

2) Stereogum’s Tom Brelhan on “New Slaves”: “A few songs later, as “New Slaves”… is fading out, soul-sample Kanye comes back, cooing that he can’t lose in Auto-tune over celestial strings while Frank Ocean answers him back. That’s where the old Kanye becomes triumphant. He’s the vehicle for the new Kanye assuring us, ever so briefly, that these forces that he sees assembled against him aren’t enough to drag him down. It’s, once again, a rare note of peace in a dark and violent album.”
Triumphant? PEACE? I had the pretty much exact opposite reading of this breakdown, as well as all the other soul samples he mentions in the review. When that Hungarian psyche rock song kicks in, to me it sounds like another, more final rupture, not a settling or coming together. And with Frank Ocean doing his cherubic R&B thing over it? That to me just reads/sounds like a visit from the angel of death. One of the things I love about the jarring transitions to more melodic stuff like this throughout, is that there’s no way to hear/read them the way we used to. It can’t calm us or reassure us that we’re still listening to “that Kanye” anymore, and this is another way the act of making this album seems genuinely transformative, like he’s actually letting himself change, even if it’s arguably for the worse. I had forgotten about the conversation with Greg you brought up and mentioned your conclusion to him, the idea that this album is Yeezy paralyzed at rock bottom. Greg said something along the lines of, “The guy has just gotten everything he’s ever wanted, and still has no one to tell him ‘no.'” And I thought, perhaps he’s realizing he can’t be satisfied by any of it, and that’s what we’re hearing. Either way, it seems like in MDTF–given the romantic lyrics in the redemptive last track that when I break it down, always sounded just a teeeeeny bit forced to me–he still had some more dismantling to do. And when I hear those crazy ass R&B breakdowns, it seems like this might be his “how am I not myself?”
So re: effortful cool and the album quality in general, perhaps he’s just dismantled enough right now that he either actually doesn’t (read: can’t) care about pleasing us, or is cleaving to the idea of not caring to please us us as a last vestige of himself? I also think there’s something to that bit at the end of the Stereogum review about why we endure Kanye’s arguably lazy Swag-hili type lines:” “…on every one of those past albums, the nastiness and the clunkers have blurred and faded and, in the case of the clunkers, become oddly lovable, evidence of a sort of genius that’s powerless to detect its own terrible ideas.” Creating a radically different and abrasive sound on this album – pretty great idea. Trying out “not overthinking” the lyrics? Pretty terrible idea. But if Kanye knew the difference and acted on it, wouldn’t things be a little less thrilling? We can count on the dude to say EXACTLY what he’s thinking at the moment, even if (in the straight up effortful cool cases) what he’s thinking is about is what construction will make us like him a little more. Now it… kinda sorta seems like he’s got enough on his head-plate that he can’t be bothered with that, and maybe it’s just me being optimistic, but I’m choosing to see this as the rough transition period between pink polo Kanye and the, I dunno, Rick Rubin-style future Kanye, who’s uncompromising but makes some pretty damn good decisions that you ultimately can’t really argue with.
I’ma need to sign off soon, and I hope the preceding stuff made sense, but back to the very first thing: the tour. Part of me hopes Daft Punk will just call him up and convince him it’s a bad idea. They who put out the OTHER (and yes, probably more) truly interesting and memorable album of the year, and decided they want to let people (and probably themselves) sit with it for awhile before they warp it into something sublimely entertaining in a different way and hit the road. Don’t get me wrong, I’d want tickets to the Yeezus tour too, but what makes me apprehensive is just what the crowd is supposed to do during all this. Plus, history has shown that the stuff that Kanye ad libs at shows… isn’t really the stuff that makes you want to see one of your favorite artists ad lib at a show. I think for sure we’ve got some rants ahead of us, I just hope we don’t also have some crazy lord of the flies mob shit?
But yeah. I… like “Hold My Liquor” and “Guilt Trip” a lot. Specifically those two, in a pretty uncomplicated way. Janeout.

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