Other Ten Percent 6/27/13

Jun 27 2013

Jesus. Guys. I swear at 2000 words this is me editing this stuff down. Maybe Jane and I just need to learn to talk less? Maybe just I need to do that? Maybe I need to figure out some way to just do this shit as bullet points? I dunno. We’re still going to be experimenting with the form here for a while though clearly.
David —
I totally agree that Kanye, like Daft Punk, is operating on a level that’s really fucking with critics and making them say some weird stuff about “objective quality” but I do think those objections on the Kanye end are subtly and interestingly different than the stuff Daft Punk got. Daft Punk just committed HARD to a unified artistic vision and pulled it off with such an obvious degree of mastery that even people that viscerally HATED their vision kinda had to cop to the album being good anyway which resulted in the weird “can awful things be good? What is happening?” Think pieces by critics that couldn’t conceive of good music outside of their anointed genres. Kanye meanwhile is operating on a couple of different levels at once and those levels are not working in concert AT ALL. The production and the lyrics on this album are NOT BROS. The subtext and the text would probably try to kill each other if you brought them to life. And on some level that’s gotta be intentional right? Like this is an album that loves dissonance so much it’s inventing new ways to subdivide music so it can create dissonance between those elements.
But sometimes it also feels like it isn’t entirely intentional maybe? Like that’s why I find the Hairpin article on the album really interesting. It zeros in on the same weird disconnects on the album and while I’m kinda with the Hairpin in thinking that at least some of those disconnects have to qualify as mistakes I’m wondering if you actually feel the same way or not.
I’m not sure I’m totally ready to agree the lyrics on this album are lazy and certainly Kanye’s done lyrics like this before but it does feel like he’s decoupling the production from the lyrics in a way that’s pretty new for him and it’s got some mixed results. Sometimes the two bounce off each other and amplify some core message in between and sometimes they don’t at all. And then sometimes you get a Blood on the Leaves where it amplifies some really disturbing shit that Kanye usually gets away with.
And I think that’s where most of the “this is simultaneously great and awful” stuff is coming from. Usually Kanye is yelling one unified message using every trick he’s got but this time he’s yelling one thing and whispering another and nobody can quite decode what’s going on.
Case in point, that one part of the Stereogum review where I TOTALLY AGREE the guy is misreading the soul samples. This isn’t a comforting return to the familiar it’s a megaphone screaming at you that even the familiar isn’t safe anymore. When I was like 7 I had this nightmare that I found a ring that I couldn’t take off and it revealed that everyone on earth but me was secretly a monster that was trying to kill me. I ran away from all my now monstrous friends and returned home just as my parents car was pulling up the driveway and I ran to them for help and the window rolled down and they were monsters too. That’s what the end of New Slaves feels like to me sonically. Even your place of comfort is now monstrous.
I think we’re pretty much on the same page about the general quality of the lyrics on this album but I’m fascinated by the idea that it works better than his attempts at effortlessness on, say, Graduation because for the first time Kanye isn’t just performing not giving a fuck he ACTUALLY doesn’t give a fuck and that’s probably as terrifying as any message you could get out of this album.
It also makes me want to disagree with you on hoping Daft Punk talks him out of touring though. It’s helped me realize that I absolutely don’t want to pay for tickets to the tour but I sure as hell want to see him do it and hear about it because I think a Kanye West that genuinely had no interest in entertaining his audience could potentially put on one of the most interesting tours in history.
So I’m coming to the end of this and I’m trying to figure out what my remaining questions here are besides the ones I’ve explicitly asked. Of course I really do want to try and get into the sexism here because I think the fact that it’s actually stirred up some actual discussion of the topic is really fascinating. Did you read Pitchfork’s Action Bronson review? They basically come out and say “man, he would have gotten away with all this rampant sexism even two weeks ago but Christ you guys…Yeezus. So maybe mention hookers a little bit less from now on you guys? My heart hurts.” Which like, GOOD, but also let’s maybe talk a little about why we’re talking about this now so we can figure out what Kanye’s doing that makes this feel so much worse than the 1000 sexist lyrics on other rap albums this year.
Jane —

So just read the Hairpin piece and Action Bronson review, and here’s some last stuff.

At some point in the Hairpin piece Emma Carmichael asks the question, “ Does this album love anyone?” and then doubles back on it a bit. But I think it’s a question worth asking and to attempt at answering it, no, I really don’t think this album loves anyone. Kanye’s maybe more misanthropic here than we’ve ever seen him and the whole enterprise is startlingly joyless in a lot of ways, one of which led that Vulture reviewer toward the conclusion that it’s the least sexy album of the year. Thinking about a piece of art crafted with joylessness that’s also full of ostensibly sexytimes regalia reminds me of two things: 1) The thing Kevin Canty, my writing professor at Montana and also lots of writers before him would always say, that you can experiment all you want with form and craft things that are demanding and difficult or even despicable for your reader, but in order to ultimately make it work for him/her you have to string together and intersperse throughout a few moments of pure joy… A look at your protagonist doing something he/she loves and/or is great at here, a rhapsodic description of the food or scenery there, a few memorable passages that perhaps you saw very clearly, that perhaps were really fun to write, and that are, quite simply, enjoyable to read. 2) The part of The Big Lebowski where Maude briefly describes sex addicts. Without looking up the script to quote it exactly she says something along the lines of, “They cannot love in the true sense of the word. They engage in sex compulsively and without joy.” And again, I don’t want to just diagnose Kanye as having this or that problem and call it a day, or anything, but on some level this album does seem to be about dropping that joy somewhere and not being able to find it again, and ALSO, being unwilling to just give his audience the joy we’re expecting to encounter either. Why should WE get that joy? What have we done to get it? He’s fucking Kanye West! He says he’s “a god” and as far as the production goes, he shows us a little of how he’s arrived at that conclusion, but of course the more he says it and the more he TELLS us the less it actually means and the more we get back to just how angry/resentful/maniacal he is in the first place that he would feel the need to scream this lyrically artless line of utter hubris.
And like, whether that’s all happening intentionally or not, whether or not this is some kind of metacommentary on exactly what’s wrong and weird and ugly about mainstream rap, whether or not the shift between “New Slaves” and “Hold My Liquor” from the universal angry braggadocio territory to the more personal cry for help territory means we should take the first four songs with a grain of salt, I don’t think one can call any of what’s happening uninteresting, and it sort of bugs me that the Hairpin piece dwells so much on the idea that it is or even might be. Sure, lyrically it’s very well-worn territory he’s treading here, but it feels like he’s clinging to this “tired” subject matter with all he’s got and committing to building this crazy ass sonic structure around it that we haven’t really seen a rapper do before, and that’s crazy and sad and lonely and don’t we want to think a little more about that?
“Is this what Gods do when they’re sad?” I mean, maybe, sure! It’s a completely bizarre question, and can you really think of anyone else who makes you ask it or phrase it exactly that way?
Just in general, I really don’t like the tendency to call entire ideas boring as if they have no situational context. Though the lyrical complaints are unavoidable, I feel like it’s lazy on our end to declare that this is somehow less “honest” than his other work, shake our heads at him and say Kanye, we’re very disappointed in you. And I sort of wish they’d cut about half of that whole conversation until we get to Kiese’s “But the problem is that it’s not boring to us. It’s not boring to straight men and it appears not to be boring to straight women. So actually, maybe this boring-ass shit Kanye just dropped says more about us and sex and race and porn and growing up sad and sensitive than it does about him.”
Because that’s just it. Maybe I’m ok with this album and what’s lazy about it because I DO see it as one tough, ugly commentary on what’s tough and ugly about rap as we know it, and how fucking frustrating it must be to be as self-aware as Kanye’s always seemed yet still somehow unable to avoid the well-worn, tired, mainstream obsessions on display here. He knows Spike Lee’s going to hate him, but let him finish. And we always do.
After taking a break from it for a few days, I listened to the album again on the way home from work and aside from the fact that it’s just so damn propulsive and invigorating when you forget these concerns for a second, a couple of things struck me that I either dismissed or didn’t pay attention to initially. One I should probably think about more before I go into it (but it involves some of the gross sex imagery), but the other is just the end of the first track where he just keeps repeating “I need… right now.” He doesn’t specify any particular thing, just that the need is immediate. Maybe it’s dumb to latch onto that, but it’s little moments like that when I think that yeah, he probably is aware of what he’s doing here, yes, it’s willfully inarticulate in a way that serves a whole we can’t be comfortable with but that is of a piece, is saying something pretty big, and is something we’re probably going to come back to later, for better or worse. And shit, even if he’s really NOT aware of it, it’s still happening. The questions are getting asked, the conversations are starting, and as an aesthetic object Yeezus is still working on a level that an album like this didn’t have to work, even if it’s failing in ways Kanye’s succeeded before.

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