Since someone wanted to know what I think about Kanye West, I decided to give his new record, “Yeezus” a listen.
The experience of listening to “Yeezus” is behind me now.
“Yeezus” feels a bit to me like Kanye trying to be edgy a la Nine Inch Nails or Manson by way of Rotterdam circa 2001.
I don’t connect with Kanye West. Or rather, Kanye West doesn’t connect with me.
This is because every time I listen to him, I hear his brain working. He’s a very intelligent man and I feel like he wants the world to know he’s clever no matter what he’s going on about. When he performs, I hear him calculating every single move, every single breath that enters and leaves his body.
This is the polar opposite of what I find moving or meaningful in music. I tend to gravitate toward performers who become unconscious and get lost in their performance. I tend to gravitate away from performers who sound like they are thinking every moment about things like who their recording is going to appeal to while they’re still making it.
When I listen to Kanye West perform, I hear someone who is completely self-absorbed, completely self-conscious. When I feel an artist mentally efforting his process like a chess game while he’s supposed to be emoting and communicating, I experience a unique sensation of discomfort. I can liken this sensation to watching a comedian who many other people think is really funny, but conceals his lack of talent by being loud and vulgar.
I think I experience this sensation because when I listen to an artist’s music, I’m prepared to connect and commune with the artist. In order to commune with an artist, you kind of open yourself up and make room for his vision in your soul. For this reason, when I listen to Kanye West, I’m completely open and the experience feels like an endurance test- like I’m being bludgeoned with his arrogance.
Kanye revels in his arrogance. So do dozens of other artists I enjoy listening to.
The difference is, when push comes to shove, these other performers have the ability to take themselves out of the equation. I don’t hear their colossal egos when they perform- I hear artists who are completely un-self-conscious and coudn’t care less what anyone thinks about them. They are themselves- perhaps jerks, maybe snotty- perhaps awful, even dangerous.
When Kanye West turns on an edgy synth, fuzzes up his voice or turns on that adorable little growl, it makes me giggle. Instead of sounding dangerous or repellent, he just sounds kind of entitled and bratty.
Like he’s got something to prove. Like he cares a great deal about what people think.
One of his songs is called, “I am a God”. For some reason, when Kanye declares “I am a god”, it sounds to me like he’s posing- insisting that he’s a god, instead of actually feeling or believing it. Because of his ambivalence, I don’t know if he’s being self-revelatory, self-parodying, pointing a finger at someone else or some combination of all three.
It’s also worth noticing that he draws the line at being blasphemous and calling his song “I am God”. I personally feel that would have not only been scary (for Kanye, as well as me) and that alone would be worth the price of admission.
I’d be more impressed if Kanye did something completely out of character, something that takes him out of his comfort zone. Something that either demonstrates he’s really human or really in pain- something really intense that really means something to him, instead of a bunch of silly posturing.
Because he’s insistent on playing to type, I have a hard time believing him or taking him seriously. I can absolutely believe that he’s arrogant, but his anger sounds canned- ingenuous. I don’t feel that he’s really angry- it sounds like he plays someone on TV who’s supposed to be. He seems more pissy than pissed off- more entitled than Master of the Pop Universe.
There are the only tracks on “Yeezus”- “New Slaves” and “Blood on the Leaves”-where I actually feel I’m experiencing someone who is viscerally enraged. That’s when I start to feel him- that’s when I feel like he’s being honest about something that is truly disturbing and upsetting to him. That’s when I feel him moving outside of his ego and going unconscious. That’s how I know Kanye West is actually talented and not merely some poseur.
The problem for me is these two tracks are juxtaposed against a bunch of others which have faux-aggro-titles and are full of posing. Plus, I’ve heard people get enraged on records before- some believably- some, not so much. The fact is, the chilling nonchalance of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” is a thousand times more frightening than Kanye doing “Blood on the Leaves”.
I had the sudden realization that Kanye West’s recording is the tip of a different iceberg.
Anger seems to be the only emotion Kanye is willing to do. And in this, he doesn’t appear to be alone. From there, I started to notice that anger and aggression are the primary elements artists try to project in contemporary popular music.
Over the years, a lot of artists making records have worked extra hard at trying to sound pissed off. Do they feel like it gives them cred to appear menacing? Do they believe that more people will take them seriously if they sound like they’re fixing to get ready to tell their bodyguards to go beat someone’s head in?
When was the last time you heard an artist on a record spill their guts to the point where you felt painfully uncomfortable? Where their pain was their art and you experienced their suffering? Where you got an uncensored look at who they really are minus how they want you to see them?
For me, it was “Daddy” off the first Korn record where Jonathan Davis starts sobbing and runs out of the studio because he’s so completely devastated from the experience of singing his song. Because that experience forced him to relive something unspeakably awful which happened to him in his past. That’s art.
The difference here is that Jonathan wasn’t just evoking rage, but juxtaposing it against a laundry list of other emotions- fear, hurt, sadness, etc. And, he was being completely vulnerable which is difficult almost beyond human understanding for a performer to achieve with clarity- let alone, believability. I feel that 99% of the posing performers do is precisely to avoid experiencing the other emotions which go hand in hand with aggression and anger.
This is because they’re afraid that you’ll see a part of them they don’t want you to see. They don’t want to be vulnerable to you. If they were, they’d feel weak, exposed and out of control.
My experience is, aggression is the easiest emotion in the contemporary popular music-making lexicon to express or simulate. If you have a soapbox and act pissed off about anything, you can convince quite a few people that you have something important to say. There are quite a few reasons to get angry these days and being openly angry isn’t as shocking, taboo or outre as it once was. It’s actually looked upon as socially acceptable- even a healthy release.
There is a general aggression-in-popular-music-101 formula that is was borrowed from “80’s Industrial Music and gradually filtered into the mainstream. If you want to convince the world that you’re angry, dangerous or really mean business; 1- just make everything in your track sound louder and more aggressive, 2- yell or snarl a bit more than usual 3- use dissonant chords wherever the need arises, 4- be obscene and/or vulgar to underscore your point, and 5- put distortion on a synth, guitar, voice, bass drum or sample whenever possible.
I guess artists see aggression as a way to let loose and look good but in and of itself, I find it tiresome. You start looking pretty one dimensional if the only thing you can do is act pissed off when you perform. Divorced from the full spectrum of emotions which go hand in hand with anger, the acting out of anger as a vehicle for popular music actually has very little weight. Without other associated emotions, or some kind of contrast, there’s no depth to reinforce your anger, no conviction to back up your aggression.
I guess that is how I feel about Kanye West, “Yeezus” and most of the music people are making these days. Being loud, obnoxious and pissed off are all efficient ways to call attention to yourself.
However, if that’s all you have in your repertoire, you’ll probably get noticed, but don’t expect your work to have any lasting value.