Meditations of a Metalhead: The Genius of Kanye West

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At the beginning of 2018, what I felt for Kanye West wasn’t quite hate, but it was close. It’s true that I hadn’t listened to his music, but even Kanye apologists have to grant that it’s pretty difficult to remain indifferent to Kanye as a sheer cultural presence in the 21st century, whether you’ve given his albums an honest spin or not. I was aware of Kanye’s 2013 rant on Sway in the Morning, as well as the slew of cartoonishly egotistical quotes attributed to him (“My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live” is one of my personal favs). And, of course, there’s the infamous TMZ tantrum where Kanye (somehow) manages to reach a level of cringe beyond his open endorsement of Trump. So yeah, as a metalhead not too invested in the rap scene, it was pretty easy to dismiss Kanye as yet another overblown celebrity lunatic we’d all be better off ignoring.

For me, the story would probably end here if it weren’t for–

ENTER: KENDRICK LAMAR

–my 2017 awakening to Good Kid M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Butterfly, two gloriously captivating albums by critically renowned Kung Fu Kenny. I had just “discovered” Flying Lotus’ album, You’re Dead, and man… electronic weirdness, dark beats, wildly intricate bass riffs haunted by a contemporary sensibility… what’s not to like? Better yet, the track “Never Catch Me” featured a rapper with an attractively unique delivery. I bought Kendrick’s albums, became an instant fan, moved on to Childish Gambino, and finally entertained the possibility that rap could offer more than the traditional cheap thrills of drugs, money, & sex (not to the exclusion, of course, of the more recent and even more boring focus on fashion).

ENTER: ANTHONY “The Internet’s Busiest Music Nerd” / “Best Teeth in the Game” / “Melon” FANTANO

Which still wouldn’t have been enough to convince me that Kanye deserves a listen. I’ve kept tabs on Anthony Fantano’s YouTube music review channel, The Needle Drop, since Kayo Dot’s release of Hubardo in 2013 (yes, dear longtime readers, KD appears again. It looks like you’ll just have to get used to this), and throughout the years, Kanye’s albums consistently made it into Anthony’s good graces.

For those who don’t know, Fantano isn’t just any YouTube music reviewer. He really is the busiest fellow in the game, fluently covering a diverse array of albums in disparate musical genres every year, all the while maintaining a running commentary on the personalities of pop music. What’s more, Fantano has undeniably good taste. I mean, this is a fellow openly willing to argue that The Dark Side of the Moon is NOT Pink Floyd’s best album BY FAR (that distinction goes to the highly underrated Animals, a view I’ve held since my 2006 obsession with Floyd began). He also isn’t a Kanye fan of the variety liable to claim that every mad thing Kanye does is a stroke of genius. Throughout 2018, Fantano has had no problem calling out Kanye’s antics while going on to lavish praise on Ye. When Fantano gave Kanye’s joint effort with Kid Cudi (an artist Fantano has vehemently criticized in the past), Kids See Ghosts, a rare 10 out of 10 rating, I knew my Kanye ignorance could no longer last.

 

ENTER (FINALLY): YEEZY

I began with Kids See Ghosts and worked my way back through Ye, The Life of Pablo, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and I’m currently working on Yeezus (yes, I’m aware that I skipped, chronologically speaking, Watch the Throne). Four albums in, and my general impression remains “What the fuck is wrong with this guy?”

This scenario keeps repeating: A song starts. I’m into the beats, the generally innovative sampling, the “experimental” weirdness that crops up in subtle ways, and Kanye’s clear knack for strong melodic hooks. I’m all set to dig the track… then Kanye starts rapping. From there, a quiet sickness settles in my gut as we pass from horribly tone-deaf (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.”) to downright stupid (“If I fuck this model, and she just bleached her asshole, and I get bleach on my tee-shirt, Imma feel like an asshole.”) lyricism.

“But, as a metal head, you should be well-adjusted to tolerating bad and offensive lyricism,” you say. I’d be more willing to cede to this objection if lyricism was the integral aspect of metal music, but it’s not. I don’t even pay attention to metal vocals outside of their presence as a rhythmic counterpoint to the instrumental unless they are particularly melodic or unique. In rap music, however, the “personality” of the front man, particularly in Kanye’s case, is right up IN YOUR FACE. And Kanye’s personality, even if we charitably consider it an “artistic persona,” is pretty much unbearable.

But, then again, here I am jamming to “I Am a God” from Yeezus, possibly his most openly egotistical song (and that’s really saying something), and I’m sort of enjoying myself. In fact, if I’m being entirely honest, I love Kids See Ghosts, although this doesn’t count for much, since, being a collaboration with Kid Cudi (and just barely operating within the rap genre at that), it’s not entirely based around Kanye’s presence. More surprisingly, The Life of Pablo has basically stayed in constant rotation over the past few months, and I even really liked a few tracks from Ye. This is exactly where the music of Kanye West presents a problem that’s, to me, worth writing about.

ENTER: STEVE JOBS, EINSTEIN, SHAKESPEARE, MOZART…

Let’s get one thing straight: Kanye West does not belong with the four names mentioned above. Kanye, to get to the point, is not a genius. Sorry, Kanye fans. I know that would easily “explain everything,” but I see no evidence of Kanye’s inherent ability to challenge systemic expectations to an extent that the system itself undergoes such a seismic shock that it can’t help but tattoo its attacker to long-term cultural memory. He definitely possesses an impressive level of artistic talent, but so do a lot of other rap and hip-hop artists. The only reason we’re even tempted to call Kanye a genius is because he can’t stop insisting that he is one.

In a Pitchfork article on the role of Kanye’s “genius” in 2018, Jayson Greene asks “What is ‘genius,’ after all, if not societally celebrated madness?” Please. That’s buying into Kanye’s own uninformed definition of genius from “Feedback” on The Life of Pablo (“Name one genius who ain’t crazy), which Greene himself sites. Greene goes on to argue that genius might be better “diagnosed” than celebrated. This equation of genius to madness is exactly the misunderstanding that Kanye has seized in order to excuse (or to market) his erratic behavior. Name one genius who ain’t crazy? Okay: how about Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, and Leibniz, to begin? If you actually look at “geniuses” in history, insanity is the exception, not the norm. Relative normalcy simply isn’t conducive to sensationalism.

“Sensationalism” is half the problem in itself. I wrote about this in “Reading in the Age of Trump,” and it bears repeating here: in the age where we package news in a condensed, tag-friendly soundbyte, the flashiest headline is always the article that gets read. Tweets, memes, YouTube, and the “viral” phenomenon all conspire to condense media to its most sharable format, and “most sharable” always means “most extreme.” Thus, Kanye’s nastiest moments, like Trump’s, are exactly the fodder this media culture is looking to explode. If any personality survives in this post-truth, meme age, it’s the Kanyes and Trumps of the world.

I would also argue, however, that “condensed” media consumption has also made us less critical as readers and listeners. There’s simply so much out there that we’re severely rushed to skim as much of it as possible. Kanye’s music, as I’ve admitted, is good stuff. I’m enjoying Yeezus for the third time today, and I’m impatiently looking forward to the release of Yandhi. But our desire to jam Yeezy shouldn’t inspire us to swallow the ugly bites. Our worst possible response is the high-sheen gloss of “genius” fans seem to want to use to cover the ugly parts. Calling Kanye a “genius” does double damage by dumbing down the discourse of music criticism and the popular understanding of “genius” in one swing.

Let’s stop being passive listeners. Dissonance isn’t genius, whether its cognitive or emotional. The most likely proximity to truth seems to be that Kanye is a mess rather than a genius. This does nothing to degrade the enjoyability of his music. For this metal head, at least, listening to the mess that is Kanye West unfold is a much more interesting experience than pretending that the mess doesn’t even exist.

-Justin A. Burnett

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