Wednesday, December 15, 2010

yeezy taught me (how to love)

Taylor Swift be damned--I first began to really identify with Kanye West as a teenage girl. I was exactly 15--just starting to appreciate hip hop, starting to form some semblance of a political consciousness, and profoundly insecure in a way that only a teen girl can be--when he first appeared in a real way, out of the shadows of Jay-Z albums and on Chappelle's Show with my future husband, Mos Def, in 2004. (I had moved on from Ron Weasley sometime around age 13 1/2 or so.) "Two Words" was powerful, from Mos Def's opening verse to the Harlem Boys Choir-powered bridge. And so the last vestiges of "you can't spell crap without rap" fell away from my outlook on music, and I began to explore.

I acquired the rest of the album and spent the rest of mis quince trying to pick my jaw up off the ground. The opening song, "We Don't Care," was all consciousness, wit and bravado, just like the Mos Defs and Talib Kwelis with whom I had already fallen in love, but the next track…wait a second, "I'm so self-conscious"? So he does actually care what people say? I expected this from the Get Up Kids and their genre, but not from rap music, which was built almost exclusively on a foundation of one-upmanship--and definitely not from the mainstream, which, in 2004, had no room for emos like Atmosphere. Hearing self-doubt in what was supposed to be a Billboard contender was strange and intriguing and strangely, something I could empathize with. And anyway, when you're fifteen and somebody tells you they're insecure, you've got to believe them.

"All Falls Down" establishes Kanye West as a study in contradictions, a subject upon which he then goes on to elaborate over the course of the rest of the album. He expresses his frustrations with the retail industry; he goes all John 8:7 on the audience and questions his relationship with God; he humbles himself before Jay-Z; he has a light-skinned friend who looks like Michael Jackson and a dark-skinned friend who looks like Michael Jackson. The production, his theretofore claim to fame, is on point from start to finish. Of course, he indulges in hedonism here and there, but even "Slow Jamz" and "The New Workout Plan" are obviously tongue-in-cheek. I didn't even mind the boasting by the end of the album, because he explains it all for us before we get the chance to ask: "I use my arrogance as a steam to power my dreams."

And then, after all the talk about how unsure he is about every aspect of his life, he goes and raps with his jaw wired shut. Kanye isn't a perfect lyricist by any means--and producers aren't really supposed to be, anyway--but he spells out his drive on every bar. It isn't that uncommon to hear variations of the rags-to-riches narrative in rap music; Kanye, however, takes his version of the story far beyond a simple retelling of his hardships and actually shows his audience just how badly he wants to make music. Upon first listen, I found that remarkable in itself. Even more powerful for me was the fact that he managed to achieve all that he had using only his ambition, and even most powerful was the fact that he maintains his humanity throughout the entire thing.

His next three albums were enjoyable, though nothing was as good as that first album was for me. The College Dropout's existence allowed me to defend every one of his actions since that album's release--from his comments about Bush (which also coincides with one of the few times I've been disappointed in Kanye--when he apologized in the wake of the Katrina special) to his various award-show tantrums, of which the Taylor Swift incident was neither the first nor the most embarrassing. 808s and Heartbreak? Okay, it was bad, but him some slack; his mother died, his fiancée called it off, and he has some anger to work out. Taylor Swift? Please, he was right about that--and anyway, there are some pretty clear racist undertones to the ferocity and duration of the backlash. He's a jerk and hasn't been all there since about 2008, but he still makes better music than the vast majority of the mainstream. Besides, I used to follow this defense, I heard his next album was going to be more like College Dropout.

Enter My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the result of a brief breakup with the mainstream media in the wake of Swiftgate, when he spent the next year seemingly doing little else but make music and shop for suits. (At least, that's what GOOD Fridays leads us to believe.) Thankfully, it's nothing like his college years--instead of doing a Fifth-Year Senior, he goes the opposite way entirely and tries to make the loudest, brashest, weirdest, most beautiful album ever to use Alicia Keys in the background and Bon Iver on the hook. And he succeeds, sonically as well as visually; the general response I heard from friends who had seen the album's accompanying video was "I have no idea what I just watched, but I love it." He brings out the best in his guest artists and finally doesn't sound like Jay-Z's little brother on the tracks that feature both artists. The social commentary is still present--look at the album art, and the last track, which marks the second time Kanye has sampled Gil-Scott Heron.

Upon hearing the album for the first time, I was disappointed at the lack of All Falls Down-style soul-baring. Perhaps he started microblogging in anticipation of this album--for an outlet for all the self-doubt outside of the album. Then again, we also have "Runaway," the theme song to conscious alienation. And despite the lyrical disappearance of confusion and humility, Kanye makes it clear to the audience that he's put his all into this record and then some. It's not as obvious as "Through the Wire," but it's just as present and exhilarating. Fifteen-year-old me is smiling, pleased, from wherever it is our younger selves go when they’re no longer needed in the physical world.

Call me a Kanye apologist; I'm likely to respond with this and shrug, as he is often wont to do nowadays. He wasn't my first musical love, but he was one of the more significant ones, and true love lasts a lifetime.

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