21st Century Schizoid Man

Published on August 2nd, 2011

AYO FAM, ALEX JUST WANTS YOU TO LET KANYE DO KANYE FAM.

When Kanye West released his 35-minute short film/music video for the single Runaway last fall, people generally laughed at it, mostly due to its running time. The video was seen as unnecessarily long, pretentious, and an awful example of artistic hubris. Of course, the film is long for a music video, but not unnecessarily so, and it is pretentious, but not to the point of hurting the film. And while Runaway certainly is an example of artistic hubris, it is not an awful one. In fact, it’s almost entirely justified.

As a fan of Kanye (who I will be referring to on a first name basis because for some reason it feels odd not to), Jay-Z, and superstars losing touch with reality, I’m excited about the forthcoming release of Jay-Z & Kanye’s joint album Watch The Throne. I thought their first single H.A.M. was merely decent (I don’t care for producer Lex Luger’s style much), but their latest single Otis is pretty spectacular. The fact that Otis is an album track while H.A.M. has been relegated to the bonus track ghetto makes me more confident, even if the idea of a Hova/Yeezy dubstep track doesn’t. I realize I probably won’t get the best work from either emcee on this record (particularly from Jay-Z, whose Otis rhymes are eviscerated by the Hermes of verses), but that’s fine. Pretty much every hip-hop fan not named Kanye West, Sean Carter, and maybe Beyonce Knowles knows in their heart that Jay-Z’s best days are behind him, but Kanye remains an unknown. In any given scenario where you put Kanye in a studio he has been – and remains – a complete wild card. And that’s kind of unique. 

Given the title, I was unsurprised when Runaway began with Kanye running through a forest, away from something unseen, before driving through that same forest in a car that likely cost more than the budget for Hancock. And then a phoenix comes crashing down from the sky, forcing Kanye to crash his car… because of course this happens. Kanye picks up the phoenix and seems to wordlessly accept her as his girlfriend, or something. They begin a tour through Kanye’s life that involves an 8½ homage, a giant papier-mache Michael Jackson head, a large dinner party, and some good ol’ fashioned phoenix fuckin’. The film ends with the phoenix leaving Kanye and Earth, and we once again see Kanye running through the forest, trying to get her (it?) back.

Kanye’s most recent album release, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was roundly adored by critics, hip-hop fans, and people who just happen to like music. While it is far from a perfect record – the two and a half minute Chris Rock monologue at the end of Blame Game is unfunny and unforgivable, Hell of a Life isn’t great, without the visual aspect a nine-minute version of Runaway actually is unnecessarily long – it was the most enjoyable hip-hop record released last year, and features a number of songs that are structurally inventive in a way popular hip-hop rarely is. Gorgeous features some of West’s best verses and a beautiful beat switch-up for Raekwon’s rhymes, Dark Fantasy contains a pretty great RZA-by-way-of-Kanye beat as well as the line, “Look like a fat booty Celine Dion,” and the drums on Lost in the World are Margot-Kidder-circa-1996 insane. Even the mediocre songs are at least kind of impressive: Hell of a Life is still enjoyable and All of the Lights’ seizure by drum committee is delightful. Not to mention that the stellar Monster, So Appalled, Devil in a Blue Dress, and Power all appear on the record. But as good as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, let’s not act like Kanye just started making great music.

The film is particularly interesting once it becomes clear that the phoenix is an allegory for Kanye’s creativity, or perhaps (even more interestingly) how he perceives his own creativity. Kanye’s breakthrough as a rapper, or at least the breakthrough that got him a record deal, was Through the Wire, a song he semi-famously recorded with his jaw wired shut following a car crash. And while this wreck nearly killed him, it didn’t hurt his work ethic. When Kanye called Roc-A-Fella executive Dame Dash from the hospital, he asked for an MPC drum machine to be brought to him so that he could continue working. Kanye himself seems to credit the crash as an inspiration for him, stating in a Time magazine piece that, “Death is the best thing that can ever happen to a rapper. Almost dying isn’t bad either.”

Kanye’s 2004 debut album, The College Dropout, featured a variety of great songs, including a single you might know in Through the Wire, a single you probably know with All Falls Down, and Jesus Walks, a single you definitely know. But it also included a number of pretty great songs you likely wouldn’t know outside of the actual album, particularly Spaceship, Two Words, Family Business, and Get Em High. However, the most interesting aspect of Kanye’s debut was the fact that its level of quality maybe shouldn’t have surprised anybody. After working sporadically as a producer for half a decade, making bad-to-mediocre beats that featured on records from Jermaine Dupri’s (totally fucking weak) solo debut to the (totally fucking stellar) Nas B-side compilation The Lost Tapes, Kanye got his real breakthrough producing This Can’t Be Life on Jay-Z’s 2000 album The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. The song set the tone for what would be known as Kanye’s production style in the early to mid-2000s, unfortunately dubbed ‘chipmunk soul,’ which typically involved a sped-up soul sample as the base of the beat. Kanye and another producer, Just Blaze, received much of the credit for bringing together a cohesive musical style on Jay-Z’s next record, The Blueprint, and from there Kanye went on to produce for a myriad of other artists while also working on getting people to take him seriously as a rapper. By the time The College Dropout was finally released, it was highly acclaimed for its soul sample beats and Kanye’s occasionally unique raps. While hip-hop fans could recognize that Kanye was far from a great rapper – his breath control in particular is awful throughout The College Dropout – they could see interesting elements, and the consistently great beats more than made up for any rapping deficiencies.

Just over a year later, his follow-up Late Registration proved just how quickly he had improved his musical output, likely because of how old some of the songs on The College Dropout already were by the time of their release. Late Registration saw Kanye take a turn toward grander production; while The College Dropout’s budget could only afford hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari to play on a few tracks, its success allowed Kanye to spend $2 million on his next album, adding a full string section, and hiring film composer Jon Brion (Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc.) to lead them. This resulted in music that was structurally interesting, often with instrumental breaks or slight changes in string arrangements throughout verses. The album was better lyrically than its predecessor, had interesting featured artists, and is just in general really good. It is also perhaps the only hip-hop record on which a French auteur plays drums, which says something, probably. Critics and fans loved it, with the single Gold Digger propelling it to even higher sales than Kanye’s debut.

Pictured (L to R): The drummer on Crack Music and Mr. Popper.

Following a stint touring with U2, Kanye went back into the studio with a decided effort to make more anthemic songs, leading to 2007’s Graduation. Featuring hits Stronger, Good Life and Flashing Lights, Kanye used more synthesizers and seemed to be trying to make a more pop-influenced album than his previous efforts. Gold Digger just sort of turned into an anthem through its massive popularity and the strength of its catchier-than-Carlton-Fisk hook; on Graduation, Kanye wanted to create the songs as anthems from the beginning. His new album was (once again) well reviewed and (once again) moved a lot of units, eventually becoming a double-platinum record.

After the release of the record, the year following was roundly shitty to Kanye. His mother, Donda West, passed away following complications from cosmetic surgery, his engagement ended, and he seemed to have trouble dealing with his continually-inflating pop star status. Kanye ended up recording 808s & Heartbreaks, seemingly as a type of therapy. The album famously featured no raps from Kanye, as he instead chose to sing using auto-tune throughout the record. The result was his most poorly received record (although still generally liked, possibly because critics were afraid to dislike anything by him), but it was at least musically engaging, with beats that were mostly enjoyable. Following a tour in support of the record, Kanye ended up at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, where he apparently decided it was time to start a meme.

Runaway also abstractly deals with Kanye’s reactions to media criticism; he kind of ran away after haphazardly cleaning up The Taylor Swift Incident. When Kanye and the phoenix are at the extravagant dinner, one of the dinner guests offends him by pointing out that the phoenix is a bird, “Like a monkey in the zoo.” Kanye responds to this comment, about how his creativity is here merely for us to gawk at, by getting up from the dinner table and performing the film’s title track… Which, oddly, perfectly reflects how I respond to all offensive remarks at dinner parties. 

Kanye is a big fan of Web 2.0, or at least he was until this past winter, when he cut back drastically on the use of his blog and Twitter account, essentially turning them each into rarely-updated Tumblr pages. He had until then been one to respond to criticism through all-caps blog posts and the occasional Twitter rampage, perhaps most famously when he continuously apologized to Taylor Swift a year after The Incident, or last November when he felt personally offended by the least offensive man in the world, The Today Show’s Matt Lauer. Reports of Kanye in the studio recording My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy often mentioned his ever-present laptop, emailing and blogging in between writing lyrics or handing out instructions to engineers. He’s a reactionary person in a world where it is easy to loudly react to things, and Kanye seems to have figured out that maybe this isn’t good for him, or at least the public’s perception of him and his work.

Even without analysis of what the film says about its director’s creativity (although I am curious to know how much ghost-direction Hype Williams did), Runaway is a valuable media product. The cinematography is consistently spectacular, and the music is as well, particularly the remix of Power that doesn’t otherwise exist on record. Most of the songs featured (with the exceptions of Gorgeous, Devil in a New Dress, and Blame Game) are incomplete versions; by the time they end up on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye’s vocal tracks will sound more energetic (Dark Fantasy), additional percussion (All of the Lights, Lost in the World) or stabs of vocal samples (Runaway) will be added, and some lyrics will be changed (Dark Fantasy) or a vocal track will be removed (Hell of a Life). As a fan these are simply enjoyable to hear, but when looking at Kanye’s career critically, they become an interesting reflection of his dedication to his work, and his seemingly never-ending quest for perfection.

Kanye’s work over the last decade has been interesting in not only the way it moved hip-hop forward, but the way it looks back to the genre’s history as well. That his career began in earnest when he started speeding up soul samples is a credit to the style of The RZA, leader of the Wu-Tang Clan and one of the more influential beatmakers of all time. And when he was still rapping over that particular style of beat, this guy called West’s sporadically comedic delivery and lyrics initially reminded fans of A Tribe Called Quest, another classic hip-hop outfit. Even as Kanye moved toward more stylistically original work on Late Registration, Graduation and 808s & Heartbreak, there were still callbacks to hip-hop’s past through samples (Otis Redding appears on Gone via sample, Gil Scott-Heron on My Way Home), the Roland TR-808 drum machine throughout his fourth album (a machine used in many classic 80s hip-hop records), as well as smaller, occasional looks back on Graduation through guest appearances (DJ Premier on Everything I Am), sample loops (The Glory, Champion, Good Morning), and some classic vocal samples (Jay-Z on Good Morning, Chuck D on Everything I Am).

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy takes everything that has worked throughout Kanye’s catalogue and combines it into one whole, not unlike some sort of career-spanning Voltron. Kanye calls back to his influences by featuring tracks co-produced by his mentor, No ID, one co-produced by one of his biggest influences in The RZA, and inviting hip-hop royalty such as Q-Tip and Pete Rock (who had previously sampled the drum break used on Runaway) to contribute to the record as well. The semi-random vocal stabs on tracks throughout the album particularly evoke a more old school, free-flowing approach to the music, despite these occurring on one of the most highly produced records in recent memory. Kanye may consistently look back to hip-hop’s past, but he uses these ideas to push hip-hop forward.

Bong bong.

He has never been particularly influential lyrically, as he has never been a great rapper, but on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye shows he’s still getting there, or least trying to. The record is filled with Kanye’s customary wit and unique sense of humour, and while he would often write lyrics by committee in the Hawaii studio, the ideas are always definably his, which of course means that he sometimes makes poor decisions. Gorgeous’ third Kanye verse is one of his best; it is filled with good lines, spectacular delivery… but also contains one of the worst endings to an otherwise good verse that I’ve ever heard. That’s fine, however; Kanye may not consistently John Wilkes the Booth, but I can forgive some hammy lyrics so long as the beats continue to go H.A.M.

Musically, the album is overproduced in the best possible way. From the strings in Runaway to the drums on All of the Lights, there’s a shitload of stuff going on, and rarely does it feel like it’s too much. During Kanye’s Hawaii recording sessions for the album, he block-booked a studio around the clock until the album was finished, rarely sleeping at his home and instead involuntarily falling asleep at the studio for an hour or two before getting back to work. The constant occupation of the studio would allow for him to hear a sound co-producer Jeff Bhasker found while they were working on one song, and immediately take that sound to another room in the studio and add it to the song it was most appropriate for. Regarding Kanye’s obsessive approach to production, Pusha T says, “Kanye West is the hardest working man in music. If it wasn’t for deadlines, I don’t know if anything would be finished. I’ve heard things that I thought were perfect, and I come back and they’re more perfect—and they’re still not done.” The incomplete versions of the songs throughout the Runaway film are proof of this; they all sound finished in the film, but when the record came out, they all sounded even better.

Each of Kanye’s previous records has influenced the direction hip-hop has moved in following its release. The College Dropout accentuated the already-omnipresent return of using soul samples in beats (which was largely due to Kanye’s work on The Blueprint), and Late Registration inspired popular rappers to make music that sounded a bit grander, perhaps best crystalized when 50 Cent hired Francois Truffaut to program the drums on Ayo Technology. Graduation began in earnest the move toward more futuristic-sounding, grand pop hip-hop singles with Stronger, Good Life and Flashing Lights, and 808s & Heartbreak’s existence is one of the primary reasons you even know Drake’s name. And while not enough time has passed since its release to see if My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy will have an influence on hip-hop as a whole, it’s not hard to guess that it will. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Runaway is the ending: the phoenix, or Kanye’s creativity, eventually leaves Earth. Maybe that is meant to signify that Kanye recognizes that most musical talents do not continue to produce consistently great, innovative work forever; it’s possible that he worries his skills will one day leave him and he will begin making mediocre work. But that seems entirely too self-aware for Kanye, despite the fact that he is far more self-aware than anybody really gives him credit for. What seems more likely is that Kanye is threatening us; he isn’t going to change himself for us, and maybe his next self-imposed exile won’t end up with us getting a great record, or any record at all.

It is impossible to discuss Kanye without talking about some combination of his award show outbursts, or his Twitter outbursts, or his NBC Telethon outbursts, or his generally absurd number of public outbursts. But the public perception of those moments is always interesting: the media will cover them incessantly because Kanye is currently one of the world’s biggest pop stars, and while many people seem to be confused by them, those confused people are almost never media-savvy people younger than 30. Even the most ardent, angry Taylor Swift fans seemed to recognize that it was just Kanye being Kanye. And it’s not just that we expect these moments of emotion from him specifically; we just sort of expect them. We are now used to having a platform to share our thoughts with a large number of people instantly, and we see so many people do this about their own lives, be it through a hate-filled blog post, or an angry tweet regarding their roommate eating their collector’s edition box of Flutie Flakes, or an odd series of extremely personal Facebook statuses following a rough break-up. Regardless of whether or not these people later regret putting these thoughts out to as many people as they did, these thoughts still exist. It’s simply that Kanye’s exist on a platform that requires it to be incessantly covered, reblogged, and retweeted. He is emotional, perhaps overly publicly emotional, but that’s where we are. We all want our opinions to be heard, and Kanye is no different; the only difference is the number of people that see those opinions.

#sadface

Late in the film, the phoenix talks about how sculptures are phoenixes that have been turned to stone by society. Kanye clearly does not want to allow himself to be turned to stone; this is why he threatens to leave. The phoenix says that if she cannot burn, or if Kanye cannot find his creative space, then the phoenix will have to go back to its world; it will leave. Either Kanye will physically leave the spotlight, or his talent will. And since one of those scenarios will inevitably happen, more likely Kanye making mediocre music, we should probably appreciate him for what he does now. He might appear to be self-absorbed, but when you are unquestionably the best at your profession (nobody is currently making better popular music), this will happen. Media criticism will continue to happen as well, because these are the times in which we live, but hopefully it never actually bothers Kanye so much that it affects his output negatively. To call anybody’s artistic work important is hyperbolic, but to call Kanye West’s work anything less than evolutionary is not doing it justice.

Everything Kanye does is surficial; he doesn’t really try to keep his emotions under wraps. Through tweeting, blogging, making music, or stealing microphones away from Taylor Swift, he does things interestingly in a way few popular artists, musical or otherwise, do. He hides nothing, but in doing this ends up hiding everything. He is upfront about what his intentions supposedly are, but the work always implies a different intention. The clip at which Kanye used to tweet and blog was impressive, and even more so when you consider much of that was done while working on what would turn out to be a pretty great record. Watch The Throne will likely not be as good as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as it kind of seems like a co-vanity project, which almost never works out well for anybody involved. But it, like Kanye himself, remains an unknown, and the two drastically different singles released thus far prove this.

Kanye has mostly hidden away from the media since his album’s release, only popping up sporadically to introduce Big Sean or tweeting Watch The Throne’s cover art. Presumably he is going to, at some point, take a break from making music, particularly since next week will be the second album released in the last 9 months that he has handled the bulk of the production on. Maybe he’ll move onto things that interest me less, like his interest in fashion, but presumably he will come back to music at some point. That he has moved on from Twitter and blogging was initially disappointing for me; I’m a fan of hyperbole, and Kanye might be the second most hyperbolic human being of all time (nobody tops Bill Walton). But now it actually makes me more excited for whatever he does next; if he is producing work like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy while also being occupied with his social media pursuits, I’m extremely interested to know what he can do if he’s only focusing on the one thing he’s best at. And whatever it is, regardless of how he presents it to us, it will almost certainly be interesting. I don’t care about Matt Lauer, Gretchen Wilson, or Taylor Swift. We need to let this guy finish.

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