At some point around midnight last night, I decided to stop fighting with my mom about Yeezus. Since his appearance on "SNL" a month ago, Kanye West and his new material has been somewhat of a lightening rod issue in my family. Voices have been raised, phones have been slammed down and yes, some tears have been shed (we're a passionate bunch, by nature). "He's rapping about being a slave to Alexander Wang, and yet he's actively participating in the Met Ball. He stands for nothing," my mom, an ardent decedent of the '60s and '70s counter-culture movement, texted me following "SNL." And she's not wrong.
It's funny because all four members of our family are historically fans of 'Ye, albeit to varying degrees. My sister and I are, of course, of the more diehard variety while my dad, a music business veteran, has always had a deep appreciation for his impeccable musical chops - the lush orchestrations on Late Registration, the expansive prog-rock notes on "Hell of a Life." My mom has always gravitated to the more vulnerable, exposed moments of West's catalogue like 808s and Heartbreaks and "Everything I Am." In fact, I once caught her at home rewinding and replaying the opening piano plucks of "Runaway" over-and-over again, touched by the stark sensitivity West instilled in a simple, repeating note.
But the Kanye on Yeezus appears about as far away from from the accessible, life-affirming sweetheart my mom fell in love with on "Everything I Am," "Roses" and "We Don't Care" as any person could be from a former incarnation of their self. And despite certain evidence to the contrary, she's correct in the fact that he's ventured pretty far from the outright, if more conventional social-activism of "Jesus Walks" and "Crack Music" - yes, Yeezus cuts like "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead" deal with themes of race, but all squarely from the perspective of Kanye's own ego ("Doing clothes you woulda thought I had help, but they wasn't satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself," he snarls on "Slaves"). He even turns Nina Simone's rendition of the activist anthem "Strange Fruit," a song about lynching, into "Blood on the Leaves," a song about the fallout from a night of doing molly with a girlfriend. For better or worse, Yeezus is a career-long provocateur's most provocative artistic statement, as well as a career-long egoist's most egotistical one.
It's clear from the opening buzz of "On Sight" that we're certainly no longer dealing with the Kanye who was actually once perceived as the friendly guy's rap star (remember?), the one who made his name by spitting the now iconic line, "We're all self-conscious, I'm just the first to admit it." More so, Yeezus contains the new father's most sexually crass lyrical output to date - at one point on "I'm in It," he conflates throwing up a Civil Rights sign with fisting a girl - all the more reason why it was my own fault for agreeing to play the record on the way to a Father's Day barbecue at my uncle's house, all at my mother's behest. "I want to hear," she insisted, remembering when we had enjoyed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on a similar drive three years back.
Having recently read Kanye's now-infamous interview in the New York Times, admittedly a case-study in the nature of modern celebrity narcissism (she texted me after reading it, "I'm sorry, but he is Gil-Scott Heron like I am Mother Teresa"), my mom had to be expecting the worst when she insisted that we listen to the album. As we drove down the Hutchinson Parkway, the dystopian clanging of "I Am a God" blaring through my dad's car speakers and Yeezy spewing with what appears to be 100% sincerity, "I just spoke to Jesus, he said "what's up, Yeezus,"... "I know he's the most high, but I am a close-high".... "I am a God," my sister and I kept tossing each other awkward looks as we could feel my mom's discomfort overflowing in the backseat. I knew the fight we'd been having for a month was about to explode. And three songs in, like clockwork, it did.
"I'm sorry, but who the fuck says they are a god? Is this a joke? Is he serious!?" she finally blurted out as the song hit its final notes. "He looks down on everyone who is buying his music, the people who made him famous. You're all being played."
After some more awkward glances, I found myself sputtering, "I don't know really know about that, I'm really not sure. But listen to the music! You must admit, this shit is incredible!" You see, the thing for me, someone who grew up on Hip Hop, is that I know this kind of boastfulness, while of course ridiculous in a certain light, is also de rigueur on a rap album and is certainly not new territory for Kanye. Granted, it was certainly being brought to a new level where he had completely abandoned subtly and just decided to state that he is, in fact, a deity. I also tend to separate the abundant musical accomplishments that run through West's work, a source of constant inspiration to me as an artist, from the the attributes of a man who I personally perceive to be difficult, at absolute best.
My reply to my mother, though, was the absolute truth: I don't know really know if 'Ye really thinks he's a god. Given what we know about the man, it's certainly possible. "The notion that entitled white girls are bouncing up and down in the club while he is rapping about fisting them disgusts me on all fronts. It's everything that's wrong with your generation," she spit back.
But a number of things have sprung to mind since we had our impromptu SUV-listening session. First up, self-awareness has been Kanye's trademark since "All Falls Down" and given his unimpeachable musical genius, I find it hard to believe that this cognizance has simply vanished into a black-hole of misery and borderline sociopathy, at least when it comes to his art which has always been nothing if not acutely honest. The lyrical choices he is making on Yeezus must be just that - choices. He knows what he is saying and the different effects it is having on everyone who consumes it. He knows that he is forcing "entitled white people," a significant portion of his fan-base at this point, to bounce in the club, rapping about picking cotton and how his "black dick is all in your spouse again." He knows how awkward that is inherently (and it is, as I witnessed while spinning the track for a primarily white crowd on Saturday night) and that is a large part of the point. As was put perfectly by HuffPost's Kia Makarechi while we discussed the topic briefly yesterday, "Kanye has always been a mirror."
Additionally, a generational disconnect is being brought forth on Yeezus. One of my mom's main complaints about Kanye c. 2013 is that he exhibits no social responsibility - unlike the supposed celebrity "leaders" of her generation, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Marvin Gaye, Heron, Kanye implies on "New Slaves" that he is a "leader" (actually he says he is "dick" rather than a "swallower"), but she claims that he "actually stands for nothing." But what she is not acknowledging is what Kanye is exposing but simply acting, as Kia explained, as a mirror.
The race issues and misogyny, our over-inflated worship of celebrities (to the point where they get away with referring to themselves as "Yeezus"), the push-and-pull of the stranglehold corporations like Alexander Wang and Instagram have over our lives, our knowledge to some degree that we're "being played," and yet our inability or lack of desire to not actively participate in that, are things that our generation grapples with daily and themes that Kanye's music very effectively "mirrors" back at us. I'm not sure at all that we as a generation would respond, as my mom clearly did, to the sort of "rah rah" activism of her and her hippie and post-hippie movement counterparts, or even to that of the Public Enemy-ilk. Life in today's America is still underscored by a number of ugly, uncomfortable truths, and Yeezus is one hell of an ugly, uncomfortable album.
Or maybe he's not fully aware. Another thing that has crossed my mind is that Yeezus, and Kanye in general, is defined by grey areas. The final verse of his breakthrough single, "All Falls Down," finds Kanye, in some fashion, dealing, while in a much more easily manageable way, with exactly the same cultural and moral ambiguity on full display on the new album:
I say fuck the police, thats how I treat em
We buy our way out of jail, but we can't buy freedom
We'll buy a lot of clothes when we don't really need em
Things we buy to cover up what's inside
Cause they make us hate ourself and love they wealth
That's why shortys hollering "where the ballas' at?"
Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack
And a white man get paid off of all of that
But I ain't even gon act holier than thou
Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou
Before I had a house and I'd do it again
Cause I wanna be on 106 and Park pushing a Benz
I wanna act ballerific like it's all terrific
I got a couple past due bills, I won't get specific
I got a problem with spending before I get it
We all self conscious I'm just the first to admit it
Indeed enigma, both personal and societal, is part of the fabric of Kanye's music and what has made him such a fascinating artist, perhaps the most important pop star of our generation and, I'd argue, the most important Hip Hop artist of all time. In the same aforementioned New York Times article where he gloated ad-nauseam about his "awesomeness," Kanye also states, rather earnestly, that "my message isn't perfectly defined." Like the majority of our generation, knowing that we feed into our own misery by engaging in the grown-up high school cafeteria known as Twitter and emptying our increasingly scant bank-accounts on a smorgasbord of Apple products, this man has an uncanny comfort with being a complete and total hypocrite, a quality that my mom, admirably if aberrantly, does not possess. So yes, Kanye West is perhaps morally reprehensible. But he is also the most perfectly polished mirror we have.