kanye, the curator: an essay on pablo

The Life of Pablo is Kanye West’s eighth studio album (including his co-released Watch the Throne with Jay-Z in 2011). Here is some context. Jay-Z’s eighth solo album was the 2003 failed retirement victory lap The Black Album (an album whose brilliance relied in no small part on Kanye’s early production sounds). Nas’s eighth solo album was the strong but, ultimately, back catalogue Hip Hop is Dead in 2006 (which too has Kanye West finger prints). Tupac only released four solo studio albums before his death. The Notorious B.I.G. was involved in two solo projects and one collaborative (as part of Junior M.A.F.I.A.) before his. Eminem’s eighth solo album was 2013’s The Marshall Mather’s LP 2. Very few in hip hop make it this far. And those who do are wrought by inconsistences, failed retirements, character redefinitions and crises, loss of sound, direction, and consistency. Kanye is not any different in this respect, except he has always placed these inconsistencies, crises, and confusions at the centre of his music. There are those who are still naïvely waiting for Kanye to “mature”, though these critics miss the crucial honesty which punctuates Pablo’s creative brilliance: Kanye has always placed himself at the intersection of brilliance and repulsiveness, his very flaws have always animated his innovations. This is not to relativise or dilute Kanye’s dislikeability. This dislikeability is in fact central to his artistic allure. Album opener “Ultralight Beam” almost appears like a pre-emptive apology for how dislikeable Kanye is about to be. Kelly Price’s beautiful gospel lyrics appear as a direct challenge to Kanye:

You persecute the weak /
Because it makes you feel so strong.

Or again, Kirk Franklin, at this opening song’s close:

For everyone that feels they’ve said “I’m sorry” too many times /
You can never go too far when you can’t come back home again /
That’s why I need faith, more, safe, war.

Kanye clearly believes redemption is possible – Christianity is omnipresent on Pablo - that admitting his sins in advance can function as a partial absolution. Clearly, Kanye knows that he has a lot of apologies to dish out.

The Life of Pablo is the most multi-dimensional, chaotically layered, and confusing album Kanye has ever released. It might also be his best. The run from 2004’s The College Dropout to 2010’s near-perfect My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the journey through which Kanye went from hip hop outsider status to its focal point: he achieved total mastery of hip hop’s formal elements. Since then, with 2013’s Yeezus and now 2016’s Pablo, Kanye’s schizoid experimentalism instead has set its sights on ripping these formal elements to pieces. Gone are at least semi-predictable song structures and time signatures and gone are comforting refrains: Pablo is a thoroughly destabilising sonic experience.

When Pablo is at its strongest, it feels like Yeezus with lush, atmospheric, and hypnotic melodies (see “Famous”, “Wolves”, and “Facts (Charlie Heat Version)”), a seemingly impossible combination given Yeezus’s stark anti-melodic minimalism. It feels like a joyous gospel congregation participating in the divine experience of music (“Ultralight Beam” and “Fade”). He even channels Lil B levels of ad-libbing on the extended outro to “30 Hours” (a song with a surprising Drake writing credit, yes, a Drake writing credit). But Pablo also feels like artistic expression generated on the limit-point of sanity. Kanye drops multiple lyrical hints to this effect:

I can’t let these people play me /
Name one genius that ain’t crazy

(on “Feedback”)

You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than /
This nigga when he off his Lexapro

(on “FML” – Lexapro is an SSRI anti-depressant, the same class of anti-depressants as Prozac)

If I knew y’all made plans I wouldn’t have popped the Xans

(on “No More Parties in LA” – Xanax is an anti-anxiety medication, also used as a recreational drug)

Such limit-points are where interesting art, philosophy, and science often operate: pushing the human-as-subject or the ego-as-subject along transformational vectors through which egos are destabilised and so-called “sanity” is often sacrificed. Whether one can be both a creative revolutionary and still operate within the normalised boundaries of social functioning remains as open a question as ever in Kanye. This notion of the limit-experience is expressed quite beautifully by Michel Foucault’s commentary on his own personal work:

On the other hand, in Nietzsche, Bataille, and Blanchot, experience has the function of wrenching the subject from itself, of seeing to it that the subject is no longer itself, or that it is brought to its annihilation or its dissolution. This is a project of desubjectivation. The idea of a limit-experience that wrenches the subject from itself is what was important to me in my reading of Nietzsche, Bataille, and Blanchot, and what explains the fact that however boring, however erudite my books may be, I've always conceived of them as direct experiences aimed at pulling myself free of myself, at preventing me from being the same. (pp. 241-242)

As such, then, there is Kanye, the curator. As he expresses on “I Love Kanye”, his work has always been more interesting for what it renders subsequently possible (“See I invented Kanye, it wasn’t any Kanyes / And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes”). Another contradiction: whilst the ego (Kanye’s “artistic intentionality”) some times appears central to Pablo, the curatorial aspect of this album’s creation means that the high points are those in which this ego totally dissolves, where he steps aside and allows others to take control of Pablo’s orbit. In other words, the limit-points. Chance the Rapper’s technically mesmerising verse on “Ultralight Beam” is a case in point. Even Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “No More Parties in LA” operates on a different plane to To Pimp a Butterfly insofar as it is hard to see how Kanye could possibly fit onto a Kendrick album. This is the curatorial brilliance of Pablo. The disgusting and stupid lyricisms about “bleached assholes” and Taylor Swift, for example, feel desperate and petulant: all they do is further cement Kanye’s personal dislikeability and fuel the ever-increasing evidence base that hip hop, in its current state, is intensely misogynistic and heteronormative. This dislikeability, as I noted above, is the paradoxical condition of all of Kanye’s work. Are these lines intentionally abrasive, hateful, and self-destructive, or just stupid? It is honestly difficult to tell.

In early 2015, Kanye gave a speech to the Oxford Guild. In this speech, he noted his Picasso-level ambitions, discussed the blessing and the curse of his ego, and hinted towards the communisation of clothing (is there not a political point to be made about Kanye’s “high fashion” Yeezy Season 3 collection as a controversial and subversive attempt to “dress the rich like the poor”?). Kanye has utopian aims:

We have the resources as a civilisation to find a utopia, but we’re led by the most greedy and the least noble […] We were taught to hide our black fingernail polish and put our head down in the back of the class and not notice out of fear that someone might laugh at one of our ideas – that our idea could become a mockery or a failure in some way […] People say I have a bad reputation. I think I’ve got the best reputation in the building. They want you to have a reputation of tucking your black nail polish into your pockets and sitting in the corner of the class, and not fighting for your ideas out of fear of being ridiculed.

Pablo is a confusing, messy, beautiful, and anything-but-humble expression of utopic imaginative ambitions, ambitions consistently marred and undermined by human and egoic greed, pride, and vanity. The creative utopia it envisages is not one of perpetual peace, but rather one of disruption, dissensus, and for the generation of an environment that involves a collaborative push towards those transformational limit-experiences which, for Kanye at least, are the source of meaning. 

loving "u"

Kendrick Lamar takes visuals seriously. The immersive and staggering experience of To Pimp a Butterfly is rejuvenated through the release of each musical accompaniment, which brings us into that album’s dizzying experimentalism. The Colin Tilley directed Alright was the album's most impressive until recently. The now-released God is Gangsta (especially its first half) is not far off. It attests once again to Kendrick's combined openness, vulnerability, and artistic ambition through his explorations of alcohol abuse (a thematic topic of his), escapism, and depression. Kendrick feels the weight of his world in his work and his work’s success-to-date. This emotional heaviness, expressed through Kendrick’s opening screams, is reminiscent of Kanye West’s shrieks on I Am a God, shrieks which proclaimed Kanye’s failure to live up to his proclamations of divinity. Kendrick doesn’t claim divinity for himself. Instead, Kendrick brings God to earthly levels (God is Gangsta) rather than raising himself to divine heights. Indeed, he pushes himself further and further down in his depressive and suicidal depths. Kendrick cannot, in his music, avoid the heaviness of life:

I fuckin tell you, you fuckin failure /
You ain't no leader /
I never liked you, forever despise you /
I don’t need you /
The world don’t need you /
Don’t let them deceive you
I fuckin hate you, hope you embrace it

Watch Kendrick’s new short film, God is Gangsta below. It was directed by the little homies (Kendrick Lamar and Dave Free), Jack Begert, and PANAMÆRA.


the killer mic bump

Killer Mike, stage name of Michael Render, has long suffused his music with lyrics confronting the Reaganite legacy which has hegemonised the American political landscape since the 1980s (a legacy which is mirrored by the hegemonisation of the British political landscape by Thatcherite legacy, summed up by Peter Mandelson's famous claim that "we are all Thatcherites now"). In the song 'Reagan' from his 2012 album R.A.P. Music (an album which would be the Killer Mike + El-P spark which would ignite Run the Jewels), for example, he takes a firm aim at, in addition to Reagan, the military-industrial apparatuses, American institutional inertia and in-built democratic deficits:

But thanks to Reaganomics, prisons turned to profits
Cause free labor is the cornerstone of US economics
Cause slavery was abolished, unless you are in prison
You think I am bullshitting, then read the 13th Amendment
Involuntary servitude and slavery it prohibits
That's why they giving drug offenders time in double digits
Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor
Just an employee of the country's real masters
Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama
Just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters
If you don't believe the theory, then argue with this logic
Why did Reagan and Obama both go after Qaddafi
We invaded sovereign soil, going after oil
Taking countries is a hobby paid for by the oil lobby

Killer Mike has been a consistent and vocal supporter of Bernie Sander's so-far surprisingly successful Presidential campaign. In a recent rally in Atlanta for the campaign, he gave a hugely energetic and provocative speech: isolating the revolutionary legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, reparations, the restoration of the Voting Rights Act, the war on drugs, and the right to a free education. It's clear that Killer Mike hasn't reneged on his consistently critical and cynical view of mainstream US politics, but the spark of Bernie Sanders is clearly, at least so far, a disruption to that mainstream. Watch the speech below. 

dismaland's reality

The spectacle of Banksy’s Dismaland in Autumn 2015 was the clearest and, perhaps, boldest attempt so far by the artist to instantiate many of the political-artistic ambitions that his/her art is geared towards: forcing viewers to experience their spontaneous relationship to the social world differently (artistic practices which Jacques Rancière would call a disruption of sensible or a practice of dissensus). Dismaland was interesting not insofar as created a ‘fake’ Disneyland, not insofar as it created a Debordian representation for us to gawk at and 'appreciate', but insofar as it attempted to disrupt the very distinction between fakery and representation. In other words, Dismaland’s provocation was that it was perhaps a Disneyland more real than Disneyland itself. It attempted to ‘unmask’ those energies, repressions, and exploitations constitutive of the very possibility of the imaginative environment Disney constitutes under capitalist relations: repression and exploitation as the condition for decadence.

We will only know what energies Dismaland helped to incite over time, if any. Pussy Riot have given us an initial glimpse with their release of this excruciating video – which feels like all too much (in the positive sense) like Death Grips at points – on the ‘refugee crisis’. (A timely release, given yesterday’s grotesque cartoon published by the Daily Mail, here reported by The Independent.) The song is unconfusingly titled Refugees In. Watch it below.