A few weeks ago, my boyfriend left town for an extended trip.
We spent the last hour before his departure packing up his stuff and filling his camel bak with water. There was little time before he left for wistful goodbyes or promises to call each other on the hour.
Honey, I said. Did you happen to download that new Kanye album.
I didn’t get to it. I’ll do it when I get back.
Yes, I was hoping he’d illegally downloaded Kanye West’s new album, Yeezus. It had been out for almost a week, and had my boyfriend not been so adamant about saving money I would bought it legally the day it came out. I actually woke up the morning it was released and stared at iTunes for five entire minutes with my finger on the buy button, spilling coffee down my pajama top all the while.
My boyfriend might have felt differently were it a smaller, lesser known band. Had it been one of his friend’s Kickstarter campaigns or a street musician with a cup, he might have been the one actually convincing me to open my wallet. He almost never gets involved in my financial affairs, interfering occasionally to convince me that I don’t need another book from Amazon when I have a stack of fifteen by the bed, unread and collecting dust.
But this…this made him righteous.
It’s true that Kanye West has more money than I can imagine; he probably has more money than most third world countries. He wears furs while I struggle to afford the medicine that keeps my dog’s fur flealess. He drives a battery of expensive cars with expensive grooming bills; I gave up on my busted bumper months ago because I feared my deductible would go up. He has a house on Miami Beach; I spent my beach mini-vacation tucked into a polyester blanket at an ancient motor lodge.
Money keeps Kanye up at night because he’s spending it; money keeps me up at night because there’s nothing to spend—even on the electric bill.
But this decision, to buy or not to buy, is what often separates a casual, curious listener from a fan. Something compels us to spend that money even if it means more fuel for the musician’s jet on that impromptu trip to Paris or Turks and Caicos. And as a woman who’s smack dab in the middle of my 30’s, I grew up going to record stores and picking that new album up with my own two hands. The feeling of holding a record or CD, flipping it over to see the track listings, biding time until the plastic is ripped off and the liner notes are meticulously read.
It’s just not the same feeling I get while waiting the five minutes for my torrent to upload and make it’s way into a massive, slightly forgotten, library of songs.
Some part of this compulsion to have Yeezus immediately is because I am, against my better judgement, a buy-it-when-it-drops Kanye fan. I bought his first album, College Dropout, when I was working at a record store. I remember stocking it on the shelves the night it came in, wondering who this person was and if I had enough room in the hip-hop section for the hundred copies the record company sent us. I had to shuffle all the other music around, and decided that whoever he was, I hated him for making me work harder when I could have been behind the counter with the other employees watching Dune for the hundredth time.
The shelves weren’t stocked for long.
Most of the employees took a copy home that night, and the next day we sold nothing but that album and a couple of used Beatles albums (a staple of any independent music store).
I found it amazing, this kind of overnight infection for somebody that I’d never heard much about. Somebody who appeared, through his music, to be thoughtful, playful, and entirely unique. I invented a Kanye before I knew anything about him but the big, prep-school attired bear on the cover of College Dropout.
My version of Kanye is political, satirical, intellectual and a bit of sensitive fellow who means well and cares, more than anything, about the craft of writing. My Kanye lives in a modest house and spends his time journaling and saving ghetto neighborhoods by planting trees and building bridges.
When you connect with someone’s music or literature or paintings, it’s a little like falling in love—actually, it is falling in love. You have that urgency to hear that song again, that grade-school girl crush that you have to announce on Facebook with a link and a like. It doesn’t matter who this person truly is, you get high off of your image of them.
I needed to invent a Kanye, someone I felt comfortable with.
Down through the years Kanye has tested my fanatical mettle by being himself. I’m not even talking about the Taylor Swift award-block, which only made me like him more. I’m not talking about his comments during the Hurricane Katrina telethon, which again, made me feel that I’d invested my money and time wisely.
Somebody had to say it. Seriously.
It’s not the rebellious moments that bother me, as I spent a good deal of my time as a Riot Grrrl, complete with black bob and busted out Mary Janes.
It’s the sight of him wearing a floor-length fur coat getting out of a ridiculously outfitted Rolls Royce. Or nipping at Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s heels to get his mediocre fashion line on the cover of the September issue. Here he is at Cannes, here he is at fashion week. And here he is baby-talking with Kim on Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
I mean, baby-talking, people—I just didn’t need to see that.
Part of listening to his newest album, Yeezus, is encountering and accepting the hypocrisy of Kanye.
There is, for starters, the name.
Yeezus neither is humble nor makes even a nodding gesture to subtlety. John Lennon did make that comment about The Beatles being bigger than Jesus, true. But that was an observation about public perception, about their audience, not a declaration of messianic identity.
Yeezus, on the other hand, is just such a declaration, and it’s hardly tongue-in-cheek.
Yogis say the guru is within, but we don’t introduce ourselves at dinner parties as Brahman while sipping thousand-dollar bottles of wine. (Actually, I better be careful as I’m sure another yoga scandal is afoot.)
Then there’s the music, where Kanye just flat-out goes for it like a mental patient with a macaroni-crafted cross:
I am a god
hurry up with my damn massage
hurry up with my damn menage
get the Porsche out of the damn garage
I am a god.
This song is entitled I am a God, and the longer it goes on, the more I feel like I’m at a coked-out corporate seminar. There’s so much posturing, so much greed and entitlement. I suppose it’s intended to be blasphemous, to scandalize us.
However, we live in an age where everyone thinks they’re a god: Donald Trump, Bill O’Reilly, every member of the senate. This is not unusual, this is just common-as- dirt narcissism.
Finally, I think, I can be disinterested in Kanye West like almost everyone else I know.
There are songs, though, like Black Skinhead where I feel like I’m being asked to confront my own hypocrisy:
But watch who you bring home
They see a black man with a white woman
At the top floor, they gon’ come to kill King Kong.
These lyrics spoke to my own discomfort with a lot of Kanye’s engagement with the “top floor”—i.e. the white and privileged. Would it make me more comfortable if Kanye was with an Angela Davis/womanist type?
Yes, it would appease my own ideals, but my ideals are a world apart from Kanye’s. Despite his trio of collegiate-themed albums, Kanye West doesn’t have much of a background in higher education and one wouldn’t really classify him as a white liberal feminist.
As a white, middle-class woman, I’m aware that I’m a tourist when it comes to hip hop. So often, the lyrics don’t describe my life. They may describe pain, love, joy—universal emotions I’m very familiar with, but there is always some disconnect for me. Good hip hop points that disconnect out, though, and makes all too clear the difference between the storyteller and the audience.
It may not speak for me, but damn if it doesn’t speak to me.
A true artist, of any genre, doesn’t let us off the hook. Good hip-hop, like the punk rock I grew up with, is filled with the kind of intense cultural excavation that doesn’t easily lend itself to the grocery store or dentist’s office.
Kanye is that kind of artist, and no matter who he’s dating or what he drives, he has mastered the role as cultural gadfly.
So pardon me if I’m in the car in front of you, idling at a stoplight with my mouth open and the speakers on full blast.
I’ve been, and not for the last time, checked.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise