For me, Kanye West’s greatest hit will always be his real-time appropriation of a television spot that found him paired with comedic actor Mike Myers, in support of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Here, in a live television format during the broadcast of the “Concert for Hurricane Relief,” West went rogue, tossed the script aside and stared straight into the camera as he delivered the line “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Myers looked like he was going to pass out from shock, but West was unflinching, with a single sentence delivering the thought that was the elephant in the room in barely post-Katrina America – that perhaps our president was less than completely on the case when it came to the poorest African-American communities affected by the hurricane. To put it nicely.
This was hyperbole, sure, but even as such, it was brilliant. This was West fulfilling his role as American critic, representing in the mainstream the voices of the so-often voiceless. West was fulfilling the hip-hop mandate, as set forth by everyone from the Last Poets, Grandmaster Flash (“The Message”) and Public Enemy (“Fight the Power”) to later works from the likes of KRS-One and Nas.
West was doing his job. And whatever one’s politics might be, the nerve and fortitude it took to utter such controversial words in such a setting can’t be questioned.
In the time since, West has been far less on-point. He seemed to become obsessed with his own celebrity, and he appeared to be buying his own particular line of hyperbolic, self-aggrandizing nonsense. When you are routinely referred to as a genius, this kind of thing can happen pretty easily.
The release of the highly anticipated “Yeezus” album last week continues this trend. Musically speaking, the album is all over the place, a hyperkinetic mash-up of contemporary styles that has been assembled in a manner defying conventional structural logic. It’s brave music, even if it isn’t always great music.
But lyrically, West is a mess here.
The righteous rage that fueled the George Bush quote seems to have turned inward, where it has congealed into a general nastiness that is directed toward women in particular as much as it is toward social injustice in general.
That’s more than a shame – it’s disturbing. “Yeezus” is already selling like crazy and is being streamed even more maniacally. And guess what, Middle Class White America? Your kids are all about it. And they are highly unlikely to understand the context in which this stuff is being offered. West is a mainstream artist. His appeal cuts across economic, racial and social lines like a hot knife through melted butter.
I’m firmly behind free speech as it applies to art. I don’t believe in the slippery slope of censorship. An intelligent and involved populace should not fear the cultural observations of an artist. Civilization will not crumble due to the thoughts expressed by a hip-hop album, just as it didn’t when heavy metal music was the target of self-righteous rage in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Free speech must be protected. However, I’d argue that artists can aid in its protection by using their heads a little bit. Thinly veiled violent attitudes toward women are not a good use of free speech. And West displays an awful lot of them during the course of “Yeezus.”
The most troublesome of the “Yeezus” lyrics can’t be printed here. But teenagers – definitely the biggest market for West, and he knows it – won’t need a lyric sheet to get the gist of West’s lyrics when they listen to “Yeezus” over and over and over again through their earbuds. Think the answer is as easy as denying your own teens the right to listen to “Yeezus”? All you’ve managed to do is deny them the right to listen to it in front of you. If they want to hear it, they’re going to.
So what will they be hearing?
One needn’t be a prude to find a tune like “I’m in It” a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. The fine line between healthy sexual attraction and violent sadism seems to be crossed here. “On Sight” keeps this particular stream running with imagery redolent of rape. “Hold My Liquor” puts forth the idea that the narrator can “own” a woman through the proper application of drugs and aggressive sex.
Power, dominance, violence – these are recurring themes throughout “Yeezus.”
Of course, West is not the first artist to cross into such territory. He won’t be the last, either. If we are to protect the right to free speech in art, which we must, we have to take the bad with the good. That’s tougher today than ever. For parents, the hard truth is that you can’t control your kids’ access to an album like “Yeezus,” unless you decide that you’re never going to allow them out of your sight. Which would probably mess them up far more than listening to an egomaniac like Kanye West bragging about his disdain for women would.
Many are already calling “Yeezus” the work of a genius. There’s no denying that West is a talented guy, but a genius? I’m not so sure. He is a rather brilliant collage artist. He is a wonderful agitator. He makes, or presides over the making of, music that does not succumb to offhanded, easy or casual definition. As a rapper, he is often lazy and meandering, sometimes razor-sharp and rhythmically exciting.
When he targets social injustice, racism, corrupt politics and cultural ills, he contributes to the American conversation in a meaningful way. But when he is so casually violent in his attitudes toward women, West does himself, the hip-hop art form and the rest of us a huge disservice. And that ain’t “genius” at all.