I have become transfixed with the music of Kanye West lately. Whatever you think of him, and like me you probably have an opinion of him even before you have heard a note of his music, he is definitely an artist. He allows all of the contradictions in his personality, both the good and bad, to come through in his music even when it makes him look less than flattering. More importantly he has become a first rate sonic architect. His latest album Yeezus, and my favorite, is batshit insane in the best way possible. I like his work from best to least in reverse order, though I will admit I am least familiar with his first two records. The stranger his music gets the better as far as I’m concerned.
His lyrics, while it would be wrong to say they are not intelligent, are not intellectual in a true sense. Although they have many moments of playfulness and bizarre humor, in some way they seem less constructed than delivered. It’s almost as if we have a ticker tape of the subconscious. This is both their strength and weakness. That’s why I believe his lyrics work the best when they are either a direct representation of how he feels, or are completely crazy on something like I Am a God. The very best are when you have a tough time telling the two apart. When he is singing something like I Am a God I believe he is just having fun, trying to be provocative. He has found a small bit of virgin territory, which is harder and harder to do these days, and is staking it out, probably laughing at all of the people that are going to freak out.
Other than being a huge Public Enemy fan I am not a big rap fan. I am trying to branch out and learn more as it is one of the areas where I feel my musical education is lacking. I’ve always felt that the singing voice is the quickest way to some kind of emotional truth in music. When someone sings it is almost a window into their soul. In rap that nonverbal emotional element is missing and the words really do matter. That’s not to say that a rappers delivery can’t communicate emotions, it is just not the same as singing though. Also, and this goes for any genre, one of my pet peeves lyrically is of the moment pop culture references. They seem to date something instantly. That’s not to say that you can’t reach some universal truth while doing so, but you have an uphill battle. Too often rap not only exists in the world of the ego, which rock n roll has been doing since it began, but in the world of the temporary. I feel like the best lyrics either make you think on some deeper level, or stay out of the way of the melody completely and let the emotional quality of a piece of music do the talking. If you are thinking, but at a very rudimentary level, you are being taken out of the emotion of the piece as far as I’m concerned. No one would say that Bernard Sumner was a great poet, but his lyrics have an almost blank slate quality that allows you to project your own imagination into the song. They don’t get in the way of enjoying his effervescent melodies. I’m trying to rethink my personal prejudices when it comes to lyrics, at least when I listen to rap, as I realize it is a different form with different rules.
I became interested in Kanye when both Lou Reed and David Lynch talked about their love of his new album. They are two artists that I respect greatly and I had to see what they were going on about. I was instantly impressed with Yeezus and wanted to learn more.
I see the lyrics on Yeezus as both a mixture of raw pain and again as someone just trying to have fun. It’s a strange blend, but compelling because of it. Part of the detective work of the listener is trying to determine where he is being serious and where he is not. Sometimes he is playing with his media perception and other times he is letting those inner thoughts, the ones that most of us keep secret, come to the forefront.
Sonically the juxtaposition of opposing ideas again makes this album incredibly captivating. Primal drums, screeching synths, and screams will suddenly give way to beautiful moments of soul singing. Often you’ll get one or the other on a record, but rarely both. He is playing with both melody and noise often in the same song. This record is one of the few times when I have heard something and I feel like something is being done new sonically. Sure, everything has been done in some ways, but he is painting new colors in the margins. He is combining things in a way that they have never quite been combined before. It’s exciting.