It was raining pretty hard on Wednesday when I left for work so I caught the bus. I was surprised but pleased to get a seat, and soon after I sat down even more pleased to find a friend on the bus who came and sat next to me. I turned off my i-pod to say hello and my friend asked me what I was listening to. It crossed my mind to lie, but instead I said: “Kanye West”. I considered lying because my friend was a woman, and saying “I’m listening to Kanye West” felt a little bit like saying “I’m reading Mein Kampf” to a Jew.
One reason I bought Yeezus by Kanye West was a review I read of it in The Atlantic. It was such a strange and tortured review that I was intrigued. I don’t think I’ve ever read a review of a record where the reviewer was so clearly forcing themselves to like the recording.
By this time, I was in for the music, but Kanye’s lame lyrics kept getting in the way. They really are that bad…. The music is so interesting and the lyrics are so appalling, boring, and silly that it seems Kanye has given up on the very idea of imbuing the words in his songs with meaning. And I actually think that’s what has happened.
Alexis – the reviewer – goes on,
Not to put too fine a point on it, but these lyrics aren’t *supposed* to mean anything. They’re just placeholders, noises, phonemes. You want Kanye’s music? Fine, he’ll give it to you. You want Kanye’s mind, his personal meanings? Nope, you can’t have that.
This review ends by quoting Roland Barthes and talking about the death of the author.
Rap lyrics cause some white people – mainly music critics – a lot of anxiety. There’s a lot of swearing, racism and misogyny in rap which they don’t like (in the reverse order probably), but some rap music is very “cool”. You see the dilemma? I don’t have this dilemma. I just don’t like most rap and hip hop music.
In rock music it was one of the reasons that I switched allegiance from Guns’n’Roses and their ilk to Nirvana and theirs around 1990. For me and Guns’n’Roses it all came down to the inside sleeve of Appetite for Destruction.
Because of grunge, and because Use Your Illusion was so dumb, and because Axl had switched from skinny leather pants to bicycle shorts, I eventually began to re-examine my love of GNR. When I first heard Welcome to the Jungle it made me stand up and pay attention. It was so dark, and malevolent and hard sounding. Appetite for Destruction was a lot like that. There were dumb bits, but it was mostly hard, sweaty, rock with whisky and nicotine on its breath. Not that I was any of those things (well, I was pretty sweaty), but they still sounded awesome.
But then there was the girl on the inner sleeve. The raped one. And the lyrics. The crap ones. Ones like in Anything Goes or It’s So Easy. Not that GNR invented it. AC/DC track listings often read like a teenage boy’s brainstorming session for euphemisms for sex.
In the end I guess the misogyny just bored me. Since having two daughters it more than bores me: it offends me. Whether it is in the lyrics or the videos or the album covers. If the lyricist, whether in rock or rap, is just saying this kind of stuff to be cool then they’re dickheads (and they’re not cool). If they actually believe what they are saying then they are horrible people. Denigrating women is wrong. I don’t need to hear excuses, or apologists defending or explaining it in rap. They just need to sort their shit out, and so do the apologists.
“They’re just placeholders, noises, phonemes.” Actually they’re words, in English, and we understand them, and what they say, sometimes, is not good. If Kanye wanted to make noises I’m sure he could do impressions of farm animals instead of talking about “pussy” and “bitches”. Vile nonsense. Vile nonsense from an intelligent man whose mum was a Professor of English while he was growing up.
On the other hand Yeezus has I Am a God on it. The world of Kanye on Yeezus is a dark world filled with spitting hate, self hate, contempt for others and self-loathing. I Am a God is equal parts ridiculous, funny, and terrifying. It is a song in which a posturing (let’s hope) caricature of a rapper delivers demands like a belligerent six year old, waxes lyrical about his greatness, and makes egotistical comparisons
I just talked to Jesus
He said, “What up Yeezus?”
I said, “Shit I’m chilling
Trying to stack these millions”
I know he the most high
But I am a close high
But then, late in the song, we have this extraordinary, terrifying screaming. Which changes the song. It makes it sound like the whole song is a harrowing, sweat-drenched, nightmare. Like the fantastical, farcical dreams of a preening fool have suddenly been interrupted at 2am by reality; disorientating and frightening.
Either that, or Kanye thought the screaming sounded f*&king cool.
Probably the latter.
All this white, rock-critic anxiety about Kanye seems strange when I listen to Sunbather by Deafheaven. There’s a kind of metal where the singer sounds – in the words of someone else – like they are vomiting into a bucket. It’s kind a visceral roaring sound, and it’s impossible to tell what the, um, singer(?) is saying. The lyrics on Sunbather (if you look them up) sometimes don’t make a lot of sense,
Hindered by sober restlessness. Submitting to the amber crutch. The theme in my aching prose. Fantasizing the sight of Manhattan; that pour of a bitter red being that escapes a thin frame. The rebirth of mutual love. The slipping on gloves to lay tenderly.
But then, in the same song:
– “Is it blissful?”
“It’s like a dream.”
– “I want to dream.”
Which, when coupled with the wall of sound beneath it, is quite moving. Well, it would be if you could understand anything the singer was saying. And yet I haven’t read a review that mentions this; the fact that there are lyrics but you can’t understand them. Are all the reviewers frightened that someone will think they’re uncool if they point this out? I mean that really would be an example of words just being placeholders. All that effort to be hard seems to be covering sensitivity and pain.
Listening to Deafheaven reminded me of what would be one of my favourite albums, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads by Lift to Experience. The lynch-pin of that band (they made one double album and then broke up) was Josh T. Pearson who has somehow survived the years since that album to make a solo album: Last of the Country Gentlemen.
In a song like Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ it seems like he is spending a long time working something out; equally in words and in his fingers.
I ain’t your Saviour or your Christ or your goddamn sacrifice
And when I said I’d give my life, I weren’t talkin’ suicide
And I’m so tired of trying to make it right, for a girl who just won’t come to the light
Night after night after night after Christ-haunted night.
So much more interesting than Kanye. Not as cool as Kanye (although I happen to think Josh T. Pearson is very cool), but what has cool ever amounted to in the end? You’re either yourself or you’re someone else. Josh has headed off far down the path of being himself. Kanye? I don’t know about this guy. He’s so caught by the stereotypes of his genre. Frank Ocean has his number.
Unless the 2am nightmares get worse.