On his 2016 album The Life of Pablo, Kanye West included an acapella track called “I Love Kanye”. In some ways, it feels like the centrepiece of the album. It’s Kanye saying the quiet part loud, poking fun not so much at himself as the tabloid circus around him. Though the tabloids responded to the track predictably, chalking it up as another example of his egotism, the track/skit asks a far more complex question than that. Which came first: Kanye or the media?
The opening line, “I miss the old Kanye”, has followed him around for years. His first three albums – The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation – were an incredible suite that demonstrated a singular vision unmatched by anyone else in hip-hop at that time, fusing a classic 90s sound with the latest pop innovations. Exceptionally crafted, they are, in hindsight, somewhat representative of a staid twenty-first century culture that hadn’t quite found its own identity. But as West progressed as an artist, taking more risks and making more grandiose statements both publicly and musically, many came to miss this generation-straddling artist the whole family could enjoy. When Kanye ushered in a pop sound for the twenty-first century, music fans weren’t so much mourning the old Kanye as they were the stale ideals of a now-bygone era, which extended far beyond Kanye’s individual output alone.
But in fixating on Kanye as the Noughties superstar who lost his way, it became clear that West was never going to be in full control of his own narrative and reputation again. This one man came to represent the excesses and challenges of an entire pop cultural movement (somewhat like Michael Jackson before him, one could argue). It makes the very idea of an “old Kanye” even more suspect, established in hindsight, as if this “old Kanye” was ever some sort of unified and internally consistent figure. In truth, Kanye is an artist who has always worn multiple hats, and as his success has grown he has only adopted more of them. On “I Love Kanye”, he seems to acknowledge this. “See I invented Kanye, there wasn’t any Kanyes”, he syncopates, “And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes”.
Interpreted by many as a jab at his imitators, this line feels like a moment of reflection on the Kanye kaleidoscope, which sees itself become a fractal as the media interprets and spins every move made in a dozen different ways. “I Love Kanye” was itself the subject of various tabloid articles, exaggerating its claims and missing the point, as if his declaration of self-love was at all unifying, rather than the song’s many Kanyes being distinct entities, as if “Kanye loves Kanye” is a postmodern recursion; Kanye loves Kanye loves Kanye, just as a rose is a rose is a rose. The Life of Pablo, on the whole, epitomises this same gesture. It is Kanye at his best and worst, his most wholesome and grotesque, his most erudite and adolescent. It is Kanye roleplaying the many men the media sees him as, and it’s a fascinating schizophrenic opus as a result.
And yet, for all the emphasis placed on Kanye’s contemporary complexity and plurality, it is worth remembering how renowned he was as a new kind of hip-hop star with an incredibly singular vision. That is no less true today than it was in the mid-2000s. What has changed is the perspective from which Kanye is looking outwards to the future. Though he leaves no path untaken, each Kanye – “old Kanye” and new Kanye – can seemingly be traced back to a single moment.
It is notable, for instance, that Kanye’s first three albums were spawned by his involvement in a near-fatal car accident. The near-mythical story of his debut single, “Through the Wire”, is common knowledge at this point, providing the foundation for a cohesive suite of records about a man seizing his own destiny. Having nearly lost his life, West no longer wanted to lurk in the background, producing for other artists. He wanted to show the world what an all-rounder he really was, and so he produced three albums that fully embody the vanguard of 2000s popular music. However, this trilogy was initially planned as a tetralogy. The final album of the suite, Good Ass Job, was shelved following the death of West’s mother, Donda.
It’s a fascinating story, reflecting the cruel dichotomy of loss. To almost lose oneself can be a galvanising moment, putting a fire in your belly, making you realise how precious life is and inspiring you to stride forwards and make something of yourself. It is unifying, as if the trauma of near-death consolidates a sense of self and solidifies its bounds, exuding a new sense of confidence and self-assuredness. We hear this kind of Hallmark story all the time. A near-death experience, whilst traumatic, can nonetheless transform your life for the better. But to lose another is a shattering experience. It has the opposite effect entirely, blurring the edges of being, leaving you with a feeling that you are now incomplete. Accounting for that loss as your own life continues can be hard. Even if we didn’t know someone particularly well, any new gap in our social fabric can change the texture of the world around us.
This experience is palpable in Kanye’s work. The shift is immediate and drastic. Good Ass Job was shelved and instead West turned on a dime, going in a new direction of pop as frigid electro. But the “autotuned lament” of 808s & Heartbreak conjured a desolate landscape that oddly never got too personal. Whereas “Through the Wire” was rooted so deeply in personal injury and recovery as to ground West’s whole mythology, here Kanye raps about a sort of generic heartbreak, the alienation of fame and the dehumanising nature of celebrity. Mark Fisher famously argued that the album (along with Drake’s Take Care) represented a shift in the pop cultural consciousness — the secret sadness of the twenty-first century:
No longer motivated by hip hop’s drive to conspicuously consume — they long ago acquired anything they could have wanted — Drake and West instead dissolutely cycle through easily available pleasures, feeling a combination of frustration, anger and self-disgust, aware that something is missing but unsure exactly what it is.
But it seems, in hindsight, that West was absolutely certain of what was missing — he just didn’t know how to address the elephant in the room on record. What was missing was his mother. What was missing was Donda.
Perhaps as a result of Kanye’s own omission, this event is hardly acknowledged in most appraisals of Kanye’s post-808s output. The personal issues where kept out of the spotlight, for the most part. And perhaps necessarily so. Pop is generic, after all, and in the best sense of the word. It is a unifying and relatable genre, giving form to universal feelings and experiences, even helping new universals to emerge. Of course, an album about a generalised discontent, even when filtered through the glamour of pop stardom, is catnip to someone like Mark Fisher, but what we also find on 808s is Kanye’s dissatisfaction with the idea of a finished product. Loss ungrounds, and whilst autotuned alienation might gesture towards Kanye’s personal grief and the resulting sense of detachment, it begins to feels like the album just isn’t enough to convey his lived experience, which lurks outside the harsh light of pop cultural scrutiny.
Despite following such a deeply affecting experience, the album doesn’t have a “Through the Wire” from which to launch itself. But what it does have is its closer — the distinctly un-autotuned, unpolished, unclear, stream-of-consciousness live track about materialism, authenticity, hopes and the American dream: “Pinocchio Story”.
A staple of live sets over the years, often stretching to ten minutes in length or longer, the track is a precursor to the infamous “Kanye rants” of more recent live shows. Although they have been ridiculed in the press for years, held up as evidence of Kanye’s gradual unravelling, they are a testament to West’s belief in the power of a shared moment. The ungrounding experience of loss cannot be fully expressed anywhere else. A studio practice is one thing, but when performing live West resists the idea of music as a time capsule or a sort of unchanging standard. (Something which is contrary to a lot of hip-hop, we might note, as a genre that has often struggled to transition from studio to stage in a way more traditional genres can.) It’s as if he believes that, if people want to hear the hits, they can go put on their favourite Kanye CD at home, but if they want to spend a few hours in his company, that’s what they’re going to get, warts and all.
The result is jarring and often highlights West’s peculiar existence. As he works to let life in, expressing the vulnerable and multifaceted nature of human life, particularly at its maximalist extremes, he is nonetheless reduced to a media caricature, to the point that we are all too aware that the frigidity of 808s & Heartbreak is now permanent. No matter how much he tries, curating and surfing his own chaos, trying to bring life back into view, and embodying the bipolarity he has affirmed so publicly in recent years, there is little separation between public and private life left. It is all fodder for the flattening process of the media machine, curating its unassailable counter-image of Kanye the clown, alienating Kanye from us and even from himself. (This is something exacerbate through his relationship with Kim Kardashian, as West’s relationship to the show Keeping Up With The Kardashians has often been uncertain and a little frosty, despite his own reputation for overblown media outbursts.)
(As an aside, the platforming of recently cancelled persons on and around West’s most recent album — Marilyn Manson, Chris Brown, DaBaby — also reveals a man open to accepting people into his life who might otherwise be best known for their crimes and mistakes. Though I have no interest in defending his association with some quite awful people, I can understand the logic of befriending fellow media villains, whose humanity is reduced in a way that Kanye might unfortunately relate to — “the enemy of my enemy is my friends”, etc. It is a process we often see these days, where those who end up cancelled are more likely to give bad people the benefit of the doubt, newly appreciative of how complex situations can be reduced to untruths that nonetheless come to define a person. When this leads to the complete suspension of a person’s critical faculties, they soon end up in even more trouble.)
Intriguingly, West has nonetheless continued to lean into this chaotic way of life. Tabloid fodder it may often be, fueling the rumour mill surrounding the private lives of celebrities, but West also seems to have more control by living life in public. Though album roll outs and schedules are deemed chaotic and “crazy”, as if Kanye is doing it all wrong, it is surely obvious that frustrating the system is the point? The quality of Kanye’s music has hardly been diminished, and “old Kanye” demonstrated how capable West is of conforming to the classic ideal of the album. Instead, he insists on confounding, surprising, and challenging. The beauty is in the process, in the happenings, in the experimentation and play. No media or record label can take that away. He allows them to skim some cream off the top every now and then, but he insists on confounding the process and drawing attention to its limitations. We do ourselves and Kanye a disservice when we think those limitations are his own.
On new album DONDA, it feels like Kanye has come full circle. Whereas his pop career started with a defining event, so his latest album finally deals with the event that has lingered for so long in the background, displacing Kanye himself in favour of a higher power, the god-mother. For example, whereas “I Love Kanye” played with the numbing repetition of Kanye’s name as near-mononym, exacerbating the absurdity of affirming an alienated and reductive self, new album DONDA‘s opening track simply repeats West’s mother’s name, transcending the mundanity of overexposure. Whereas the name “Kanye” might be nothing more than a tabloid abstraction to us now, the name “Donda” clearly holds, for West at least, a kind of magickal power. His mother’s name becomes an incantation, and is repeated enough times as to become pure air and texture (whilst nonetheless reminiscent of a Desiigner ad lib; Donda, Donda, Donda…) The pluralism of Kanyes is offset by the infinity of her name’s life-giving power. Donda becomes God in her transcendence, and West’s gospel turn affirms the importance of family and shared experience that her death brought home for him.
But this is no simple story of grief and transcendence. The album proceeds by flirting with the ever-present dichotomy that has encompassed West’s music for almost 15 years. We grieve those who die but find the very idea of transcendence from suffering is culturally encased in dying itself. The feedback loop is harrowing and energising. The dichotomy of the alienated pop hit, of dancing at a distance, first presented on 808s, is carried forwards if not in form than in content, and Kanye finally feels able to use his mother — that is, the particular rather than the pop universal — as a vehicle for addressing this complexity. But this leads Kanye back to the universal in a far more powerful and affecting way. Donda, then, is held up as a godhead — not as a superegoic presence but a sort of energy that has transcended material form. Her spirit becomes diffuse, no longer personal but collective; from ghost to Weltgeist.
Faced with this contradiction of form and content, West’s narcissism, that the tabloids so love to ridicule, starts to resemble that of Ovid’s Narcissus proper — not the modern interpretation of pathological vanity, but the feedback loop of object/subject that Narcissus is horrified by. To love oneself is at once to see and be seen, to see the object of one’s love and be aware that the subject who loves cannot acquire it. Narcissus commits suicide in Ovid’s telling, as the feedback loop necessitates not self-preservation but self-overcoming.
It is a notion I am particularly interested in at present — the philosophical affirmation of narcissism. Jacques Derrida, for instance, once claimed that, “without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutely destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance.” Recalling Freud’s comment “that another person’s narcissism has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism and are in search of object-love”, Derrida insists that the “relation to the other … must trace a movement of reappropriation in the image of oneself for love to be possible”. It is a love that we hear about more often than such philosophical language might suggest. It is to entangle yourself in another and see that they “bring out the best in you”, that you might love yourself more when you love them.
It is a love we count as rare when directed towards other people, but one made as natural as breathing in the love of one’s children or family. It is an unconditional love, which does not simply mean “I will love you no matter what you do”, but, as Deleuze writes, “to love without being loved, because love implicates the seizure of these possible worlds in the beloved, worlds that expel me as much as they draw me in”. Again, this is something we intuit in our love of our children. For Freud, the “charm of a child lies in a great extent in his narcissism, his self-contentment and inaccessibility, just as does the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats and the large beasts of prey.” It is a love for those who possess a “narcissistic consistency with which they manage to keep away from their ego anything that might diminish it.” So too for Deleuze, who notes that this kind of love also implores us “to stop loving, because the emptying of the worlds, the explication of the beloved, lead the self that loves to its death.”
This complex set of relations is epitomised by Kanye and his relationship with his mother. Kanye himself attempts to construct a narcissistic consistency, that protects him from those in the media that would do him harm, who only criticise his narcissism in turn. But in being infantilised as a narcissist, Kanye turns to his mother, who becomes an affective vehicle for ideas and emotions that far exceed the mother-son relationship. Instead, that relationship, and the experiences that Kanye associated with it, is expanded to an almost cosmological level in being combined with his faith. The grieving mother-son relationship is transcended until his grief is entangled with nature and the relationship between winter and spring.
I watched so many people leave
I see ’em change by the season, that’s mama’s sеasonin’
But within the confided space on the album, as each of these relations is necessarily collapsed onto each other, DONDA tells a contradictory story of joyful capture and melancholic transcendence. Take, for example. Jay Z’s verse on opening track proper, “Jail”. Sticking with Kanye as Narcissus, we find Jay rapping the words: “Made in the image of God, that’s a selfie.” But West’s God almost feels Spinozist. God does not resemble an individual being but the multiplicity of nature as event. So what is human life when framed through this multiplicity? Kanye hardly gets philosophical, but the affective power of the music is all encompassing. How else are we to interpret a song that is so excited about jailtime?
But this expression is itself doubled. The absurdity of desiring your own capture reflects our hype around any given Kanye album. But Kanye’s cynicism pushes through our expectations. He knows that what the world really cares about is Kanye contained. Forget the events, the happenings, the parties — we want Kanye captured by playlists, by paparazzi photos, by reviews, by Genius annotations. Kanye himself is uninterested, and ventriloquises his refusal through Jay Z’s verse:
You are not in control of my thesis
You already know what I think ’bout think pieces
Before you ask, he already told you who he think he is
Don’t try to jail my thoughts and think pre-cents
I can’t be controlled with programs and presets
This refusal unfolds beyond all bounds. This is not a punk refusal — a “no” contained within the format of a three-minute bop. Nor is it a post-punk refusal — a high-concept “no” nonetheless contained within the longer format of the album. Kanye refuses to be contained by either.
Since the tantalising release of the lo-fi “Pinocchio’s Story”, West has found a permanent vehicle for this live refusal in the form of his Sunday Service Choir. But we might note that the accompanying album, Jesus is King, supposedly representative of his many years of activity with the group, might be the most underwhelming album in his whole discography. Whereas videos of the live shows are maximalist and effervescent, his 2019 album feels rushed and fragmentary, with most tracks barely passing the three-minute mark. In many ways, the record was astounding in its disappointment. How could something as grand and universally acclaimed as the Sunday Service Choir find itself represented by something generally regarded as “flawed”? Then again, how could it be any other way? Kanye makes it clear for us on the track “Closed on Sunday”: No more livin’ for the culture, we nobody’s slave.
I’m reminded of David Grubbs’ book Records Ruin the Landscape, in which he draws on the militancy of John Cage and
argues that, following Cage, new genres in experimental and avant-garde music in the 1960s were particularly ill suited to be represented in the form of a recording. These activities include indeterminate music, long-duration minimalism, text scores, happenings, live electronic music, free jazz, and free improvisation. How could these proudly evanescent performance practices have been adequately represented on an LP?
The spirit of a black radical tradition simmers through West’s chaotic album release cycles in this way. As a case in point, DONDA has received mostly middling and lukewarm reviews. They’re nonetheless agreeable reviews. Over the course of almost two hours, there are as many moments of brilliance as there are moments of mundane filler. But the real album experience has been in the listening shows that presaged its release, with not only shifting track lists but shifting features and production and samples. The album felt alive in those livestreams, in its becoming, and, in announcing the DONDA stem player, Kayne seems to want that experience to carry on long after the shows have ended. Clearly, the real release, for Kanye, is the unveiling of the process.
Is this just a long-winded defense of a bad album? Maybe. But the excitement of Kanye’s work ever since The Life of Pablo has been his view that all albums are poor representations of the process of living and becoming and simply being free. It makes DONDA a perfectly flawed album for the times. As the music industry (or any cultural industry for that matter) and the media machine surrounding it is increasingly derided as suffocating, unfit for purpose, outright exploitative and rigged to benefit CEOs over artists, Kanye seems to have embraced the fact that a bad culture produces bad albums. He will no longer be a slave to contracts or formats. DONDA, in this sense, is nothing more than tourist tat; a souvenir from the main event. But the main event is life and death, joy and grief, and the multiplicity of ways of being. And inside of the event, everything is transformed.
Kanye, too, has been transformed, and he seems to want to transform us along with him. Though the album can hardly be reduced to a kind of industry process, it nonetheless asks, if we struggle to judge or compartmentalise the result, perhaps the problem is with our outdated critical framework? This is not to collapse all music into a broader cultural relativism, in which all art is subjective and immune to critical appraisal and interpretation, but to ask us to reorient our expectations. We live in a product-driven world, where albums and streams are the be-all-and-end-all, and we assume the royalties accumulated allow most artists to make keep on making. But the process is backwards. When we fetishize the product but devalue the work, we end up with an unsustainable system. We know this — it is applicable to all corners of capitalism and consumerism — but Kanye demonstrates how the creative process can itself be entertaining, life-affirming, and free from drudgery, if we give ourselves over to it. (He also demonstrates how lucrative it is, supposedly generating millions of dollars from the hype cycle alone.)
We’re a ways off from that reality yet. At the end of the day, records are still ruining the landscape.