Yeezus debuts his new music during baffling fashion show
THE SANTA CLARA
February 18, 2016
Last Thursday, at 1 p.m. Pacific Time, Kanye West wanted our attention. And he got it. In front of a sold-out-in-fifteen-minutes Madison Square Garden, Earth’s most vocal, caustic genius showcased his third fashion line and seventh solo album, “The Life of Pablo.” The Kanyextravaganza streamed live on Jay-Z’s ho-hum music service, Tidal, and in dozens of theatres internationally.
In the build-up to the release, Ye had been acting a fool on Twitter—a service that should clarify, but only mystifies his psyche. Recently, he tweeted four album name changes and 17 (unnecessary) attacks on Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose, marking the earliest throes of a social media flail sesh that still hasn’t stopped. Coherence is impossible as Kanye presents the literary equivalent of a summer-camp, puzzle ziplock—full of mismatched pieces and lacking crucial connectors.
Still we tolerate this confusion because the reward of his unpredictability is that each performance possesses the potential energy of a slinky on Mt. Everest.
These astral expectations engender a helpless giddiness that peaked on Thursday when the screen revealed drab-tarped, center-court mounds that rippled like a Godzilla opponent sucking sustenance from the Earth’s mantle. Rivulets snaked from its edges to the core, molding the hidden display over 20 minutes of near-intolerable tension building.
Then, with no introduction but a spotlight, the Kardashian klan entered looking like curvy animorph swans—draped in glitzy, feathery or purposefully ripped, all-white, high-fashion ensembles. Baby North wore snowy furs and her typical nonplussed pout—thoroughly unimpressed with the hundreds of thousands of people desperate for her dad’s new stuff.
Then Kanye emerged, flanked by lanky Lamar Odom—Khloe’s ex-man who recently overdosed in a brothel after his remarkable NBA career cratered. Entering with the death-brushing power forward imbued the mercurial artist with even more messianic vibes—like he’d just walked in with Lazarus.
Behind Ye, stood his G.O.O.D. Music armada including Kid Cudi in a raccoon hat, Pusha T in a Seargent Pepper’s jacket and 2 Chainz with a soon-to-be-sparked jumbo blunt between his gaudily ringed fingers.
Ye inserted the aux cord into his black matte laptop and unleashed “Ultra Light Beam.” The cosmically-scaled gospel track kicks off with a testifying four-year-old who is answered by a gale force choir. Then comes Chance the Rapper—grown-up version of the Teletubbies’ sun and heir-apparent to the Chicago throne—who sang/spat a tender verse creamier and sweeter than Nutella.
Then the bass dropped and the sheet peeled away, revealing at least 200 models. Channeling a smoky, cramped photo of Rwandan refugees, the extraterrestrially beautiful people stood stoic in Kanye’s exclusive, house-elf rags that (finally) incorporated some affected autumn colors like dirty ruby red, tropical sea blue and don’t-shoot-me orange.
During the intimate exhibition in the cavernous arena, a dude with red-beaded braids stood defiant at the front like a maraschino cherry plopped on a pile of raked leaves.
Young Thug sat onstage and embodied boredom with a 24-carat ring in his nose and a fur coat draped over his shoulders that made him look like a radioactive Easter chick. A striking, rail-thin goddess wore a skintight beige leotard with striped polygons under her breasts—and endured the uncomfortable amount of times that the cameraman shot her from a lecherous low-angle usually reserved for commercial break cheerleaders.
An emerald-eyed lady wore a calf-length pumpkin dress with transparent three-inch heels next to a young black Zoolander in the true-to-life hunting camo favored by dudes who share pro-Trump memes—a reappropriation similar to Confederate flag Yeezus merch. The stunning, sentient mannikins contrasted sharply with Kanye’s unfiltered exuberance—the frequent sulker stunted, beamed and bounced between his buddies feeling his new tunes harder than anyone else.
The event marked Kanye’s discovery of the proper formula for releasing new stuff. We’ll nod politely at his exorbitant fashion and pine for his always-sold-out shoes, but we’re here for the music. His clothes are fine, but they’re couscous in comparison to his exotic sonic feast.
But after “Wolves,” things turned surreal. Like a living room hang-out, Ye passed the aux cord first to Vic Mensa, then Young Thug. Both let loose new tracks that didn’t quite glisten with Kanye’s polish, but rippled at the seams with a barely containable energy that made the 38-year-old sound winded.
After those debuts, Kanye launched into a head-scratching vent sesh. He railed against suit-wearing vision-restrictors, shouted out fashion designers no one knew and promised to lower the prices of his duds, just as he’s been doing for the last three years.
Adding to the off-the-cuff confusion, he ripped unnamed San Francisco video game developers who had turned down his “Only One” project, which he then previewed—twice. Rendered in sumptuous ethereal shades, the retro 8-bit adventure follows West’s mother, Donda, as she rides a pegasus through the swirly, pearly gates. The deeply personal video game about the afterlife ranks among the strangest things I’ve ever seen.
Then, as he played “Facts” slathered atop a new, custom-made beat with a snake-charming horn riff that could soothe the basilisk, the feed cut. Unsurprisingly, Kanye had exceeded his allotted time. I looked around at fellow attendees of the streaming screening at San Jose’s Disneyfied strip of world culture, Santana Row, and saw a sea of faces overwhelmed by the scattered kinetic energy, unsure of what was purposeful, accidental or some combination of the two.
I horked down a cheeseburger, attempting to reground myself in physical reality, confident that once I got the album, I’d be able to better contextualize the last two hours.
Then, it didn’t come.
Apparently, Chance convinced Ye that “Waves” belonged on TLOP. So the once-title-track needed to be added as the album remastered. Hours later, Kanye blamed, then thanked Chance with a meme generator that customized the words on his Halloween-colored album cover.
With angsty anticipation at an all-time high, the duo went on Saturday Night Live. There, Kanye apparently had a brief meltdown about minute set details and threatened to not perform. After a pep talk with wifey and Lorne Michaels, he calmed down enough for a live set with performers clad in denim bleached to look like cumulous clouds.
The next day, Kanye released the album…on Tidal. Tidal? Tidal! TIDAL?! Tidal. And then doubled down, promising it to be a permanent service exclusive, as well as all future G.O.O.D. Friday releases—teasing 40 collabs each with Kendrick and Young Thug. I borrowed my roommate’s account, and snuck a couple listens in on Valentine’s Day.
“The Life of Pablo” contains some of Kanye’s boldest genre-dipping and perhaps his best beat flip with Sister Nancy’s immortal “Bam, Bam.” He samples a broader swath of sounds than any other artist—gospel blasts, trap smacks, industrial gear grinds, gooey autotune, robo-harmonies, dance hall reggae, huffing acapella poetry, ice cold water drops, bad acid breakdowns, wooden bat home-run knocks, shredded wolf howls and trashy Euro bass. The album contains oodles of sounds I’ve never heard before that tickle my ears, undulate my shoulders and make me beam big ol’ Ron Swanson smiles.
He paints with voices, lightly brushing some Kid Cudi hums on “Waves,” then plopping in a dollop of Young Thug to melt the edges of “Highlights,” then smearing a bit of Andre 3000 over the cooing hook to “30 Hours.” He even saved some money by getting bargain-priced Future, Desiigner, to inject some nitrous into “Pt. 2” with trilling ad-libs and pulse-quickening mumbles about broads in Atlanta and credit cards in scanners.
Like all his albums, Ye sits at the nucleus and weaves a cultural collage that draws from the past to establish a new vision of the present. Each track contains at least one truly dazzling section, but the feeling that “The Life Of Pablo” will change hip-hop never surfaces. It’s a staggering, sprawling work of art, but for all its exploration, it never breaks any new frontiers. And maybe that’s just a testament to Kanye’s past. He opened hip-hop so wide, there’s nowhere else to go.
But lyrically, this album doesn’t do much new. We know that love is hard, groupies are duplicitous and that wealth doesn’t solve all problems. If this album got released a few months earlier, “To Pimp a Butterfly” still snags the Grammy. Kendrick’s dense, relentless deconstruction of self, race and country makes TLOP look flippant.
Kanye wants to be taken seriously as our generation’s greatest artist (and I believe he is), but he mucks it up by bashing the not-even-fading looks of his ex-lover Amber Rose and spits an ugly, misogynistic bar about expecting sex with Taylor Swift because he made her famous. It’s just flat-out untrue.
He interrupted Taylor while she was being awarded for a music video with 550 million views. Some of TLOP’s choices are just mean and weird and lazy—urges I thought he purged with “Yeezus.”
At 38 years old, Kanye’s about the oldest a rapper has ever been without being booted by the youngins. Rap moves quickly. Kanye keeps up, but he’s not out ahead anymore. After six genre-changing solo albums, even the maniacally driven get a smidge complacent—which for Kanye still puts him in the ninety-ninth percentile, but just shy of perfection.
The production remains stellar, but his message has faded. And maybe Kanye’s mere existence alone qualifies as an adequate statement. As he tweeted right after banning “white publications” from reviewing “black music,” he is the “great grandson of ex-slaves,” yet occupies a rarified air of importance atop American culture. He headlines New York Fashion Week. He fundraised for the Democratic National Convention last year after being hand-picked by the President. The descendants of his ancestors’ masters hang on each wisp of his creativity—the same families that ignored his forefathers’ humanity now treat him like a god.
As a white, middle-class, mostly-ignored blogger, I do not know what that’s like. Can’t even imagine it. Further, I can scarcely conceive the pressure of doing all that Kanye does—each effort is accompanied by the deep-sea pressure that it must be flawless, lest his precious, meticulously cultivated legacy be compromised.
He sits at an echelon of artistic creativity where no one can tell him definitely, “No.” Someone will always work their ass off to help him accomplish his unfiltered dream—no matter how odd it may be. He needs an occasional naysayer—we all do. But who is qualified? And who would even want that job?
Kanye West makes Earth infinitely more interesting. But he keeps wiggling down these mental rabbit holes that only he knows how to exit. And sometimes, it seems the directions he drew on his hand have been smudged by sweat.
The Twitter rampage, MSG rambling and SNL meltdown don’t seem like the behavior of a fully sane and happy man. Or maybe all this is just the most absurdly elaborate performance art prank the world has ever seen. And I’m a big dupe.
Whatever it is, I’m shamelessly addicted to his music. And (sigh) I guess, I’ll keep enduring his nonsense, and the misogyny because he invents gorgeous, revelatory sounds that have always spoke more eloquently than his abstract expressionist speech-giving.
Kanye is important personally and in general. As long as he’s alive, I’ll always want more. He’s just gotten so expensive.
Contact John Flynn at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.