I am a golden god
Here’s something that makes no sense at all: a music video premiere party. Inevitably, your new masterpiece is going to be all over YouTube in about a week anyway, so how can you expect people to line up outside a movie theater and wait for an hour to watch five minutes of hyper-edited lip-syncing? It’s a totally ridiculous and overindulgent idea, which is probably why Kanye West did it last night. I got an email about his big premiere for the “Stronger” video a few hours before it actually happened, and I didn’t have any trouble deciding to show up. If it had been any other pop star, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. But, as I’ve written before, Kanye is pretty much the only pop star working right now who treats pop stardom as something serious, as a holy vocation. And whenever he goes off on one of his self-aggrandizing I’m-the-best rants, it’s probably a pretty good idea to show up if you have half a chance, since they’re usually really funny and interesting. Also, events like this one tend to have open bars, so there you go. Kanye held last night’s party at the Tribeca Cinema, which from what I understand only exists to be rented out for private shindigs; most movie theaters, after all, don’t come equipped with expensively lit bars. Since Kanye showed up to screen the video an hour after he was supposed to, I spent a lot of time skulking around in this bar and drinking free beer and realizing that I knew pretty much nobody there. A-Trak DJed and wore plastic mirrored sunglasses even though it was after dark and he was inside. If A-Trak’s DJ set was any indication (which it probably is), Graduation is going to feature a whole lot of 808 handclaps and slap-bass and talkbox synths (which is fine with me). That DJ set was like one part old Ice-T, one part old Dungeon Family, one part “Special Delivery” remix, three parts Cool Kids/Kid Sister hipster-rap (hipster-hop? no), and eighteen parts French house. Eventually, Kanye finally showed up with Swizz Beatz and L.A. Reid in tow. I’m pretty sure Babyface was also there, but I couldn’t be entirely certain because he didn’t have an acoustic guitar strapped to his back. In any case, I’m about as tall sitting down as both L.A. Reid and maybe-Babyface are standing up, which is a weird thing to find out.
But so Kanye finally eventually showed the “Stronger” video, and I really liked it. Hype Williams directed the video, and it’s a sort of hyper-stylized pastiche of Japanese sci-fi shit not all that far removed from Williams’ video for Missy Elliott’s “Sock It 2 Me.” But “Stronger” only has a bit of that video’s ADD computer animation, and instead it uses the sort of tricks that video directors use when they want to convey immediacy: choppy editing, distorted film-stock, Japanese lettering constantly flashing on the screen. It starts out with Daft Punk giving Kanye an MRI in this giant computer-animated robot-machine, and then it flashes to Kanye rapping in front of a sheer stone wall and wearing insane striped sunglasses. We also get a bunch of Tokyo street-scenes, with smeary lights and motorcycles and Cassie, on video-chick duty, looking absurdly hot in a shiny kimono-dress thing and Liquid Sky eye-makeup. I’m pretty sure there’s no real story or anything; it’s just a sort of overwhelming pileup of deft futurism. Now that I think about it, it looked more like a Squarepusher video than anything else. Kanye went on for a while talking about the video and actually avoided getting into too much of the overbearing egotistical ranting he’s famous for. I love listening to Kanye talk; as Brandon Soderberg pointed out a little while back, he’s got a speaking cadence not all that different from a preacher or a stand-up comedian, and the rhythms he uses when he’s talking are practically identical to the ones he uses when he’s rapping. According to Kanye, the video took three months to make, and he had to go back and shoot the main performance scene after Maroon 5 came out with a video that looked sort of similar and after A-Trak told him that his scarf looked stupid. He also acknowledged Swizz for being the first rap producer to sample Daft Punk on a big single. (Swizz: “I ain’t do it like that, though.”) And he said this, which I thought was hilarious: “For people that dress super-good, this is the music that we listen to. If you don’t like it, you probably can’t dress that good.” (I can’t dress that well, and I still like “Stronger.”)
“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Stronger” both lean hard on a really angry and aggressive sort of indignation, and I’m guessing we’ll here a whole lot more of that on Graduation. Kanye seems really genuinely upset that anyone would dare question his artistic vision or focus more on his enormous ego than on his music. (On blogs: “I would read blogs and shit, and they’d be like ‘His shoelaces untied, he’s a bitch, fuck him.'”) After the screening last night, he mentioned how Jon Brion had told him that he needed to get people back on his side, but instead of forcing humility, Kanye is going the opposite direction and blasting away at his haters like he was circa-97 Puffy. Last night, he got all fired up and started yelling some of his lines from “Stronger”: “Bow in the presence of greatness / Cause right now thou has forsaken us / You should be honored by my lateness / That I would even show up to this fake shit.” Whenever an artist becomes famous enough, it becomes necessary to address the potentially crippling effects of that fame and of the pressure that comes with it; that’s the difference between gleefully obscene, word-drunk Slim Shady LP Eminem and confused, self-righteous Marshall Mathers LP Eminem. Kanye has reached that level, and as much as I don’t like the idea of an entire album of him ranting about the perils of fame, it looks like he can do swollen and epic just as well as he did warm and personal. And if that pressure forces him to keep making kajillion-dollar Squarepusher videos, I’ll be OK with that.
Voice review: Robert Christgau on Kanye West’s Late Registration
Voice review: Hua Hsu on Kanye West’s College Dropout