You don’t have to ask. Kanye West will do it for you.
“How much do I not give a fuck?” he wonders just over a minute into the grinding, bombastic first track off his 2013 victory lap, Yeezus, which is bubbling with answers to that very question. “Let me show you right now . . .”
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The answer directly following Ye’s query is delivered via the Holy Name of Mary Choral Family, from their stirring ode to anti-materialism and the many temptations of the world “He’ll Give Us What We Need.” In a soothing and melodic about-face to the punishing computer burps that precede it, they sing, “He’ll give us what we need/ It may not be what we want” over the meaty carnival chords of a keyboard.
With that song, “On Sight,” we set off down the Yeezus gauntlet, a 10-track master class taught by a man doing it his way — heavy on bravado, long on justifiable anger, short on joy, tinged with misogyny, touched with a dab of sweet-and-sour sauce.
Yeezus walked all over our 2013 Pazz and Jop poll, taking top album honors and filling three of the top 10 singles’ slots (“Bound 2,” “New Slaves,” “Black Skinhead”), impressive considering the album is nearly devoid of radio hits. (But not too surprising: Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy did the same back in 2010.) It’s Kanye’s fourth album in six that’s stunted all over Pazz, making him the most successful and consistent artist in the history of the poll. His four wins tie him for most ever with Bob Dylan. Kanye, of course, did it in a fraction of the time with a much smaller body of work.
The album — and “On Sight” in particular — is a kick in the teeth, the sound of Kanye’s patience wearing thin, no longer content to knock, instead deciding to break the door down. He let it be known in an interview or 1,000 over 2013 that “Sight” wasn’t meant to lead off the album. That distinction, instead, was to be awarded to “Blood on the Leaves,” a tale of spurned celebrity love, abortion, and first-time molly use delivered maddeningly and — in the album’s most convincing and surprising endorsement of quality — successfully over Nina Simone’s moving cover of “Strange Fruit.” His decision to swap “Blood” for “Sight” is evidence of a very important fact about Kanye: He does give a fuck. He gives the most fucks.
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The Great Kanyeezian Paradox (traded on the NASDAQ as GKP, invest now) is his ability to work the artistic high- and lowbrow simultaneously, to firmly make a point that unravels all his prior points without blinking. He’s a man who can couch his many frustrations over the complicated subtlety of American classism next to a clunky Adam Sandler movie reference (“New Slaves”). He can stuff a video full of white trash tropes and declare it high art (“Bound 2”), or propose to one of the world’s most loathed reality stars without fear the relationship will detract from the perception of his own artistic genius. He can write one of the most striking and poignant criticisms of racism ever set to music (“Black Skinhead”) and sell it for use in a Motorola commercial. He can repurpose the Confederate flag for his own dark, twisted merchandise.
These contradictions might be more concerning if they weren’t so remarkably consistent, fitting tidily under an “All I Want Is Dopeness” umbrella that’s become his unofficial life motto. To Kanye, the perfection of his end product justifies the sometimes cloudy and confusing means he uses to get there. You can’t tell him otherwise because, quite famously, you can’t tell him nothin’.
Contrast his year with Jay Z’s, whose clumsy “My new album is a phone” deal with Samsung for Magna Carta Holy Grail was met with so many eye rolls there were barely enough left over for his partnership with Barney’s. Both artists occupy the same lane, but the perception of each is miles apart — Jay the sell-out art collector who lost touch with the streets he began in; Kanye the restless and troubled rebel who cashes corporate checks with one hand while flipping their writers off with the other.
That perception is due in large part to Yeezus, which is brash, angry, defiant, and bold. On it, the remnants of Gentle Kanye, the one who apologized to Taylor Swift post–VMAs and did the perp walk on Leno, are dead and gone; here, he chooses to turn up the ego that so many over the years have asked him to, please, for the love of all things soft and shiny and pure, turn down.
Honestly, would we want any other Kanye at this point? Would we want him to be a cowering apologist? Would we want a meek Kanye, one imbued with a Midwestern modesty that (thankfully) never rubbed off on him?
If that guy existed, he wouldn’t have made Yeezus.
Proof: In November, I interviewed Wu Tang Clan’s RZA about the 20th anniversary of that group’s perfect debut, Enter the 36 Chambers, which he produced. In ’93, and still today, it was a rare and unique artistic feat: a group of nine emcees rapping over un-danceable beats that had, in an attempt to “bring the ruckus,” had as much to do with punk and rock as they did with hip-hop, according to RZA. The remarkable vision RZA had for that project, perhaps not so surprisingly, was unwavering. “You couldn’t tell me it wouldn’t work,” he said.
He chalked up his deep belief in himself and 36 Chambers largely to the arrogance of youth. Back then, he was more interested in hard-line dictatorship than benevolent democracy. The result can’t be argued with, especially when you consider that 2013’s hotly anticipated Wu anniversary follow-up to 36 never saw the light of day.
It’s remarkable, then, that Kanye, at age 36, still maintains his clarity of vision, that the fire in his belly still burns so brightly. To ask him to be something other would be to ask him to extinguish his very self.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 15, 2014
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