Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.
This time around: Kirk Walker Graves. Aside from working on his 33 1/3 title – about Kanye West’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – he’s also penning a collection of short stories and learning Arabic for good measure. Graves’s short fiction has been published online in kill author, Dogzplot, and other journals. Last June, he walked the Inca Trail with his family, an experience in which he claims to have “nearly died (or felt like dying).” Arabic and near-death familial experiences? What might such a person have to say about the enigmatic Kanye West?
What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
Kirk Walker Graves: Kanye West was the most reliably divisive pop figure of the past decade. Drawing public rebukes from no less than two U.S. Presidents, he managed to self-destruct in such spectacularly visible fashion that he became a kind of protean reflection of the nation’s collective disgust. Whatever one’s particular social grievance – celebrity entitlement, race-baiting, the end of etiquette, etc. – Kanye’s damage was capacious and accommodating enough for all. He was an interesting foil to Barack Obama in that sense, as Obama became – over the course of the 2008 campaign – an infinitely malleable ideal in the public imagination. Candidate Obama managed to embody hope, change, healing, redemption, and transcendence, all before breakfast. The fact that Kanye’s unforgivable sin occurred at the expense of America’s most commodified ingénue was sublimely fitting. Taylor Swift puts a lot of care into maintaining her immaculately curated aura. The market for her music grows – it seems – in geometric proportion to her brand integrity, which is manifest in everything from the saccharine sincerity of her lyrics to her enterprising notions of good-girl-slighted romance. What better villain for her, then, than an openly reckless narcissist with zero self-control? As a pop moment, the whole thing had a kind of banal Shakespearean grandeur in its aptness.
Lost within this vortex of mortified indignation, though, was a simple truth, which is that Kanye West created the most consistently ambitious and thrilling pop music of the last decade. He may never eclipse his longtime idol Michael Jackson, but he has earned his place on pop’s Olympus. In a span of less than seven years, he released five uniquely masterful (if uneven) albums, sonic collages whose singular production, neurotic bombast, and grandiose contradictions form a complexly personal narrative arc. By my lights, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the culminating epitome of this progression, the narcissistic crown jewel. As a feverishly perverse fairy tale – a fantasy – the album imparts no digestible moral takeaway. It’s a journey into the rococo heart of Ye’s diseased ego, a walk down gilded passageways with two-way mirrors for floors. Mythological monsters, well-heeled demons, and misunderstood porn stars beckon at every turn. His sampling on the album is jaw-droppingly inspired. The omnivorous scope of his sensibility is astounding – researching the samples in his music is an education in how improbable sonic worlds are always all around us, gestating in unlikely places. Whether quoting King Crimson for emphasis (“POWER”), or capturing a fleeting outburst from an obscure Rick James performance to haunt a beat (“Runaway”), Kanye’s best songs are a subgenre unto themselves, weaving other people’s hooks and melodies and drum breaks into something wholly, profoundly original. He’s a genius of novelty-through-synthesis, the Steve Jobs of contemporary hip-hop.
Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another?
KWG: I had been peripherally aware of the 33 1/3 series since 2006, when I thumbed through a copy of Jon Niven’s wonderful novella on Music From Big Pink while living in Oxford, Mississippi. At the time I was wholly immersed in The Band’s mythos, reading and re-reading Greil Marcus’ The Old Weird America and increasingly thinking about pop music in terms of organic genealogy. As they had for so many other twenty-something lit geeks, Marcus and Lester Bangs became the polestars for my notions of indispensable, unpretentious cultural criticism. Nothing made more sense to me as a dilettante would-be critic than a series of books devoted to landmark rock albums. I didn’t explore the series further at the time, though, nearly forgetting about it until I stumbled upon the open call for proposals last March.
As a writer, the urge to contribute a volume to the 33 1/3 series was irresistible. Nearly all of the books in the series, though, focused on albums sanctified by the passage of time. The critical distance of at least a decade gives depth and weight to a recording’s legacy. Elapsed time shows us the grooves in the culture that the music has made, puts our first impressions on trial in the court of taste and popular opinion. We reflect on where in our lives the album intersected our susceptibility to its charms, and we find meaning in those points of connection. I knew immediately that I wanted to write about Kanye West, and that – though its greatness had yet to be ratified by history – MBDTF was the ideal vein in which to do it. When the album finally dropped in November 2010, there was an immediate sense that it belonged in the pop canon and already owned real estate in Thriller country.
A major challenge when writing the proposal was figuring out how to make a case for such an overdetermined figure. Though highly overexposed, both Kanye and his music are riddled with contradictions, contradictions that say a lot about the narcissism of the digital age. The task of exploring and parsing those ideas was attractive. If you listen to MBDTF from beginning to end – really listen – what you learn is that, for Kanye, art does more than imitate life. Art justifies life’s excesses. It gives sublime context to the consequences of his worst decisions, translates his inscrutable motives into bold and comprehensible language. It tells us why his music matters, why he behaves the way he does, and what one has to do with the other. It atones through doubling down on the original sin of excess, rewarding multiple listens with untold treasures from a seemingly infinite and overflowing sonic imagination. More than that, it paints the pixilated landscape of a time and place that makes an artist like Kanye West inevitable, an era of ubiquitous noisy platforms and content streams and ceaseless self-promotion. It’s the definitive sound of what The Atlantic’s David Samuels deemed “the iPhone era.”
What do you want to explore about this artist that you feel hasn’t been covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
KWG: A bastion of critical outlets, from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone, welcomed MBDTF as a cause for celebration. A lot of great, insightful things were written about the album in reviews and 2010 year-in-review pieces. The critical community has been writing seriously about Kanye-the-Artist since 2004, when The College Dropout debuted, so I don’t suffer the illusion that I’m alone in my assessment of the music’s innovation or value. What really excited me was the opportunity to be the first to write a critical monograph on an artist that – whether you like him or not – matters. I mentioned Greil Marcus earlier; his writing was formative in teaching me how to think about the relationship between American life and pop music, between character and culture. His first book was the now-classic Mystery Train, subtitled Images of America in Rock and Roll. I love that. It captures what I think we’re all looking and listening for in the music we love – images that pin down some elusive feeling, some primeval hunch, for which words will never quite suffice.
That said, the most stirring, intoxicating dimension of Kanye’s music is – for me, at least – its intuition of possibility. You listen to his first single “Through the Wire” (2003) and you hear a hungry young guy with an opportunistic bent recording in the wake of a near-fatal car accident, rapping the entire song with his jaw wired shut. The result is a survivor’s anthem, packed chock full of clever images both funny (“I drink a Boost for breakfast, an Ensure for dessert/Somebody order pancakes, I just sip the sizzurp”) and frightening (“And just imagine how my girl feel/On the plane, scared as hell that her guy look like Emmett Till”). The song is full of joy and triumph, it’s a celebration of having cheated death and what that means when you’re poised for a breakthrough. The first time you hear it you realize it’s sampling Chaka Khan singing the chorus of “Through the Fire”, which is a soulful ballad about a woman chomping at the bit to go through hell if it means she’ll win her beloved’s heart. Kanye’s song is about a man who went through hell and came out the other side – damaged, yes, but more in love than ever with himself and his life. That’s the kind of intuitive possibility that sets him apart. Who but Kanye could successfully fuse those threads and emerge with something equally personal, ironic, and fun? We get the first hint of the artist he’ll become in the subsequent decade, it’s there in embryonic form. The dialogues Kanye creates with the music he samples haven’t been discussed at length – as far as I know – and I’m having a lot of fun doing it.
What was your first concert?
KWG: To preface my answer I have to note that, growing up, my process of developing a relationship with music was very much one of solitude – introspective and private – and to a large extent it still is. My father used to listen to ABBA’s Super Trouper on repeat, he really loved it, but what I remember most vividly about the record is the bizarre album cover – a spotlight on ABBA surrounded by circus performers. My older sister had The Wiz soundtrack on vinyl, and I remember being six years old and really disturbed by Michael Jackson dressed as the Scarecrow. I think I saw records as artifacts testifying to the inscrutable weirdness of the adult world. On Sunday afternoons, I would spend hours alone in our den transfixed by these strange images while records spun atop the family hi-fi.
My first concert was BoyzIIMen, but I don’t remember it very well. Growing up I had more of a cultic relationship with pop music as object rather than as live performance. In my mind’s eye I can still remember the electric anticipation I felt picking up the CooleyHighHarmony cassette at our local Wal-Mart. I remember reading every word of the liner notes as soon as I got home. As for the concert, I can’t even remember who went with me.
Detail a lyric from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
KWG: “Something wrong, I hold my head/MJ gone, our nigga dead”
That’s a line from “All of the Lights” – the album’s grandiose centerpiece – and it says everything. For a guy who grew up idolizing Michael Jackson and who wants nothing more than to stake a claim to the same rarefied pop pantheon, the fact of MJ’s death is as meaningful and mysterious as anything in nature. As Dylan might say, things have changed, and this is music that embodies that certainty. On the surface the song is a story of a guy who’s just gotten out of prison and is scrambling to make sense of the world and reassemble the pieces of his life. On a more ironic level, it’s a bright shiny object that gives the lie to the glamorous sheen of celebrity, a desperate song sung by a desperate star for whom distinctions are no longer useful. Police lights, spotlights, klieg lights, it doesn’t matter – they all signal disaster. The more I listen to “All of the Lights”, though, the more it sounds like an anthem for the Great Recession, for the freefalling euphoria that accompanies incalculable loss. This song has the full-tilt knowingness that comes in the wake of a big change – personal, social, or cultural – something that can only be sung after a deluge. That first couplet sets the stage.
Up Next, appropriately: Susan Fast on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. Stay tuned.