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Kanye Week: We Need to Talk About Kanye

Welcome to Kanye Week, in celebration of our new 33 1/3 title on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (hereafter MBDTF) by Kirk Walker Graves, out June 19. In this first post, Graves addresses the difficulty of talking about someone who talks so much himself.

kanye mikeHe’s a poet, he’s a picker
He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,
Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

 – “The Pilgrim” (1971), Kris Kristofferson

How do you write about Kanye West, how do you begin to broach his seismic contradictions, without getting trampled by the gold-embossed elephant in the middle of the room?

I remember listening to Late Registration for the very first time in 2005 and hearing “Hey Mama,” a goofily gleeful paean to his late mother Donda. I was dumbstruck by the song’s unembarrassed sweetness, the lovably earnest way it slips past the cynical bouncer guarding your heart. The Jon Brion-produced Late Registration was Kanye’s second album and it picked up where The College Dropout left off, impossibly overstuffed with gorgeous baroque details, lush orchestration, and unabashed ambition, a work of pop art about the deep, abiding restlessness of creativity. It’s some of the finest music of his career, possessing a charm too often absent from his public persona. Late Registration dropped on August 30, 2005, one day after Hurricane Katrina brought its holocaust of total destruction to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The nationally broadcast relief telethon that aired shortly thereafter was, of course, the occasion of a not-so-endearing Kanye moment, his first major “incident” vis-à-vis the mainstream American public, when he rambled incoherently for nearly two minutes and accused the sitting president of being indifferent to the plight of black residents trapped in the city (harrowing Mike Myers and Chris Tucker in the process). The fact that Kanye was giving voice to a sentiment shared by untold millions of Americans was irrelevant. Here was a pop figure whose bluster had become pathological, a superstar whose devotion to the dictates of selfish immediacy far outweighed any other consideration.

Watching the clip now, almost nine years later, the eruptive way Kanye tends to stick himself into the world is more than recognizable – it’s commonplace. So much of American public discourse has devolved into screeching infotainment and clickbait, lunatic voices jockeying for position in an ever more competitive attention economy. Just three days prior to Kanye’s infamous Taylor Swift encounter at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards – the public embarrassment that set in motion the chain of events culminating in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Joe Wilson, a Republican congressman from South Carolina, shouted “You lie!” in the middle of a presidential address to a joint session of Congress.

The moment was remarkable for highlighting just how impulsively uncivil our politics had become, and – paired with Kanye’s outburst at the VMAs – it was a solid metaphor for the toxicity infecting American public speech.

It’s hard not to read Kanye’s career as a magnification of American life in the digital age, a republic of endless memes and snark, smug selfies and grandiose status updates, but also of unbelievable innovation in art, music, and technology, of evolutionary and undreamt of leaps in the ways we connect with each other. For me, his music is so compelling because it wraps our era’s promise of total possibility in the straitjacket of everyday narcissism, and that tension, that close-quarters struggle, is the heart of what makes MBDTF a great album. My goal in writing a 33 1/3 volume was to chart, however imperfectly, the fascinating currents that make both the album and the artist great. The opportunity to do so is precious, and I remain grateful to Bloomsbury for the opportunity. It’s a tall order and possibly better suited to a bigger book, but I hope I give the general reader some measure of useful context for appreciating the best music of the most significant American pop figure since Michael Jackson.
Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is available for pre-order on Amazon, Bloomsbury.com, and wherever 33 1/3s are sold.

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