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Kanye Week: The Red and the Black

Welcome back 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. Here with his second post, Graves addresses Kanye’s duality, and the importance of a leather-clad comeback.

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A major part of Kanye’s appeal as both an artist and performer is his creative volatility. Whether it’s a new album, an interview, or a live show, the question is always the same: Which Kanye are we going to get? The very same energies behind his cringeworthiest moments are just as likely to produce a performance like the one below, from his October 2010 appearance as musical guest on SNL.

The chaotic dualism of his persona is just another one of his many contradictions, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy succeeds in large part by embracing the volatility, using it as a storytelling engine to dramatize Kanye’s comeback. That vanquishing rendition of “POWER” was one of his first few major public performances since the night in August 2009 when he turned himself into a punch line. It’s a definitive moment in his career, full of the redemptive swagger and sky-high stakes that characterize all great comeback performances. Watching it today I can’t help comparing this red leather resurrection to another leather-clad trimph, Elvis’s December 1968 TV “Comeback Special.”

After nearly a decade of making one silly, forgettable film after another, the King needed a pop moment grand-scaled enough to remind the American audience that – British Invasion be damned – he was still Elvis. Recorded in the round before a live audience, this version of “Jailhouse Rock” is a performance of the song as the revival of an ideal: Elvis as quintessential American symbol, a gyrating expression of total freedom.

As world-conquering superstars and pop figures, the two men could hardly be more different. Yet these two performances share an ego-need, belong to the same genealogy. They serve as two more refutations of Fitzgerald’s wrongheaded, melodramatic conclusion that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Watching the two videos consecutively, it almost makes you wish the rumors last year of Kanye’s interest in purchasing Graceland turned out to be true.
Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is available for pre-order on AmazonBloomsbury.com, and wherever 33 1/3s are sold.

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