Creative Control, Chicago Hate Culture & Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’
By Matthew Ismael Ruiz
Kanye West’s new album, Yeezus, is stark, abrasive and combative. It is not “minimalist,” even by Kanye standards; but after the grandiose orchestral production that was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the record feels less like entertainment and more like a confrontation. He borrowed producer Rick Rubin’s well-trained ear to strip away the fat from the record’s early sketches, laying bare the harsh staccato rhythms of Chicago drill music and modern trap that dominate the record’s sonic palette. He pairs tribal drums with industrial synths and acid house, incorporating disparate musical subcultures into a sound unlike anything currently on terrestrial radio.
At this point, his talent as a composer is almost universally accepted, if often begrudgingly. Because for every intricate drum pattern he programs into his MPC, there’s a contradiction he forces you to reconcile (or ignore). He gets us to consume his willful ignorance, unapologetic misogyny, and often blatant hypocrisy because we can’t deny that his compositions make us move, groove, and feel. On the Nina Simone-sampling “Blood on the Leaves,” he co-opts the powerful imagery of a lynching while he’s whining about alimony. He’s unafraid to tamper with Simone’s iconic voice, and once you hear him juxtapose the powerful lyrical imagery of “Strange Fruit” with the triumphant ignorance of the trap, a poignant picture of Chicago’s dystopian South Side begins to emerge. All this, on the same track in which he admonishes his “second-string b****es” for “tryin’a get a baby.” The track’s lyrics aren’t the album’s most offensively misogynistic—that honor would likely go to the chowder-headed “sweet and sour sauce” line from “I’m In It”—but they expose the striking dichotomy of his willful ignorance and artful craft.
But for much of Yeezus, Kanye is angry. Angry that the same retailers that chase poor black kids out of their stores are more than happy to help a rapper blow his advance on a chain. Angry that his pastry is taking too long to arrive from the kitchen in the “french-ass restaurant” he’s patronizing. Angry that he didn’t get enough help jump-starting his ready-to-wear line. Angry that he’s not universally recognized as a deity. For a new father with millions of fans and dollars, he sure has a lot of hate in his heart. But for the art’s sake, is that necessarily a bad thing? And where does it come from?
It’s difficult to point at exactly why or how, but people in Chicago love to hate on things. The emergence of teenage delinquent rapper Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” was no accident—the kids in Chicago’s public schools that raised him up are more likely to tell you all the things they think are whack than tell you about what they actually like. And despite the discordant contrast between Keef and Kanye’s upbringing and lifestyle, West nonetheless identifies with Keef’s sentiment; it was his remix of “I Don’t Like” that exposed Keef to the mainstream in the first place. Soon after the track’s release, Kanye even took to Twitter to end any speculation there might have been about exactly what he was currently hating on.
But in terms of what motivates him, more important than what Kanye doesn’t like are those who don’t like him. He uses a default (and often delusional) underdog persona to drive himself forward—as each success further expands his ego, he needs the adversaries more and more. He calls himself an anti-celebrity, and says his music “comes from a place of being anti.” Kanye has had haters his whole life. They’re the fuel to his fire. “Soon as they like you/make em unlike you” he raps on Yeezus’ third track, “I Am a God.” Is it possible that hating on stuff is so natural for a Chicagoan like ‘Ye that his number of haters has become a barometer by which to measure his success?
There is no question that his detractors have been an extremely formative element in his life. Of the myriad quotables in his recent interview with the New York Times, quite possibly the most revealing is his anecdote about being cut from his junior high school basketball team. After missing the cut in seventh grade, he trained all year, he says, leading his summer league team to a championship. But when he returned to try out for his school team, he was once again denied. It only further fueled his desire to succeed.
So when he compares “some GRAMMY, some reviewer, some fashion person, some blah blah blah” to that junior high coach, we get a clear picture of how Kanye’s evolution as an artist has been driven by his eternal struggle with those who doubt his talent and ability. But in 2013, he’s no longer the producer and wannabe rapper, fighting to prove he belongs. His hitmaking and trendsetting ability are unquestioned in the music industry. When he taunts us with his chants of “I AM a God,” it’s as if he’s daring someone—anyone—to question him, if only to give him something to fight against.
In a recent podcast with his Times colleague A.O. Scott, Jon Caramanica, who conducted the aforementioned (and now infamous) interview, was confused as to why Kanye cares about recognition from the people who vote for the GRAMMYs. His rationale—that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the United States is about as far from a cultural arbiter as it gets these days— is sound, as Kanye certainly doesn’t need them to sell records. But in actuality, the more famous he gets, and the higher up the fame ladder he climbs, all he sees are new doors that are still closed to him. No matter how much money he makes or accolades he collects, there always seems to be another level up, with people looking down at him saying, “No son, this isn’t for you.” Some might choose to be content with having beaten astronomical odds against success, but not ‘Ye. From his elevated position in society, he can more clearly see all the barriers still standing in the way of his world domination, and they taunt him. At age 36, he’s won an absurd 21 Grammys, but they have all been relegated to the Rap/R&B categories, despite his undeniable influence on the whole of pop music. He’s not satisfied with the token “Rap Album of the Year” GRAMMY. If it’s not “Album of the Year,” it’s not enough. He wants the biggest, the best, the most expensive. He wants it all.
And why shouldn’t he? Pop music looks to him because he’s one of the few artists who have stayed hungry throughout their careers. Especially in hip-hop, where many artists quickly jump from abject poverty to million-dollar advances, maintaining motivation post-success can be a challenge. Kanye is perpetually inventing new reasons to stay hungry. At this point, regardless of whether he makes a hit, he’s testing, pushing, and often breaking the limits of what’s acceptable in pop music.
But even now, he says that he knows he can only give 80 percent of himself on record. He’s proven he knows what sells; every studio album he’s released since College Dropout has hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart (Dropout peaked at No. 2, but still went triple platinum and is his best-selling record to date). So when he says he needs to compromise 20 percent of his sound just to mollify us, it is very likely we indeed require that spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. He gives us just enough to make us scratch our heads as we bob and shake along to the beat.
And so it goes; as the legend of Kanye grows with each successive No. 1 album, fewer and fewer people seem willing to step to him. To make the transition from producer to performer, his lyrics had to be better than “good enough,” or no one would take him seriously. The fire he spits on College Dropout is a direct result of the hyper-skepticism of his peers about his lyrical ability. It’s the same reason you hear so many classic verses on “posse” cuts; no rapper wants to be embarrassed in front of their peers. These days, his cult of personality is so strong it seems he is incapable of embarrassment (except when it comes to his past choices in couture), and his lyrical form is less exacting. With each accolade and platinum plaque he collects, it requires less and less effort for him to be considered “dope”—to the point that he even stopped bothering to connect the subjects for his similes (see “hashtag rap”). And Yeezus is chock full of inane sex raps so juvenile that they make one long for the days when he would use Talib Kweli’s name to get laid. And it seems bizarre that with all the brains and talent in the room at Shangri-la studios in Malibu (where Yeezus was recorded), not one person was able to convince Kanye that he was confusing Romans and Spartans with his “Keep it 300/Like the Romans” double entendre (300 is a Chicago slang reference to the Black Disciples street gang) on “Black Skinheads.”
Regardless of how many copies it sells (and it will sell many, many copies), Yeezus is likely the most important record of the year. Lesser rappers and producers will look to co-opt his new sound, critics will endlessly parse the recordings for deeper meaning, and it will flirt with the top of many year-end lists. It’s important for Kanye, too; not because he needs it to be a success, but because each success makes it harder for the suits to control him.
He won’t be satisfied until you can’t tell him nothing. And even then, he probably still won’t be.