KANYE WEST: An Odyssey of Power Pt. II - The Gospel According to Ye
We continue our deep dive of Kanye's discography, and deeper into his boundary-pushing persona.
We continue our deep dive of Kanye's discography, picking up where we left off here. With the release of Kanye's newest album Jesus Is King, Kanye delves deeper into the themes and ideas that have scattered his discography and public persona throughout his career. In the 2010s Kanye continues to push and prod at the boundaries of the industry. By the time everyone else in the rap or music game had caught up to ripping off "the old Kanye", he completely changed it again with this next era. But this time, the shift felt tectonic. There is no going back.
On his knees, hands clasped, the muttering of a king to a God, "what do I have to do to become you? Father in heaven, lord above... speak through me, so that I may become you." Kanye whispers a hasty "Amen" and looks up to the empty sky above him. He stands, not bothering to brush the dust off his knees through his ripped jeans. He pulls down his crystal-studded mask, breathes it in, and steps out. The sun beams down on him, a scorching light, shining hot and blinding. The harsh, brutal sounds — metal on metal, and sharp stings of industrial noise pollutes the air. A chanting, a roar, a venomous, terrifying cry for war echoes throughout the barren wasteland Kanye finds himself in. Then Kanye — King Kanye — steps up and grabs the microphone, addressing his people. Although this isn't a wasteland. The sun is a spotlight, the sounds are his beats and the roar are his fans. This isn't a wasteland. It's a stage. And Kanye breathes it in.
Ezekiel 34:23 "And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd."
1 Chronicles 14:17 "And the fame of David went out into all lands, and the Lord brought the fear of him upon all nations."
The music equivalent to a mid-life crisis. Surrounded by his experiments in fashion and fine art, the album came at yet another tumultuous time in Kanye’s career. Launched alongside the iconic SNL performances of "Black Skinhead" and "New Slaves" this seemed like another reinvention of Kanye, the culmination of a celebrity ego manifested as music. An often-disgusting, industrial explosion of sound layered with passionate outbursts from Ye himself, guest vocals, and his usual scattering of samples. It is a loud, intrusive album filled with audacious, antagonistic lyrics and a vigorous, insistent structure.
But it's also beautiful, in it's alienating entirety. Kanye's compulsive and belligerent anger draws you in, intrigues and seduces you with its strangeness, so that by the time you get to the almost warm, soulful ballad that is "Bound 2", it feels like you've earned it. Kanye was quoted saying about Yeezus, "the album don’t even got no music. I just let y'all have a little music on there on "Bound" but that was it," and it is hard to disagree. This towering fury and rage Kanye has built over the course of the album falls away and we are left with something much sweeter and much less manic; his violent, furious sonic tantrum subsides to lust, desire and love.
Within this radical reinvention of style, Kanye delivers both an aggressive series of anthems and a heartbreaking tale of a man finally embracing his true self, despite the years spent being told he should be otherwise. Yeezus is both unmistakably a "Kanye West" record, while also something unlike anything you've ever heard before. All at once, it is a manifesto to the power of art, the validation of ego, an ode to rap culture and a deafening, obnoxious cry for help. In other words, it's disgustingly beautiful. The way he opens the album with the track "On Sight", spouting the lyrics:
"Yeezy season approachin'
Fuck whatever y'all been hearin'
Fuck what, fuck whatever y'all been wearin'
A monster about to come alive again..."
By this point, Kanye was arguably already as big as Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley (and rife with a career just as publicly problematic as both) but with Yeezus Kanye became even bigger than the industry that he claimed was holding him back and keeping him down. This is Kanye looking back at his career and his art and recognising there was a reason he is at the top. This is post-2009-VMA Kanye exorcising the intense heat of a personal martyrdom: the pain, suffering, and agony that made Yeezus possible is present in every lyric and every sound. As a Black man at the top of the music industry, he saw the inherent racism of other figureheads trying to prevent him from branching out or becoming any more influential than he already was. But that didn't stop him. His potential wasn't tapped. Kanye broke free. Trial by fire. Rebirth and redemption. The new era of Ye was upon us.
Pablo was born. Pablo's first words are unknown. Perhaps he ached to speak for something, perhaps he never quite knew when to stay silent. Pablo's first masterpiece was made at thirteen. Mystical visages echoed and plagued his life, visions of grandeur and delusions of greatness. Is it fair to call his visions delusions if they were to come true? When the only thing more complex than the man with a god complex is the thing he creates. Pablo sits in a room. He tunes the radio in. And as Pablo whistles while he thinks of his next masterpiece, his thoughts stray to the same topic: heartbreak, humiliations, strokes of genius; they all seem so small with hindsight. So inconsequential. Then his thoughts stray to his current masterpiece. The New New Testament. Then... what's next? Who knows. He knows. He knows there can be only one king. He knows empires are created with blood and fire. Pablo gets to work.
"God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style, He just goes on trying other things." — Pablo Picasso
"Sometimes I feel like God..." — Pablo Escobar
In 2015, Leonard Cohen wrote a poem called "Kanye West Is Not Picasso" before this album was even announced, where he wrote the words "I am the Kanye West of Kanye West", a line that could easily slot into more than a couple of tracks on this album. I wonder what Cohen thought of TLOP, because while it would appear that while Kanye West is not Picasso, he was never trying to be, and he was already so much more.
TLOP is such a change of pace from Yeezus, both literally and in the way that Kanye approaches his reflections — rampant digressions into religion and family, and reflexive ramblings about his life mixed with the frequently ethereal tones and near meditative way Kanye and co. string together their verses, the album often dips into undeniably poppy moments (a complete 180 from Yeezus' abrasiveness). It pummels you like a wave, the album crashes forward, constantly rolling and dipping and peaking. This is a poem for the idea of creation and joy and everything Kanye stands for. Essentially, a 20 track dissection of the moments and people that brought him to the attention of the world, and his excitement to spread his messages bleeds through every resounding note, from the first hum of synth in "Ultralight Beam" to the last tired breath of "Saint Pablo".
TLOP could have easily been the climax of Kanye’s career; littered with an eclectic cast of characters from throughout his tenure as the self-crowned Christ figure of hip-hop, this feels like the cataclysm of everything he has been preaching to us for over a decade. It plays like a microcosm of Kanye's mind, his insecurities, and inner thoughts. TLOP is the gospel of Kanye. This is the church of Kanye West. Bow down, or step aside.
"I feel like Pablo when I'm workin' on my shoes
I feel like Pablo when I see me on the news
I feel like Pablo when I'm workin' on my house
Tell 'em party's in here, we don't need to go out"
Kanye West – May, 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LIGh91mloA
"You hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You were there for 400 years and it's all of y'all? It’s like, we’re mentally imprisoned. I like the word 'prison' because 'slavery' goes too directly to the idea of Blacks. You know, 'slavery', 'holocaust'… 'holocaust' is Jews, 'slavery' is Blacks. So, 'prison' is something that unites us as one race. Blacks and Whites as being one race."
"You hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice."
"Kanye West said that slavery was a choice."
Forget about the music. When did we forget about the music?
At hip-hop’s inception it was a tool for radicalism, a platform to give a voice to people and opinions that wouldn’t have it otherwise. Celebrity is dead, or at least dying, in a state of steady but impending implosion as it gnaws itself from within; a product of an age in which near everyone exists within a self-constructed limelight, rendering it meaningless. And amidst the rubble of this 20th-century construct (the demolition of which Kanye and his peers partially caused), there is opportunity for new groundwork to be laid. ye is art born from power, not in awareness of or pursuit of status, but purely and wholly because of it.
With ye, and the coverage surrounding it, it is clear that each album that Kanye produces becomes a piece of a larger puzzle: himself. Every opportunity for him to appear in the media allows us to strip more layers back on a character that seems to be in a radical state of perpetual flux. Celebrity has never been this fragile, this intimate. To persona, distance is everything and Kanye swings flailing on a bungee between our eyes and a more guarded sense of truth ("I've been trying to make you love me // But everything I try just takes you further from me"). Our own interrogations only provide ammunition to build his platform higher and further from us so the character of Kanye West becomes less one created by himself and more of a bullet-bag for the collective consciousness. Whether intentional or not, West has made himself into art – the final expressive frontier that could only be done to such an extent today, now.
This is new. This is nothing new.
Kanye West – June, 2018: I Thought About Killing You
"Just say it out loud to see how it feels. People say, 'don’t say this, don’t say that.' Just say it out loud. Just to see how it feels. Weigh out all the options. Nothing is off the table. Today I thought about killing you. Premeditated murder. I think about killing myself and I love myself way more than I love you. The most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest."
Edith at seven. Can’t remember if she’s dreaming. It comes first like a fracture in the air that only the reptile in her notices as her skin turned goose from the ankles up. Then, successively in her ears. A creak she can't place, some vague scuffle muffled by her own rolling in bed. She halts, ears pricked, as she simultaneously wills and dreads a repetition. It comes, she denies it but it comes. And all of a sudden she can’t move; and her eyes are open but they’re not and the lock is turning the lock is turning the lock - she screams terrible silence. A high pitched airy whistle that squeezes through a throat stuffed with cotton and the longer she screams the further her jaw stretches and it wont close it wont close: dislocation as Edith's flesh pulls in purple elastic, hollow marks on her cheeks. It is in the room now: sin out of time and slinking towards her bed. Cold fingers like toothpaste licking at her ears. Her bottom lip has almost reached her ankles and it begins to climb in, over her teeth like they’re the walls to a well and it sinks within her. It fills her lungs. It fills her. Edith at seven. Fugue. Not used to these flimsy limbs it snaps them as it drags her from the inside to her open moonlit window. Edith would have felt a pain so bright it would be blank. She’s not here now. She’s already climbing out the window and down the wall, into the well of other.
It is a macabre dance, this procession of kids; broken limbs in a bloody ballet and pupils as eclipsed moons. Thousands teem the streets and march slingshot to the wind it is a crying you’re home you’re home, you’re reborn and can you hear those drums?
The sun cracks yolk pink across the horizon, the last leaking strands threatening a night that will fill like a cool glass and leave you submerged. Your last prayer is in Dionysian dance around a bonfire that must be endlessly stoked: you cannot afford to let the embers sigh out. Keep dancing.
Who knew this music could be your deliverance?
Kanye describes his "breakdown" as a "breakthrough". His interviews allude not to a climactic, despairing, stoop but instead to a crumbling of paper reality, in which the curtains are drawn to an abyssal truth gilded by millions of whispering eyes so ready to flippantly discard him. A cataclysmic Truman exit that re-framed his own mental condition and revealed fully the extent to which those would judge the messages he has received from across a milky veil ("Might need an intervention // For this new dimension"). Kanye finds his childish freedom here, reborn with the ghosts of himself. He finds that Cudi had made the journey too. And he talks in interviews of how much easier the hill is to climb now that there is no boulder to push.
Crucially, however, Kids See Ghosts transcends momentary illumination. It is not your fleeting “the storm ends, the clouds part, the sun shines”, but instead is soaked in timeless maturity: the bittersweet acceptance that there are still and will always be more breakthroughs to come and the record confronts that burgeoning storm with a militant determination. Buried in bass, the drums sign a pledge to "keep moving forward".
Turn it up and you can almost hear them marching. Incantatory and fast, Kids See Ghosts is so abruptly modern it seems to elevate "contemporary" into its own genre. If you’re looking for it: here it is, the music of now. Innovation distilled to perfect synthesis with convention. On "Feel the Love", West backs aggressive ad-libs with crunching 808s, gutting and displaying Trap's carnal soul. It’s a move that is somehow so obvious that it verges on genius, experimentation so base and playful but executed by two artists that have mastered convention with such aptitude that they can flail it and never make too much of a mess. Kanye and Cudi have made hip hop sound like pop music, instilled with toils of the Inner. But it’s deeper than that, a skin-fitted zeitgeist of a record with its finger on the trigger of contemporary music, culture, sentiment… watch in 23-minute slow-mo as the bullet leaves the chamber.
John 17:16 "They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world."
Saved, reborn, the soul has been salvaged. Gather up all the King's men to fight the Holy War. Preach devotion, not perfection. Celestial bodies colliding in our place in the cosmos, sitting wherever you are feeling the vibrations through a speaker, feeling the light of the heavens beaming down to earth. In the beginning, there was nothing. Then there was light. Then chaos. And when all was said and done, Jesus’ ruined body was pulled down off the cross and just as when he was born, he was quiet. He didn’t weep, not in the manger and not now. Saved, reborn, the soul has been salvaged.
Kanye wipes the bead of sweat from his brow. He looks down. He knows he has not been quiet. He knows he has not been himself. But he has been saved. He is reborn. He is Lazarus. He is Moses. He is Noah. He is the College Dropout. He is Yeezus. He is Pablo. He is Ye. He is not God. He is the greatest artist resting or alive. He is Kanye West. He is.
Kanye West's transformation from kid producer and aspiring artist to the biggest hip-hop musician in the world was far from an overnight metamorphosis. The religious connotations of a man emerging from a car crash and touched by angels to make and create are not lost on him. He was exulted from death, but after that Kanye's feet never touched the ground again. He was the runaway. He was flying. Fleeing. He was Jonah, trying to escape his mission. After glimpsing death and the ceiling of human potential, he was unsatisfied. He needed to go beyond. Lennon once said The Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Kanye went further. Further. Further. But, like Icarus, Kanye flew higher. Higher. Higher. And then he fell. And he fell harder and more publicly than we'd ever seen anyone fall before. We watched a God plummet toward the earth. We watched a God come crashing down and broadcasted for the world to see. Thrown back and forth between prophet and madman his whole career. Choices. He could beat his wings and keep running, keep flying, keep fleeing. Choices. There are no more delusions of grandeur. There are no more delusions. Kanye is awake. Choices. He found his whale. He has shed his wings. Now he says he prefers to walk. Now he says he's changed. Now he says, "you make plans and God laughs." Jesus Is King is pure repentance. For all the choices. For all the awards show interruptions and TMZ outbursts, the Forbes covers and the $60 t-shirts; this is Kanye down on his knees, his hands together asking for forgiveness, saying "I was just a kid." This is Kanye West baptized and born again.
And it feels genuine. Whether or not you believe the words he's preaching, it feels like an attempt not to get closer to God, yet back to the kid with a backpack and wired jaw. Kanye getting closer to Kanye. And it makes me appreciate all the other work more. It makes me wonder what would we have missed if he never had that car accident. Or never got up on that stage at the 2009 VMA's? Or if he never won that first Grammy? In his own words... "I guess we’ll never know."
Who's laughing now?