Meditations of a Metalhead: The Genius of Kanye West

 

At the beginning of 2018, what I felt for Kanye West wasn’t quite hate, but it was close. It’s true that I hadn’t listened to his music, but even Kanye apologists have to grant that it’s pretty difficult to remain indifferent to Kanye as a sheer cultural presence in the 21st century, whether you’ve given his albums an honest spin or not. I was aware of Kanye’s 2013 rant on Sway in the Morning, as well as the slew of cartoonishly egotistical quotes attributed to him (“My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live” is one of my personal favs). And, of course, there’s the infamous TMZ tantrum where Kanye (somehow) manages to reach a level of cringe beyond his open endorsement of Trump. So yeah, as a metalhead not too invested in the rap scene, it was pretty easy to dismiss Kanye as yet another overblown celebrity lunatic we’d all be better off ignoring.

For me, the story would probably end here if it weren’t for–

ENTER: KENDRICK LAMAR

–my 2017 awakening to Good Kid M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Butterfly, two gloriously captivating albums by critically renowned Kung Fu Kenny. I had just “discovered” Flying Lotus’ album, You’re Dead, and man… electronic weirdness, dark beats, wildly intricate bass riffs haunted by a contemporary sensibility… what’s not to like? Better yet, the track “Never Catch Me” featured a rapper with an attractively unique delivery. I bought Kendrick’s albums, became an instant fan, moved on to Childish Gambino, and finally entertained the possibility that rap could offer more than the traditional cheap thrills of drugs, money, & sex (not to the exclusion, of course, of the more recent and even more boring focus on fashion).

ENTER: ANTHONY “The Internet’s Busiest Music Nerd” / “Best Teeth in the Game” / “Melon” FANTANO

Which still wouldn’t have been enough to convince me that Kanye deserves a listen. I’ve kept tabs on Anthony Fantano’s YouTube music review channel, The Needle Drop, since Kayo Dot’s release of Hubardo in 2013 (yes, dear longtime readers, KD appears again. It looks like you’ll just have to get used to this), and throughout the years, Kanye’s albums consistently made it into Anthony’s good graces.

For those who don’t know, Fantano isn’t just any YouTube music reviewer. He really is the busiest fellow in the game, fluently covering a diverse array of albums in disparate musical genres every year, all the while maintaining a running commentary on the personalities of pop music. What’s more, Fantano has undeniably good taste. I mean, this is a fellow openly willing to argue that The Dark Side of the Moon is NOT Pink Floyd’s best album BY FAR (that distinction goes to the highly underrated Animals, a view I’ve held since my 2006 obsession with Floyd began). He also isn’t a Kanye fan of the variety liable to claim that every mad thing Kanye does is a stroke of genius. Throughout 2018, Fantano has had no problem calling out Kanye’s antics while going on to lavish praise on Ye. When Fantano gave Kanye’s joint effort with Kid Cudi (an artist Fantano has vehemently criticized in the past), Kids See Ghosts, a rare 10 out of 10 rating, I knew my Kanye ignorance could no longer last.

 

ENTER (FINALLY): YEEZY

I began with Kids See Ghosts and worked my way back through Ye, The Life of Pablo, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and I’m currently working on Yeezus (yes, I’m aware that I skipped, chronologically speaking, Watch the Throne). Four albums in, and my general impression remains “What the fuck is wrong with this guy?”

This scenario keeps repeating: A song starts. I’m into the beats, the generally innovative sampling, the “experimental” weirdness that crops up in subtle ways, and Kanye’s clear knack for strong melodic hooks. I’m all set to dig the track… then Kanye starts rapping. From there, a quiet sickness settles in my gut as we pass from horribly tone-deaf (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.”) to downright stupid (“If I fuck this model, and she just bleached her asshole, and I get bleach on my tee-shirt, Imma feel like an asshole.”) lyricism.

“But, as a metal head, you should be well-adjusted to tolerating bad and offensive lyricism,” you say. I’d be more willing to cede to this objection if lyricism was the integral aspect of metal music, but it’s not. I don’t even pay attention to metal vocals outside of their presence as a rhythmic counterpoint to the instrumental unless they are particularly melodic or unique. In rap music, however, the “personality” of the front man, particularly in Kanye’s case, is right up IN YOUR FACE. And Kanye’s personality, even if we charitably consider it an “artistic persona,” is pretty much unbearable.

But, then again, here I am jamming to “I Am a God” from Yeezus, possibly his most openly egotistical song (and that’s really saying something), and I’m sort of enjoying myself. In fact, if I’m being entirely honest, I love Kids See Ghosts, although this doesn’t count for much, since, being a collaboration with Kid Cudi (and just barely operating within the rap genre at that), it’s not entirely based around Kanye’s presence. More surprisingly, The Life of Pablo has basically stayed in constant rotation over the past few months, and I even really liked a few tracks from Ye. This is exactly where the music of Kanye West presents a problem that’s, to me, worth writing about.

ENTER: STEVE JOBS, EINSTEIN, SHAKESPEARE, MOZART…

Let’s get one thing straight: Kanye West does not belong with the four names mentioned above. Kanye, to get to the point, is not a genius. Sorry, Kanye fans. I know that would easily “explain everything,” but I see no evidence of Kanye’s inherent ability to challenge systemic expectations to an extent that the system itself undergoes such a seismic shock that it can’t help but tattoo its attacker to long-term cultural memory. He definitely possesses an impressive level of artistic talent, but so do a lot of other rap and hip-hop artists. The only reason we’re even tempted to call Kanye a genius is because he can’t stop insisting that he is one.

In a Pitchfork article on the role of Kanye’s “genius” in 2018, Jayson Greene asks “What is ‘genius,’ after all, if not societally celebrated madness?” Please. That’s buying into Kanye’s own uninformed definition of genius from “Feedback” on The Life of Pablo (“Name one genius who ain’t crazy), which Greene himself sites. Greene goes on to argue that genius might be better “diagnosed” than celebrated. This equation of genius to madness is exactly the misunderstanding that Kanye has seized in order to excuse (or to market) his erratic behavior. Name one genius who ain’t crazy? Okay: how about Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, and Leibniz, to begin? If you actually look at “geniuses” in history, insanity is the exception, not the norm. Relative normalcy simply isn’t conducive to sensationalism.

“Sensationalism” is half the problem in itself. I wrote about this in “Reading in the Age of Trump,” and it bears repeating here: in the age where we package news in a condensed, tag-friendly soundbyte, the flashiest headline is always the article that gets read. Tweets, memes, YouTube, and the “viral” phenomenon all conspire to condense media to its most sharable format, and “most sharable” always means “most extreme.” Thus, Kanye’s nastiest moments, like Trump’s, are exactly the fodder this media culture is looking to explode. If any personality survives in this post-truth, meme age, it’s the Kanyes and Trumps of the world.

I would also argue, however, that “condensed” media consumption has also made us less critical as readers and listeners. There’s simply so much out there that we’re severely rushed to skim as much of it as possible. Kanye’s music, as I’ve admitted, is good stuff. I’m enjoying Yeezus for the third time today, and I’m impatiently looking forward to the release of Yandhi. But our desire to jam Yeezy shouldn’t inspire us to swallow the ugly bites. Our worst possible response is the high-sheen gloss of “genius” fans seem to want to use to cover the ugly parts. Calling Kanye a “genius” does double damage by dumbing down the discourse of music criticism and the popular understanding of “genius” in one swing.

Let’s stop being passive listeners. Dissonance isn’t genius, whether its cognitive or emotional. The most likely proximity to truth seems to be that Kanye is a mess rather than a genius. This does nothing to degrade the enjoyability of his music. For this metal head, at least, listening to the mess that is Kanye West unfold is a much more interesting experience than pretending that the mess doesn’t even exist.

-Justin A. Burnett

Four Ridiculous Christmas Albums that Should Exist, Plus One that Already Does

Tyler, the Creator has released a Christmas EP. Nevermind that his connection to 2018’s movie, The Grinch (yet another Grinch revamp… what, did Jim Carrey’s age that fast?), sort of leaves him with an excuse of “well, while I’m here…”–however the hell we got here, we’re here, and we’re just going to have to learn to deal with the facts. And how do we deal with the more indigestible facts of life? Well… I don’t know about you, but at Silent Motorist Media, we celebrate them.

As you can tell from the video above, Anthony Fantano, AKA, “The Internet’s Busiest Music Nerd,” is not a fan of Tyler’s Music Inspired by Illumination & Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch. I can’t be mad at that. Anthony is still (rightfully) enthralled by Tyler’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, a musical odyssey into Tyler’s back catalogue of influences by way of some seriously high-quality tunes. But come on, Anthony, you can’t expect a 10-minute EP inspired by a kid’s cartoon to compare to a full-length musical masterpiece. Tyler’s EP, to this metalhead’s ears, isn’t as bad as Fantano makes it out to be. The smooth, retrospective piano is still here, along with a dampened version of Tyler’s backing instrumentals. And yes, Tyler may be rapping about chocolate milk and the Grinch’s “big bag,” but this is a Christmas album, after all. There’s no call for all the bah-humbuggery.

In response to Fantano’s 3 out of 10 review, I think the music industry should formulate a supportive response to Tyler’s holiday endeavor. How? By making more ridiculous-ass Christmas albums. Here’s a few suggestions:

Jinglin’ Past the Graveyard by Tom Waits

Sure, the bizarre legend of music has been rather quiet lately (he’s nearly 70 for Christ’s sake), but you have to admit a Tom Waits Christmas album would be pure gold… or tinsel. There was “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” on Blue Valentine, so there’s no reason to believe that a whole album (or at least an EP) of like-minded holiday original tracks could surface in the future. Of course, Christmas albums don’t have to be unique compositions. I’d be happy to hear Waits croon eerily to an accordion-backed version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Even better, what about a percussive “Jingle Bells” based on the sharp, angular palette of the Real Gone era? I definitely see a lot of potential here.

The True Meaning of Yemas by Kanye West

Yes, I’ve had Kanye on the brain as of late (as you’re soon to discover this Sunday), but that doesn’t make a Kanye Christmas album any less of a brilliant idea. While I couldn’t see Kanye attacking the Christmas classics head-on, there’s every reason to believe he would find himself perfectly at home with a stack of Christmas LPs to sample. After all, “4th Dimension” from Kids See Ghosts, his 2018 collaborative effort with Kid Cudi, is entirely based around–you guessed it–a Christmas sample. See? Kanye and Christmas is a match made in heaven. Kanye’s self-obsession would serve him well here, since my grand vision includes skits between tracks where Kanye “deconstructs” the classic Santa-centric view of Christmas in front of children seated around, say, a stocking-adorned fireplace. As the album progresses, the malleable minds of Kanye’s audience learn the true meaning of “Yemas”: Christmas, like everything else important in American culture, is all about Kanye.

Christmas Boat by Lil Yachty

One great thing about classic Christmas songs is that everyone can sing them. They generally operate within a limited vocal range conducive to most people’s natural ability. Even if you’re entirely tone deaf, you can’t wander too far from a Christmas song’s melodic thrust (especially timeless gems like “Deck the Halls” or “Joy to the World,” which seem to require more shouting than singing). Given Lil Yachty’s inability to sing, I couldn’t think of a better project to blunt the slump of 2018’s Nuthin’ 2 Prove than a Christmas album. The happy, minimalist beats that have become Yachty’s trademark simply beg for the inclusion of Christmas bells. Besides, what does he have to lose? Lil Yachty has been in a sharp decline since Lil Boat. One thing a Christmas album certainly couldn’t do at this juncture in Yachty’s career is hurt.

Yuletide Slay Ride by Deicide

If 2018’s Overtures or Blasphemy proved anything for Deicide, it’s that these god-murdering metal giants still aren’t tired of basking in the same themes they’ve been trumpeting since the late eighties. For accuracy’s sake, I should probably say “theme” instead of “themes,” since their edgy Jesus hate seems to be the only connective tissue keeping Deicide alive. For my money, no holiday serves a more generous helping of canned Jesus than Christmas, making a Christmas album an ideal WMD for Deicide. Featuring toe-tapping originals such as “Babe Butchered in Bethlehem,” “Murdered in the Manger” and “Cannibalized Christmas Christ,” Yuletide Slay Ride would serve the double duty of annoying Christians while adding some oh-so-desperately-needed variety to Deicide’s discography. I’m inclined to suggest that the accompanying dose of levity required for such an undertaking might help Deicide on a psychological level as well. Maybe they’d finally be able to minimize whatever the hell got them so cranky at God to begin with. Who knows? Yuletide Slay Ride might mark the beginning of a path to recovery. Make a Christmas album, Deicide, for the sake of your health.

-Justin A. Burnett