Thirteen years is a pretty long time. Long enough to make a man, according to Jewish tradition. Long enough, I'll declare here, for the sake of argument, to get a gauge on a planet's cultural climate and start making grand proclamations about subjective issues. Like this: Kanye West is the most important artist, in any art form, any genre, of the 21st Century.
Let’s define successful art as that which, upon being experienced—when viewed, read, heard, tasted—shows us things about the world that we hadn’t been aware of before. Things that we find to be right and true and profound. Did you see the commercial Jay-Z made for his next album when it aired during the NBA Finals the other night? Did you see the part where he’s practicing one of his raps and he says, “I just want a Picasso?” That was interesting, I thought, considering the timing—two days before Kanye’s next album Yeezus was to come out, two days after it leaked and everybody listened to it for the first time on the Internet. Jay-Z’s already got a Picasso. He signed him to Roc-a-Fella Records ten years ago. He made Watch the Throne with him two years ago.
This was something very different, very new. Those staccato stabs of sound, as much rhythm as melody, without any drums.
In the early part of the last century, just about a hundred years ago, actually, Pablo Picasso (along with Georges Braque, but I like Picasso better) pioneered a style of painting called Cubism that, umm, became very important to art history. (I always feel dumb talking about art because I don’t know a huge amount about it. I do like looking at art, but I dropped out of the one art history class I took in college; I read about the stuff I’m writing about here in a book called Does the Center Hold: An Introduction to Western Philosophy by Donald Palmer.) Cubism caught on, and became so important, because it expressed a big change in the way that people, collectively, experienced the world. It lined up with a whole new way of thinking, a shift in the human condition brought about by late 19th Century advancements in science and technology and big ideas like Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Nietzche’s notion that “God is dead.”
When scientific learning began to eclipse religion as the more reliable explainer of the mysteries of life, our view of the world flattened out—we went from looking to the sky for answers, to looking here on earth. In the absence of divine authority, our perspective, individual human perspective, became as important as anything else. Picasso was able to see this, with his crazy giant eyes, more clearly than other people. And so began to paint the world exactly as he saw it—as a collection of two-dimensional geometric shapes, like planes of broken glass, splintered and warped and shifting with the viewer’s relative position to the object in sight. The world, as Picasso painted it, didn’t look like anything people had seen before. But in a certain way, it was closer to the truth, as people had started to experience it, maybe without anyone even knowing it. He was showing people what was inside themselves, showing them the future.
That’s what it felt like to watch Kanye perform “New Slaves” on Saturday Night Live last month. This was something very different, very new. Those staccato stabs of sound, as much rhythm as melody, without any drums. Black, gothic, synth rock, but with Kanye’s rapping—all panting Panther anger and pain, top-lit on a dark stage with a thick gold rope around his neck—translating it into something earthier and raw, something we recognize as hip-hop. Remember the first time you heard Dre and Snoop’s “Deep Cover?” Those four bass notes? That’s what I thought of first. Paranoid defiance. But this was higher-minded, more ambitious, and aimed at a different audience. (I remembered his last SNL performance, the ballet.) Kanye is making something much less insular than Dre and Snoop were, trying to shock and impress everybody at the same time. I was impressed. (Needless to say.) And I felt like I got a glimpse of the future, and our place in it. Something about a naked body inside a machine, pushing at the walls.
Five years ago, when 808s and Heartbreak came out, I didn’t like it.
Five years ago, when 808s and Heartbreak came out, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like Autotune at the time, didn’t like the way people like T-Pain and Flo Rida had been using it. It sounded so gimmicky to me—a cheap way to prettify, to smooth off the rough edges of imperfect pitch. And it reminded me of Peter Frampton. I was disappointed in Kanye for embracing it the way he did. I thought it was interesting that Kanye was singing instead of rapping, that he’d written these different kinds of songs. But the robot voice was too much for me to get past. I didn’t pay close enough attention.
I still don’t like the way some people use Autotune, but I sure do appreciate 808s and Heartbreak more than I did. When I listen to it now, I hear Kanye using Autotune in a very different way than I thought he did. In a much more artful way. I think he uses it less as enhancement than as a foil—to create tension, between the natural and the fabricated, between human emotion and technological precision. And I hear lots of edge left in his voice. A voice in a tubular echo chamber. So cold and lonely and sad. I look at the album as a sort of masterpiece of the man-vs.-machine era. And I think the whole sub-genre of music it spawned—I don’t even know exactly what to call it, exactly, half-singing, half-rap; the druggy space-age atmospherics of Drake, Future, Ty Dolla $ign, the Drill Scene kids—is some of the most interesting and exciting music being made today. It sounds like the future to me, but also the present. And it sounds honest. (Certainly much more so than costume-show retro folk of the Mumford Sons and the Lumineers, et al.) Like artists dealing with reality and making things—some ugly, some beautiful—out of the world as they find it. Or, considering the recent news of the NSA and its PRISM surveillance program, as it finds them.
As our technological future unfolds, and as our interaction with machines increases and personal privacy becomes more and more a thing of the past, what do you think the effects will be? It’s got to be profound, I would think, right? A major change in our world view, an existential change. We used to peer out at the world through these two little holes in our heads, pretty much able to feel like an invisible observer whenever we wanted. Now we have to get used to the fact that eyes are always on us. Eyes of people we don’t even know. Strangers are watching. All the time. (Most of us volunteer ourselves for this to some extent.) What must that knowledge, or even just the suspicion thereof, do to the way our brains work? It’s got to change things on a very deep level. It’s gotta change our brain chemistry. What is happening to us? What will it be like to live in the future? Who will show us?
“I wear my heart on my sleeve/I know that we’re the new slaves/I see the blood on the leaves” — "New Slaves"
Artists, I would argue. The avant garde. And especially when it comes to the issue of privacy, the feeling of having eyes on us all the time, famous artists. Has any contemporary artist, in any field or medium, explored fame—its ego-expanding rewards; its psychological costs—as consistently and thoughtfully as Kanye has? Committing himself to art with a capital “A,” constantly experimenting, he’s detailed every aspect of his life, public and private, in song: broken jaw, dick pics, award show outbursts, the limelight, his love life, race, class, hypocrisy, the guilt he feels, still, about the death of his mother. Working the themes of self and fame into his lyrics and music to the extent that he has, in simultaneously celebrating and exposing and excoriating himself as fully as he has—“I throw those Maybach keys,” he says in “New Slaves, “I wear my heart on my sleeve/I know that we’re the new slaves/I see the blood on the leaves”—he lets us all see what it’s like to be so seen. All the weird and scary and thrilling things it can do to the psyche.
The world’s changing. It’s always changing. People are changing. We’re always changing. What will future historians say (or, at least, self-indulgent, slightly masturbatory, pseudo-intellectual pop-music critics) when they look back at the era we’re living in?
They’ll say that Kanye saw what was happening. In a different way, a better way, than most other people. And that he was able to express it in a way that we experience as truth. In a way that moved us, even as we maybe struggled to put appropriate words to it. They’ll hold up his music—or just turn it up, it’ll still be playing at parties, I bet—as the definitive document of the time.