Kanye West, Black Art, and the Great Escape From Wokeness

It might be utopia, it might not be. Or rather, the terms of utopia may have nothing to do with escape from black death.

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Complex Original

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Black music draws a tough crowd. On one hand, praise for wokeness sets the bar for praise laughably low—a soft but obvious political message proves an easy way for a given artist to be lauded as a due “credit to the race.” J. Cole is as exemplary a case as any—coupling a lackluster aesthetic with simple, respectability-inflected observations about oppression is a sure route to glory. Even Kendrick Lamar has benefited some from this phenomenon; his often unsubtle politics—a masculine black politics—means his blackness and the blackness of his art always gets received at face value.

But then, there are some artists whose blackness seems always up for review, inextricably tied to how well they adhere to certain conventions of political expression. Exhibit Bey: who despite two decades worth of experiments with Black aesthetic is only recognized as “unapologetically black” when politics enters her music in a rather obvious way. Conversations spurred by “Formation” don’t seem all that different from the era of “Is Beyoncé feminist or not?” in that regard. A comparison in the tenor between reviews of Beyoncé and Kendrick’s respective performances (and BEYONCÉ and To Pimp a Butterfly for that matter) dramatizes the rather uneven and quite gendered political expectations when it comes to blackness and art.

It’s been a long while since Kanye’s persona soundly disqualified him from the “conscious” artist Olympics. The tale of reverse wokeness is easy enough to tell, the descent from “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” to “Racism is a dated concept” reads better than Shakespearean tragedy as retold by fans and ex-fans alike. There is something about that disappointment with Kanye’s politics that maps onto an aesthetic appreciation of his work. With each subsequent album fans have had trouble latching onto 'Ye’s vision. Many find it just as hard to reconcile The College Dropout and Yeezus within the same body of work; “Racism still alive they just be concealing it” Kanye and a “new slaves” concept of racism that looks more like class stratification. The two—politics and art—feel so close in discussions of Kanye that sometimes it’s hard to tell which old thing exactly fans want back.

With the advent of The Life of Pablo, we can be fully disabused of the notion that Kanye is any way oblivious to these laments. “I Love Kanye” in particular is a riff off our own nostalgia. The song is not self-inflationary madness or an esteem exhibition. It’s ego-centric, but not egotistical in its common usage that always seems a surrogate for egomania. “I Love Kanye” tracks a communal nostalgia that folds in on itself when the object of attention refuses to sit still. Our voice (“I miss the old Kanye”) becomes his (“See I invented Kanye”), one becomes multiple, reception becomes creation becomes interaction through a repetition that nearly trips over itself in the ongoing making of a persona that refuses to be caged by our desire to attach it to narrative, let alone a politics. He finishes and chuckles, not in the trademark punctuated “Heah?!” of albums prior, but a gentle sound akin to laughing at your own joke.

This is not an album review. But if “I Love Kanye” is an allegory of what happens when an artist’s aesthetic is made increasingly nonsensical to political convention, I’d like to venture The Life of Pablo as a project unified less by sound than by pedagogy. Kanye seems to be teaching us something by not telling us anything. Refusing to be overdetermined by political responsibility or undersold by bad politics, Kanye laughs instead.

Though Graduation may remain the more on-hand choice for a top down cruise up Lakeshore Drive, subsequent albums—yes, even that one—show that above all 'Ye’s never lost an investment in the exploring the possibilities of black fun. For anyone having trouble finding affinity in his dynamism, Kanye’s work becomes quite legible when viewed in terms of play. Through topic of play we can link the ongoing educational parody in Dropout and Late Registration with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s comedic cameos (“Dark Fantasy,” “Blame Game”). Whether we consider it an official part of the discography or not, the foolish camaraderie on Watch the Throne bears resemblance to the celebratory affects on Graduation. The all seeing “I” of “I Love Kanye” has roots in 'Ye’s lyrical responses to Saturday Night Live and South Park. None of which look politically significant in any non-tenuous way.

Carvell Wallace’s reading of Kanye West’s God Dream is beautiful. Like him, I observe a “boundless” and “unbridled” aesthetic that purposely eludes the language of a marginalized everyday. But I am less interested in recouping Kanye’s vision into a response that still ends up looking something like a reparative politics, nor am I sure if that’s what even he wants. “Just creating in a fun simple way with no politics…” West tweeted three days after TLOP dropped. It might be utopia, it might not be. Or rather, the terms of utopia may have nothing to do with escape from black death.

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