Whoops! I refer to Kanye and Kim Kardashian as being married at least two times in here. Totes thought they were married. Turns out they’re not.
Pusha T’s “Numbers on the Board” clearly ain’t meant for radio play. But it’s been given the full kanyewest.com splash-page treatment accorded to last year’s mega-smashes “Mercy” and “Clique”, not to mention “N***as in Paris”, “Otis”, “Power”, “Runaway”, and other monoliths of yore. This prompted me to expect a bit more from the new track on first listen, and when Kanye (who produced the track, obvs) pauses the bizarre, minimal beat to drop in a sample from Jay-Z’s “Rhyme No More”, I felt a momentary thrill that the song would erupt into a fierce posse cut, with a middle verse from Jay, and Ye running anchor leg. Instead, it’s merely an interesting, accomplished, but relatively minor cut — certainly not the crossover smash that Pusha has ostensibly been searching for since Clipse went on hiatus, the one that elevates him from respected-sideman status into rap’s current pantheon.
I didn’t quite know what to make of the release, presuming it to be one of those increasingly common “for the fans” press bump/mp3 dumps (like Jay’s “Open Letter”, released earlier that same day), but then last week I saw the video:
First, there’s the fact that they made a full-fledged video, which you don’t do for the one-off you drop on Soundcloud that never gets an official release. And the video itself — which, like the song, is strange, spare, and assembled with subtly masterful timing — communicates a thrilling sense of dread. With Pusha stunting like a demon, it has the feel of a nightmare, or more accurately, one of those slow, haunting dreams where even the most mundane image oozes foreboding. (This is a thing, right? I had one of these the day before Hurricane Sandy rolled in that still gives me chills when I recall it.) That foreboding left me feeling excited about forthcoming hell-ward moves in Kanye World; the cameos at the end of the video — from Kanye and, more tellingly, Chief Keef — mark it as not merely an unusual single, but rather an artistic beacon of what’s next for Ye and, by extension, his most closely-associated G.O.O.D. Music underling, Pusha.
If this seems like overreaching, well, it probably is. But aren’t we having fun playing detective? And, lest we forget, West is a man who long ago mastered the art of building hype for an album, an extension of his incredible ability to build a compelling, multifaceted, immortal pop star persona for himself. (He’s been doing this self-mythologizing from the get-go…but maybe you’ve forgotten, because when was the last time you listened to The College Dropout‘s interminable origin story “Last Call” all the way through?) He’s incredibly meticulous and controlling about how every extratextual detail feeds into a specific artistic vision. Yes, this includes his notorious award show outbursts, dick pics, unfathomable fashion choices, etc.
I’ve always argued that he’s more aware than he’s given credit for of how exactly his seemingly impulsive behavior has built him into the utterly engrossing pop star that he is. I’d feel silly arguing that September 2009’s Taylor Swift Incident was Kanye’s way of kicking off an album cycle for a record that wouldn’t be released for over a year, but look how perfectly it set him up to play the underdog leading up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s November 2010 release: the teary apologies on Leno, followed by the eight month exile. Then, kicking off an unstoppable run of free weekly singles in June with “Power”, not to mention the insane twitter account, the “living painting” video, the short film, on and on. Why not follow your worst impulses, as he often has in his public life, when they fit so neatly into an emotional narrative that reads like great fiction? Even when a mediocre album like Cruel Summer (which was great when he appeared on a song a disastrous when he didn’t) retroactively deflates some of a hype campaign’s grandiosity, his intuitive control of that hype is undeniable.
With Kanye’s ironclad grip on pre-release album details in mind, let’s look at some more clues. Oh boy! First, there’s Album Six’s bonkers list of rumored collaborators: unsurprising inclusions like Odd Future, 2 Chainz, John Legend, No I.D., The-Dream, Malik Yusef (formerly Mos Def), and Hudson Mohawke. Skrillex and Daft Punk bring the WTF factor. And, perhaps unsurprisingly (as they share a home city), but most tellingly, Chicago drill scene standouts Chief Keef, Young Chop, and King L. That “I Don’t Like” remix that closed out Cruel Summer was a mess, but it’s exciting to imagine how Kanye will graft drill music’s nihilistic minimalism onto his typically maximalist style. The inclusion of dance music producers indicates he’s favoring bleeps and bloops over MBDTF‘s lush analog trappings (funny, considering Daft Punk just took a gigantic leap in the opposite direction). The exposure we’ve had to his new material, while incredibly limited, confirms this hypothesis: peep the murky Vines taken by A-Trak and Jaime King at the Met Ball, and the slightly-less-murky video of new material dropped into a Hudson Mohawke set in Poland:
Most of all, there’s the thrilling video from a couple months back of Ye closing out a show by screaming like a man being burned alive and hurling the mic down on stage at the end of “Touch the Sky”:
Some, I think, viewed this video as the source of a good LOL, but I find it quite powerful. It reminds me of the primal scream therapy Lennon injected into Plastic Ono Band on “Mother” and “Well Well Well”. Yes, I’ll grant that it’s a bit counterintuitive for us plebs to imagine that men like Lennon or West, who ostensibly “have it all”, can feel such overwhelming loneliness and anguish. But this disregards the obvious fact that those emotions are a huge part of what makes their art so compelling — not to mention it denies their basic humanity — so I don’t really understand why anyone ever gripes that such feelings are unreasonable or surprising, coming from the uber-famous. In any case, A-Trak’s Vine assures us that visceral screaming will play some role in the new album, as does this quote from Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter on their visit to West’s Paris studio: “It was very raw. He was rapping — kind of screaming primally.” In case it’s not clear, this is GREAT news.
Oh wait, I started this off talking about a Pusha T single, didn’t I? It’s not as if I don’t care about My Name Is My Name: I’m a huge Clipse fan, I’d love to see Push produce a work more coherent than the spotty Fear of God and Wrath of Caine mixtapes, and I’d really love to see an undiluted purist like him cross over to real-deal tier-one rap superstardom, though I fear it’s unlikely.
But Kanye is Kanye. Why am I currently writing thousands of words that have been solicited by absolutely nobody? Because Kanye, that’s why. And Pusha being Ye’s G.O.O.D. right-hand man, it stands to reason that his upcoming album will be at least somewhat aligned with Ye’s vision. Both “Numbers on the Boards” and lead single “Pain” reaffirm this.
Back to Yeezy: his original education-themed trilogy of albums aimed to cover a great deal of stylistic and thematic ground, and succeeded almost universally. But it’s useful to think of 808s & Heartbreak (which closely followed the death of his mother) as the turning point in his career: with that album, he became singularly devoted to exploring a void at the center of the human heart that no amount of money nor adulation can fill. Ever since that left-turn of an LP, he’s been trying to access that raw darkness from different angles. In 2009, he turned away from Auto-Tune and seemingly tapped into a previously undiscovered vitality as a rapper, stealing the show with every guest appearance he made (see: “Run This Town”, “Maybach Music 2″, “Knock You Down”, “Kinda Like A Big Deal”), up until the VMA debacle. With MBDTF, he used excess to express a nihilism and a loneliness greater than anything he had communicated before. (“Runaway”‘s dying-robot denouement leads directly into “Hell of a Life”, which is followed by the schizophrenic internal monologue of “Blame Game”. Bleak shit.) Watch the Throne — being, as it is, an album fundamentally about bromance — made some more room for good times, but it marks the beginning of West’s interest in “street”-inspired sonics as a way to access that rawness. Which brings us up to Cruel Summer, which I’ll mostly choose to ignore, with the exception of the aforementioned “I Don’t Like” remix.
Let’s talk about Chief Keef for a second. By now, you know the story: in early 2012, a nascent rap scene arises out of Chicago’s staggeringly violent South Side; Chief Keef releases “I Don’t Like”, which promptly blows the fuck up; controversy ensues. Inserting Keef into the “Numbers on the Board” video as a sort of spiritual talisman may seem incongruous: what could a 17-year-old from impoverished Englewood possibly have in common with Kanye West, who jets around the world on a whim and debuts songs at fashion shows or Facebook’s headquarters and marries Kim Kardashian? Well, the spiel on “I Don’t Like” goes that an inner-city male like Keef has already been so numbed by violence that he’s too apathetic to even hate — he merely doesn’t like. That’s a nihilism more all-consuming than anything Kanye could ever capture; Ye can only ever, will only ever care SO MUCH. But in trying to wrench his own darkness out of the depths of his soul into the daylight, for all the world to see, I imagine Kanye is drawn to the soul-deadening sentiment expressed in “I Don’t Like”. Whether or not drill’s influence is evident in the new album’s sonics, I imagine it’ll provide one of its primary philosophical tenets.
Presumably, married and with a baby on the way, Kanye has more reason to be happy than he’s ever had — so why now dive further than ever into the abyss? Well, for one, he’s an artist exploring a theme; people seem to have a harder time separating artist and IRL human being in music than in other media, and this is even more true with rappers, due to the genre’s often-autobiographical nature and, let’s face it, some underlying racist assumptions. We can never know the true nature of Kanye West’s inner life (though he willingly makes it more available to the general public than most figures of his stature), but let’s just pretend that we do know for sure that all the rage and anguish expressed in his music are his truest feelings. Doesn’t that make for some truly fascinating art, for one of the most beloved musicians of all time, married to a famously beautiful woman, obscenely wealthy and infinitely respected by his peers, to feel nothing but contempt for the world around him? Think of “So Appalled” and how it took the world of ultra-wealth and made it sound, hypnotizingly, like a soulless, apocalyptic wasteland. Observe, in the mic-slam video, how he takes the formerly triumphant “We on top of the world!” from the end of “Touch the Sky” and makes the top of the world sound like the loneliest, most desolate place in the universe. “I Am A God” is rumored to be the name of the song debuted at the Met Ball; Mount Olympus actually did sound like a pretty terrible place to be a lot of the time.
“Why would I pity a man with the unfathomable hubris to name a song ‘I Am A God’?” is the final hypothetical question I will insert in my imaginary contrarian reader’s mouth. Therein, I answer, lies the crux of what has made Kanye so exciting from day one: his egotism and his anguished self-doubt form a perfect ouroboros, feeding off each other infinitely. What begets radical egotism if not an unkillable self-hatred? Anyone who writes off Kanye for being merely egotistical (which, like, why do you care if someone whose actions will never impact your life is egotistical, especially if it makes their art more interesting?) is missing out on his career-spanning examination of the nature, origins, and consequences of egotism. If the album’s a dud (always a possibility) or if it espouses nothing but good vibes (not really a possibility), then I’ll look like a fool for writing this already foolishly long missive. But I have my hopes up that he’s about to take us on one of the most thrilling journeys yet into the muddy depths of his soul.
P.S. I wrote this on Wednesday night, and the word on the webs is that Ye is playing a private show at Roseland tonight, so we’ll probably know more by the time this is posted.