Feature | Kanye West: Living At the Top of the Mountain

Opening the doors for more vulnerability in hip-hop than almost any other record of the decade, Kanye West’s 2008 808s & Heartbreak has been cited as a key reason artists like Frank Ocean were able to find their audiences. It is an album whose influence is almost immeasurable at this point; everyone from Drake, Young Thug and The Weeknd have paid credit to it at some time or another. A record that, at first, was dismissed by many, now essential to the development of modern popular music, making emotional openness cool again, and sadness accepted in the mainstream. Born from a place of personal collapse and turmoil, … Heartbreak pushed a raw and minimal sound that wasn’t even close to what fans of Graduation expected, defying the stadium-sound of its predecessor and instead diving headfirst into darker spaces.

As time has gone by, Kanye has taken this direction further. His career became a gallery of illustrations depicting the pain of the artist, the struggle of creation, and the detachment necessary to those who lock themselves away in rooms to enter into their separate worlds, fighting to make the images and sounds inside their heads exist outside of them. An irony that no one who creates has ever been able to escape in any permanent way, chasing the flicker-flash moments where they can, running on those fumes of unity for their entire careers. Album after album, he has continued to explore the darker spaces of what it means to be both human and artist, with his infamous public persona seeming to mirror the continuous breakdown and reconstruction of the ego found across his body of work.

Now certified Platinum, The Life of Pablo comes off at first glance as a messy, gospel-tinged religious album that can’t help but fall into familiar vices along the way, but a closer listen reveals darkness waiting at every corner. Drug abuse, relationship turmoil, isolation – none of it is shaken off by the end. “FML” is a look behind the curtain of the faux-confident voice present just moments before, revealing prescriptions to anti-anxiety medications, mental breakdowns, the pressures of having the destruction of his marriage rooted for by total strangers, and his frustration in trying to artistically portray the visions in his own head, always foreign, always detached.

From there, the album embarks on its most introspective trio of songs, “Real Friends” revealing that the close family unit described on earlier albums is now for show. “Wolves” is a tale of pure isolation, everyone else a predator. Last-minute addition “Saint Pablo” deals with spiritual isolation and the struggle to find the voice of God. The light of God described on the album’s opener couldn’t seem further away by the end, something that started triumphantly faithful ending on a plea to a higher power, questioning this sense of disconnection, still feeling so alone, prayers met with silence.

And while the lonely, segregated mindset of The Life of Pablo shows us a sadness and turmoil that almost no one, save for those who were obsessed with the cryptic So Help Me God era-that-never-was – with the insane drug-fueled explosion of debauchery “Freestyle 4” showing old habits aren’t quite done just yet, or the cut Bon Iver-featuring “FML”-outro “Fall Out of Heaven”, or “I Feel Like That,” in which West reads off symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts, only to proclaim, “I feel like that, I feel like that all the time” – nothing shows West as the alien artist that he feels like inside better than what he himself has called his best work, the 2013 personal masterpiece Yeezus.

Though often referred to as minimalist, this is far from the truth. It flirts with it, it suggests it, but beds of sinister synths and explosions of obscure sampling wait at every turn, layered and manipulated vocals always ready to howl like wolves. It’s a forty-minute long magic trick, fooling you into thinking there isn’t as much going on as there is, an album about masks, hiding layers of self using wealth, success, and excess to obfuscate your true face. In cut lyrics to “I Am A God,” Kanye sings, “Pop a little pill now, tell me how I feel down,”, an over-medicated, numbed-out perspective which fits the entire album, a constant fight between a desire for fulfillment and self-medication.

The moment “On Sight” kicks in, it sounds like a futuristic transmission from another planet, a blast of noise that suggests an entirely new soundscape separate from anything West had delivered before. Where his previous (and adored) album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy opened with a story book read by another voice, Yeezus throws you out into the water to see if you know how to swim, no features coming in until several-songs-deep, no vocals for over half a minute. “On Sight” is a statement of intent, a declaration of where things are going to go, immediately telling you, after thirty seconds of  pulsing, writhing analog noise, that this is not going to be what came before; this is not going to care if you “get” it or not.

It’s defiant of all expectations, and it’s something West loves to do. Throughout his career, the instant he’s seemed pinned down, he’s leaped into another corner entirely, letting the spotlight catch up to his movements before running again, never allowing the audience to settle in. It’s fitting that the Saint Pablo tour with its floating stage forced fans on the floor to chase him back and forth through the venue – it’s a physical realization of what they’ve been doing for years. Intentional or not, this is life reflecting art, Kanye on top floating above his audience, a passenger of a UFO, alien and alone.

At the true heart of Yeezus, beneath the masks and behind the rage, there’s a bloodied fist beating in its chest

 Throughout its ten songs, he raps about classism; he rants about racism; he takes shots at celebrity culture, at the fashion industry, at record labels, at consumerism and the way the concept of relationships are treated in the modern day, at anything and everything that falls within his sights – and yet all of it finds him deeper in the cage whose walls he’s attempting to rattle than where he started.  He doesn’t seem to know the answers any better than the rest of us, much to his frustration. He wants to feel connected to the common man, and yet he lives more out of touch than anyone could ever dream of; he wants to believe he’s perfect, and yet he destroys his own image so regularly, a manic depressive routine cycling through again and again, building himself up just to break himself down once more – “Soon as they like you, make them unlike you.”

The previous album closed with poet Gil Scott-Heron slamming about the corrupting nature of capitalism and the need for human simplicity in order to lead a happy, liberated and fulfilling life. Clearly, West knew the words he spoke, but does he know how to get there? He’s as American as anyone, and as fed up as he may be with the ills of modern society, he’s just as sick as the rest of us. He’s done his best to play the system, to twist it into something to favor him, but he’s still within it. He can’t just run away, he is still caught up in the culture that bred the very issues he seems apoplectic about, desperate to make things different yet not knowing how to kick the drug of consumerism.

And, in a certain way, he enjoys it – the id vs. the ego always on display in his work, the fight between wanting to be included and wanting to tear it all down. “New Slaves” is as good a proof of this as any, a song that despite being a criticism of consumerism, only existed because he’d helped contribute to it. It’s that clash, between the part of you so desperate to be let into the party and the part that, once there, is so desperate to crash the entire event, that colors so much of Kanye’s music, and nowhere is it as clear or as bold than on Yeezus.

Regardless, at the true heart of Yeezus, beneath the masks and behind the rage, there’s a bloodied fist beating in its chest, a broken soul trying to mend in the wake of intense pain, lamenting lost love, struggling to internalize the ways in which soulmates become soulless. Masks drop only to be fixed again soon after, but we don’t forget what we’ve seen, and he knows it. Perhaps the crown jewel of the album, “Hold My Liquor” leaves the vulnerability for everyone but West to sing at first. Justin Vernon and Chief Keef openly describe loneliness, depression and struggles with substance abuse, and Kanye tears into a defiant, aggressive verse. But it seems cheap, reactionary, and desperate to fool. It falls away quickly, turning into admissions of guilt, the mask shed, only to be pulled back on again. But it doesn’t work.

He does what he so often does – runs from vulnerability headfirst into surface-level satisfaction. Just as “Runaway” blurs into the fittingly-titled “Hell of a Life,” “Hold My Liquor” fizzles out, climax never really reached (and, in a brilliant sort of way, that denial is the climax), exploding into the filthy “I’m In It,” a song that, from the very first second, announces how explicit it’s going to get. But just as “Hell of a Life” ends up only serving to illustrate the insubstantial substance-fueled emptiness that MBDTF laments, “I’m In It” only shows more of the skeletons in the closet, the things hidden behind thin veils that Yeezus obsesses over.

“Hell of a Life” attempts to come across as empowering, questioning the right to judge other’s relationships, and yet it presents a completely hollow and paper-thin one that collapses as soon as it starts, hallucinatory and firmly locked in the vaults of fantasy. The argument falls apart under the weight of itself, the foundations from which it tries to make its point too poorly-lain.  “I’m In It” has the same irony, at first describing something close to racial empowerment, taking images of the Civil Rights Movement and weaving them into a tale more akin to Blaxploitation. In what seems like an attempt to celebrate sexuality, “I’m In It” ends up becoming a case study for the kind of relationship West  deconstructs later on the album’s climax, “Blood On the Leaves,” the sexual insanity of the song’s narrative coming at the price of betraying a spouse. It’s as much a dark, twisted fantasy as “Hell of a Life” is, but with none of the charm, sinister and seductive, haunting and on attack, lost in a masturbatory dream.

What presents itself at first glance as simply an ode to hardcore fucking reveals itself to be chronicling sexual misconduct, affairs and attempts to escape from anxiety, with lines like “Stopped at the 7-11 like I needed gas – I’m lying, I needed condoms; don’t look through the glass” and talk of “kids and the wife life” showing that everything we’ve heard bragged about beforehand came at the expense of wedding vows. It ends in a schizophrenic series of delusions spat out atop minimal accompaniment, lost and frantic, detached and deluded. Sonically, it’s the busiest song on the album, with layer after layer dripping on, viscous and permeating, full of sampling and vocal layering, features and alarms blaring, a song that completely dissociates and finds its own space to reside in. It’s as good an example as any of the alien, dark, futuristic styles Yeezus employs, and yet it ends completely defenseless, the disorienting spree of sound reduced to stray percussive slaps, nothing remotely close to the deep, chest-rattling bass blasts that carved their way through the song previously.

The themes and styles become completely intertwined; the music is focused on pulling back layers, stripping them away to get to a raw, naked space, only to build them back up again, a wink to the listener, a way of promising to us something many needed to hear – that he knows what he’s doing, that he’s in on it too and, even, self-conscious as anyone, a trait that has run through his lyrics since his very first album and yet has often seemed forgotten by many. The masks he’s worn convincing everyone at some point or another, himself included.

Yeezus portrays a man infuriated by the way that the sacred can’t exist without the profane, longing for a way to be the pure, devout and artistic being he’s been told he can be, and yet getting lost in the corporeal thrills that those places have led him to. He seems constantly trapped between wanting to aggrandize himself, to transcend as a person and become a mythical, messiah-like figure, and a desire to prove himself wrong, to tear himself down, destruction seeming far from foreign to him.

While an artist like Prince found a delicate balance between the two in his music, Kanye West finds a freakish, nightmarish and enchanting blur of each, black and purple paint spilled into whites and pinks until it all becomes indecipherable, swirling and inseparable. He doesn’t dive between moods or aesthetics; he mashes them up, stitching them together, and where

 … Dark Twisted Fantasy portrays Kanye taking the darkness and marrying it to the light, making it palatable to the masses, Yeezus is anything but that.

It’s layer after layer of black and red paint, sinister and towering, a tour of a scattered but brilliant mind, trying to cling to whatever pieces it can pick up along the way throughout the twisting, labyrinthine halls, only to have them yanked away right after, because nothing can be held onto; nothing can be kept for long.

Yeezus could have ended up being many things. Producer Rick Rubin’s said that over 30 different songs existed for it, and leaks seem to prove it – demos “Good Things Don’t Last” and “The One I Love” suggest a style that is entirely unheard of on Yeezus, save for surprise moments of sampling and interruptions on the album-proper. “Good Things Don’t Last” is a clear example of West’s love for 70’s stadium sound, suggesting an entire song in the vein of the outro to “New Slaves.” Maybe a brighter, more soulful Yeezus was once envisioned, but where it ended up – in the darkness, lit by cellphone screens and LED, resenting itself for the party it’s a guest of, crying in the venue bathroom between lines of whatever’s being snorted that night and glasses of expensive champagne that turns bitter in the back of the throat – is exactly where it belongs, a fleshed-out album’s-worth of content that puts to sound what his little-seen short film, We Were Once a Fairytale, directed by Spike Jonze, visually showed, a fifteen-minute presentation of substance abuse, attempts at bravado that are simply humiliating, suicidal ideations and inner demons taking control.

Yeezus reveals a man who is constantly torn between states; a man who seems offensive to be defensive, who longs for ascension yet is pulled down and attracted to the bottom, who wears a series of masks onstage to represent the masks he wears off of it. The original album cover depicted a golden face melted down, expressions splitting apart in two, a fitting image for the contents within. He’s successful in every way except emotionally; he’s surrounded by wealth and comfort and yet frantic inside, in his most quiet, most vulnerable moments only able to scream on “I Am A God,” or completely jumbled in his own mind at the end of “I’m In It”. The lines “Got the kids and the wife life, still can’t wake up from the night life; I’m so scared of my demons, I go to sleep with a nightlight” serving as something close to a thesis statement on the album. The most emotionally sincere, raw moment of the entire album is when, on “Guilt Trip,” Kid Cudi sings, “If you loved me so much, then why’d you let me go?”

Yeezus is the most private, intimate and self-conscious look into his mind that we have ever gotten, the least-commercial and the most-telling. If The Life of Pablo is a day in his life, Yeezus is a day in his mind, and it’s everything you might expect. He clings to his bravado and at the same time, he loathes it; he wears his insecurities like the shoes he designs and sells them just as lucratively. He’s doing all he can to keep the pain away; he’s doing all he can to show it to us, too. It’s the sound of someone seeking peace by entering a warzone.

Kanye wants to have it all, be humble and yet proud, to be successful and yet meek, to celebrate and yet remain devout, to find excitement and yet stay faithful, just like 21st-century modern life has promised us we can. To be that 21st century schizoid man in an age of commercialized narcissism taken to the extreme, taking his dichotomous, incongruent and most at-odds aspects of himself and mixing them together like paint, creating new colors for us to see. He’s as classical an artist as they get these days, and far more so than anyone in the strata he resides in. Kanye West started out as an art school student, and he’s still painting; he’s just using a different kind of canvas, wielding a different kind of brush.

His catalogue currently stands as a collection of moods, tones, experiences and emotions that seem to completely explain and yet thoroughly mystify the bizarre, antisocial and self-contradictory behavior he engages in, the soundtrack to a perfection-obsessed, destruction-fueled life. Could he really ever stand to actually achieve perfection? Could he not be too bored with it? Does he need the self-sabotage and turmoil to keep himself motivated, forever trying to avoid the dilemma of someone like Alexander the Great, who lamented having nothing left to conquer? Regardless of his headlines, albums like Yeezus serve as an uncomfortable reminder that he is a human and is motivated by human reasons and feelings. And, ultimately, if art isn’t connecting to someone else’s humanity, then what is it?

As much as he wants to seem like he is “one with the people,” he is addicted to the heel-turn. As much as he wants to voice something universal, when he opens his mouth, he can’t help but sound divisive. Maybe he’s a fantastic example of what racism and class structure does to a successful African American male in our society. Maybe he’s an even better example of mental health issues. Maybe he’s just doing it all for the headlines, for the rush, for the publicity. Maybe he’s just somehow onto something the rest of us can’t quite see, that he can get across in his art but that he’s incapable of communicating when he tries to simply speak; it wouldn’t be the first time an artistic genius found it impossible to voice their insight outside of their mediums. For better or for worse, contradictions have long been a part of the package, and that package has never seemed more suitable than now.

Featured Image: David Keane

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