F. Scott Fitzgerald said “There are no second acts in American lives,” and probably no one realizes this more than Kanye West. He’s been trying his damndest to stay on the radar, to stay relevant, regardless of how many (mainstream, conventional, boring) bridges he burns.
The fascinating thing about Kanye (as opposed to the myriad other famewhores that populate our modern celebrity-industrial complex), is that he’s legitimately talented, and his latest – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – cements that fact.
Kanye realizes – subconsciously or not – that modern celebrity is 24/7 performance art, and so he must wear every emotion on his sleeve, whether it’s egotistical rage at the haters, or contrite guilt over rude (but perhaps somewhat truthful) jabs at Bush and Taylor Swift. Every faux pas paints West as an artist outside the bounds of “polite” discourse, which in this day and age is simply paying homage to corporate ownership. Kanye can either play along nicely with the narrative the media constructs for him, or he can be a contrarian (asshole). Either way he wins, because he’s in the news, and the subject of water cooler chit chat – “Did you hear what Kanye did, said, etc. Let’s go check out his 30 minute music video…”
Every Kanye record has been a reinvention of his own story. The first three “college” records form a narrative arc as West explores his own guilt and rejection of the “traditional” path to success – college education. As his real-life success is realized, his ego and disdain for a conventional lifestyle grows. There’s a huge shift from the humble grind (working at Gap, “spittin” through the wire) and the gospel allusions in The College Dropout to the outright hedonism and party anthems of Graduation.
Then loss strikes. A relationship falls apart; his mother dies. The money and vanity so celebrated in Good Life are the very vices that doom Donda, and Kanye must feel somewhat guilty for her death. So he produces 808s and Heartbreak, a strange and seductive experiment in minimalism and auto-tune. He takes a lot of crap for the record from the hip-hop establishment, but West embraces his melancholy and comes out not only with a decent album, but a continuation of his own personal story. He doesn’t drop off the map to deal with his loss as a private citizen, he formats and publishes it into a set of pop songs, that he goes on to perform nightly in spectacular light shows to sold-out crowds.
MBDTF continues the narcissistic extravaganza: Kanye’s life is a beautiful dark twisted fantasy –
Dark Fantasy starts with a sort of British nanny who frames the whole record as an age-old tale to tell children. Then the obligatory gospel choir fanfares and salutations, the curtains rising to the man on the stage – Mr. West.
Power is his anthem – the video even puts him in the place of a godlike monarch from antiquity – but he admits “no one man should have all that power”. He’s on top of the world, a modern day Pharaoh or Napoleon, but there’s a darkness that haunts him – “this’d be a beautiful death, jumpin out the window, lettin everything go.”
All of the Lights is a maximalist fanfare with dark chords, an ensemble of who’s-who among pop stardom (Rihanna, Fergie, Alicia Keys, hell, even Elton John), accompanied by a possessed marching band of hell-bent percussion and brass.
Monster pays homage to the King of Pop’s greatest allusion – Thriller. Kanye (and his posse of ghouls – Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj) are at their Halloween heartless. “Everyone knows I’m a monster…”
And then Runaway. The opus, the central thesis, the masterpiece. This is the song that Kanye played on the anniversary of his disastrous Taylor Swifting VMAs. Combining all the tricks he’s learned from both his innovative sampling (Rick James – “Look at ya” – soaked in both sweaty coked-up energy and self-destructive pathos) and his auto-tuned misery. Pusha-T’s verse hits probably the hardest, a Dorian Gray of gangster rap; lines that would fit without a second glance in dozens of other rapper’s repertoires is transformed incredibly sad on top of those plinking piano keys:
Every bag, every blouse, every bracelet
Comes with a price tag, baby, face it
You should leave if you can’t accept the basics
Plenty whores in the baller-nigga’s matrix
Invisibly set, the Rolex is faceless
I’m just young, rich, and tasteless.
Hell of a Life and Blame Game continue the downward spiral of hurt and malice. Kanye knows he pushes those who could offer love away, if only to satiate the carnal desires that are magnified by the role he’s forced to play, as a pop star, as a rapper, a successful black man.
Chris Rock jumps in for a strange monologue faux-surprise, asking an off-screen girl how she became so slutty, so submissive, so generous. She replies in reverb, sounding both disciplined and near tears – “Yeze taught me.” It’s a skit that paints yet another layer of Kanye the corrupter.
Bon Iver, drenched in auto-tune, closes the record, with some of his most beautiful lyrics: “I’m up in the woods / I’m down in my mind / I’m building a still / to slow down the time.”
Kanye jumps in with “I’m lost in the world / lost in this plastic light.” He recognizes his own hubris, his own darkness, his own sin, but where is redemption? He’s bigger than any role models, or even the Christianity that supported him in his pre-fame youth. He sees himself a tragic figure, something from Aeschelus or Shakespeare.
Amiri Baraka, who was a sort of Black Panther Beat Poet, cuts in with a vitriolic speech: “America is all blood and tears instead of milk and honey,” he cries. With this, West is completing the trifecta of ascension – first artistic, then relational, and now political.
“Who will survive in America?” It’s both rhetorical and pointed. Kanye’s made it, made a fortune and millions, but has he survived? In his own mind, he’s become Christ, crucified for the masses, and he’ll not stop until we bow down, or at least raise the roof in his name.
There are no second acts in Amerca. Nope. Only first acts that continue to be retold, bigger and louder more triumphant than the time before.