We're about 300 emails and one month in. We started with seven people and swelled to eight, though the composition of the group has changed a little bit. We're considering an 18-track album, which we've had for two weeks now, a few loose releases and guest verses that have arrived since this time a year ago, an unending stream of tweets and a handful of images. While Kanye rides an emotional roller coaster in plain view of all of us, we are trying to ignore rumors and gossip, and finding it impossible. We bring to the table different histories, sightlines and attitudes. Our personal lives are not the same. The time zones and the weather in which we're doing this work varies. Some of us have never met in person. But we have found the time we've spent in conversation since January 15th intellectually exciting, and then emotionally rigorous, and, finally, necessary. I don't think that anybody is really trying to convince anybody of anything. There's been some flip-flopping. We're all trying very hard to figure out and then express what is happening among us and you and in ourselves because these songs and words and sights are here now, where they didn't used to be.
What we've produced is unwieldy, in fairness to the jerky fits and starts and awkward landings of this release and the album itself. I think it's a credit to him that we're not able to responsibly publish anything definitive or concise. Everything about The Life of Pablo, from the invitation to its premiere, to its service through Tidal, to the Vine sample that kicks it off and to the frayed at the edges mix, is both a terrible idea and, looked at from another angle, ingenious. Everything was lifted from somebody else and was also previously impossible because he's an artist with the charisma an American audience makes a requirement for its attention. He's given us occasion to talk and write and think like this, and we needed it.
Instead of presenting our exchange in chronological order, we've separated it out, as much as we can, into three recurring themes: Kanye makes us talk about him (I'm The Only One In Charge), he makes us feel uncomfortable (I Be Saying What I Feel At The Wrong Time) and he makes us think about ourselves (I Love You Like Kanye Loves Kanye). When people speak about Kanye, they show themselves. I don't know if that means he's a superior artist or not; I do know that's why we are spilling all this ink.
I'M THE ONLY ONE IN CHARGE
[OR, QUESTIONS OF AUTHORSHIP]
Kiana Fitzgerald: The concept of TLOP is massive and sprawling — almost to a fault. As the kids say, there might could be too many cooks in the kitchen. It doesn't feel like one brain took control in engineering this, and I think that's what we're more or less used to getting from Yeezy. We expect him to be Geppetto, but this time it feels like he's the one being puppeteered. Kanye is in full-blown ouroboros-mode: he's being influenced by today's influencers while actively influencing influencers of tomorrow. I can't tell where he is in the timeline though. As much as he likes to portray himself as a visionary in a vacuum, he's constantly reaching out to us (social polls for album titles) and those around him (young Chano having the last say in the release date) for inspiration and final thoughts. He's always used the tools available to him, from samples to the help of other writers, but this time feels different.
kris ex: Is this the first time that Kanye is asking for legit feedback from the public? Whether with bruh or brah, or album titles, or whatever? I feel like he's usually a master of rhetorical questions and circular logic and this feels more ... "open." Which could simply be growth or transition.
Lawrence Burney: I find it interesting that this album has as many Kanyes as the bulk of his work but it feels more disjointed than ever this time, and that's where the challenge is for me as a listener. Like, it's hard to grab onto WTF is actually going on here. Reading the album credits is f****** exhausting. It's like he's in the room but I'm not feeling his presence throughout this whole thing. It comes in spurts. With that said, sonically, this is still a masterpiece. Kelly Price's verse alone in "Ultralight Beam" has me ready to reconvert to Christianity and I'm still stuck on that Chance verse. The Future/Metroboomin drop on "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1" might be the best in history — maybe not, but I don't remember ever being so excited for a beat to drop. "Real Friends" feels like a continuation of the sentiment in "Welcome To Heartbreak" and the transition at the end of "FML" into the Section 25 sample is a great shift. Even with a minimal vocal role on a lot of TLOP's songs, Kanye's curatorial genius shines through the fragmented narrative and mostly weak lyrics.
Chanelle Adams: Kanye is telling us he has rich white man's concerns. That his prayers go to Paris, the city that holds his Fashion Week dreams. That he's able to make risky investments and know he'll end up fine, sitting on a Kardashian throne. It's all a trap. He is both a d*** and a swallower. There's no purity here. Or anywhere, really.
kris ex: F*** him and his silence. F*** everyone who champions his bullshit. I'm tired of him only speaking about s*** if it effects him personally. I'm tired of him fighting these holy wars about getting more SKU's and yelling at Sway but not saying s*** about dead bodies in the street; the mass police corruption in his own hometown. F*** him. F*** Paris. I am Charlie, but I am not Trayvon, because Trayvon is dead and Charlie is still around shooting that s*** and making commentary with blood on their leaves while Kanye is getting fed expensive fruit from women he doesn't realize are human beings because b****** love when we call them b******.
Ummmm, yeah. Where was I? Oh: How can we get deep about this guy's lyrics when his words are made by committee? Off Frannie's influence, I started listening to his old shit and Jesus H. Charlie ... the ghostwriting. F***. How did we let this slide? I used to say that I liked every thing about Kanye's music except Kanye. I liked the rhymes and the flows and ideas — just not his voice and delivery. Which we now know is the only thing he brings to the recording booth. Pray for Paris? Cute, n****. But who wrote that for you? (Yes. George Bush does not care about Black people. #neverforget. But still.)
Frannie Kelley: I've been thinking that maybe we could understand Kanye in our culture, in a reductive, elevator-pitch type of way, as a fighter with nobody to fight. Publicly he's maybe a little addicted to that feeling of wild-eyed, short term release, has a tendency toward manic, violent words and punctuation, some of which is merited/inherited and some of which is too easily misapprehended. You could read it as irresponsible. It's for sure inconvenient. But Kanye is swinging at the infrastructure of injustice. He's trying to take on something that not only has no public face, but persists because the responsibility for it rests on the shoulders of hundreds of millions of blank-staring averages who don't imagine that they have power. Taylor is not a person, Taylor is a flare up. Battling what we are extracts a heavy, heavy toll, we all know this, and Kanye doesn't make it look attractive.
But then he makes possible moments like Chance's performance of "Ultralight Beam" on SNL: without Kanye's days of insecure bombast for contrast, that shift in the room when Chance takes over, the relaxation on the faces of some of the choir, doesn't happen. Chance's artful dexterity, that turns The-Dream and Ye back into fans, over there on the sidelines, is hugely impressive, but he doesn't transcend without the dynamics set in motion by Ye's loose grip on reality. Chance is the straight man up there with Kanye; within Chance's own much younger circle, he's the auteur and his work is sometimes limp. And he made possible lines like, "I met Kanye West, I'm never going to fail," which is provably false and doesn't exist without "I made 'Jesus Walks,' I'm never going to hell," which is at least half a lie, thanks to Rhymefest's contributions. I don't get how people ever feel they've finished talking about Kanye.
When we were watching the stream of the MSG show, kris was all what about Flint when we heard Kanye say "Pray for Paris." Point taken, but I think Paris is less abstract to Kanye, who lived there for at least a couple years, and is there all the time, than Flint, Michigan. That's progress, of a kind, and I don't think its wise to forget the allure of Paris for black expatriates, especially giants of culture, like Josephine Baker and James Baldwin and, today, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Plus an attack with assault rifles and homemade bombs is simply awful; a years-long conspiracy based off budget cuts and elected officials being p**** that results in injury to children, the extent of which won't be clear for decades, and the fact that this, too, has happened before, and will happen again — how do you even wrap your head around that? Who goes to jail for how long on that? What is recompense, never mind safeguards? I hear TLOP as emotional responses to s*** like that, but Kanye can't talk about it. Very few can. I've only seen this guy land it. I guess I'm wondering, if Chance is gonna ride with Ye now, will he become the new details man? Or the new Rhymefest? And where does Travis stand?
Jason King: Kanye is a brilliant, meticulous artist who has never put out a bad record and has always assembled powerful visual concepts to accompany his musical ideas. I liken him to the the Kubrick of hip-hop. But, like the Anti campaign, the TLOP campaign has been (so far) a s***show. Bumbling. A shambles of a marketing stumble, starkly set against the brilliant (and traditional) marketing execution behind pop artists like Adele, Zayn, Beyoncé, etc. We may soon realize there was a master plan all along, but I wouldn't bet my money on it. Where it gets interesting, for me, is that it all still feels relevant if only because we're knee deep in the era of s***shows (NYTimes called this "the age of failure" a while back). And it's interesting because what Kanye's doing (or not doing so well) fits so perfectly into the history of what Jack Halberstam called, back in 2011, the queer art of failure.
Kanye may be a blustering, narcissistic, no-filter musician who uses his provocative sonic and cultural ideas like ammunition — and is also not afraid to mine the aesthetics of black suffering for commercial gain (as he first did on Yeezus). But he apparently dreams in his hearts of hearts of blossoming into a fabulously iconic fashion design visionary. For a variety of reasons both obvious and implicit, he can't go all the way there. But he entertains us because he tries to go there. What he ends up producing is the result of an artist split into pieces by a series of demands and life processes that he can't quite synthesize. I don't know if he's gone mad, but he's certainly unfree.
And so the MSG event — which you could read as basically another one of his WTF coming out parties — remains fascinating because it offers us camp in a really old-fashioned Sontag kinda definition: camp as failed queer ambition. It was weird, bizarre, trashy, ungainly, totally over-the-top and almost gleefully inept, very much in line with a long history of camp as failure that includes the likes of Ed Wood, Warhol, Jack Smith, Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, Elevator Repair Service, you name it. Ed Wood wasn't Cecil B. DeMille in the way that Kanye is not Valentino or Rick Owens. The great camp artists all made iconic works because of the gap between aspiration and execution, and because they implicitly embraced failure as a core principle. For Kanye to become the cultural icon he dreams of becoming, he has to court pop failure. In this light it is no surprise he's sampling Arthur Russell, a queer musician who knew more than most about failed ambition and dabbling.
Frannie Kelley: I can't figure out how much of it was unwitting on Kanye's part, but it felt like he set up his family as this overseeing monarchy. And the people on the floor are not having it. Except that they did, and nobody disobeyed, even though one smile would have made the person famous, and where does Kanye see himself in that hierarchy? I want to fault Kanye for using people's appearance like that. But I think it points out an uncomfortable reality that we're all giving our information and ideas to corporations for free pretty much all the time. We're irritated but convenience always wins. Maybe we're seeing the breaking point loom?
I worry that, since this whole group heard TLOP the first time while watching Yeezy Season 3 at the Garden, we've begun in a hole. The show is the only album cover we can acknowledge. I'm sorry I made everybody do that.
kris ex: And then there's this: [Time's post on the photo of a Rwandan refugee camp taken in 1995 that was used for the MSG invite and as inspiration for the staging.]
Kiana Fitzgerald: This is my first time hearing about this "inspiration." F*** everything about this.
Ann Powers: I wonder what Susan Sontag would have made of all this. I am risking offensiveness when I mention, viz. Sontag, that after her Aryan years Leni Riefenstahl published a book called The Last of the Nuba, which celebrates the "pure" beauty of a vanishing African tribe. Sontag writes that in fascist art, "The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around and all-powerful, hypnotic leader figure or force." Kanye has always flirted with fascinating fascism and the aestheticization of the abject. It is difficult to tell if he is critiquing it or or both showing and experiencing the lure of its fantasies of order and ahistorical hierarchies.
I tweeted about the hunger games while watching the stream — "OMG JUST REALIZED THIS IS A REAPING." With a young adult novel obsessive in my household, I know the series well, both books and films. The Hunger Games series is a critique of the 21st Century mediacracy's totalitarian tendencies. Its heroine Katniss Everdeen is not overwhelmed by media, but by being observed and by trying to read the signals thrown at her. She cannot find the truth. In the Hunger Games, the reaping is the annual ritual sacrifice of chosen children forced to participate in the story's central deadly spectacle. It's easy to imagine Kanye identifying with Katniss, a singular hero who is also a victim, who becomes an all powerful symbol while remaining trapped within others' perceptions of her. Yet, Frannie, you are right to observe that Kim Kardashian wore the wig of an overlord from the Capitol — she really did look like Effie Trinket, the stylist who plays both sides of the battle. Who knows if these allusions are deliberate? Many different narratives of totalitarianism are floating around in the popular consciousness right now. I sincerely doubt that Kanye would mind himself with anything but a protest movement. But he does seem to have a hard time resisting the rococo of the upper-class. What about Vanessa Beecroft, though how much of these ideas are hers??
I BE SAYING WHAT I FEEL AT THE WRONG TIME
[OR, QUESTIONS OF PROPRIETY]
Chanelle Adams: Between the sermons on the album and its closing echoes of classic house music on "Fade," I am overwhelmed by nostalgia and a burdensome retroactive loneliness. Suddenly I hear Barbara Tucker, Louie Vega, Ron Carole, Fingers Inc, and it's Saturday morning and my mom has her blue kerchief tied tightly to her head which means it's time for us to do chores.
The comfort I have with TLOP, I think, is afforded by my experience with the uplifting power of house and gospel music. But it is that very same comfort that gives room for Kanye's lyrics to aggressively provoke an uneasy self-aware response within me. One that reminds me of my own journey with depression in the context of being black, raised by a single mother and lonely in the USA.
Lawrence Burney: In an interview with The Breakfast Club in 2013, Ye spoke on his decision to choose "On Sight" over "Blood On The Leaves" as the intro for Yeezus, stating that while the latter was more sonically digestible, the former was a proper way to set the album's tone and express the frustration he was feeling throughout. I think he was successful with that. That set up makes analyzing the role of "Ultralight Beam" in TLOP even more crucial. Like many times before throughout his catalog, Kanye is searching for redemption here but the level of desperation never felt so strong. On the hook, he's holding onto his faith, searching for a safe place and hoping to end his "holy war." He's asking for peace and praying for Paris, interestingly leaving out Flint and Nigeria.
Seeing TLOP through the intro's lens makes Kanye seem way more relatable than the nutcase he's been made out to be. On the surface, it'd seem like he finally has everything he's ever wanted: the kids and family he complained about not having on 808 & Heartbreak's "Welcome To Heartbreak" and a continuing legacy as one of the most influential artists of modern time. It's not enough, though, because, when is it ever, really? Throughout the album, Kanye goes back and forth between wanting a no rules-lifestyle (potentially having sex with Taylor Swift, sparking an orgy, immaturely calling his girl a b**** and dwelling on one of her dudes from the past) and hanging it all up, getting right with God and taking care of his family. Even at 25 with a 5-year-old, I've had similar mental struggles of what is a "proper" way to live, since my child is watching and learning from my example. That conflicts with society's assessment of the emptying hour glass that is my youth. Should I wild the f*** out while I can or do I slow down and sacrifice that to keep me from being a reckless parent? Kanye's going through a crisis but this one feels eerily normal. He's damn near 40, has a wife and two young kids all while still trying to uphold his passion and life goals. This is our first time with this new dad Kanye.
Kiana Fitzgerald: On TLOP, it seems as though Ye is more self-aware than we give him credit for (see: "I Love Kanye"); at the same time, he almost ruins some of the best tracks by saying some truly out-of-touch s*** (see: his opening bars for "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1" — now roll your eyes with me). He's beyond capable of finding the extremes, but it's hard to tell if middle ground is within his reach. Meanwhile, that's where the rest of us usually dwell.
When we initially had thoughts in the thread post-album, many of us were either ready to call it quits, or too emotionally drained to really make a conscious effort to talk things out. I think the way we think about Kanye's mental health is inextricably tied to the way we view our own sanity. I can confidently say that my reaction to TLOP was exhausting and incredibly personal: tears and pride for Ye's admissions that were surprisingly reflective of my experiences; and annoyance and anger at the moments where he had the chance to push himself and the conversation around him, further, but didn't. We've (finally) reached the point where the Kendricks and Beyoncés are ready to use their platforms on a global stage, to make statements that matter. But then, we look over at Yeezy and see a few raised fists at a fashion show inspired by a horrendous Rwandan refugee camp and that's supposed to be enough? We see you, but no more half-steppin', Yeezy. Please.
Ann Powers: I'd say it's incomplete. Interesting to think about it in terms of Lindsay Zoladz's assertion in her review of Rihanna's Anti that such "lighter, more exploratory" works signify "the death of the Big Album as a pop star's primary means of artistic expression." I see more unity in Anti than she did, and next to TLOP it sounds like Sgt. Pepper. But maybe what Kanye is trying to do is go beyond the album's frame and create a multi-platform, ongoing cultural event. If that is his goal, I agree, he's failing — he has lost control of the reins. But it's interesting to think that that might have been the goal.
Lawrence Burney: I guess it's a shock to think he actually made a mess of an album. People said that about Yeezus, but that "mess" was organized. This isn't and it is kinda hard to accept because he's been that dude for this generation: our only reliable musical titan, in spite of all the extra noise.
Jason King: Like Beyoncé and In Rainbows and Black Messiah, TLOP is really an event album, the immersive event/spectacle as incoherent storytelling. The difference here is that the way the album stumbled out of the gate was either accidentally messy or deliberately messy, and that its marketing was either improvised lunacy or strategic lunacy, and possibly both. As time goes on it will be easier to separate the incoherence that is the album's event status from the music itself. Perhaps Kanye's real brilliance, after hucksters like PT Barnum and Screamin' Jay Hawkins, is to forever tie his own self-mythologizing and shameless self-promotion to his art.
I generally find it hard listen to music intently or in solitude anymore, in part due to my sometimes brutal work schedule, but also because I mostly listen in transit or on my computer or on my smartphone where I choose to be barraged with non-stop notifications, interruptions and distractions. When I finally got a copy of TLOP (after morally struggling with the idea of signing up for Tidal just to hear it), I found it immensely difficult to process the music outside of all the pre-release chatter (the changing album titles, the twitter fights with Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose, and so on) and the onslaught of post-release thinkpieces, which shot out of a canon so quickly one wonders how much serious time some people were able to spend with the music itself before making declarations about it.
The chatter around TLOP, and Beyoncé's "Formation" as well, has left me a bit dismayed at the relative shallowness of critical conversations about popular culture in the age of instantly consumable and ephemeral snapchats. I want to read more work that's sharply critical of the way contemporary identity politics — including messages of black power and ruminations about existence like the kind we hear on TLOP — have become complicit with branding, celebrity worship and hypercommercialism. I want to know how we square up Kanye's musings about Lexapro and his tweeted support for Cosby with his shilling for Adidas and insistence on having his family floss about in Balmain outfits? I want to read more work that is suspect and skeptical of social media opportunists of all stripes and sizes. I want to learn how to listen to music through all the chatter and noise, or is it that I'm supposed to be learning to listen for rhythm in the chatter and the noise itself? I need someone to explain to me the senseless "Damn, Daniel" phenomenon in a way that makes sense. I need to know why Rudy Guiliani was given free reign to insert himself into the Beyoncé show. I need to know whether I'm contributing to the problem if I tune in to watch the exclusionary Oscars on Sunday night. I need to know who greenlit Zoolander 2 with less than five jokes in the script. I need to know if it's a problem that people are watching the ultra-campy American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson as if it was a documentary. I need to know if TLOP is actually a There's a Riot Goin' On for the new millennium, or if it we were always willing it to be There's a Riot Goin' On, and if there's even a useful difference anymore. I need to know how to not contribute more noise to an already noisy conversation, when even just saying that adds to the noise.
Cedric Shine: What I am interested in is why now? Why now all the discussion about Kanye needing help, Kanye being on the verge of a breakdown? Is it because of the insider information from Rhymefest?
I listened to the "SNL Meltdown" and that was not a meltdown, far from it. Kanye's been cuckoo for cooca puffs (name one genius who ain't crazy). When he was drinking Hennessy and flipping the bird to the audience post the Taylor Swift moment, when he was fighting paparazzi types or spazzing on Sway. He went on multiple streams of consciousness (rants) in every city on his last tour. Some tame, some buck wild. So I'm just wondering why the heightened concern now — I'm seeing this meltdown talk in headlines everywhere and I'm just wondering is it because the album rollout was chaotic, or because of his twitter outbursts — is it because twitter feels like the written word — because he's said way wilder s*** over the years with an alarming consistency so I'm just trying to understand the focus on the now. Are some people getting off on the idea of Kanye completely losing his ish so it's being promoted, sort of?
And there's also some shame going on about "Kanye needs help." People say yada yada pray for him but it's also part "That m*********** is crazy, I'm done with him." It's making me wonder about the negative stigma of mental health and one seeking help. Kanye admittedly has seen some dark hours, contemplating his own suicide — that was a meltdown and he was more "quiet" then. Maybe these outburst are good for him, because he's getting it out. I'm not sure.
Chanelle Adams: I am worried that backing away from TLOP mirrors our responses to depression or disaster in US culture. I want to talk about how as a culture we do not know how to sustainably deal with a certain level of sadness or intensity. While some of us may respond to a friend's needs for a week or so, we usually don't sustain attention or care on individuals who are asking for help or care. We call it "overshare" or get annoyed that they dare ask so much of us. We were all here here for this for the highly awaited album drop. We were caught up in the gymnastics of the album's roll-out. And it's dramatically different from how we are (not) responding or opting out of engaging right now. This is all to say, has Kanye shared too much with us to be comfortable with?
Frannie Kelley: Right, so maybe what we're saying is this album is unsuccessful. Maybe we're shying away from saying that. If people can't find a way to talk about the music, it's not working. No matter how much we might like the sound and feeling of some of it, and respect the work, as an album, it fails.
Chanelle Adams: I wonder what this might have to do with how non-black people like to consume their art and artists. In other words, what makes this version of Kanye cause indigestion? I went back and listened to Kanye's first album to see what about TLOP would cause newfound concern in folks where it wasn't before. And lord. Listen. to. the. lyrics. Back then Ye was younger and perhaps more optimistic. But more or less he's saying the same s*** y'all, just less collabs, less money, less heartbreak. So then the question is, how does the delivery (production, release, hype, social media) of TLOP's message differ from that of previous Kanye albums? And what are the consequences/impact of that on various audiences?
kris ex: I'm starting to see this concern split along lines of race. And I'm thinking about the studies: The one from a few months back that said that white medical professionals don't register black pain to the point were they don't subscribe painkillers when needed and forgo emergency room recommendations; the ones that say whites as a whole don't react to the pain of black people, that white people see us as "magical" and "superhuman" (word to Darren Wilson); the ones that state that white officers see black children as adults (RIP Tamir & Trayvon). So, yeah, I see a lot of us saying "Something is wrong with our cousin." And I don't know if race has anything to do with this, but it also has everything to do with this. Just like it has everything to do with why he's acting out. This is not Kurt or Sid or Britney, or even DMX. This is Lauryn. This is Dave. This is Richard. This is family. And, for some of us, we don't NOT talk about it.
Ann Powers: I think it makes sense to discuss mental health as he frames it in the music. What I'm most uncomfortable with is people speculating about his actual mental state. Maybe what I'm looking for is analysis that acknowledges that part of what Kanye is doing is creating a character who struggles with mental health — the same way that many characters have throughout literature and music and performance, from Ralph Ellison's invisible man to Amiri Baraka's Dutchman to Richard Pryor in his comedy. And in music, from Ozzy Osbourne to Johnny Rotten to Marilyn Manson. Actually someone I was talking to compared Kanye to Andy Kaufman the other day — I thought that was interesting.
I am not saying that Kanye as a person isn't connected to the character he's creating. Of course he is. And I hope I don't seem to be without compassion. I know for deeply invested fans, an artist who seems out-of-control is particularly painful to observe. There's a feeling of helplessness that can be overwhelming. But focusing primarily on Kanye's personal life, so that it obscures whatever work he is doing, can lead to down the road to gossip. I feel like this happens all the time on social media — gossip triumphs. As for whether Kanye's work and personal life can be separated — he does love conceptual art, which has always blurred those lines. Is it possible that the excesses and weird moves are actually performance, however misguided?
kris ex: This is what society has driven us to: this false idea that we can have it all, even as the advances that are supposed to bring us greater freedom are actually burdening us with ever-increasing responsibility. More ways to communicate mean more things to reply to; more opportunities means a swell of things coming at us — we've created a glorious tangle of in-roads to ourselves, not a plethora of escape routes. The access points come in, not out. And in this mess, Kanye somehow thought that he — control freak and master stickler that he is — could mastermind a major MSG production that has never been done before, prepare for SNL and oversee the finalization of his album, all at the same damn time. It feels audacious and inspirational, but it also feels as if he's refusing to accept realities and limitations. In a sense, Pablo bless him, he's what we need to guide us out of this madness with this ultra light beam, like when Gandalf returned from the east, at dawn, on the first light of the fifth day, in The Two Towers. But that story needs to be balanced with the one that says, well, maybe he's out of touch in a very fundamental way that's not about creation, but steeped in denial. (Also, Gandalf had to die before he could do all that.)
We can get into the whole "impossible is nothing" mentality which once served as an Adidas tag line, but let's not. Let's talk hard science and not transcend the laws of physics as we know them. Man can only do but so much. But this man seems to create a vortex of fawnship that keeps people from saying what is what. Yes, the rollout is a mess. And, yes, his energy — manic and wide-eyed and sulking and ranting and (when he gets his way and is being adored) all smiles — somehow makes the chaos work and even seem beyond planned out; he makes it seem ordained by stone-chiseled destinies and virgin fates because of his ability to make the universe conspire to help him. But there's not enough of his use of The Secret and cosmic habit force and burning desire, being brought up in the context of speaking about him. We can talk about Napoleon Hill and worship his ability to think and grow rich — but are we leaving out his strained relationships, his numerous failures and the truth that he pretty much went bats*** crazy at one point? Even if Kanye West is a god, he is still flesh, and Jesus wept.
I'd have more to say, but I'm pretty sure that everything after the mention of (Susan) Sontag went well over my head. I am not ashamed to admit that.
Frannie Kelley: My fear is that we use our own sensitivity to pain to shy away from what he communicates about the systems of control and profit that confine all our hearts and imaginations — especially their seduction and familiarity. Worrying about Kanye avoids the critical conversations Jason was wishing for earlier. Remember how they called Dave Chappelle crazy? And he was just f****** right? Then there's my recurring thought this month: What do you want? What exactly could Kanye do that would make everybody feel better?
Jason King: If you believe all black lives matter, you owe it to yourself to be concerned about Kanye's celebrity black life too: the concern that Kanye might be releasing TLOP in the midst of a Sly Stone-esque psychological breakdown isn't misplaced. We know the potential tragedy that lurks at the door of many of our most prized black male creative visionaries, and I join all of you in resisting any desire to participate in that narrative as I watch it unfold in real-time.
And while Kanye still deserves props for those classic improvised moments where he spoke truth to power (standing next to Mike Myers on the Katrina telethon or confronting hip-hop homophobia on MTV), and his great contribution was to expand possibilities for introspective confessionalism in mainstream hip-hop, his penchant for gleeful, egotistical disrespect also reduced the ethical parameters of that confessionalism. Given the urgency of today's #blacklivesmatter protests, Kanye's relative silence on politics (sure, there's an isolated line about the cops on TLOP's "Feedback") while cavorting the globe with the materialist Kardashian clan and fixating on his Adidas sales exposes him, as never before, as especially hollow.
But TLOP is challenging because it's procedurally hard to parse out the record (and what the record might say about Kanye's mental state) beyond its unconventional (dare I say disastrous) marketing moment. Kanye's typically manipulative social media blitz plus his highly publicized perfectionism (fixing tracks on an already released album, for instance) might be the stuff of innovative genius, but it mostly seems like a defensive way to quarantine his art from the criticism that he felt was coming a mile away. Our justifiable concern for Kanye, in tandem with the way some people stan him simply because he stans himself, means that some of the currently unblinking praise for TLOP could be a lot more more about the Kanye Personality Cult, as a colleague of mine puts it, rather than what actually happens to be on wax.
Chanelle Adams: I keep going back to 25:06 of the MSG show. There's a profound, unsettling shift in the energy in that moment just before "Feedback" starts. I'm not sure if it's the tired movements among the models or seeing a bored-looking Young Thug, but all of the sudden the entire happening becomes incredibly self-aware. Don't move too fast, don't look too cool, don't look at anyone, don't be the same as the person next to you. The only man on stage wearing a red that matches Kanye adjusts his shoulders, and repostures himself. Those around him awkwardly shift positions. Something about being black, mental and in the public eye fuels Ye's immortality. He keeps devouring the poisonous apples of creative chaos and the temptation of self-sabotage. When he does reach moments of self-control and reflection, Ye looks around and is alone in his Garden of Eden. It's 3 am, he's burned too many bridges, and nobody will pick up his phone calls. This is when loneliness becomes rampage, "I need you right now. I need you right now. I need you right now. I need you right now," and it reminds you of when he needed you at the end of "Stronger" too.
Ann Powers: I like the idea that music writers like Jack Hamilton and Jon Caramanica have put forward, that TLOP isn't an album at all, but a "data stream": an ongoing work, site-specific to the Internet, in many ways ABOUT the Internet, in which we, the audience, participate and have a stake. Kanye has been collaborating with Vanessa Beecroft for a while, and it's also worth thinking about his friend Jay Z's fascination with Marina Abramovic. Both of these performance artists create audience discomfort by lingering, or having bodies linger, "too long" within spectators' view. With "The Artist is Present" (the basis for Jay's "Picasso Baby" video, as we all know) Abramovic particularly forces the crowd-plucked participant to experience herself experiencing the artist, and to feel the bilious wash of feelings that come when a hitherto private moment is exposed as public. The unspooling of TLOP does the same to each of us, as we respond, retract our responses, feel worried, calm down, relate, become repulsed, and wonder if this will ever end. Kanye's ridiculous/disturbing Twitter tirades place yet another series of frames around the listening experience — frames that chafe. The man has been involved in the art world longer that he's been in fashion, I think it's fair to consider whether its languages and legacies inform what he's doing — perhaps not as centrally as hip-hop does, but through conscious steering.
Conversely, I also think it's okay to consider TLOP a minor work. One serious problem with Internet hype is that it tends to flatten everything at the top of the peak. /---------------\. The shock of something appearing suddenly online triggers' respondents' adrenaline, and the aftershocks of response inject the experience with more dopamine, and no one can stop, we are hyperventilating, snorting lines of information laid out on the cool mirror of cyberspace. TLOP's rollout may be disastrous for the album as both cogent artwork and commercial product, but it's turned it into a synapse-firer far more potent than it may have been had it just appeared fully formed for listeners to approach in their own due time. My own experience of listening to the album, grabbed in moments when I'm cooking or driving or walking through my neighborhood, remains fragmentary and indeterminate — this album isn't a shattering mirror the way My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was, nor a shower of sharp objects like Yeezus. It's a drift, representing the memories, sensations and ideas of a mind trying to focus on its breath but always getting caught up in a new thread. It's adrift, like our collective attention; its center belongs to no one, definitely not Kanye, who seems relieved by the ability to play the directing observer in a creative process devoted to tangents and interjections.
Chanelle Adams: Hands down if he hadn't spit that line about Taylor Swift, mainstream media wouldn't be as vocal about their concerns. The same story still sells headlines: Crazed Black Man Harms Innocent White Girl. Maybe it's the toxic result of mixing Ye's personality with the Kardashian philosophy that theres-no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity because for black people, there is such a thing as bad publicity. At the risk of sounding like Chris Crocker circa 2007, I think it might be powerful for us to tell people to leave Kanye alone.
I LOVE YOU LIKE KANYE LOVE KANYE
[OR, QUESTIONS ON BACKGROUND]
Kiana Fitzgerald: I think we might be reacting to this album (etc.) in very unique ways. I grew up without a father, had financial struggles, my mom died when I was fairly grown, I'm a struggling Christian, I have my fair share of emotional maturity to get through. Like, I relate to Ye in many more ways than I would initially think. And I believe that makes me more sensitive to some of the tracks and how he emotes through them — particularly, "Ultralight Beam" and "Low Lights." (I'm not ashamed to say I cried the first, second and third times I heard both of those songs.) At a time when I'm almost exclusively letting music and faith guide me, moments in TLOP brought me closer to a place of self-understanding. I think that's why I personally don't wanna be too quick to brand or judge Ye, because I know all too well what it's like to be a complex, flawed individual that's only seen and understood at a surface level. There's probably more happening with him than we're aware of, and I just think we should be mindful of that. Dassit.
Ann Powers: I keep thinking about the climactic scene in James Baldwin's great gospel novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, when the main character, John Grimes, experiences an overwhelming yet ambiguous conversion. Though he experiences the love of God intertwined with the darkness of existential uncertainty, in the end, Grimes can only concluded "that the heart is a fearful place." He preaches anyway. As a lover of gospel music who is not a practicing Christian, I hear TLOP's gospel elements as playing a part in a depiction of this ongoing internal battle between the need to believe, the certainty that doing so is a solution, and the creeping, equally strong need to fall, to acknowledge ugliness, to question the worth of God's creation, of oneself as God's creation. That ambiguity exists in all great spiritual works. I'm not saying TLOP is up there with the best of Baldwin, or James T. Cone, or St. John of the Cross. But Kanye's trying to speak within that cloud of unknowing.
For me Kanye's music has been a central part of my listening since I became entranced with "Jesus Walks," listening on headphones while wandering my then-Seattle neighborhood, in 2004. I'm not deeply entrenched in hip-hop and the conversations around it and freely admit to being an outsider to many aspects of this conversation. I do, however, love gospel music and have made a study of it, hearing in it not just the echo of my own childhood of Catholic faith and questioning, but the template for nearly all of what followed in American popular music. I've also long been fascinated by pop's nasty folk, the "transgressors" who push past the limits of good taste and political correctness: I believe they serve to uncover part of ourselves — of me — that otherwise remain neatly repressed. So, as a listener at last, I often ride with the assholes. That can be hard to deal with when you're a feminist. But contradiction is my thing.
Chanelle Adams: I wasn't ready for this kind of rawness of emotion. I'll just say TLOP inspired some necessary checking in with all sides of myself, contradictions and all.
Lawrence Burney: Religion has always perplexed me. I remember being a young kid in church where my family had attended for over four generations — being bored out of my mind, playing with my cousins or scaring the s*** out of myself by flipping straight to The Book of Revelation. Christianity is multilayered for post-colonial Africans across the globe. On one hand, it's provided comfort, refuge and hope for better for our communities. On the other, it goes against our foundation and core of spirituality, crippling us in times where we should be revolting against a system made to destroy us, instilling a fear that if we don't follow it, we'll be damned to destruction.
I see Kanye feeling that conflict on TLOP. A new father and husband who is approaching 40, it feels like he's getting a new whiff of mortality and turning to God may be his only chance to get back on track. I've felt this pressure before. My 5-year-old daughter was born just after I had turned 20. It was the most vulnerable time in my life. Religion had long been fuzzy for me by then but a desire and pressure to re-embrace it started to surface. I was in a crisis; entering a new chapter in my life and whatever comfort I could find — even a weighted, contradictory, anti-African system of faith — was what I felt myself wanting. It didn't last for me, though. TLOP feels like a Kanye we haven't experienced yet. A vulnerable one who's been even more honest than I thought was possible and honesty isn't always a smooth ride, which TLOP proves.
kris ex: Kanye said that coming clean about his debt was his greatest shame; that he's unburdened, that he's free now. If that's true, I envy him. I envy the idea that my greatest failings would be something black, white and in the red on a ledger. I can't even imagine that kind of life — my reality is much more complex and full of deep regrets and things I'll never share, not even under penalty of torture, death and excommunication.
Maybe it's his realignment with his faith that's allowing this. There's a zealotry about him these days — numinous and fearsome and galvanizing. He's saying he's free, but he's talking more like he's been saved — lamb's blood and wool and temptations of the Pablo. It's an enviable fantasy. It's a fantasy because he's still so very carnal, still rapping about Lexapro, still very much concerned with the acceptance of others, even as he says he's not.
The last time these thoughts of ours were published I said something about the way his work and his transparency pull us deeper into ourselves. He's still doing that for us. At least those of us who are brave enough to make that Hero's Journey within ourselves. Could I admit my longings, my fears and my anger as easily as he does? Now cipher.
Nor could I put my family and my relationships on a world stage for scrutiny in a clickbait world that rushes to judgements over headlines. I don't know if it's healthy, or brave, or self-destructive, or the height of self- or unawareness. I just know that I couldn't do it. And I know it's a level of vulnerability most of us can only aspire to.
Frannie Kelley: Shout to all the girls who've fielded a "What if we f****** right now?" since Feb. 11. I'm at three. If you lobbed one yourself, respect. There's so many Kanyes.