Exegeezus: In Defense of “Yeezus”
Every visionary is, by definition, part prophet. “Everybody feel a way about K, but at least they feel something,” was Kanye’s Delphic moment, a quotation that accurately assessed a mercurial career arc that at the time was still in its infancy. The particular quotation in question was found on “Bring Me Down,” a relatively low-key song on his second album, “Late Registration”. The line was so prophetic because it was written eight years ago. Remember, “Late Registration” came out when most folks only knew Kanye from “Jesus Walks,” which was (at the time) considered mildly controversial. “Late Registration” was released a few days before Kanye made his feelings about George W. Bush public. In light of what’s happened in the almost decade since, the quotation feels like more of a setup of future ambitions and responses than a reflection of what had already happened.
Fast forward to last night. As I sat damn near in the rafters ($80 doesn’t go that far at big concerts in DC) and looked down on the Yeezus concert, the wide-angle view on the show emerged, both literally and figuratively. I’ve been wanting to write about Kanye’s place in hip-hop, blackness, and black masculinity for a while as a sort of companion to something I wrote on Jay-Z, but decided to wait until the concert to consolidate my thoughts. After attending a half-dozen Kanye concerts, it seems that seeing his show is the best way to actually try to see what’s going on in his head. Turns out my $80 investment provided me some valuable insight, as well as a blast of a time. Still would have preferred to actually be below the stratosphere, but I ain’t complaining.
**Caution-Concert and set list spoilers ahead. If you want to be surprised by the show, you probably shouldn’t read this part. Skip down to the end**
“Yeezus”-the album-is a sometimes-muddled work that deals with inner divinity, hubris and insecurity in turns. From the imagery of the Sword of Damocles present in the video for “POWER”, it seems that Kanye is a man with an at least cursory knowledge of mythology. Both the Yeezus album and concert are both steeped in the mythology of Icarus and Daedalus, an archetypical story of attempting to possess the power of the gods and being struck down for hubris. In one of the more controversial songs from Yeezus, “I Am a God”, Kanye seems to be repeating a mantra full of egoism and arrogance. He is a god. He’s more popular than Jesus (word to John Lennon). The song and the associated suite of songs on the album seem like almost unbearably narcissistic songs from a guy clearly gone off the edge. The Marilyn Manson riffs, distortion and screams throughout the first third probably didn’t help folks still tethered to the soul-sample era, either. But when you actually listen to the song, you’ll find the duality between arrogance and deep insecurity that Kanye has always represented. The repetition goes “I AM a God”, with a stress on the verb that seems to be intended more as self-convincing than declaratory styling. The song is really about Kanye doing his best to convince himself that he belongs atop Mount Olympus rather than trying to rub it in mortals’ faces.
Yeezus-the concert-deals with the link between hubris and insecurity as well. Kanye has always played the Icarus part well, alongside the fellow self-styled god Jay-Z playing the more grounded Daedalus, and has been driven by his desire to continue to rise higher and higher above expectations, even over the man who gave him his wings. The concert was structured so that he came out full of bluster to the first suite of “Yeezus” and more recent songs. All energy. All bravado. All machismo. Masked Kanye was in all his glory, surrounded by women sycophants that catered to him. He ended this portion with a slightly reworked version of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”, which fits in perfectly. It was at that moment that I realized that this version of Kanye, the insecure asshole with a penchant for ridiculous boasts, was always there. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” was just as ridiculous as “I Am a God” when you listen to the lyrics. The first third of “Yeezus” was more a distillation of previous work than a dramatic turn away from them, as some folks suggest.
And then Kanye flew too close to the sun. Abruptly after “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”, Kanye goes into the de facto tribute song to his mother, “Coldest Winter”. The ledge upon which he was perched rose into the air and snow began to fall on stage. The symbolism was apt, as Kanye’s blue period album, “808s and Heartbreaks”, was done chronologically after he found out his mother passed after the “Graduation” album and represents what he believes was winter in his life. He acknowledges that this moment changed him–likely for the worse–and upon listening to his discography, one does notice an immediate turn towards misogyny, alcohol and drugs post-808s. The concert acknowledged it as well, with a turn towards darker, more recent songs like the second suite of “Yeezus” (“I’m In It”, “Guilt Trip”, “Hold My Liquor” and “Blood on the Leaves”), and older songs like “Lost in the World”. During this part of the concert, the stage transformed as well, with the ledges turning into a stunning pyrotechnic and light volcano, the heat of which burned even in my rafter seats. The symbolism was clear; not only did Kanye fly too close to the sun and fall–he ended up in hell.
But luckily Kanye believes in redemption. The next transitory piece was his staple apology song “Runaway”, which was accompanied by a change in mask, set and lighting. He was presented as a god, but this was him finding his true self and acknowledging his awfulness through the trials of hell. It was accompanied by a pretty typical Kanye rant, one where he in one moment refers to himself in the third person but in the next says without irony that he is not arrogant. You could see he at least believes in what he is doing and saying, and it’s hard to argue against some of the points he makes for being creative and speaking out even when people are trying to silence you. It’s classic Kanye, and sometimes you have to take the bitterness with the medicine.
The last segment of the concert was about this redemption, and fittingly, it perfectly blended stage elements and songs from his first three albums (the “Old Kanye” albums). “Jesus Walks” was at the center of this piece, with him finding redemption via Jesus (seriously, a guy played Jesus on stage), and being unmasked to find out that Old Kanye was underneath all along. Just a regular guy. The symbolism was huge, and it was noteworthy that the last songs from “Jesus Walks” on represented a sampling of all of his works minus 808s. He performed “Flashing Lights” and “All of the Lights” as a single movement complete with an eye-popping light show. His fascination with light is obvious, but here he connected it with a sort of divinity. Not the hollow, boastful and arrogant humanism represented in the songs everyone gets worked up over, but just in being a guy with a ton of talent trying to make it work and acknowledging his flaws. The concert ended with “Good Life” and “Bound 2” back-to-back, which I think was intended to show that he’s finally finding himself in a happy place.
**Spoilers end here**
I try not to be a Kanye apologist, but I’ve always kind of felt like I understood what he was trying to say, even if he said it wrong. I grew up on “College Dropout”. I still listen to “Spaceship” when work gets depressing. As I grew and spent time alternating between embracing and then rejecting some of the misogyny I picked up, there was always some Kanye song I could listen to and feel, whether it be “Hey Mama” or “Drunk and Hot Girls”. Whenever there were breakups, I could listen to “Say You Will” and resonate. Whenever someone mistakes me with another coworker or a superior deletes my name from a report and claims it as their own, I can repeat “I AM a God” to myself as a mantra to assuage my bruised ego. When I screw up, there’s always “Runaway”, and when I blow up I’ll be playing “N*ggas in Paris” for at least a day straight. Yeezus, the concert, and “Yeezus”, the album, showed why Kanye, in spite of what bizarre things he’ll say or wear or how many times he’ll shove a Red Yeezy right in his mouth, has become such an important and relatable figure in music and hip-hop.
There is no old Kanye. There is no new Kanye. He has changed, but there aren’t multiple Kanyes and the show proved as much. “Jesus Walks” is “I Am a God”. “Through the Wire” is “Coldest Winter”. The sound is different, but it’s just as much a reflection of the soundscape of music changing as it is of any changes within the artist. And on a broader level, in light of all of his comments on Kimmel and about the Obamas, it all fits too. Kanye is the voice in your head giving you braggadocio and confidence going into a meeting. Kanye is the guy telling you to remember all the poor folks getting trampled and forgotten about. Kanye is also the guy threatening Obama and selling shoes that cost over $200. Just like his music, he’s been equalized in a specific way, maybe so that his highs and lows are higher and lower than anyone else’s, but in the end he’s just a person. A little crazy. A little sane. Growing up. Being immature. Sometimes genius, sometimes almost transcendently stupid. Definitely human, but with the spark of the divine that craves transcendence. At least that’s the way I see it.