Surely the Second Coming of "Yeezus" is At Hand 

By Cassandra Dawn on December 3, 2018

November has come and gone, and Yandhi left with it. Despite enthusiastic words from Kim Kardashian, it was no surprise that Kanye West’s supposed ninth studio album did not appear on streaming services this Black Friday, a fact his legions had earlier been forced to come to terms with after Mr. West took to Twitter to go back on his wife’s promise.

All signs point to Yandhi being a spiritual sequel of sorts to Kanye’s 2013 output, Yeezus (the similar title and cover art are the biggest clues), but taking into account how much Kanye’s career trajectory has changed in the half decade since the release of Yeezus, this act of continuation all seems a farce.

If there’s one thing Kanye has done well, it’s constantly evolving and pushing boundaries as an artist while still keeping everything precisely Kanye. Prior to this year’s ye, each of his albums ushered in a distinct era for the man: in his music, his fashion, his character. The best part of this was that Kanye always seemed to know when to pivot, when rockstar Kanye or soulful Kanye had overstayed their welcome, and to break down, rebuild and rebrand.

I would argue that no Kanye album ever needs a sequel. (Yes, I know The College DropoutLate Registration and Graduation form a trilogy of sorts, but while thematically and slightly musically similar, they all have their own defining sound and Kanye himself was a much different person in 2004 than he was in 2007). And therein lies the core frustration with Yandhi. Any attempt to recreate the minimalist panache of Yeezus will result in failure. Yeezus is the culmination of every Kanye West we’ve ever known and every album he has ever offered, combined and distilled to the barest form. It is Kanye at his most complete.

Setting the contemporary politics of Kanye aside for the slightest moment, what little he has revealed about Yandhi spells unfulfillment. Starting with the two aforementioned chains which bind it to Yeezus, the name and the cover, one can infer the only reason for the similarity was to drive hype, in the same way that the first release date we got (“9 29 18”) turned out to be a ploy to get the Kanye faithful to tune into a “Saturday Night Live” season premiere the same day, trading high attention and ratings for a surreal performance of “I Love It” with Lil Pump. But, in order to dive into Yandhi, one first has to understand Yeezus and what it represents, and what happened to Kanye in the meantime.

Yeezus’s cover, or lack thereof, is the perfect primer to the musical equivalent of a dental drill which lies within. As noted in a phenomenal Daily article regarding the album’s relationship with architecture and an interview Kanye did with The New York TimesYeezus was in part recorded in an acoustically terrible Paris apartment, forcing the songs “to be super simple, because if you turned up some complicated sound and a track with too much bass, it’s not going to work in that space.” The cover is perhaps the simplest it can be, and speaking about the sparse promotion of the album Kanye echoes the same sentiment: “Shit, we ain’t even got no cover. We just made some real music.

Regardless of the critical art theory lens through which the cover can be viewed, it’s clear that sound is Yeezus’s main, and perhaps only, focus. Which is almost ironic considering it came during the peak of Kanye’s arrogance: The days of VMA-interrupting Kanye, whom Barack Obama even freely called a jackass, had somehow been eclipsed, replaced with a man who appeared to have seen it all, teetering between insanity and earnestness as he drilled hours of apocalyptic gospel and sublime self-affirmation to unready radio hosts. So, when you hear this variant of Kanye is releasing an album comparing himself to a savior revered by billions of people right from the title, you can’t help but roll your eyes, all while buckling up for the absolute.

And Yeezus immediately thrusts you into a car crash, as “On Sight” is every part abrasive and boundary-pushing while still retaining a certain charm, everything a Kanye song should be. The industrial soundscape of this introduction is interrupted halfway by something that defined early Kanye (what is “soul,” Alex?) when the synthesizers give way to a choir chanting “He’ll give us what we need / it may not be what we want.” This austere contrast of “On Sight” is a microcosm of Yeezus in its entirety: the intersection between harsh noise and soothing melodies, Kanye honing his craft of dredging up the most obscure yet pertinent samples and music as the starkest representation of the self.

There is no defining sound of Yeezus other than abstract sound itself. The sirens and distortion of “Send It Up” make it a more approachable “On Sight;” “Black Skinhead” would fit right in with Graduation and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s stadium rap anthems, save the zealous manifesto against the establishment and its racism; and “Guilt Trip” and its Kid Cudi croons feel an extension of the love and loss present on 808s & Heartbreak. Each song starts with a single sound, be it the soft press of a piano key or a grisly drone, and then takes that sound and smashes it open, layering the space inside with Kanye’s vocals and stripped-down drum patterns. And while Yeezus definitely pulls from the prior discography, it is as much a synthesis as it is a reconstruction.

The primary instrument of the album is the voice, whether that of Kanye, a collaborating artist or a sample. The artist’s full vocal range is on display, from his booming, grumbling bars on “I Am A God” to the auto-tuned trill found late in “Blood On The Leaves.” It is underpinned by a wealth of other singers and rappers: Chief Keef, Frank Ocean and Bon Iver, to name a few. The prolific samples themselves take on a life of their own, as Kanye and his legendary production team revive everything from Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” to a Hungarian rock power ballad. The kicker? The only official featured artist is God himself. Kanye is at the absolute forefront, asserting himself as the divinely untouchable and smashing open the musical ore to reveal 10 disparate crystals and their translucent mystery.

Yeezus is at the same time everything and nothing, an amalgamation and a destruction. I’ve talked about the progression of Kanye in a way that could make him seem like some “Split”-esque host for multiple personalities, whereas in reality all of these different Kanyes are just manifestations of some facet of his personality blown up to larger-than-life proportions. Work with me here, but consider Kanye West as a cow: Each cut of meat represents the Kanye associated with a specific album. They all vary in flavor and tenderness, but at their core they are all the same, all some sort of beef. Yeezus is the meat grinder into which everything was shoved in an attempt to make the perfect blend, employing each cut’s idiosyncratic taste and cutting out the fat.

But what do you do with the sonic sausage that pops out of the grinder? In The Life of Pablo’s case, you throw it in the trash. Yeezus broke Kanye’s music down and fashioned together something more complete with the resultant shards, but Pablo shattered everything completely. It’s hard to expand on perfect, so Kanye did what any perfectionist would do. He started anew on the quest to reach perfection, again. And with this blank slate, Kanye continued to find ways to innovate, literally going beyond the boundaries of an album. While it’s completely valid to dismiss The Life of Pablo as messy and unfinished (“Ima fix wolves”), the constant updates and abstract, jagged nature of it make sense when you view it as, in Kanye’s words, “a living breathing changing creative expression.”

While the initial reception to The Life of Pablo was mixed for a Kanye album, after people started to spend more time and live in conjunction with music, Kanye’s status as a genius auteur was not challenged. However, and it was hard to see then, chinks in the armor were beginning to expose themselves.

This vulnerability can be primarily found in some of the songs on Pablo. The production is excellent, as always, but for an album themed around the interplay between West’s public and private lives and reconciling with oneself, some of the lyrics are downright terrible. Yeezus has a few incendiary lines here and there (“Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce” and “get this bitch shaking like Parkinson’s” surely stick with the listener) but they came off as an ironic self-awareness of West’s penchant to provoke. Yet on Pablo you get thought-provoking verses like “I bet me and Ray J would be friends / if we ain’t love the same bitch” and, of course, the infamous “Now if I fuck this model / and she just bleached her asshole / and I get bleach on my T-shirt / I’mma feel like an asshole.” On Yeezus, Kanye asserted he’d “rather be a dick than a swallower,” but it resonated because his blunt and brash bravado was the point. He broke meaning down to the nitty-gritty but still conveyed exactly what he was thinking and feeling. He was a little lost with Pablo, and anyone looking for anything profound started to grasp at straws; Kanye being gross and ridiculous was nothing more than Kanye being gross and ridiculous.

When The Life of Pablo was released, the president who called Kanye West a jackass was still in office, and things — Kanye, our country — were OK. Nonetheless, it only took a few months for both of them to backslide. Kanye’s appearances on the Saint Pablo Tour became more a space for him to orate increasingly neurotic rants, culminating in a Nov. 17 performance where he stated “If I would have voted, I would have voted for (Donald) Trump” and one two days later where he held the crowd verbally hostage and launched into a tirade against Hillary Clinton, Facebook and Jay-Z, among other things, after only performing three songs. The rest of the tour was cancelled shortly after, citing stress and exhaustion; ironically, the two feelings most of the country was wrought with after election night.

The ensuing spiral pulled Kanye down further and further. He was hospitalized for sleep deprivation and dehydration following the cancellation of the tour, and his first public resurfacing was in the lobby of Trump Tower, where West and the president-elect discussed “life.” It soon became clear that Kanye was suffering from severe mental health issues, but this led to the most fervent fans defending him and rephrasing his endorsement as something out of his control, a by-product of the toll stress, depression and paranoia exacted on him.

And as Kanye got worse, he made it harder and harder for himself to detach from the controversy. After a year of relative silence, he returned to Twitter in spring of this year, tweeting support of conservative personality Candace Owens. This snowballed into an erratic appearance on TMZ, where he made headlines for saying slavery “sounds like a choice.” The summer gave us more doses of “dragon energy,” and at “SNL”’s season premiere in Sept., he quickly swapped his Perrier bottle cosplay for that red Make America Great Again hat to throw a rambling Pro-Trump speech at an uncomfortable cast and audience, inciting criticism from Kenan Thompson and even Lana Del Rey.

The situation was dire for Kanye stans, with tons jumping ship and even more expressing some form of betrayal. Some still held on that this did not spell the end for Kanye West and he would persevere, acknowledge his faults and grow from them. Then came what they thought was the nail in the coffin, his absolutely surreal conversation with President Trump in the Oval Office, which covered topics like the “iPlane 1” and the superhero armor Kanye felt the MAGA hat bestowed upon him. It seemed the only people left supporting him where the same ones who levelled racist comments against him for his nationally televised remark that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”

Supporting Donald Trump doesn’t automatically make you a bad person. Falling prey to his treacherous rhetoric and being pulled into the inescapable hurricane of which Trump is the eye is when it starts to get ugly, and that’s precisely what Kanye did. Now, if this was a hip-hop artist of similar merit who had openly embraced conservative views for their whole career, this would be a different story, but this is Kanye West we are talking about.

Kanye West, the man who rapped “How we stop the Black Panthers? / Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer / You hear that? What Gil Scott was hearin’ / When our heroes or heroines got hooked on heroin / crack raised the murder rate in D.C. and Maryland / we invested in that, it’s like we got Merrill Lynched / and we been hangin’ from the same tree ever since.” The man who gave a giant middle finger to the one percent on Yeezus, telling people like Trump “Fuck you and your Hampton house.” Kanye’s fans looked up to him not only for his musical prowess but for him using his platform to call out those in power when no one else was holding them accountable and give a voice to the voiceless, however loud-mouthed it may be. And now this man makes a complete 180° to support the man who called African countries “shitholes,” who said there was “very fine people on both sides” after white nationalists attacked and even killed counter-protestors in Charlottesville and who preferred the term “son of a bitch” for Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who chose not to stand for an anthem that romanticizes a country doing little to fight against police brutality, racial injustice and systematic oppression.

Vocally and passionately supporting the president makes everything that Kanye had been saying for decades sound like an empty lie. Kanye West, once Yeezus, to many Lord and Savior, denied us three times, and many more after that.

However, on Oct. 30, supposed salvation arrived on the limbs of 140 characters. Ye, his preferred name on Twitter, proclaimed he had “been used to spread messages (he doesn’t believe in)” and he was trading politics for a refocused creative spirit. Hip-hop hypebeasts and the general public could finally breathe the collective sigh of relief; Kanye’s long national nightmare was over. Except, the Kanye we got back wasn’t the same one who left us.

Pre-2016, I was always one to speak out against Kanye slander, arguing that the man who many saw as just a narcissistic asshole was a complex artist with complex problems, overinflating his ego to try and cope with battles against anxiety and self-image all while pushing the envelope of modern rap and giving us radical genre-bending music. You could make a case for every album of his up to Yeezus as his best. But when push came to shove and the controversies centered less around the person and more their politics, I could no longer let Kanye off the hook. Defending him turned into an uphill battle with an exponential incline, and trying to push a boulder up it would cause unnecessary stress and harm to myself. I let it roll down the hill. I gave up on Kanye West, and you should too.

If there’s one thing, though, at least he finally gave me an album I can assuredly place as his worst. Every valid criticism about The Life of Pablo and more can be applied to ye: unfocused, sloppy, forgettable. The gross lines are multiplied (“Let me hit it raw like fuck the outcome / ay, none of us would be here without cum” is about the deepest thought he can muster and “I pray your body’s draped more like mine and not like your mommy’s” is a mind-boggling thing to say about your newborn daughter), the beats are stagnant and uninspired and there’s a puzzlingly high amount of Ty Dolla $ign and PARTYNEXTDOOR on the record. On songs like “I Thought About Killing You” West maunders about faux-highbrow, superficial philosophy, coming off as, for lack of a better word, a cringe-inducing edgelord and rapping version of the “Rick and Morty” high IQ copypasta.

For years, fans defiantly believed Kanye knew what he was doing, that behind his ever-shifting, inflammatory persona was someone who could see all, do all, pull all the strings. Yet when their favorite artist started to support their least favorite political figure, he was being used. He was in the sunken place. He was now a hostage rather than a creation. In a Noisey article, the writer felt Kanye “made a deal with the devil,” that in return for being able to make Yeezus he had to turn over the keys. Make no mistake though, as every tweet Kanye ever sent, every pro-Trump statement he ever espoused was done willfully. Upholding this narrative of a Kanye possessed can only become more dangerous with time.

Still, this all makes me wonder if Kanye knew what he was doing in the first place. Did we all just vastly misinterpret his outbursts, his publicity stunts and his music as incomprehensible for us mere mortals instead of the lucky doings of a fool? Parroting Patrick Bateman’s rhetoric, there is an idea of a Kanye West, but no real Kanye.

I hope the one thing you take away from this article is to turn a blind eye to Kanye no longer, especially when, or even if, Yandhi is released. Not even considering his politics, the album just seems like a bad idea. With the title of Yeezus, West embraced his god-like status, enveloped himself in it, but Yandhi sounds like the best the people responsible for the titles of the “Fast & Furious” franchise could come up with if given five minutes to think of a title for a sequel to YeezusThe cover artwork feels lazy this time around, only adding color, a more intricate jewel case and a rainbow sheen to follow up an album defined by a lack of color and the dynamics of black and white. Now, I could be wrong, and he could return with the undisputed best album of his career, but even still, in no way would it be an act of redemption. The Kanye West we thought we knew and loved for so long is dead, and this bizarro husk of Kanye West we have in 2018 consciously killed him. Premeditated murder.

Kanye would be hard-pressed to find success on his second quest for perfection. Yeezus was the summation of a lifetime’s work, and the natural response to such a tight, dense work is release. With The Life of Pablo he did exactly that, but after Kanye rode that horse until it could go no more, for once in his life, he had no idea where to go next. ye was a wrong step in the alt-right direction, and trying to rekindle the flame of something as singular as Yeezus with Yandhi spells the end is nigh.

Returning to the gospel sample of “On Sight” five years later — “He’ll give us what we need / it may not be what we want” — more doubt is cast on the belief Kanye gave us what we needed with Yeezus. Now, he certainly isn’t giving us what we need, and, as much I hate to say it, he no longer knows what we want.

 

 

The Detailed Portraiture of Kushner's "Mars Room" 

By Verity Sturm on January 15, 2019

I have a crush on Rachel Kushner — everything about her. I was initially turned on by her debut novel “The Flamethrowers,” a smart and stylish sojourn from the dirty art hoes of 1970s Soho to the political underground of Italy, complete with glamorous touches of DMT churches, performance art and street violence. Swoon.

“The Flamethrowers” is so vivid, so bitingly electric and feminist-without-the-word that I got curious about the woman behind the pen and slipped into a forty minute biographical research bender. Rachel Kushner is a San Francisco native, the certain spawn of beatnik scientists that lands a gig at a feminist bookstore at the ripe age of five, does the Berkeley thing and bools around the SF nightclub scene on her Moto Guzzi before casually saucing over to Columbia for her MFA. In author imagery, she often appears in front of cars, behind Wayfarers and/or clad in leather. She’s got three critically acclaimed blockbuster novels, a Guggenheim, an honorary PhD from Kalamazoo and now a spot on the Man Booker shortlist with her latest book, “The Mars Room.” I repeat: swoon.

“The Mars Room” reads much like “The Flamethrowers” in its grunge-glamor. Our femme fatale, Romy Hall, grew up hard and fast in San Francisco, getting into catfights and PCP on the weekends before working at The Mars Room, a low-fi but high-cred strip club in the gritty Tenderloin district. It’s not a stereotypically secure gig, but Romy enjoys the power she wields at the club and a steady source of income to support herself and her son. She’s smart, pragmatic and tough (“Every stripper I know is clever. Some are practically geniuses.”), but she doesn’t have the ability to prevent or outrun a customer-turned-stalker, and she really doesn’t have the cultural capital or capital-capital to defend herself at court when an encounter with the creep turns violent. But this is all delivered to us through sporadic flashbacks. The novel opens in the thick of consequence: Romy shackled chattel-style to a prison bus, careening nebulously into two consecutive life sentences in the Central Valley.

“The Mars Room” unfolds like this, unsticking and resticking in time between its present (2003 at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility) and Romy’s shrouded past on the streets of SF. Structurally, this can be unpopular territory: Novels that nix the frameworks of time and place run the risk of bleeding out into disorganized and disorienting masses of detail. Kushner, however, is a seasoned rebel. She manipulates the timeline so deftly that these scenes slide into each other with a dreamlike logic. Romy’s GED prep session at Stanville summons an anecdote of teaching her son to count, a memory that morphs into musing on how counting functions “like prison, from a name to a number.” This brings us back to Stanville where the women on death row are sewing sandbags for “five cents an hour, minus fifty-five percent restitution.” 

The narrative is a ride on Romy’s train of thought, a psychological portrait made vivid by its very meandering. Between the hustle for shampoo and tampons, hazy recollections of bad lap dances and dehumanizing treatment from prison guards and public defenders alike, Kushner captures the indefinite restlessness of a mind pinned between past and future, time and place, hope and regret. 

That being said, “The Mars Room” sprawls. Those who value plot will be frustrated with the way this one constantly wavers between absent and forced. Those who enjoy form and detail will revel in Kushner’s obsession with it, a highly visual approach to storytelling singular enough to land her on the Man Booker shortlist. 

 

"I love you. You're slouching."

By Madeleine Gaudin on November 28, 2017

“Lady Bird” is now the highest rated movie on Rotten Tomatoes. Ever. It’s also quite possibly the most wonderful movie. Ever. But universal acclaim hasn’t saved Greta Gerwig’s masterpiece from a serving of hot (and very bad) takes.

Recently, an article popped up on my Twitter: “’Lady Bird’ and Cycles of Abuse,” in which the writer poses an argument that “Lady Bird” is not a careful portrait of the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship, but in fact a story about maternal abuse.

This is, of course, wrong. And I won’t dedicate much more space to the ways in which someone named “Jim” missed the nuances and complexities of the mother-daughter relationship in “Lady Bird” (except to say that he missed them all). But his misstep did get me thinking about everything “Lady Bird” gets right.

Gerwig gets all the details of semi-suburban adolescence correct: the defiant rejection of Catholic school communion, the popular girl’s Range Rover, the sensitive (and closeted) heartthrob’s puka shell necklace. Justin Timberlake plays at a party where the parents are upstairs, but “they don’t care if we drink.”

All those little, carefully chosen details create a world that is both factually and emotionally real. The emotional reality comes from the delicacy and honesty with which Gerwig handles her character’s relationships.

There is no “good” and “bad” in “Lady Bird.” We don’t want Lady Bird to win against (or despite of) her mother or Danny or even Kyle or Jenna. Because none of those characters, though they make life harder for our heroine, are bad. And even Lady Bird can fluctuate between cruelty and compassion, often within the same scene.

Lady Bird and Marion’s relationship is built on this duality. In one scene, Lady Bird can grab a notepad and demand her mother tell her how much it costs to raise her so she can one day pay her back and “never have to see her again,” and in another see Marion pick up that same pad and struggle to write a letter to her daughter as she gets ready to leave for college.

And we can understand that those actions are both attempts at the impossible but inevitable process of separation. Lady Bird will leave Marion, and sometime in the distant but approaching future, Marion will leave Lady Bird. And neither one of them can be ready for either departure.

Before Lady Bird leaves, Marion scrambles to prepare her for the unknowable beast that is the world outside her home. And through that rushed preparation, “You’re dragging your feet” becomes a different way of saying “I love you.”

That moment — which comes up twice during the course of the film — as the two shop for dresses, is one of the most obviously recognizable for any mother or daughter. I went to prom in 2015 as opposed to 2002, so after my mom and I fought in a department store I went home and bought my dress online. That act — choosing a dress without my mom — is in the same family as Lady Bird choosing to go to Danny’s Thanksgiving or hiding her college process from her mother. It’s a conscious act of exclusion that serves as preparation for a time in the near future when that type of inclusion won’t always be an option.

Lady Bird and her mother spend the movie creating space between each other. They push each other away, but they rarely — save Lady Bird’s dramatic exit in the first scene — try to escape each other. They fight, but stay in the same room after.

That’s why Marion’s silence isn’t abusive and her criticism isn’t cruel. It must be a complicated brand of love to prepare your child to leave you. Marion wants Lady Bird to be the best version of herself she can be so she tells her to stand up straight and hang up her uniform and apply to in-state colleges.

What it takes for Marion’s wish to be fulfilled is for Lady Bird to fly the nest.

I talk about my mother now in a way my 18 or even 20-year-old self could never imagine. With a kind of love and reverence and frequency that I didn’t realize was in such opposition to the way I used to talk about her until I saw the movie.

I talk about her the way Lady Bird starts to at the end of the film. She spends the film rejecting everything her mother has given her—her name, her hair color—and then finally, miles away from her mother, she starts taking them back.

And that concession of guilt, that apology, is an impossible one to articulate. So, when she calls Marion at the end of the film all she can say is: “Did you get emotional the first time you drove in Sacramento?”

And we get it. That in itself is a kind of apology for a kind of cruelty that doesn’t always warrant one. It’s a reconnection that tries to do yet another impossible thing: make up for lost time.

Now, older and wiser, I look back on the anger my high school self spit at my mother and I regret it. I regret all the hours of silence and fights in the car and times I slammed my door. But I know I couldn’t change it.

The stage after teen angst doesn’t have a good name. Existential dread, maybe? My twenties? Whatever this thing is called, I’m in it. And, at the end of the movie, “Lady Bird” is entering it. Picking up the pieces of the things our mothers gave us that we threw away and trying to say sorry, without being able — of course — to actually say it. 

 

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