It might seem strange to put up a review of The Life of Pablo before the album has even been released. At the same time, it feels as if Kanye is striving to turn the pre-release of the album into an even greater event than the album itself. Whether that suggests that this is the end of his hegemony as an artist, or whether because he is now trying to envisage the album as a mere part of a wider social media event, is anybody’s guess. The likely answer is that it’s some combination of the two, with The Life of Pablo marking Yeezy’s transition from music into fashion and performance art. What is clear is that very few other albums in the history of popular music have been as hyped and refashioned in their pre-release period, to the point where it feels as if part of the point of The Life of Pablo is to draw attention to the increasingly fluid moment of “physical” release and inhabit it as an artistic experience in itself: a logical next step from the front cover of Yeezus, which featured a copy of the burnt CD of the album that was utterly redundant by the time the album was digitally released. In that sense, it feels as if the convergence of the album’s release with the unveiling of Kanye’s new fashion line at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night was a way of fleshing out this pre-release space in the same way that a fashion event is generally designed to showcase styles and trends before they are delivered to the general public in a more formal, systematic and sustained manner.
Of course, the pre-release experience of The Life of Pablo hasn’t just been confined to this most recent event. Over the last few months, Kanye has changed the name of the album multiple times – first it was So Help Me God, then SWISH, then Waves and now finally Pablo – with several of the name changes generating significant dramas on their own terms, most notably in Kanye’s Twitter battle with Wiz Khalifa about whether or not Waves was stolen from Max B, one of Khalifa’s biggest influences (and it feels right that Khalifa’s self-titled album has been released at the same time as Pablo). On top of this the actual track listing of the album has been changed multiple times, with the string of singles that have been released only having the most nominal relation to the album as a whole, creating a unique insight into the musical process that usually only becomes available to fans after the album itself has been released, by way of extended track editions or session recordings. Combined with Kanye’s documentation of his collaborative process on Twitter, the result has been quite an evocative insight into the flux that precedes a definitive statement – or, at the very least, the key moments at which big, sprawling, unwieldy albums are forced to make choices about just how big, sprawling and unwieldy they want to be. Of course, there is something forced and contrived about this Twitter immediacy – with Kanye more than almost anyone else – but Yeezy also seems to get that less is more on Twitter, only sharing blurry, dark, grainy photographs of the Pablo team, coating the project in an obscurity that seems to promise a proportionate revelation, something that became particularly clear towards the end of the Madison Square Garden concert, when Frank Ocean emerged from the shadows to make his first real appearance since 2012 as the last voice to be heard on Kanye’s new album.
And revelatory seems to be very much the register that Kanye is aiming for with Pablo. In a previous post on Drake, I made two observations about Kanye: firstly, that he is increasingly trying to “liberate” hip-hop from its hip-hop heritage to elude a pop marketplace saturated with white appropriation; and, secondly, that he is achieving a kind of quasi-religious self-apotheosis unmatched by any popular music artist before this point in time. While it can be tiresome for music writers to point out how their predictions have been fulfilled, there is something about Yeezy that encourages this kind of anticipation and speculation, just because his own approach to his music, and to the release of Pablo in particular, has been prophetic: it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Kanye has increasingly tended to frame the final form of the album as something that is beyond even him. While he can undoubtedly predict the magnitude, significance and impact of the album, he has seemed as unable to anticipate its final form as a prophet can anticipate the form that a revelation might take, and so it makes sense that the first and most durable working title of the album was So Help Me God, and that Kanye has recently described it as his gospel album, two gestures that bookend the pre-release period in quite an emphatic and eloquent manner.
Key to this liberation of rap from contemporary pop music has been a liberation of hip-hop from anything resembling the kinds of hip-hop heritage that have been so extensively sampled, appropriated and neutralised in contemporary pop music, from Taylor Swift to Iggy Azalea to Katy Perry. Once upon a time, hip-hop was itself a form of liberation, but in the universe Kanye inhabits that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Indeed, part of what made Yeezy so grating and so fresh was the way in which it established a kind of alternative timeline – what if rap had arisen out of black metal? – and pursued it to its logical conclusion, in a kind of complement to Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu, which was released around the same time, and which featured Reed intoning something like art rock freestyle over a heavy metal foundation. At the same time, while Yeezus was undoubtedly rooted in metal, there was also a part of its sound that was indebted to the kinds of corrosive electronic experimentation that have become popular within queer music scenes in the early 10s and which themselves owe a great deal to the EDM and industrial scenes that arose in tandem with heavy metal in the early to mid 80s. While electronic experimentation and Afrofuturist innovation have always been a part of hip-hop, Yeezus took a particularly angular, abrasive and avant-garde electronic lineage and placed it front and centre, effectively corroding the need for samples, guest spots and repurposing that normally form such a critical part of rap syntax. Certainly, the collaborative impetus was still there, but it was deflected into the creation of new electronic textures rather than the repurposing of old sounds.
In that sense, Yeezus strives to be a hip-hop record without a history and a hip-hop record divorced from history, which obviously says something about Yeezy’s megalomaniacal ambitions but also speaks to a time in which hip-hop is increasingly deracinated and dehistoricised. Of course, there is a peculiar form of racism in suggesting that white people should be excluded, by definition, from hip-hop, just as there is a peculiar form of racism in assuming that hip-hop is the only legitimate musical outlet for African-Americans. However, while there have always been white, Hispanic and other hip-hop artists – from the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy to Eminem to Action Bronson – and while black-white hip-hop collaboration has often yielded incredible results – from Run-DMC and Aerosmith to Run the Jewels – there has been a peculiarly kitsch remediation of hip-hop over the last couple of years that has seemed to jettison hip-hop from its roots in a peculiarly violent and callous way, a process that is internalised and exceeded by the rage at the heart of Yeezus. To me, an artist like Macklemore falls into this category, with songs like “Thrift Shop” and “White Privilege II” offering up a version of hip-hop that is by definition designed to appease precisely the anxieties about racial inequality posited by hip-hop in the first place. Part of me doesn’t exactly want to knock Macklemore personally – songs like “Same Love” have had an enormous impact upon raising awareness of gay visibility among young, something that has become particularly clear to me as a teacher. Nevertheless, there is something about Macklemore’s style and affect that feels like a particular affront to hip-hop heritage.
Of course, Kanye’s efforts to craft an entirely new hip-hop lexicon and lineage is partly about affirming the unique singularity of his voice, even if that process has seen him organising a more extensive and eclectic production team than ever before, with Yeezus, in particular, seeming to draw from the most unusual and idiosyncratic fringes of the electronic avant-garde to achieve its particular sound. One of the interesting byproducts of this expansive reach has been an openness to the kinds of queer voices that often spearhead electronica, with Arca, in particular, playing a critical role in the overarching sound and vision of Yeezus. That process apparently continues with The Life of Pablo, which boasts a sample from Arthur Russell – one of Arca’s main influences – on one of its main cuts, as well as featuring a spectral Frank Ocean as its last voice, a gesture that seems to both preserve and puncture his reputed bisexuality as hip-hop’s greatest open secret. Combined with the stylisations of Kanye’s fashion line, that has brought a distinctly queered sensibility to his later output, which is not, ultimately, that surprising – after all, if you are determined to rewrite the lineage of hip-hop, there’s no more striking gesture to make than to incorporate this kind of queer element. At the same time, part of what makes Kanye so dissonant as an artist is that the misogyny, masculine attitude and – yes – implied homophobia so integral to a certain brand of hip-hop is still there as well: this may be a musical reinvention but it is not an entire ideational reinvention. The result is a kind of disjunctive space wherein a queered musical sensibility is paired with a lyrical presence that resists and rails against it, producing a convulsive sense of inner conflict that has led several pundits to speculate on whether Kanye himself might be queer, a possibility that has only been enhanced by his ex-girlfriend’s recent disclosure, on Twitter, that assplay constituted a major part of their sex life, resulting in one of Kanye’s greatest Twitter tantrums of recent times.
While it is undoubtedly possible that Kanye is queer, that potential has always lurked around the fringes of rap music, and its fixation on the hyper-stylised and hyper-sexualised African-American male body. By the same token, Kanye’s rediscovery of a queer electronic potential within the heart of hip-hop is not ultimately a transformation so much as a reconnection to the kinds of queer electronic scenes that provided hip-hop with its basic syntax of mixing, sampling and repurposing in the first place; namely, the Chicago and Detroit House scenes pioneered by such queer Afrofuturist icons as Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard. From the little I’ve heard, House music – and especially Chicago House music – seems to be a big part of the palette of Pablo, albeit in a muted and deflected way, just as a certain kind of repurposed house music typically forms the backdrop for the kinds of big-budget fashion spectaculars that Kanye has sought to emulate and reinvent with his Yeezy brand. Similarly, the hyper-stylised and mannequised postures of these shows often seem to refer back to the dancefloor-as-fashion-display aesthetic that characterised house music during its crossover into the mainstream with New Jack Swing in the early 90s – another queer Afrofuturist moment – and while I’ll return to the particular syntax of these fashion events in a bit, it suffices to say here that they seem to effectively play out as a blueprint for the music videos that might once have accompanied the singles from Pablo, as well as a surrogate for the music videos that were so conspicuously lacking from Yeezus. In fact, one of the many noticeable things about Yeezus was this lack of a visual accompaniment, with Kanye tending to redirect his music video energy into singles like “Only One” and “FourFiveSeconds,” as if visualising the corrosive electronic textures at the heart of this most corrosive of hip-hop albums would somehow render them less vitally alienating.
In that sense, the release of The Life of Pablo has formed something of a counterpoint to Yeezy insofar as this latest album can’t properly be extricated from the torrent of visual paraphernalia surrounding its pre-release hype, to the point where these various attempts to visualise what the album might stand for almost seem to have got in the way of the album itself, with the tracklist still being modified, tweaked and augmented in this current distended space between the live and physical releases. At the same time, those visual paraphernalia have not quite fallen into the category of music video either, but have instead felt drawn from the “happenings” that Kanye has increasingly tended to constellate around his releases, most spectacularly the trap spectacular that launched his single “All Day” at the BRIT Awards in 2013. For my money, this is Kanye’s best single of the post-Yeezus era, partly due to this initial spectacle, which featured Kanye at the heart of a posse of black-clad trap rappers whose barely controlled, seething mass of testosterone would have blended into a single amorphous entity were it not for the flame throwers that perpetually threw every face and arm into unbearable relief. Not quite a live performance – Kanye was barely audible – but not a spectacle that could easily be contained in music video either – both too amorphous in its overall movement and too chaotic and idiosyncratic in each trap rapper’s individual movements – it seemed to usher in the kinds of performative arrangements of bodies that have accompanied his fashion releases, and which frequently seem to supersede the actual fashion items on display.
This convergence of live performance, performance art and fashion showcase was inextricable from the launch of Pablo, where it tended to stand in for anything resembling an extensive live performance from Kanye himself, who instead opted for a – relatively – lo-fi attitude when it came to promoting the album, fiddling about onstage with his laptop and frequently going through several false starts while ushering the guest vocalists and rappers on and off the stage in a fairly ramshackle and off-the-cuff kind of way. Of course, this kind of staged informality is the ultimate index of fashion exclusivity, and there was certainly something of that affectation in Kanye’s presence as well, but there was also a sense in which audiences were seeing two sides of a new project: on the one hand, a certain stylised futuristic “happening” in the form of his opening fashion show; and, on the other hand, a loose, informal sense of African-American collectivity that presumably sprung, in some way, from that opening act, even though on first glance it was very different in tone, style and affect, especially in the light of the fascist instructions provided to the models, which may have been distributed by one of Yeezy’s associates, but could just as well play as a lyric sheet for one of his more abrasive performances as well. What linked both aspects of the performance, however, was a sense that Kanye had somehow exhausted any attempt to visualise his music, or to provide a stable visual counterpart – not just in the sense of music video, but in terms of his own physical, visual and iconic presence on the stage and within his own songs. No popular artist has achieved such a level of iconicity as Kanye in terms of the sheer omniscience and ubiquity of his face, and there has been something about the preparation for the release of Pablo that has sought to put that face somewhat in the background, perhaps explaining why the album itself seems to take its cues from those ambitiously proggy rock and pop albums which trace out the career of a fictional, grandiose personage, in this case possibly some combination of Pablo Escobar and Pablo Picasso, both of whom have been reference points for Kanye over the course of his career.
In that sense, Kanye’s recent “happenings” stand in relation to music video and live performance in much the same way as more traditional “happenings” stand in relation to conventional visual arts (and Kanye has professed himself to be a fan of Marina Abramovic, a performance artist who has somewhat improbably become a touchstone in the hip-hop community, thanks in part to her collaboration and subsequent feud with Jay-Z). And just as “happenings” drew upon the language of visual art to depart from it – and envisage a future without it – so the visual paraphernalia surrounding The Life of Pablo seemed designed to both consummate and exceed Kanye, and to envisage a future without Kanye, which perhaps explains why this is already clearly the album that is most explicitly concerned with his star image, with the word “Kanye” itself mentioned more times than on any of his previous albums combined. On a more literal level, that suggests that Kanye is somehow prescient that this may be one of his last great statements, since of the things that the concert at Madison Square Garden made abundantly clear was that hip-hop is a young artist’s game – by the end of the evening there was a sense that Kanye was handing on the baton, especially since some of his gues rappers also premiered songs that seemed just as crowd-pleasing – if not more crowd-pleasing – than any one track debuted from Pablo. Of course, for an artist like Kanye, the album production is all – it’s hard to judge the album without actually hearing it in its final form – but there was nevertheless a sense in which his stint at Madison Square Garden was unveiling some grand final statement, not least because it makes for a certain kind of symmetry at this point in his career: two trilogies (The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; Yeezus; The Life of Pablo) separated by a transitional and experimental work (808s and Heartbreak). From that perspective, you’d have to concede that there is a certain desperation to the pre-season hype of Pablo, some sense that this album won’t be able to speak as eloquently on its own terms as Kanye’s previous releases. More specifically, I sensed an anxiety about whether or not Kanye’s next release would be able to top Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, which seemed set to be the most critically acclaimed rap album for some time to come, as well as absorbing a great deal of the social protest that Kanye typically likes to claim as his own.
At the same time, however, there is a more noumenal and mystical dimension to the way in which Pablo sets out to envisage a future without Kanye as well. Far from a future in which Kanye is diminished, this version of the future is one in which Kanye has consummated and transcended himself, to the point where music is no longer adequate or necessary to continue his vision. This might sound like a high-falutin’ way to describe Yeezy, but in fact this is the kind of self-apotheosis that he is set in train for himself ever since the release of My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy, which introduced a new kind of apocalyptic, messianic quality into his work. Over the last couple of years, these tendencies have grown greater and greater, from his self-designation as Yeezus, to the working title of Pablo, to the fact that Pablo has been promoted as a visionary new take on gospel, to the birth of a son named Saint, to his comparison of himself to the Apostle Paul. In that sense, Pablo doesn’t feel as if it simply marks the end of Yeezy, but is instead something of an ascension, as Kanye is absorbed into a fuller, more spiritual and abstracted self that can only be felt or apprehended in the kinds of collective and collaborative enterprise that constellate around that ascension and bear witness to it in its aftermath. Hence the odd dynamic and body language of the Madison Square Concert, in which Kanye was progressively absorbed into his crew – not unlike the debut of “All Day” – but was also increasingly figured in images of supplication, submission and prostration, hands to the air, face gazing in upwards rapture, anticipating something to come. While The Wall Street Journal took this as evidence that Kanye still “feels like an underdog,” my sense is more that this supreme act of Kanye witnessing Kanye – effectively gazing upwards at himself – was the ultimate moment of power for this most powerful and pervasive of media celebrities.
And that brings us to the fascinating question of Kanye’s power – how he has achieved it, how he has maintained it, and what he will do with it in the future – since it is clear that here we are dealing with a charismatic and affective power that has been unmatched over the history of popular music. In fact, I would go so far as to say that very few people in history have enjoyed the reach and sweep of Kanye, at least not in their own lifetimes, or in real-time. Sure, you could point to any number of enunciations that have had a greater impact than Kanye’s lyrics – at the end of the day, his strength is not lyricism – but very few of them could have had the same power at the very moment of their enunciation. In that sense, I’d like to suggest that Kanye’s rap practice and Twitter practice have more or less converged, and not only because he has used Twitter to showcase his process in the lead-up to Pablo as never before, but because the imperative in both cases is now a kind of real-time calibration of the ability of language to garner immediate and global responses. Indeed, it’s this convergence of Twitter and rap as media that sets Kanye apart from the other musical celebrities – such as Katy Perry and Taylor Swift – who tend to dominate Twitter. When Swift or Perry tweet about their music, it feels like they’re doing just that – tweeting about it – whereas Kanye’s tweets in the buildup to Pablo have taken on more of an expressionistic, freestyling, spoken word quality – in Henry Louis Gates’ terms, they have been more and more concerned with “signifyin’” – that has tended to make them feel like the ersatz lyrics of the album itself. On top of that, it appears that a great deal of the collaboration on the album has taken place on and through Twitter, while the Twitter feuds that have emerged over the pre-release period also seem to have contoured the lyrics in turn as well.
In other words, Kanye has converged rap and Twitter as performance media, which makes sense in terms of his own lyrical tendencies, which were always anchored in the brilliant one-liners that drive Twitter as a medium, but rarely evinced the sustained syntactic explosions of, say, Kendrick Lamar. Facilitating that convergence has been Kanye’s visionary production, which has crafted a language to draw these two kinds of utterance together into a convulsive electronic miasma in which you can almost hear or register the number of ears and brains upon which his utterances are likely to fall. In that sense, Kanye is effectively the most powerful presence on Twitter – even if he doesn’t currently have the most number of followers – just as Kim Kardashian, and the Kardashians generally, are the most powerful presences on Instagram. And yet, for all that he revels in their status as a power couple – “two Lebrons” – Kanye has always tended to keep a cautious distance between his rap practice and his life with the Kardashians, rarely refencing his personal life and extended family in his music, and only allowing himself the most cursory of appearances on Keeping Up With The Kardashians, and even then more in the guise of a family man than an artist or visionary. In the buildup to Pablo, however, that has changed, with Kim Kardashian announcing the revival of the G.O.O.D. Friday releases that preceded the arrival of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the pre-release season being punctuated by a handwritten track list that has not only gone through multiple “rewrites” but has seen the names of the Kardashian sisters progressively scrawled on the bottom, bearing witness to their presence in the studio and even their impact upon the process. This convergence of Kanye’s artistic and family lives is unprecedented, and yet it doesn’t seem to suggest that the Kardashians have really been a sustained artistic influenced so much as the fact that, this time around, Kanye is marshalling the combined resources of both Twitter and Instagram in the name of this putatively unprecedented musical and media event.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, with Kanye, we are not simply dealing with a visionary producer, but with a figure who, more than anyone else on the planet, has managed to tap into the kinds of charismatic power that social media can facilitate. In that sense, Yeezy is indeed in the process of becoming post-human, or is perhaps already post-human insofar as the kinds of power he is enjoying are more or less unprecedented in human history. One of the most common tropes in recent science fiction cinema involves a human who, by some medical accident or intervention, suddenly gains access to the full 100% of their brain, rather than the 10% that is conventionally available to consciousness. While films like Lucy, Transcendence and Limitless may all differ in terms of the precise manner in which this medical intervention occurs, in all cases it is in some way catalysed by the rise of social media, suggesting the capacity of digital technology to augment our sensorium and cognitive prowess. In the case of Kanye, I would like to suggest that something similar has happened, although not quite in the sense of Yeezy accessing more of his brain. Rather, there is a sense in which his exponentially escalating waves of acclaim and adulation have genuinely augmented his capacity as his motivation and capacity to seek new and innovative ways of crafting sound – and, of course, his own sense of his messianic mission as a prophet for the new millennium. At a personal level, I know that whenever I receive a couple of likes on Twitter, Facebook or Letterboxd, it inevitably gives me a new sense of purpose or drive, even or especially if I’m not particularly close to the people “liking” me (or don’t know them at all). In those cases, what you get is not so much the approbation and sympathy of friends, family and acquaintances but instead a kind of free-floating affective power than in turn seems to consolidate and further stimulate your own affective labour, creating possibilities and potentialities that would be unavailable in the same way if you were simply working in a vacuum.
As a result, it is not simply enough to say that Kanye is affirmed, validated or vindicated by his fanbase, nor that his millions of online followers are simply augmenting his egotism, arrogance and self-belief. Instead, that massive groundswell is augmenting his capacity, full stop, providing him with a level of charismatic assurance, and proof of charismatic power, that must genuinely extend his ability to envision the next innovation or experimentation in his career in a different kind of way from artists who are forced to live at more of a remove from the impact of their utterances. Of course, that kind of split-second, real-time affirmation must have its disadvantages as well, but the fact remains that Kanye is privileged in pop music history for the sheer amount of affirmation, motivation and pure affect that is provided to him on a daily basis, something that seems to have overtaken even his own expectations during the pre-release for Pablo, as evinced in a Tweet in which he noted that his previous Tweet had received a staggering ten thousand likes in the first half-second. To some extent, the topos of Kanye witnessing his own ascension and transcendence must correspond to this growing sense that Kanye’s fanbase has got away from even Kanye himself, or at least that Kanye has reached a point at which he is no longer able to harness this amorphous and ever-growing affective power as successfully as he has in the past. Among other things, that means that there now can only really be one theme in Kanye’s music, and has only been one theme for some time – power. It feels right, then, that “Power” was also the lead single from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, since it was at this moment that it started to feel as if Kanye had nothing much else to sing about, which is of course not to dismiss the profundity of the kind of power that he is articulating, as well as the profundity – sometimes – of his attempts to feel out its contours and constrictions, but simply to say that there is a monomanic quality to his work of the last decade that has provided it with its consistency of vision as well as some of its limitations as well.
Whatever those limitations may be, however, it is clear that Kanye’s critical acclaim and popular appeal has been linked to this growing fascination and fixation with power in ever more intensifying ways. In fact, the situation has escalated to such a point that there is a kind of continuous affective loop between Kanye and his fanbase whereby their fascination with his displays of power increases his capacity to make those displays of power in turn. If Kanye is the social media artist par excellence, then his relationship with his fanbase also takes on something of the contagious, indiscriminate and desubjectified affect that social media promises to promulgate at its most radical. To be a fan of Kanye, then, often seems to be a fan of immersing oneself in this power potentiality, which is perhaps why his “arrogance” or his “attitude” or his “narcissism” seems to have such a cultural cache for critics, even if they can’t quite explain how it differs from the arrogance, attitude or narcissism of a million other pop stars. In fact, for all its monstrous and megalomaniacal overtones, Kanye’s thirst for power probably isn’t that different from any number of artists that have preceded him: it’s just that social media allows us to participate in that egotism in a new kind of way, as well as encouraging and intensifying that egotism in a peculiarly visible and affectively immediate manner. To take one of the namesakes of this new album-event, it’s interesting to speculate about how people would now feel about Pablo Picasso if his incidental and casual utterances – and especially his utterances about women – had been broadcast, disseminated and encouraged as virulently as Kanye’s have been. Similarly, it’s easy to imagine how different Kanye might have been if he had emerged a decade earlier and had been forced to restrain his desires for enunciation to his private life and his work product, rather than the kinds of performative privacy and collectivised utterances evident on his social media profile.
Nevertheless, however you historicise or contextualise Kanye’s power, it’s clear that the very singularity of that power at this moment in time – and the way in which that power is in some sense participatory, especially now that it appears to be exceeding Kanye himself – goes a long way to explaining his star power. At the most literal and immediate level, Yeezy has become a spokesman for a generation in which police brutality against African-Americans has encouraged a resurgence of civil rights activism, and a demand for assertive and authoritative African-American voices, even or especially as Obama’s Presidency has often seemed so disconnected or at least impotent in the face of the racial and civil unrest rocking the country. Similarly, it’s not hard to explain Kanye’s appeal to white fans in terms of the increasing crossover appeal of hip-hop, as well as Kanye’s own eclectically voracious taste, which makes him as likely to sample Steely Dan or Arthur Russell as much as anyone from African-American musical history – or, rather, to sample white appropriations of African-American music in such a way as to reveal and distill the African-American impulse beneath their supposedly innovative or signature style. At the same time, however, I’d like to suggest that there is a more general and abstract fascination with Kanye that stems, in part, from the way in which actual figures of power manage to elude the public eye in a neoliberal economy, and in the United States in particular. Over the last decade or so, one of the most pervasive trends in American politics has been a gradual discorrelation of politics from power. From the open secret of George W. Bush’s fraudulent election to the events of the Global Financial Crisis, it has become painfully clear that power doesn’t really reside in the actions of politicians anymore, a situation that has been intensified by the rise of alternative informational, journalistic and investigative media channels that complicate and dilute the conventional correlation between political address and radio, cinema and television. In many ways, Obama’s Presidency has been the pinnacle of this process, to the point where Obama’s lack of meaningful power within a Republican-dominated Senate and a Capitol dominated big business conglomerate has become a part of his comic persona, as evinced in his continual, desperate attempts to make himself “accessible” and “winning” on precisely the kinds of informal media platforms that are also diluting his gravitas as President.
Obviously, that’s not necessarily to deny Obama’s very real achievements, nor to suggest that his comic “accessibility” is necessarily a part of the job description at this point in time, but more to suggest that there is some pervasive acknowledgment of the impotence of politicians that, in his case, has taken a comically defensive inflection. Of course, as everyone knows, the majority of American power now resides in the hands of a privileged few, as well as the CEOS of the big businesses with which they are generally affiliated, but it is precisely in the interests of these wealthy oligarchs not to be too visible to the public eye. Whereas politicans like Obama and Hilary and Sanders have – all in their different ways – responded to the waning of the political by cultivating charisma as a political ally, the people who actually determine a great deal of the future of the country often seem to minimise charisma in order to remain out of the limelight, and away from public scrutiny. One of the dissonances, then, about a candidate like Donald Trump – and one of the factors that makes him so threatening to the Republican Party – is that he effectively marries these two strategies, assuming the charisma of a politican and the authoritative power of the 1% in ways that make it impossible for voters to ignore the extent to which the 1% are ruling the country, as well as the extent to which Republican policies pretty much boil down to allowing them to do so. In a recent Tweet, Steven Shaviro speculated that Trump was “mediagenic but not charismatic” and I think that that can in part be attributed to this odd position he occupies between the contrived charisma of late politics and the contrived uncharisma of the oligarchs whose interests he really represents. It’s no surprise, then, that Trump’s media presence – and his Twitter presence, in particular – is as incoherent as Kanye’s, lurching from petulance to gravitas to megalomaniacal utterances within the space of a single sentence.
What that all comes down to, then, is that not many Americans actually witness, or have any direct apprehension of, figures of power. Certainly, they feel the effects of power more and more, and are exposed to increasingly ornate rhetorical strategies to produce the impression of power, but access to power – whether mediated or unmediated – is something of a rarity. Within that vacuum, there is something peculiarly fascinating about the sheer fact of Kanye exuding power, just as there is something fascinating about the sheer fact of Trump’s power, no matter what your political affiliations. Although critics tend to frame Jay-Z and Beyonce as pop culture’s answer to Barack and Michelle – “the President and first lady of hip-hop” – and although the Obamas have tended to encourage this comparison, and despite the fact that even Jay-Z and Beyonce announced their interest in the Presidency back in 2010, I have long thought that it was likely that Kanye would be the most suitable rapper to make a serious bid for the Oval Office. Not, of course, because he seems to have any sustained policies, nor because he shows any indications of being a competent politician, but because the sheer amount of power that he has accumulated over the last half decade seems to make that kind of ascendancy inevitable. Just as Trump’s power leaves him with little else to aspire for but the Presidency, so with Kanye, and I very much see Trump and Kanye as complementary, just because they are arguably the two figures in American today whose power is most affectively, charismatically and viscerally available to the public at large, as well as the two figures who provide the most accurate representation of what it takes and what it means to hold power in the United States. If you were to speculate on the emergence of post-politics in the next couple of years, there couldn’t be a more fitting sequence of events than Bernie losing to Hilary this year, and then Hilary having to face the dual campaigns of Kanye and Trump in 2020.
As a result, I sense that the pleasure of participating in Kanye is, for many listeners, not unlike the pleasure of participating in democracy, or even the pleasure of participating in something beyond democracy: his media presence gestures towards an affective participation in power that seems increasingly unavailable in the United States. For that reason, I like to think of Kanye as something like an economic bubble, with publications and critics of all stripes and backgrounds anxious to hook themselves into his gravitational field. Among other things, that has made Kanye possibly the most critically acclaimed musician in popular musical history. In particular, since the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, there has hardly been a negative or critical review of his work, since those elements which might make it seem alienating or obnoxious are precisely the features that guarantee its peculiar appeal. As a result, even the most qualified reviews tend to qualify their own qualifications by leaving open the possibility that Kanye’s arrogance, attitude and narcissism have some kind of significance beyond what they are able to immediately comprehend. Of course, there is something a bit passe about Kanye’s shock-tactics now – the Bill Cosby Tweet was a case in point – just as you could say that Kanye’s outrage economy has been well and truly absorbed into Twitter’s outrage economy, yet another example of the way in which his rapping and social media enunciations have converged. Nevertheless, there is a pervasive sense that even Kanye’s most angular and abrasive actions are only offensive or perplexing because their full import has not been revealed to us.
It’s not hard to see, then, why Kanye considers himself the greatest musician of all time – I do believe he is sincere about that, for all that the mainstream media tries to take the edge off it by ironising it – nor why he considers himself to be blessed with a visionary apprehension that exceeds his vision as a musical producer and even as a social commentator. Not only is there a scramble, on the part of critics, to mystify his more banal and questionable tendencies, but there is a scramble for who can pen the most hyperbolic and devotional hymns to his genius – in effect, who can become the worthiest disciples. This has been particularly evident in the buildup to Pablo, with one musical and critical publication after another desperate to pile on the plaudits before the album has even been released in a stable form. Just one example can be found on Pitchfork’s New Tracks section, where the review of “Ultra Light Beams,” the opening track off the album, and a collaboration with Chance the Rapper, The-Dream and Kelly Price, is described in what can only be hagiographic terms – a register that I’ve only seen used in Pitchfork’s earlier reviews of Kanye tracks (see, for example, the review of “No More Parties in L.A.”) and which represents a complete departure from the regular tone of the website.
All I can say is that, without doubting Kanye’s considerable talents, I remain deeply sceptical about this hagiographic response. While an artist’s life shouldn’t necessarily be equated with their work, there is something that I find problematic about the emergence of a new kind of devotional media around a figure whose concerns are ultimately so focused on misogyny, materialism and self-promotion. At the same time, I’m not especially convinced by critiques that Kanye in some way instantiates or embodies the contradictions and anxieties at the heart of our current moment in late capitalism. While that is undoubtedly true, it’s questionable to me how much Kanye actually does beyond articulating and over-identifying – one might even say accelerating – those tendencies, something that has become particularly unavoidable in the wake of allegations that he refused to pay the young African-American models performing the the Yeezy 3 fashion launch at the last minute, effectively forcing them into free labour for the benefit of a predominantly white audience. Normally, I’m the last person to try and craft anything like a “moral” critique of music, partly because I think those kinds of critiques are more often than not motivated by a fear about ageing and a need to frame an inability to commune with “younger” music in flattering terms – either by way of a moral condemnation of certain artists or trends, or a more moralistically dispersed sense that the standards of music have somehow “declined.” At the same time, however, it’s easy to go too far in the other direction and try and maintain some kind of artificial connection to youth culture by wholeheartedly embracing it on its own terms as well. All I can say is that Kanye has always been very much a part of my generation of music, and I have found his particular brand of egotism grating from his very earliest records, although my sense of distaste and disgust has solidified around the most recent trilogy, even or especially as I’ve recognised his exponential evolution as an artist and producer.
To some extent, I have to wonder whether that kind of galvanising disgust is precisely the effect that Yeezy is trying to inculcate, and the real sacrifice that he is making to his fanbase. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that there is something more sinister going on as well – if not in his actual conscious intentions, then in his reception, and the way he responds to his reception. In Kanye’s hands, charisma and power are fused as never before in popular music, but the effect of that is finally to suggest that power and charisma are similar in kind, which they are most emphatically not. Charisma, to me, is a kind of neutral, amoral phenomenon: it’s quite possible to be charismatic and unethical, or charismatic and ethical, with a great deal of literature, cinema and music playing on the kinds of ambiguities this creates. Power, on the other hand, is never neutral: it is always power on someone’s behalf, or power to treat another group of people in a particular way. So great has Kanye’s social media presence become, however, that power is effectively neutralised in his music and turned into a byproduct of charisma, producing an affective magnetism that is unprecedented in my experience of popular music. You might say that Kanye is the most powerful person in the United States who no longer has to answer to anyone. The result is a kind of odd disconnect whereby his most vilest and most conservative incitements are strangely shorn of their actual political import and instead turned into a function of charisma, leaving Kanye oddly free to espouse a worldview for which he is never held accountable – or, rather, a worldview premised on not having to be held accountable, with this lack of accountability turning into something like the main subject matter of his music and the final index of his power. Conversely, however, his actual charisma has become less and less ingenious – even as his production has become more and more ingenious – and instead deflected into more or less straightforward statements about how much power he actually wields.
Where Kanye is often held up as a salvational figurehead for a new post-political era, I tend to see him more as a harbinger of a post-political apocalypse in which power is not simply discorrelated from politics but from any sense of accountability altogether. That may sound like a stridently moralistic critique, but the fact is that this lack of accountability is, as mentioned, the real subject matter of so much of Kanye’s music, with even his few nods in the direction of Kim, North and Saint always couched within their role as perpetuators of the Kanye brand. It’s no surprise, then, that Kanye is fairly thin-skinned when it comes to those few media outlets that do dare to critique him, most of which are drawn from the fashion industry, where he has a little less cache than in the rap world, as evinced in his recent, multi-Tweet tirade against Media Takeout for daring to give him a bad review, something that every artist must expect to receive at least once in their lifetime. Given the extent to which Kanye and Kim are now synonymous with media, it’s impossible to understate the impact of his pervasive demand for consensus, with even the most middlebrow mainstream publications – the kinds of publications that usually rush to the aid of moral panics – are prepared to forgive even his vilest and most exploitative sentiments for fear of somehow seeming out of touch with the current musical moment. One of the most ridiculous examples I read recently focused on the way in which Kanye’s now infamous lyric about Taylor Swift was simply a refreshing indication that this musical genius was “human.” For what it’s worth, I’ve become more and more amenable to Kanye’s interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the VMAs, not just because Beyonce’s video was clearly more iconic and enduring, but because Kanye seems to have been uncannily prescient of how just how much Swift would become a figurehead for the whitest of white appropriations of hip-hop, as well as strangely prophetic of the kinds of heightened scrutiny surrounding racism in awards season that has occurred in the wake of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s decision to boycot the 2016 Oscars. Nevertheless, given Swift’s more than gracious response, there is something peculiarly vile about Kanye jumping on her case once again, and while I’m not that invested in any great moral diatribe about it, framing it as a welcome indication of Kanye’s humanity is utterly ludicrous.
All of which is to say that Kanye frequently feels like the first musician in history whose power has eclipsed the power of the media to articulate any kind of critical distance, in large part because he is the media, and his music is increasingly a celebration of that fact. Of course, that goes some way towards explaining his movement towards multimedia art, as well as the profoundly multimodal quality of his production style, itself informed by an increasingly collaborative and collective mode of composition in which artists from a vast array of media backgrounds are gathered in the studio under his visionary management. In future years, it may be that we listen to albums like Yeezus and “hear” in them the harbinger of a radically converged mediasphere that already seems to be somewhat prophesied in the media event surrounding the pre-release of Pablo. Put another way, in a media environment that increasingly seems to favour pre-releases over releases – albums and films leaked intentionally or inadvertently – or at least a media environment in which releases occur so rapidly and spontaneously that they effectively feel like pre-releases – Rihanna’s surprise album feels totally continuous with Pablo – it may be that Pablo’s import can only be felt in the future. Certainly, it seems clear that Kanye is striving to release an album that retains the touch of the artist – a revelatory ambition if ever there was one – as well as the contours, decisions and discussions of the pre-release period and production trajectory itself. If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was like a perfectly preened art exhibition, then The Life of Pablo feels more like the Frick Collection or the Barnes Collection – ad hoc and idiosyncratic combinations of artistic voices that still bear the mark of their curator. In either case, Kanye has managed to set up a kind of feedback loop in which he not only controls the production and distribution of his album, but can also gradually feed the critical apparatus the right message as well – “this is the paradigm shift” – making it structurally impossible, in the end, for me to dissent in the way I am aiming for here.