10 Things About The Kanye West Album
1. In my non-celebrity life I’ve been having my bathroom redecorated - what started as a two-week job has turned into six weeks and I’ve felt progressively more disassociated from the world and the Internet, stuck with my family in temporary accomodation at my in-laws, going stir crazy. So in terms of the context to this album I might as well be on Mars. I can’t experience MBDTF as a multimedia happening - no, actually, multimedia isn’t quite the word. MBDTF is in some ways a prominent part of a transmedia project, a story happening across multiple channels, perpetually unfinished, full of angles to dig down into and ways to receive it. The main way it isn’t one is that Kanye is a control freak: normally with this stuff there’s an element of delegation across the audience base, a willingness for them to become part of the story, but Kanye wants to tell all his stories all at once even if they disagree.
2. One of the problems with transmedia - and I apologise if I’m using the buzzword wrong, but that’s what happens to buzzwords - is that while we all know that this kind of churned-up inseparable blend of media is what pop culture is like now we don’t really have a critical vocabulary around it yet, we don’t know exactly what’s good or not about it. I’ve been wanting to write pieces all year about a) social media criticism and what it might look like and b) Lady Gaga, the way saying either “it’s not about the music” or “but the music is really good” seems kind of the wrong direction to go in with her. Kanye’s trick here is partly that he’s made an album as performative and context-based as any Gaga stunt but he’s also made a herculean effort to have it code as Art - something he is the Genius in Control Of not something he’s surrendering to other people or the audience - and the fact of the effort makes it seem more ambitious and hence more artful.
3. Then at the same time a review coming out which is its own event - and I’m not speaking here as “a Pitchfork staffer”, I haven’t contributed at all to the conversations about the record and actually relied on the review to fill me in on the backstory - is a very transmedia thing, P4K giving its highest mark is about the only way someone external to Kanye - OK, except Taylor Swift - CAN interrupt the story and break the control, even if it’s just reinforcing the overall narrative (but Transmedia as I understand it isn’t about conflict in narratives as much as it is about mutuality).
4. But how do I feel about the record? Two years ago I had something which I’ve started to hesitantly think might have been a breakdown. It was as rough a spell as I’ve ever been through, whatever the technical term for it. 808s and Heartbreak came out a few weeks after the worst of it and the album’s long stretches of musical tundra - flat synths, hollowed-out metal tones - were exactly what I needed. Very little on this record resonates with me like that did - oddly enough probably only “Runaway”, because it captures the I’m an asshole, I’m a failure, pity party feeling very well, and it’s got a great hook somewhere in there.
5. I dunno if capturing that feeling is a good thing though? It’s the kind of feeling which tends to insidiously legitimise itself once you start expressing it - like the virtue of self-knowledge balances out the sin of assholism, which it really doesn’t. When someone beats up their partner - not that I ever have, not that Kanye ever has - they always apologise, they always acknowledge they’ve been a bad person, and they mean it. But the acknowledgement keeps the story about them, keeps them as the subject, hogs the agency. Anyway, I think “Runaway” even at 9 minutes, is a good record.
6. My other favourite bits on the album - from memory - are when the Crimson riff sample comes hammering in on “Power” and the female chorus on “Dark Fantasy”, and the Gil Scott Heron bit at the end, though I sympathise with Dorian Lynskey on ILX saying that the latter feels like a desperate grab for non-solipsistic relevance on the part of the record. (Dorian said this more stylishly but I’m in a hurry). These are the parts where the “epic” and the “maximalist” make more than simply quantitative sense to me.
7. Aside from thinking the guy is boring, the people who dislike it dislike it because it’s not a very good rap record, and it probably isn’t. Glowing reviews will introduce it to a bunch more people who will get the opportunity to dislike it for not being a very good art-rock record. You never got Peter Sinfield writing about sending a bitch a picture of his dick. Though actually I’ve not heard “Ladies Of The Road”.
8. But MBDTF is what it is, and it’s not really either of those - it’s a celebrity record, made by the only person who could make a celebrity record and maintain this kind of self-conscious hyper-agency, star power, ability to get people like me grubbing for reblogs in his imperious wake…
9. The album it reminds me of most - not musically or anything - is John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band - which is similarly predicated on the idea that howling access to one man’s head is inherently interesting, and is liked by everyone big enough to admit that in some cases that’s true. (Not by me, in other words). That record comes from a similar position of being able to do anything you like and wholly liking almost none of it. But it’s also a public document of a healing process, in the way MDBTF doesn’t seem to be. And of course West has no Yoko.
10. Do I enjoy the record? No, not especially, or at least not as a 70 minute experience. Parts of it. Songs on shuffle. But it’s exhausting! In the way Important Records usually are. I’ve played it three times through - hardly enough to have an opinion - but I’m not really reaching for it again. It’s an Important Record because Kanye is one of a tiny handful of people who could set out to Make An Important Record and that’s what he’s done. That makes it sound worse than it is. Or better, according to taste.
And that’s quite enough about that.