MY EARLIEST EXPOSURE to Kanye West the solo artist was in 2004 while I was music writer for the now extinct Culture Salad: All Mixed In. I channel surfed at home one evening, Brian Wilson’s newest “Vega-Tables” from SMiLE bubbled on my music-pute 2400, Critics’ Edition. I can’t remember which show I tuned into, but the young Mr. West was on stage in backpack and sweater, performing “Jesus Walks” while tiny lights, the fireflies of television’s inner midnight, flickered behind him. What a laugh, I thought, a club track about Jesus. His voice reminded me of Phife’s from Tribe Called Quest, though he didn’t have that MC’s impeccable flow. I was offended by what I perceived as the lack of true hip-hop-ness. His vocal impotence and the doe-like quality in his eyes told me that I would not like his sensitive backpack music and that he wouldn’t be around long enough for my opinion to matter.
Yet I was intrigued enough to ask the Culture Salad editor, Beverly Withwithawl, if she had a promo copy of College Dropout to spare, and she said that she had already given it to her 16 year old daughter, Rochelle, a prep school brat who had been holding a Monster energy beverage and sucking on a plastic Hello Kitty head the one time I had met her on Bring Your Lil’ Chicas to Work Day. Rochelle apparently thought that Mr. West’s music was lame; she preferred Ludacris.
But I was a music critic, you understand, and I had to follow what I referred to as my inner dimensions. My inner dimensions were two-dimensional. (I referred to my inner dimensions sometimes as my inner resources, as the poet John Berryman had. I have been called the John Berryman of music criticism.) Most artists only registered in the one dimension, and they were easy to follow. I feared that Mr. West was prematurely registering in the second dimension because I couldn’t understand his appeal. It’s the difficult artists who often provide the most cachet. When an artist, such as Bob Dylan or Chuck D or Eric Dolphy or Julian Casablancas, registers in my second dimension, it means that said artist no longer exists and has become what I refer to as a double fantasy. Was Kanye West to become a double fantasy? Or should I say Double Fantasy?
I visited the now defunct Tower Records on Broadway in the gray-streaked consumer triangle and bought the album with the sad bear on the cover, an irresistible image that you would not expect on the front of a record that has all of its hip-hop-ness intact. The clerk, a sexy young girl-boy in neckerchief and ironic pointed birthday hat with string tied beneath his jaw told me that 80% of the album was sick. It was mad sick. The other 20% was weak. Then he asked me if I had heard those new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah tracks in the blogosphere, and I told him to please not go there.
I’ve got this ironic Iraq shirt with a picture of a birthday cake on it, he said. Sell it to you for 20. No critic should be without it. It’s what they call biting satire. Made in my graphic design class. I’m what you might consider a bastard artist.
You think birthdays are pretty funny, I noted.
Enjoy the Kanye, my brother, he said and handed me the bright yellow bag.
After two consecutive spins of College Dropout in the music-pute, I was sold. This shit was mad sick. This shit might not redefine hip-hop, but it would speak to the youth in such a way that the invisible Kanye, the birdsong when the bird is but a dream, orbited closer and closer to my second inner dimension. His narrative choices were so peculiar: retail afternoon dramas, fantasies of stardom, and the spiritual ferociousness of “Never Let Me Down.” The sit-ins? Excuse me? And oh, what America was this, I wondered, and I sat in the dark and I pretended that I was wearing a pair of diamond studded aviator shades and that the coat rack was a toothpick-chic model who called me Nelson Pollock Berryman, and that I was a real music critic. I was a real music critic, but as I said, I have many … inner resources.
I met with my assistant, Kipper, to inform her that I now believed in the power of Kanye West, and she clicked her chewing gum at me. Kipper was a sassy blond, a hipster tomboy whose favorite song was “Band of Gold” by Freda Payne, and whose favorite film was a mash-up of City Lights with the post-boot camp portion of Full Metal Jacket, which she claimed she saw once, but which I don’t believe existed. Her musical fancy was the new Canadian super-trio Wolf Parade. Like Modest Mouse with synths, she said, yet so much more impressionistic. They are going to be the future of indie rock, she said.
Bah, I told her, Canadians in plaid hats, expressionistic lyrics that mean nothing. I’m listing College Dropout as my number one for the year, I threatened. (In reality I listed it at number three, after Madvillain (Doom and Madlib get crazy abstract) and the Go! Team debut.)
Prior to the release of Late Registration in August 2005, there was already something pointed and glimmering in the zeitgeist cloud around the invisible Mr. West; perhaps they were the Roc Diamonds of his birdsong causing our ears to bleed in our sleep. Don’t you remember those fantastic dreams you probably had when you would hear “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” play from the passing car, and the music-pute woke up by itself in the middle of the night playing ghostly Madlib beats and organ loops, and your eyes flickered instantly and briefly, and you swore to your therapist that you saw them flicker? The summer was oppressively hot, and the Duane Reed clerks all mumbled to themselves, hundreds of Duane Reed clerks all over the city in red vests, sleepwalking through fantasies that didn’t belong to them, they were Kanye’s fantasies. Or should I say “phantasies?” This was the summer that I found a single stream of water dripping from the sky on East Eighth Street, a hallucination that I shared with a middle-age Italian who wore a dog chain around his neck, and who asked me if I had seen it too, and when I admitted that I had seen the single stream of water, he told me that shit was about to go mad crazy somewhere around here. The whole city’s going to fucking blow, he said. This was the summer that Fat Joe pulled up outside Tower Records to meet and greet fans in the wake of success brought on by his immortal single “Lean Back” (my niggaz don’t dance, we just pull up our pants!). I caught a glimpse of Fat Joe, shaking hands with a woman who had pear-like dimensions, and Fat Joe’s eyes rolled back into his head.
The clubs and record stores were already grooving to “Gold Digger,” Jaime Foxx’s Ray so on that there was no difference whatsoever between the two. The video for the song featured the prodigy in aviator shades, moving and grooving beside Foxx, while voluptuous women – so many shapely women – flash on the screen. So confident. Yes. Over the top confident. His hip-hop-ness was intact, though there was something off about him. He was not Jay-Z and he was not the meek backpacker he once pretended to be.
Late Registration was proof that Mr. West had discovered that he was no mere hip-hop musician; he was becoming a superstar that was orbiting closer and closer to the second dimension inside of me. One imagines the wood paneled studio where the album was recorded. One imagines West admiring his long jaw in the mirror while Jon Brion is in some shadow studio room, humming “She Came in through the Bathroom Window,” and West realizes that it has been almost three months since he has taken off his shades; he has slept, woken, jogged, and blended Jameson smoothies through the dimmed glass of superstardom. Enclosure? Is that what he felt when he decided that he would make a sprawling record. One imagines that Mr. West made the pronouncement to himself, for no one else mattered. Yay, he said, Yay, you have to sprawl. Isn’t it the dread of enclosure that caused Bob Dylan to sprawl and sing the sad-eyed lowland poetry that is equal parts warm and pinching? Think even of Chuck D’s sprawl through the Terrordome of paranoia and loneliness. Think of the great second-dimension artists who needed to get out. They needed to sprawl.
Kipper thought Late Registration was good. It’s really good, she said, but it’s hip-hop. That’s all. A really good hip-hop album with all of its hip-hop-ness intact.
Sure, I argued, it’s hip-hop, but its hip-hop-ness is damaged. The disco-spiritual quality of “Touch the Sky” with that unexpected Mayfield sample; the slo-mo nostalgia of “Drive Slow” when he hears his shit get cranked for the first time; the paranoid teeth-clenched “Crack Music”; the down-to-earth mourning embarrassment of “Roses”; then the album falls over in the smoked-out symphony that is “We Major.” This album is a sprawl that is going to be deeply misunderstood, loved by critics, though not properly grasped.
Kipper was still on her Wolf Parade kick. They should be your number one, she said. “The Same Ghost Every Night” is so heart wrenching, she said. Then she mumbled some nonsense about a handkerchief at midnight.
I approached the Culture Salad editor, Beverly Withwithawl, in hope that she would allow me to write a long piece about the impossibility of Kanye West. This was my last year at that magazine; they would soon be bought out by a mysterious firm based in Texas who would take an ads-based approach to content. Beverly was a saucy MILF who wore a mariposa tattoo on her wrist. She was brunette, toothpick-chic in a slim plaid skirt. Her preferred position was on the desk with her legs crossed so that I could admire her tender green Gucci high heels from the corner of my eye. I proposed a piece in which I analyzed Kanye West the person, as well as his clothes, his record collection, his fashion accessories. I could literally itemize Kanye West. “The Artificial Genius” would be the name of the article. Beverly could not understand what the big hoot was all about.
I would prefer a much more fabulous superstar, she said.
I played “Roses” on her office music-pute, Musical Bystander Edition 2300, hoping to intrigue her. As West rapped about how his grandma was NOT in the NBA, and how there were “So many Aunties we could have an Auntie team,” I sang along, flapping my hands, pleading to her through the music, through the sweet mournful music, to please allow me to explore Mr. West. We Broke, I shouted, Broke, Broke, Broke, Broke-Broke.
Beverly shook her head. Sentimentality in rap music is nothing new, Nelson Pollock. Even I know that.
That track, I said.
Yes, that track, she repeated.
I played “Crack Music” for her. Biting, I said, that he uses The Game’s gravelly voice as an afterthought.
Oh, he’s smart, she said. He might even be genius. Though he doesn’t allure.
And who allures, I wanted to know.
That subversive Sri Lankan Girl. She allures.
Yes, but her work is so conceptual.
As opposed to your genius, who is not the least bit conceptual, is that right?
But he’s so literal, I said.
One night in 2007, shortly after the release of Graduation, I was too restless to sleep and so I gave myself a warm bath then retired to my den where I fired up the music-pute. I listened to “Razorblade” from the Strokes’ abysmal third album. That hook just hurt my heart so much. My feelings are more important than yours. Kanye West and Julian Casablancas, I thought. No, it made no sense, though I did attempt to make some connection. The two artists, they were indeed connected, for they were both second dimension. They were artificial beings, so invisible, dumb figures with birdsong. They mocked themselves to feel loved. Loved by whom? When Casablancas calls for the blade to cut the rope, does he mean it? When West has Chris Martin of Coldplay sing about the fireworks on Lake Michigan, does he expect anyone to take him seriously? West had begun his glorious descent into artificiality: samples of Can, Daft Punk, and Steely Dan!
When 808’s and Heartbreak was released in 2008, I felt that I had been clubbed over the head with a thick realization. The album was wrapped in tinfoil Auto-Tune; there was a Tears for Fears cover; and the lock-load repeat of “Robocop”; but how then does one account for the personalized dimension of the lyrics? The album is overloaded with confessions. Ladies and gentlemen, these are ridiculous confessions. They reveal the heights of artificiality that West had achieved. His best friend, for god’s sake, showed him pictures of his kids, and all Mr. West could do was show him pictures of his cribs.
The album is being called an interesting disaster, Kipper said. According to the New York Times he wants to make a Basement Tapes, but it’s too personal to have been released. He should have saved it for the reissue phase of his career.
How can you say too personal? The album is wrapped in Auto-Tune.
I didn’t say it. The New York Times did.
Who from the New York Times? Who?
I don’t know. One of them. Maureen Dowd maybe?
What? Maureen Dowd?
I don’t know. Maybe it was Charles Blow.
No, I said. No. That can’t be. They are not music critics!
Not only was West’s newest masterpiece widely considered to be mediocre, but he began to develop a reputation for having real feelings that he expressed through his twitter account. What did this have to do with my inner resources? With my inner dimensions? He is America’s Christ and anti-Christ, he says. What? He has no feelings that we are aware of. I don’t even believe that Kanye West exists, not in any way we might recognize. He is a toy box that you can remember, but which you may not play with.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out the Monday before Thanksgiving. I had been writing for the Ithaca Post for some time and promised Fenchel that I would do something with it. But did you see the scores this album racked up? A debut on Metacritic with 100% (the score has since diminished to 92). The first time I listened to Fantasy, I thought I was in love. I was afraid to say it was as supreme as Late Registration, but perhaps, I thought, this album will be second best. I listened to it two times in a row, and then I began to wonder if the album was not an absolute failure. I couldn’t understand the music. I couldn’t articulate a thing about it, not one sensation or moment of joy or sadness. My inner resources, they were cold. I turned off the lights in my residence and I opened the window. Touché! I shouted down to the street. Oh, what America is this in which all of your best ghosts become alive again with feelings and opinions? I took out a notepad and wrote, but instead of my thoughts, I could only write down some of my favorite lyrics of all time. Donald Fagan: “You were obsolete/Look at all the white men on the street.”
Kipper tried to convince me that the album could not be enjoyed because of Kanye West himself.
And what do you mean by that?
That’s what the New York Times says. They say it’s wonderful, but they say that it is tainted.
Yes, by his person. You know about the Twitter.
The Taylor Swift episode.
All for a Beyonce video, I mumbled.
Yet I was not satisfied with this interpretation of the record. I became drawn again and again to the sample used on “Champion,” the second track on Graduation. Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne.” I believed that a vapor was gathering around my head. What’s important is not the sample West uses, but what he leaves out: You were obsolete, sings Fagan, Look at all the white men on the street. That reference to MJ’s passing in “All of the Lights.” How were they connected? Or rather, was Kanye West obsolete or had he become one of the white men on the street?
A week ago, Kipper came into my office. She wore a flapper hat and a t-shirt that said North Korea with a picture of the World Trade Center above the type. Post-irony. I had just fired up the music-pute and was listening to Atlas Sound’s Bedroom Databank Volume 3.
Not artificial enough for you, said Kippers when she heard my choice of music.
How do you mean? I love the Deerhunter. So tender. So moody.
Minimal use of synths, she said. There is some bedroom techno.
Yes, well, I do prefer artificial music, as you know. Though, Bradford Cox is close to becoming second dimension. So what’s the news? I was just about to put my shades on and pretend that I was a music critic, using my inner resources, of course.
Kipper pretended like nothing was up. She smiled up to the left air, like a little birdie were there doing air circles and she was following the creature with her eyes.
There’s no news, she said. What makes you think that?
Come on now, I told her. Give it up. I was about to sink into the acoustic ambience.
The Ithaca Post has scheduled an interview for you with Mr. West.
Excuse me, I said. Please repeat.
Oh, it’s only that you have an interview with the elusive brilliant Kanye West, who has been said to reside in secluded opulence.
No, I said, it can’t be.
Aren’t you excited?
He doesn’t exist, I said.
But you love his music, she said.
No … I mean, I do, but this new album …
A masterpiece, said Kipper.
Please, I said. We have worked together for so long. I want to be honest with you. Can I be honest with you?
She nodded and gave herself endearing baby lips, an expression of sympathy.
Kipper, I said, I can’tlisten to that album anymore. I’m afraid that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is destroying my life!
This is the first installment of a two-part essay. The second part will be published on Thursday, December 9.
David Nelson Pollock is a co-founding editor of Essays & Fictions and a frequent contributor to The Ithaca Post.