Sixty years before Yeezus, Kanye West’s sixth solo album, another Chicago artist released a contreversial work, one with a lot of paralells. Published 12 years after Native Son, Richard Wright’s The Outsider had less to do with his earlier gifts as a novelist and more about his violent mood and the au courant literary trends of the time. Like Son, the novel was a sensationalist potboiler that centered around the political ramifications of the murder of a white person( or in the outsider’s case, 4), but where that novel had enough of a character dynamic to make you believe the author was divorced from the murderer (Wright’s preface to it was “How Bigger Was Born”),Outsider read like a flat narrative monologue that skated inches from a defense of the act. The book was a stylistic departure for him as well: Whereas Son benefited from Wright’s idiomatic narrative voice, naturalistic but literary enough to carry a story a lot better than Dreiser ever could, Outsider fed the reader page after page of ideas of warmed over Sartre, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. Read now, the novel has more of a kinship with such murder fantasies as Norman Mailer’s American Dream, and ragey, diaristic tantrums as Philip Roth’s My Life as a Man, much more of a kingship than the average Wright fan would care to admit.
Unlike the two novels I just mentioned, The Outsider ushered Wright out of the polite literary company of the time. With the Publication of Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), Maud Martha (Gwendolyn Brooks) and Go Tell It on the Mountain (James Baldwin), the public had newer, much more literary voices that Wright, ones that wouldn’t trade in on base stereotypes to get the public’s attention. Though Dr King did visit him before he died, a burgeoning civil rights movement had no use for Wright’s scattered statements on communism, and the need for quasi-fascistic states in Africa. Away from the Chicago that nourished a streak of wit and humor in his short fiction, Wright’s harping on the deficiencies of the black experience, his inability to grant the slightest bit of agency to black people even though that agency included swallowing buckets of blood, had all but erased his core reading audience. If that wasn’t enough, the FBI harassed and tortured him to his death, so much so that there is more that credible evidence that his passing had something to do with government hands.
Worse than all that for him was his posthumous reappraisal. Wright had somewhat of a late life conversion to feminism: In Pagan Spain, he had gone to see a culture between Europe and Africa, wound up horrified by the patriarchal system he saw in relationship to prostitution and religion, and wrote as such. But by the mid 60’s, Wright the existentialist psycho killa was the only one most African American literary men could see. From the triggering rages of Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, and Eldridge Cleaver, to the somewhat soft core parlor bile of Stokely “the position of white women in the movement is prone” Carmichael, the ideas of Wright at his worst-the domination, murder and rape of white women as a political act, the subjugation, violence, and stereotyping towards women of color, and the fixation toward a white audience as the only audience to address-were entrenched in academia, cresting in on a perfect storm of white nihilist hipster progressive thought, and a hyper masculine black civil rights movement that turned into black power. The good of Wright, the novelist who could write a layered story that shocked America by showing the pit of black anger, the essayist who told more brutal truths about the pain of the black experience than any one else at the time, and the intellectual who, though he stumbled badly at times, had a painstaking and powerful evolution as a writer, was interred in his bones. The protest killa, sadly, lived on.
Unlike Wright, Kanye West did not come from the gnawing, traumatic poverty and abuse that marked his existence. Also unlike Wright, West has a built in core audience of disaffected White and Black Progressive men, of which he has exquisitely tailored Yeezus to. At 10 tracks, West has choreographed a hipster man baby altar call, full of ironic pitchfork friendly signifiers( “ so what if I use white women as device for racial and sexual revenge, I MADE A FUNNY ABOUT CROISSANTS”) and post-racial musical sneers at the tradition of sampling that he helped bring to a mass audience. Worse, it is a continuation of the frightening tradition Wright started, and one West had adhered and popularized to more than any African American male figure in pop culture since Cleaver. Quite simply,Yeezus is the nightmare of progressive history draped in atonal futuristic noise.
West first three albums, (College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation) had nothing as esoteric, layered, or complex as the best records of J-Dilla, Pete Rock, and DJ Premiere. What they did have were a trove of great and powerful pop songs, benefited by enough of a check and balance system of his own conscience to make his nihilist outbursts somewhat interesting. That all changed with 808 and Heartbreak, a ragey meltdown directed at his ex fiancé Alexis, a breakup album in which West admits adultery and emotional cruelty and…still harbors hurt feelings and murderous fantasies toward her because she left. The West of 808, this frightfully touchy art house neurotic who sputtered into a rage at the inkling of someone holding him to a standard, grew worse by My Beautiful Dark Twistedfantasy, a bloated Wagnerian barge of an album filled with defenses of domestic violence and abuse; topped off by his response to Taylor Swift’s…just being there when he interrupted her award show…which caused West to…threaten to kill her?
In Yeezus, West takes the somewhat soft core route , packaging them in self pitying Outsider style revenge fantasies. Critics have pointed to On Sight and New Slaves as a return for West to his political voice, but on both songs, West’s vision of a political black revolution is a white woman reduced to sexual cattle. Black Skinhead, the best song of the album, is wrecked by a sexual boast (“300 bitches, and I’m zoning”) that is a fraction of an inch from the sexual ridiculousness of Cleaver in his Codpiece pants era. Hold My Liquor, a creepy, invasive sexual kiss off to Alexis, could easily pass off a narrative in any of the dysfunctional early tales of Black Male/female relationships in Wright’s fiction, in which black women are seen as secondary vessels of sexual dysfunction and violence. (And why in god’s name must any black person answer for Chief Keef, the grumbling child psychopath on Liquor’s hook? Keef got six million dollars from Jimmy Iovine and hasn’t had a song 6,000 feet near a black chart. In the 400 year history of African Americans in this nation, can you think of a preeminent black artist with less black support?)
But the music, you ask? There are bits and pieces of interesting new ideas, primarily the atonal new wave influenced melodies on I’m In It, and the structure ofBound 2 is appealing to hear if you ignore the times when West opens his mouth( “A good girl is worth a thousand bitches” ? ) But Yeezus is musically dictated by his understanding of black triggers and the audience that gets off on them. West always had an eye on his street team at the complacencies of a crossover audience, he even said as such in the 12 minute outro to College Dropout. (That concern gave interesting tension to Late Registration and Graduation, especially on Can’t Tell Me Nothing, where West foreshadows the figure he has become now. )
Yet surrounding that eye has been a mind that understood the complex nature of black music history. The Creator of Ill Fly Away and Jesus Walks, the man who talks about his mother’s involvement in the civil rights movement, is many things, but he is not an idiot. West understands that if you put a Sample of Nina Simone’s cover of strange fruit over a track complaining about a baby momma (Blood on the Leaves), your only purpose is to start a fight with black folks. You are following in the tradition of The Help, Tony Hoagland’s race poetry, David Mamet’s Race play, and the upcoming hit job of a movie on Nina Simone, and you might get hearts a flutter in New Yorker and New York times arts rooms, and the blogs of twenty something white male critics who have a knack of writing reviews about horror-core rap and little else about black folks, but you’re only purpose of creation is to start a fight with black folks.
And do we have the fucking time right now? The popularity of Yeezus, this mass declaration of comfort with a black man as sociopath at the exact moment where a mass of red staters are willing to believe the same thing about Trayvon Martin, believing it at the moment the voting rights act got so effectively dismantled, highlights a lost slice of progressive history: the damage that these psycho sexual coalitions have done to black people and the entire nation. The network that helped Carmichael’s demand that women and Jews abdicate positions of power in the civil rights movement helped annihilate the coalition that got us the voting rights act that we just lost. Networks of rape culture in the SDS and the Black Panthers came together in the 60’s to make sure that a generation of future coalitions didn’t happen.
And in this decade of Troy Davis, Taniesha, Trayvon, Oscar Grant, redlining, bank fraud, and stop and frisk, this nauseous winter of our post racial discontent where we going to fight the same battles so many of our ancestors died over, these intersecting times that try so many souls and call for the gravest of intellectual seriousness and coalition building, so many of us have done nothing but engage in hipster street theater. R Kelly’s statutory rape trials heightening his crossover profile. 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg’s black women slave chain chic. The violent hipster rages of Odd Future and Chief Keef. The vile phenomenon that is Chris Brown. Lil Wayne’s attempt to slice and salt some of black America deepest wounds this year with his references to Emmett Till and dark skinned black women. Hip hop and R&B in the past 10 years has been a Willie Lynch narrative greater, more wounding and more powerful than the myth of Willie Lynch itself; with black male artists getting money, clothes and privileges from a mass white male audience for performing acts that, basically, amount to them doing their dirty work.
In Yeezus, however, the dirty work is primarily aimed at white women, with West giving said work the imprimatur of political importance. He is the stage manager in this psychotic play now, and who knows what fresh hell he will take the story to in the near future. Who knows if he will modulate his hustle the same way Baraka, Bullins and Carmichael did with Academia, or be submerged by his demons like a crack addled Cleaver. Who knows if another generation will see West as the early artist of genuine gifts and musical intelligence, or the sociopathic adult toddler he is now (the emo version of Wright’s violent hero in The Outsider). The only thing I am sure of is this: In their division of labor that dehumanizes white women and women of color, the racial and sexual aesthetics that Kanye West have adopted are the progressive movement’s greatest sin against humanity.