September is the Cruelest Month: The Event Horizons and Turning Points of Kanye West

B. Michael Payne steps into the arena. It must feel weird being even a relatively old-school hip-hop head. Back in the late 90s and early 00s, you only knew Kanye West as a Roc-a-Fella producer with...
By    September 13, 2012

B. Michael Payne steps into the arena.

It must feel weird being even a relatively old-school hip-hop head. Back in the late 90s and early 00s, you only knew Kanye West as a Roc-a-Fella producer with occasional placements on semi-underrated Jay-Z projects. The College Dropout leak and College Dropout album were game changers, but for critics, they often had more to do with narrative — i.e. making the leap from producer to rapper and bringing together backpacks and Bentleys. A decade later, it’s illegal in Dubai to stare directly into Yeezy’s Gucci shades. Oh yeah, and my mom knows what a “Yeezy” is. Things done changed.

This morning, I was listening to the sixteen songs that comprise the first G.O.O.D. Fridays collection. With Cruel Summer out (or at least leaked — someone’s not getting any fishes for breakfast anymore), I wanted to get a sense of proportion on it all. And I made it 50 seconds into “Power” (Remix) before I realized that this will never work. It’s basically impossible to chart the development of the Kanye West Musical Experience from even 2010 to today because everything is different.

I can’t hear “Power” without thinking about the splashy SNL appearance — that red leather outfit set off against the all white set, the golden leafy crown, those chains, and of course, the performance itself. I can’t hear any version of “Power” without thinking about its place on the album, nestled in between the appropriately titled “Gorgeous” and the regal “All Of The Lights.” I especially can’t hear the “Power” remix without thinking about how blogs — not just music blogs — breathlessly wrote about how it did or did not match up to other versions floating around the internet.

The thing is: in 2010, Kanye West tipped. It’s something I think about a lot, since at some point, probably the moment I sat down in a quiet, dark apartment and watched Runaway three or four times in a row. For me, Kanye West became the most important musical artist/performer/person-I-don’t-actually-‘know’ in the world. I wrote something brief about the experience, but at the time, I didn’t think it was necessarily galvanizing for Kanye agnostics. Looking back that was pretty dumb because I’d previously been one of said agnostics.

A year later, I wrote 10,000 words in five days about Kanye for One Week One Band, and oddly, I still haven’t finishing thinking about him as a musical and cultural phenomenon. Even though I did, like, hours of “research”, it didn’t even really give me a lot of historical perspective. Kanye was obviously popular prior to 2010. I mean, the dude was on the cover of Rolling Stone as Jesus. But in 2010, he reached an event horizon, which, if you haven’t already bounced to Wikipedia, is a scientific term that’s gotten appropriated by pop culture wonks and screenwriters to mean a “point of no return” or an event beyond which it’s impossible to conceive of going backward. Kanye’s whole 2010, er, thing was an event horizon, and it’s virtually impossible — thought I constantly try — to compare him as a musical artist, at least, from then to now.

Event horizons aren’t uncommon in musical careers, but they shouldn’t be confused with plot-churning contretemps. For example, “Creep” was turning point in Radiohead’s career, but OK Computer and the whole media obsession was an event horizon. Britney Spears jumping from Mouseketeer to molester-bait was a turning point. When she went basically crazy and shaved her head, that was an event horizon. The death of Biggie was a tragic turning point, but the death of Tupac was an event horizon since he’s gone on to release more albums and even perform via holo-Pac, You might notice something about all the aforementioned examples: most music event horizons are bad.

However, Kanye’s event horizon has been mostly good (ed. note: “mostly”). The media blitz that culminated with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was an event horizon in an artistic arc marked by many turning points, not all great. The Jon Brion twist of Late Registration was a turning point, and so was the auto-tune sorta-artistry of 808s and Heartbreak. The Kanye West v. Taylor Swift debacle was a turning point, and so was “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

But after MBDTF, Kanye West went from taking political pot shots on telethons to (collaboratively) making one of the biggest, most confused political albums of all-time. Previously, he was just the most popular nouveau riche rapper who bought out shopping malls. After MBDTF, it was hard to imagine Kanye even looking at a shopping mall. I’m sure Kanye now travels through a series of pneumatic tubes to his network of fashion designer friends’ mansions. Maybe he’s buddies with Ted Stevens, and that’s why the Senator from Alaska thought the Internet was a series of tubes. Honest mistake.

The leap to 808s and Heartbreak might seem greater than the one from it, but it’s not. For all the mythology surrounding Kanye’s auto-tune break-up album, it’s not that weird. If you were to catch VH1 Storytellers with Kanye West, you’d see that its austere sad-sackery is actually just the comedown after Graduation and Late Registration. You’d also find a weird defense of OJ Simpson; Kanye quoting that “die a hero or live to be a villain” line a few years before Jay did on “Monster”; and the amazingly frank line: “My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see me perform. So you are welcome to know a pleasure I will never have.”

Go back to the text: Kanye even says that “Touch the Sky” inspired 808s and Heartbreak because he would riff and sing over the extended live coda. And if you really think about it, the weirdest thing about 808s and Heartbreak, to me, is that it has absurdly long codas, as if at the end of any song Kanye may want to ramble on.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was different. The roll out of the album leveraged dramatic pressure to make a crater-sized impression. The slow roll of singles, the SNL performance, the G.O.O.D. Music releases — getting Raekwon and Justin Bieber on the same song, and that fact being just another line item in a press release. Add it to the Fader cover, the fashion shows, Runaway, which was supposedly “inspired” by Fellini and Kubrick. Kanye engineered a promotional effort befitting the unveiling of a Pyramid. And to this day, bloggers are still trying to decipher his “Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh? / I put the pussy in a sarcophagus” line.

The album is a maximalist epic during a time of small wonders. I don’t hear a bad song on the album. You could say the posse cuts in the middle of the album were weak, but I disagree. “Monster” strongly contributed to launching Nicki Minaj’s career to mainstream audiences. “So Appalled” and “Devil In A Dress” would be peaks on other albums; here, they’re just sea level. That’s not ignoring, “All Of The Lights”, “Runaway”, “Lost In The World” — and other moments — like “Power”, “Monster”, and “Gorgeous” — that make you really sit down and wonder why other rappers with similar means struggle to piece together halfway decent songs.

Listen to the tambourine ping-ponging across channels during Chris Rock’s monologue in “Blame Game.” There’s an attention to detail and a will to make the perfect album. This is what separates My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy from almost every other album in recent memory. After Kanye came out with MBDTF, no one else could sleep or half ass it or phone in a few tracks. Not if they wanted to say they’re the best in the game, and I don’t think I’ve hear a rapper say otherwise. That’s an event horizon.

So now, after a really large detour, it’s going to be tough evaluating Cruel Summer. For one, I honestly think Kanye West is insanely talented, and given the songs we’ve already heard, I have no reason to think the album — despite the unaccountable presence of Big Sean — will be anything less than awesome. At the same time, it’s going to be hard to place it within the context of Kanye’s career (an in-law version of Roc La Familia?, how do the collaborations stack up against his own albums?, etc.).

It’s even harder to place G.O.O.D. Music in the current musical landscape. Sure, Lord$ Never Worry is adequate, but A$AP Mob is comparatively still sitting at the kids table. Same with TDE, Brick Squad, Green Ova, and every other rap crew. Even Maybach Music Group still releases posse albums that are largely ignored. It seems almost unfair to compare Kanye West  to other rappers and musical impresarios. Kanye’s become an auteur. He’s more PTA than Rozay.

From listening to the fully realized Cruel Summer a few times, there are a few overarching directions and subtexts to the album that keep it interesting, even excellent, when Kanye’s (vocals, at least) are absent. From the beginning, you can see he’s concerned with Big Picture Feelings and transcendence. He opens big, enlisting R. Kelly to sing a monster hook on “To The World”, which goes in part:

Let me see you put your middle fingers up
Middle fingers up
To the world
To the world

Listening to the song, it becomes immediately clear to me what Chris Brown’s role in life is: to make everyone forget anything bad about R. Kelly so he can continue to make awesome music unfettered. Kanye’s verse is sort of boilerplate. Chi town. Rich white guys have it made. Etc. He does end with a pretty funny line, though: “R. Kelly and the god of rap shitting on you.”

The middle of the album, roughly from “Clique” to “The One” is a goulash of G.O.O.D. Music posse cuts. We’ve all basically heard “Clique”, “Mercy”, and “New God Flow”. But now, a few different things occurred to me listening to them.

  • It’s weird to think about Jay-Z and Kanye’s relationship. Turning his verse from “Clique” over in my mind this morning, the part where he says,

Yeah I’m talking LeBron, we balling our family tree.
G.O.O.D Music drug dealing cousin, ain’t nothing fuckin’ with.

  • He sets himself up as G.O.O.D. Music’s cousin, but he’s also sort of referring to that line in “Empire State of Mind” (“If Jeezy’s paying LeBron, I’m paying Dwyane Wade”), and the line also calls to mind Kanye’s line on WTT’s “Gotta Have It”,

Ain’t that where the Heat play? Niggas hate ballas these days.
Ain’t that like Lebron James? Ain’t that just like D. Wade?

Maybe Jay’s playing Dwayne Wade and Yeezy’s playing LeBron James at this point. Jay got his championship first, and he helped Kanye achieve at a high level — outplayed him for a few years — but now Kanye’s in his prime and Jay’s ready to retire. The Jay-Z side of the equation has been more or less clear for a few years, but if you think about it, LeBron has just had his best season in his entire career, which culminated in a championship, which isn’t unlike Kanye’s 2010 – 2011 season with MBDTF and WTT.

The only ‘new’ part of “New God Flow” is Ghostface’s coda, which is actually sort of fitting if you think about it. He sells coke to soccer moms. Red light, green light, red tops, red dots. It’s pretty tight, but it also seems like he quotes Pusha T from the last song of the album, “Don’t Like”, when he says, “That’s rare nigga. / Ric Flair nigga.” Or was it the other way around? At this point, all the artists present have so much intertextuality that you could probably say just about any line is an allusion to another line. It’s as if Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley were writing poems for each other, every day, and posting them on their Tumblrs.

The album crams  together different sounds and sorts them on its own. “The Morning” has a beat that sounds awfully similar to the next one, “Cold”, except there’s a sort of tailored production for D’Banj’s hook. It’s somehow, even though there are like fifty dudes on the song, just a really long introduction for “Cold” (née “Theraflu”).

G.O.O.D. Music avoids a lot of the embarrassing trend-hopping moves that should seem like a pretty obvious defect in a project.  So we meet Cocaine 80s, No I.D.’s sort of weird, enigmatic new group, and some kid from Houston named Travi$ Scott, who sounds like Kanye. And, of course, Chief Keef gets a whole song jacked. But overall, the something old/something new strategy works because of the veteran leadership off the bench. Pusha-T is clearly a team captain, but there’s some great efforts by 2 Chainz, R. Kelly, Rae, Ghostface, Jadakiss, and even Ma$E comports himself pretty well, though he drops the sad-making revelation that his wages are being garnished. Sucks, man.

There are a few standout songs that weren’t already released. “Sin City” starts abruptly to good effect. It sounds like a synthesis of “Take One For The Team” and “Blame Game”, and with a solid spoken word segment (by Malik Yusef) and a generally louche atmosphere, you barely notice that Kanye’s absent. The aforementioned “To The World” is outstanding. And surprisingly, so is “Creepers”, a solo Kid Cudi effort. I guess since How To Make It In America got canceled, he found some time to get back to music.

You probably already know that “Clique” is a monster. Hit Boy’s production veers toward the pulsing, space age sound that’s more, say, “Come On A Cone” than “Niggas in Paris”. With its swing and creepy, off-kilter crescendos, the beat suits Jay-Z okay, but really best works best with Ye’s verse. He sounds loose and a lot less angry than he was on Watch The Throne. His verse is lot of fun nonsense (meditating in Pompeii, build a new Rome, no wait design some hotels, etc), but the end of his verse, “But I been talking to god for so long / And if you look at my life I guess he’s talking back” seems like a call back to “Jesus Walks”, a neat inversion that also serves as a pretty ostentatious brag. I fully expect Kanye to work in a Brigham Young reference next time around.

So overall, yeah, Cruel Summer is good. It’s not the best album I’ve heard all year, but I’ll definitely listen to it a bunch. However, it doesn’t really mean much. What does is his continued evolution as an auteur. I keep on thinking about Kanye in terms of filmmakers because it’s clear he wants to run G.O.O.D. Music like an old time movie studio. He has his main guys on contract — Pusha-T, Big Sean, Hit-Boy — then he brings in talent as he sees fit. His projects are more and more cinematic in execution if not in scope. Cruel Summer is more like The Prestige than The Dark Knight. But that just makes me more excited for the next ‘real’ Kanye album.

Conversely, Kanye is also set up to fail spectacularly. He can’t just slink away for a decade like Nas. If (when) he fails, he won’t do it in a small way. That’s another reason why Cruel Summer is sort of meaningless. There’s no way it would tank. It’s pretty good for Kanye, but it simply blows something like Self Made Vol. 2 out of the water. And Kanye probably wouldn’t ever do a short bid in prison like Lil Wayne or T.I. But could he potentially do some crazy murder shit like Phil Spector? Absolutely.

Everything is on the board — and paradoxically, the longer the odds, the more likely a strange bet will pay off. That’s why, post-MBDTF, Kanye West is absolutely going to get everyone’s attention. Cruel Summer is just a bit of a rest, a brief moment of tranquility as we float along with Yeezy toward something spectacular.

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