Deciphering new-school Kanye
Published: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
Kanye West’s new song, “White Dress,” seemed to come out of nowhere. It’s a record off the soundtrack to super producer RZA’s new martial arts film, The Man with the Iron Fists. RZA said he simply played a scene featuring the gorgeous Lucy Liu for West, and the rapper decided to bless the scene with this track. It doesn’t feel like RZA’s account tells the full story, though.
Kanye has been on a more narcissistic level for the majority of this year. He was almost alienating his audience as he told tales of his almost-too-shapely-for-comfort girlfriend, his ridiculously expensive requests – who’d really have the nerve to ask Def Jam for that much money – and indulgence.
“White Dress” sounds almost completely different from the Kanye of late. Here we have the vulnerable West instead of the impenetrable one heard in “Mercy” and “Cold.” This track has all the Kanye tropes he originally became known for: a soulful beat, humorous one-liners and inward introspection.
As a result, some fans praised “White Dress,” not because it’s a great song on its own but because it was the return of the “Old” Kanye. One criticism about recent Kanye West releases was how self-absorbed he came across compared to the socially conscious West of pre-2006.
But consider this: What if “Old” and “New” Kanye are one in the same? Look beyond the Louis Vuitton apparel and larger-than-life attitude, and you’ll see they both represent the same core aesthetic.
First, it’s hard to say Kanye was humble to begin with; humility doesn’t inspire that much change in a genre like hip-hop. What ultimately defines Kanye as an artist is his ability to change the hip-hop landscape with his musicianship rather than his attitude.
Additionally, his craft was always evolving throughout his dominant run last decade. Therefore, it would be counterproductive to his art to continue playing the role of this producer-turned-rapper who introduced backpack rap to the mainstream. “Old” and “New” Kanye don’t exist because to be Kanye the Artist, you’d have to be a changing artistic force regardless.
These changes have been crucial to the state of hip-hop. The classic street raps of The Diplomats collective – among others – were a force on the charts in the mid-00s.
But suddenly, this middle-class rapper – a stereotype with nearly no street cred – grabbed our attention with The College Dropout. Our attention turned from the gangster ideology to religion (“Jesus Walks”), the consequences of materialism (“All Falls Down”) and outright humor (“The New Workout Plan”).
West further advanced his complex production method for the following year’s Late Registration. He was still speaking on social issues, but this time West’s pop ambitions were more fully realized. It was impossible to escape “Gold Digger” (and that hilariously controversial hook), and “Diamonds from Sierra Leone (remix)” with Jay-Z is still a playlist essential.
Graduationsaw Kanye turn into the more self-assured artist we see today – at this point you couldn’t tell him nothing (“Can’t Tell Me Nothing”). However, the album portrayed a strong electronic influence but still ranked among the decade’s higher-quality releases. We saw many artists following in the synth-flavored production style soon after. His next album, 808s and Heartbreak, led fellow artists to further buy into the dreaded autotune craze.
His next project cast Kanye as more of the social pariah. With the Taylor Swift incident and his self-imposed exile, he gradually became one of the examples of what was wrong with popular hip-hop artists: arrogant, elitist, obnoxious and hedonistic. But he took all those negative attributes, embraced them and molded them into this opaque, almost avant-garde tour de force: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s the most recent album on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list.
It’s hard to say there are definitions of “Old” and “New” Kanye because of how much he changes as an artist. His ambitions as a musician would never allow him to stay stagnant – he’s too self-conscious to do so. That’s why the “we” in the line “We all self-conscious/I’m just the first to admit it” is so crucial in “All Falls Down.”
In a sense, West casts himself as a character in “All Falls Down” – a song about insecurities. Kanye the Artist has to constantly perfect himself – everything from his craft to his very character. This is flawed because he’s human.
Some of the criticism of the “New” Kanye revolves around how much he portrays himself as impenetrable, instead of the relatable College Dropout-era artist.
But what is more relatable than the flawed pursuit of perfection?