Friday, October 3, 2008

The Weirdo: Kanye

"We're all actors. Don't fear no rappers, they're all weirdos, DeNiros in practice, so don't believe everything your earlobe captures..." -Jay-Z

Hip hop is genre that is authentic and false all at once. Lately, as mainstream rap has become more commodified the falseness of it has prevailed (as it has in almost every other form of music). That is not to say that there isn't excellence and creativity in the fiction of it. You can liken a rap persona to that of a superhero's alter ego. (I know I'm treading in foreign territory here but, whatever.) It's a means of elevation and separation. You can be gorier, grittier, flashier, sexier, even more clever or pseudo intelligent from behind a mask because its a filter that protects the ego. These masks can be as concealing as full body armor or the disguise can be as minimalist as a pair of spectacles but they do the job of creating a curious but at times necessary barrier between the artist and the audience.

We think we want to see whats behind the facade but we also don't. It's like watching an action movie. You're excited to see whether or not the hero will be unmasked and the anticipation and wonder grows as some horrific circumstance leaves him in a situation where his guise begins to crack or shred or tatter. Our interest is piqued by those cracks and glimpses of flesh beneath the hard exterior but if some circumstance forced our hero to spill out of his suit to reveal that all along he was a regular- ass guy, we would be roundly disappointed (Note: When I say regular-ass guy I don't just mean not superhuman, I mean not even above average human. Think 'Joe Sixpack' or whoever the fuck that bitch was talking about the other night.) For perspective, think of how you felt when you listened to Young Buck plead uncomfortably with 50 Cent (textbook rap superhero) for financial relief. Even those who were admittedly sensitive to his predicament were decidedly uncomfortable with the whole business. No one wants to see Bruce Banner taken out with a round to the back of the head while he's taking a shit and reading the newspaper. Most artists realize this and their work tends to be a balancing act of projection interspersed with brief introspective turns. The talented among them can mine their pasts and present for stirring emotion to make the art piece complete.

Then there are the others. They tend to fall into the category of conscious rapper but there are variables to this rule as there are for anything else. Even if they have a rap name they appear plain by comparison to their armored, roided, counterparts (eg: Common, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, etc.,) However, despite their perceived normalcy these artists also exist fictionally and can be known to demonstrate character plasticity and lyrical prowess in the form of mild misogyny or violence the likes of which no Wasalu or Lonnie would ever involve themselves with (allegedly). "Murder niggas/step on my shoes I hurt a nigga/Kill a nigga/Fill a nigga with holes/Call women hoes" -Lupe on 'Switch: Science Project' *

This brings me to Kanye West. It would seem as though Mr. West had no mask or costume. Yes, there's a knack for bombast and primadonna drama but it also is accompanied by a heightened sense of his own flaws and insecurities. His alter ego is to a costume as your mood is to when you put on a nice suit. You look good, you feel good and important, you may even spend more, laugh more, and be more charming/obnoxious, but you're still you. You can walk into the building feeling like a million bucks but in the back of your mind your wondering if those P.Y.T's in the corner would still be winking at you if they could see your credit score. I believe it is this perceived lack of filter that makes Kanye interesting, and the fact that he may actually have one that makes him Kanye. His rap mask is similar to the one he uses in real life. He grew up as a member of the average middle class and on his debut College Dropout most, if not all, of his stories were about relatable aspects of everyday life, hating your job, swiping your vulnerabilities on your charge card, being pitifully flawed and jubilantly human and wildly inappropriate. But despite that, Ye seems as though he is something not quite like us.

Kanye, by his own explanation, is often misunderstood. Most assholes are. And the cause and effect of what comes first can be 'chicken and egged' ad nauseum. I briefly brought up this concept of the awkward genius/outcast in my Ryan Leslie post but I can revisit it here. Ye has a drive and talent that is above average, and also a uniqueness and sensitivity that has most likely made him different throughout his life. Ryan Leslie falls in this category as well however he seems to be struggling against his own personality to be received the way Ye had been. To try to understand the difference, and since I love analogies, we can liken the industry dynamics to high school dynamics. Kanye and Leslie are basically outcasts with symbiotic relationships to the in crowd. They are not respected for physical prowess, nor are they necessarily poetically attractive, and being bullied remains a threatening possibility (see Beanie Siegel). But they both know that if the star athletes want to play on the team this season they're gonna need someone to help them do their math homework. Using this leverage they got exposure to the popular lifestyle that more traditional talents will get you and they have managed to turn the benefits of their arrangements into something of their own. Here is where Ye and R. Les differ. Leslie feels he is better than the varsity in crowd and does not really bother himself with attempting to fit into their click. He wants popularity outside of what they can offer him and views them as a platform. It reads as disdain for them and their world. So whether it be a reaction to his inability to fit in or the cause of it he operates on an isolated wavelength and he does not make an effort to assign himself a role in their circles or begin humbly and move up their ranks. He feels he is superior and can not or will not pretend to be anything other than. He is more the elitist nerd.

If Kanye feels his brand of talent is superior to that of the jock he does not make that apparent. In gaining popularity he used his 'in' to gain a title. He could have just been the weirdo but he used the 'class clown' persona to gain their good graces and deflect some of the expected negative attention (she got a light skinned friend/ look like Michael Jackson...) For all of Kanye's bombast he is self deprecating and silly, especially in his introduction, College Dropout. He points out his flaws to prevent you from pointing them out as well as to make you more comfortable with his uniqueness. He has maintained this technique and it adds to his intriguing fragility. His ability to emphasize his relationship to the average despite being an 'other' is what got him his honorary letters (R.O.C.) and from there he developed a following of his own. As his popularity grows he no longer has to impress the jocks but can push himself and his own expression. He in fact, must do this, in order to get into the good graces of the next crowd, the eclectic Chris and Gwyneth, Karl Lagerfeld circles.

I'm gonna stop here for now and continue later when I feel like it (probably soon though). I had intended to end with my review of 'Love Lockdown' but I'll make that it's own post.

*used as an example because it makes me giggle.