Race, Gender, Croissants, and the Dangers of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

In Art, Personal, Pop Culture on 2013/10/22 at 08:01

The previous time I recognized the song someone else was blasting out of their headphones next to me on the bus it was Katy Perry’s “Peacock.” Do the people who blast their music so loud know we can all hear it? I assumed this guy didn’t, because I can’t think of a more embarrassing song to be listening to, though his overall fabulousness and the way he bobbed his head to the beat made me think he probably didn’t care what some breeder like me would think of his musical taste. If I had to describe the thirty-something-year-old Perry fan in a word it would probably be…sassy.

This time was a little different. Again, I assumed the man next to me didn’t know I could hear his music. Again, I fantasized about getting his attention and warning him about the very real dangers of permanent hearing loss (Seriously kids, turn your music down). However, instead of merely being able to laugh off hearing someone sincerely enjoy a song that only exists to supply the least poetic phallic wordplay in recent memory, I actually was interested to know what was going through the mind of the person listening to Kanye West’s new album Yeezus with me. I’d heard one track before and recognized his voice on the material I wasn’t familiar with yet, and as we rode along and later when I listened to some of the tracks more closely through my own headphones, I reflected on hip-hop, fame, race, and misogyny.

I’m usually not one to let my impressions of an artist’s personality affect my appreciation of their work. I’m as amazed and disturbed by the implications of Tom Cruise’s ascent into religion-fuelled mania as anyone, but I still watched all the Mission: Impossible movies and enjoyed them because I think Tom Cruise is a good actor. However, hip-hop as a medium seems to demand a significant infusion of the artist’s personality into the work — most hip-hop artists talk about themselves more than anything else — and this makes it impossible for me to cut Kanye West the same slack as Tom Cruise.

Fundamentally I think my problem is that I just don’t get Kanye West. He’s an enigma. I want to believe that the idiotic bravado of a suburban kid who dropped out of art school to pursue hip-hop stardom is all an extremely successful, self-aware, Andy Kauffman-esque performance piece that I’m supposed to be laughing at. Only Kanye west could declare himself a god multiple times, rhyme massage with restaurant and croissant, and devote thirty seconds of track time to the sounds of panicked screaming all in the same song (I am a God) but still end up with a chart-topping album, and I can appreciate how amazing it is that he somehow pulled that off. I’m laughing, but I’m not sure if Kanye’s laughing with me, and even if he is, I don’t think we’re laughing at the same joke.

Thanks again to Stevie Driscoll

Thanks again to Stevie Driscoll

Just because Kanye West has only ever been arrested (along with his bodyguard) for assaulting paparazzi, he still, like many hip-hop artists, has something to say about the incarceration of huge numbers of African Americans. In “New Slaves” he draws our attention to the privately owned American prison system and their propensity to “lock niggas up.” Of course, if you’re expecting any deeper analysis of the issue or exploration of the experience of the prison-industrial system, you will be disappointed. Kanye West’s message to the DEA and Corrections Corporation of America employees (who he imagines safe in their homes in the Hamptons) is a threat of sexual violence against their wives:

“I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse, came on her Hampton blouse, and in her Hampton mouth.”

In fact, the entirety of “New Slaves” is tinged with the all too familiar misogyny that is displayed so unapologetically in far too much hip-hop, but especially notable in a song that begins with a remembrance of the artist’s mother:

“My momma was raised in the era when clean water was only served to the fairer skin.”

In the end, solid as Kanye’s skills as a producer may be (if you can ignore the hilarity of his lyrics, a lot of the album can be enjoyable), if I’m going to listen to hip-hop (be it by choice or otherwise), I’d  much rather listen to Binary Star, who also released a new album this year (their song “Wait” explores the African American experience of the prison industrial system in a far more visceral way than Kanye ever could, and though it still sadly descends into misogyny in the later verses, the end result is still far more interesting than Kanye throwing Maybach keys in “New Slaves”) or the always amazing Saul Williams.

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