Kanye West and The New Aesthetic

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“…a new way of understanding our screen-obsessed lives, packaged into a putative conceptual movement that had a provocative clarity that propelled it through the valleys of the Internet to art, fashion, media, and marketing. It had a symbol: the drone. And a name: the New Aesthetic.

– Andrew Blum, “Children of the Drone,” Vanity Fair, 06/12/13

When I heard that Rodney King had died, two details in particular stuck out to me. One was that he died in a swimming pool. The other was that, earlier that day, somebody had heard him scream.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan, “A Clear Presence,” Guernica Magazine, 06/17/13

So go and grab the reporters

So I can smash their recorders

See they’ll confuse us with some bullshit

Like the New World Order

– Kanye West, “New Slaves,” Yeezus, Def Jam Records, released 06/18/13

I know it’s a coincidence that Kanye West’s apocalyptic new album, Yeezus, was released shortly after I came across the two essays linked above, but there’s something that feels pre-ordained about it, dare I say providential. 

Industrial, militant, and emotionally muddled if not opaque, Yeezus sounds if anything like the soundtrack to a drone strike. West’s most racially conscious album yet, unselfconsciously set in the glittering penthouses and luxury cars of Los Angeles that paradoxically remain inaccessible to the vast majority of its residents, the ambiguous and troublesome nature of race and class relations in 2013 are on full display.

West has referenced figures in the global art world several times on previous albums, though curiously not on his latest. Whether he’s personally familiar with “network realism” movement led James Bridle, dubbed “The New Aesthetic,” I have no idea, but it’s not unlikely. 

Regardless, the distorted, curiously distant nature of instant digital communication explored by The New Aesthetic’s adherents is the backdrop for West’s pounding, provocative, ennui-laden production. The musical backdrop alone is enough to continue West’s streak as one of the most innovative and singular musicians of our times. Who else is sampling Hungarian prog band Omega on the same album as anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit,” with production assists from figures as diverse as Rick Rubin, Daft Punk, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon? Who else could even try? Yeezus is a rare study in contradictions that still manages to feel cohesive, with West serving as an auditory curator bringing the avant-garde to the masses.

Yet a study in contradictions it remains, like much of Kanye’s work. “Hypocrite” is a common charge leveled at ‘Ye, and for good reason. He raps about the oppression of corporatism and consumerism with ferocity one day, and posts a Cartier watch on Instagram the next. He indicts the system while remaining thoroughly a part of it, and a well-compensated one at that.

But should a pop artist, even one as ambitious as Mr. West, be expected to act as a paragon of consistency, let alone morality? After all, the wealthy beneficiaries of capitalism have always been among its most ardent critics – Thomas Jefferson criticized slavery in his writings while drawing his fortune from it. 

The alternating ignorance and indignation of Yeezus mirrors the same distraction found in his audience, whether the middle-class liberal who decries the “new Jim Crow” of mandatory minimums before returning to Call of Duty or the next generation of young black men (e.g. Kanye protégé Chief Keef) who aspire to the wealth and consumption habits of the upper classes while despising the current inhabitants – and any values they may hold dear.

Does Kanye West ever think of the “real” Los Angeles ten miles outside of Beverly Hills, the working-class neighborhoods like the one where a broken-down, alcoholic Rodney King drowned in his swimming pool? I doubt it, but does anyone else? Is there anyone left with the energy to protest the fact that the man who beat Mr. King to a bloody pulp on camera remains a captain in the Los Angels Police Department? Anyone other than Christopher Dorner, the unstable and murderous ex-cop who cited King’s attacker in his eerie manifesto.

Sometimes all you can do is scream into the void, and that’s where Yeezus excels. West is a hypocrite, sure, and may well be a detestable human being, though I hesitate to judge anyone based on their public persona. But like him or not, he is plugged into the zeitgeist of the post-recession, networked, constantly-monitored world, offering up a dark mirror to the America of remote, sanitized warfare, of roiling worldwide revolutions, of debt-fueled conspicuous consumption with no end in sight. 

Who else is willing to interrupt, even briefly, the orgiastic last days of Pompeii, pausing to revel in the miasma of repulsion and desire? Who else is going to stare directly into the Saturday Night Live cameras and tear into the prison-industrial complex?  Who else has the chutzpah to even try? As the saying goes, if Kanye West did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

He is unbound id filtered through silicon chips and glossy screens. He assumes guilt for his own sins, but not yours or mine or anyone else’s. He wants the acclamation of Christ without the sacrifice. Don’t we all?

B-b-b-bonus Tracks! 

- Seriously, read Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s essay right now. I’m still digesting it, but there’s something incredibly powerful in her writing, especially the way she draws connections between art, culture, and politics (something I’ve clumsily tried to imitate above). 

- This was supposed to be a straightforward review of Yeezus before I got sidetracked with all that other nonsense. Weirdly, I think the actual album on its musical merits alone gets maybe an 8.5/10 from me, and at least at this point My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy remains Ye’s masterpiece. 

- In terms of production quality, cultural importance, etc., I think Yeezus is an important piece of artistic expression – what keeps it from pure greatness is that it’s not quite up to what Kanye is capable of lyrically. Too often he settles for empty sexual/lifestyle boasting that we’ve heard a million times before, or lame pop culture references (“Don’t judge ‘em Joe Brown.”) According to Rick Rubin, Kanye came up with a lot of the lyrics last-minute, and it shows. 

- To sort of embody those last two points, I think it says a lot that Kanye picked the two most racially/socially-conscious and provocative songs (“Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves”) to serve as his pre-release and SNL performances. We kind of expect weird shit from Kanye at this point, but step back for a second and try to think of any other top-selling pop artist who takes artistic expression seriously enough (yes, to the point of vanity) to base an album around something like slavery.

- That Pompeii reference above was inspired by a trip to the fantastic Pompeii exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which fits in nicely with the themes of “Decadence, Apocalypse, and Resurrection” also found on Yeezus. Go check it out!

- Yeezus is supposed to mark West’s ascension to the rap pantheon (I think), yet it is not really a rap album – West leaves the mantle of more classic hip-hop to young impresarios like J.Cole and Joey Bada$$, while oddly enough the older man continues his experimental streak.

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