Kanye West: fame, identity, civilisation

by Gareth Sénèque

“The truth about the world is that anything is possible.”
– Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

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Sydney, 2014. A stage before me, walkway extending into the crowd like the tail of a crucifix laid flat. Smoke and light, red beams either shooting up from the floor or falling from the sky. A man in a mask sings about slavery, falling forward only to immediately spring back, a coil of energy animated by the electricity of the sun.

It is a simple and true statement to say that we are part of Kanye’s fame. We are a fact of that system, a point in the loop. We’re an audience, wheels in an economic machine. Also receivers and senders of culture, transmuting words and images into trends and data. Like all truth claims, this is a simple, but ultimately limited observation to make. What I want to do here is instead attempt to convey something of the experience of this truth. I want to try and describe what it actually feels like to say “we are part of a system of fame” and offer what I think this means for all of us.

I have been told I do not come across as a Kanye West fan. I listen to a lot of heavy music — people screaming and guitars being tortured. This is often complimented by some of Beethoven’s 9th played loudly, for my health. Sometimes I find light in a piece of pop – Huey Lewis, Nicki Minaj, whatever. For me, this art all speaks to the same thing, the same perfect form music is able to express in a way words can’t. Kanye was always missing from this list. He was an object in the culture whose outline or shadow was visible everywhere and yet his music never spoke to me, seemed to be for someone else. That all changed midway through last year.

The first push came from reading that New York Times interview, his announcement that “I am the nucleus”. Then Lou Reed’s almost hagiographic review of Yeezus in Rolling Stone. Finally Rick Rubin telling an interviewer about Kanye’s promise to “score 40 points in the 4th quarter” and deliver lyrics for unfinished songs in the time it would take an ordinary man to find pen and paper. “What?!?” And so over the edge I went.

I was fascinated by the story of limitless ambition and its fulfilment, unable to forget the image of Kanye going up an escalator at Virgin records just before his career took off thinking to himself that this was the last time he’d be able to go out in public without being assaulted by flash photography. It seemed too good to be true, a case study of identity coming into phase. So I ordered one of the 700 copies of Yeezus pressed into translucent vinyl and a half-kilo of pure Kool-Aid, sat down and did some listening.

The album is unique amongst all the music I’ve ever heard. Not better, not worse, but unique. Probably the highest compliment I could pay a piece of art. It was through Yeezus that I discovered Nina Simone and saw Kanye engaging with the rhythm of history in his own way. Smash-cut, it’s one year later and I’m seated in a giant dome seeing the man leap about imploring us to follow him through a maze of meaning. That night, to borrow something once said of Hegel, I saw Kanye discover the past. Live.

And throughout the performance I was treated to so many choice selections from the stream of culture. Images on one of the two big screens behind him warping and shifting, his mask a call to other worlds, the staggering complexity in his use of reference. One example that stuck: in the minutes before he appeared on stage, a haunting, familiar piece of music played from the giant ceiling-suspended speakers. I recognised it – music from the film Koyanaqatsi, composed by Philip Glass. The title means “life out of balance” and many of the film’s scenes are of a vast and silent landscape, littered with the replicated ephemera of industry, cars and containers and empty crates, all that the world’s factories produce daily. The song was followed by, of all things, Darth Vader’s Imperial March. Star Wars is itself a semiotic minefield that includes countless examples of good vs. evil, James Earl Jones as Vader, furries in two opposite sizes and every manner of dead/missing/overbearing parent. The Millenium Falcon’s design was inspired by the hamburger. Kanye kindly gave Kim a transcontinental collection of Burger King franchises as a wedding gift. In a desert whose sand is the detritus of our time, a man kneels and chooses his future, two moons turning in the sky above.

What does this all mean? Anything. Nothing. Many anythings. He shows us the nodes of the simulacra. I doubt even Kanye knows the scale of regressive depth he’s taking us to. We just get closer and closer to that initial soup twelve stops before Product where it’s all just self-similar noise. If anything he knows these things intuitively, through his gift of being able to move from the unknown, his beginning, to where he is now, a path navigationally unimaginable for even the most seasoned of life’s cartographers.

So, his words and images connect otherwise disparate things, and we, as the audience, offer up our lens of perspective, the purpose-built TMZ-schooled eyes through which we consume his performance. This is of course a rough schematic of the relationship between art and culture. The viewer is as contingent to the experience as the thing viewed. In a vacuum all meaning is lost. So Kanye is only half right. He is in fact a nucleus in a sea of nuclei caught in nova, a late stage of the same kind of star.

He opened his tour in Seattle, informing the crowd at the start of the show that “no one man should have this much power”. And yet at every dawn, he wakes as Kanye. At one point in his Sydney gig he grandly claimed that “playing the last twelve years made me realise that I am the Rolling Stones, I am this generation’s Jimi Hendrix”. This is what separates him, his reflexive willingness to self-commentate, to narrate the experience for his audience and further refine the system of their participation. Indeed, this sustained reflection seems to be an integral part of his creative process. Only Yeezus could create  Yeezus.

He later intoned that we had chosen him, that he could not have chosen his life, but rather that his life had to be chosen for him, by us. This is completely true. He knows it. We made Kanye, he makes himself for us. The relationship is symbiotic. We are part of his fame. All the old models of personality simply no longer apply, for us or for him. The effect in fans isn’t subtle. I could see it in people’s eyes, vivid anticipation had crossed over into the spectrum of visible light.

Kanye would not be compelling at all if he didn’t offer sincerity consistent with the strength of his delusions. And he does, in a way you know to be true because you cringe when you hear it – in his feelings of persecution, in the love he feels for his new family. At one point he was sampling/mixing on some device that had risen from the stage. He told us this was “the best show of his life”. He really said that. While I don’t doubt that perhaps he says this every night, I am sure that each time he believes it.

It is difficult to escape some of the realities at play. In one of them I’m standing in a giant closed-roof stadium 30,000 citizens strong, an appreciable percentage of whom are first-world white folk standing at the ready to scream the word ‘nigger’ in unison. Two overtly heterosexual guys beside me sing along with the line “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” with way more enthusiasm than one might expect. A pair of ladies dressed expertly a few rows below are doing the same for “Now I ain’t saying she a gold digger”. I witness so many strangely-timed high-fives. And of course that triangle hand sign, Roc-a-Fella or Illuminati conspiracy or geometric sigil held aloft in shared fever. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I don’t expect to again.

But it remains – I walked out of the venue feeling wrung dry, like I had given something of myself and in return received the kind of neural stimulation once reserved for patients of experimental psychiatry. This is the power of genius, a brief presence that blurs the edge of every soul, a temporary synesthesia that defines the best of what was once the music of the future. This music, as a high-order art, is characterised by the way in which it makes sense of the mass of information we now generate daily. Kanye’s is a loom upon which the fabric of contemporary cultural reality is woven. His method spreads, has spread, will continue to spread. It changes us, offers a new kind of liminal connection that exists just outside time, outside history. And this is how tomorrow will be built, the machinery of fame toiling soundlessly to create little gold statues for all of us, tuned to the same frequency, until we run out of fossil fuels.

And the future itself? Perhaps the triangle signifies what will one day be West’s castle, a giant pyramid in the centre of Los Angeles machined by the artisans of Bugatti, composed of black crystal mined from an asteroid by one of Elon Musk’s own artificial minions.

Who knows? I’d pay to see that.

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