The lights go out and all voices go up. Luminescent screens dot the darkness, and a single white beam comes down from the rafters to reveal the front of a white triangular stage thrusting into the audience. Slowly, out comes a troupe of twelve skinny white priestesses with long hair and flesh-colored stocking caps over their faces. They fall into ranks as dramatic choir vocals give way to tribal drums and laser-like synthesizers. Suddenly a message from the circular big-screen up above interrupts the scene, offering a definition. “FIGHTING: Noun: violence or conflict. Adjective: Displaying combat or aggression, pugnacious, truculent, belligerent, bellicose. ‘Light beamed into the world, but men and women ran towards the darkness.’” Now illuminated below the screen and behind the stage is a hulking mountain. The lights go back down and a weeping electric guitar brings us back to the deep drums that accompany a familiar voice saying, “I am not here right now. I am not home. Leave a message after the life, after I’m gone.”
Thus the travelling Cathedral of Kanye West, making its stop in Boston two weeks ago, prepares for its opening hymn, “On Sight.”
I was a member of this congregation, though perhaps not among the chosen– my friends and I had gotten the cheapest tickets available, way up in the nosebleeds of TD Garden. I suspect that those standing at the edge of the stage below me experienced a greater rapture than we did. But our minds were certainly moved. We all left the performance with a far deeper appreciation for West’s artistic persona, unable to talk about anything else for the rest of the night.
Needless to say, Kanye West is a polarizing figure. He is also a perplexing one. Particularly, his latest album, Yeezus, seems to have offered us prophecy as a riddle: “I am a God.” Surely we shouldn’t take that at face value—or should we? Is Kanye broadcasting some kind of message for us? If so, what in God’s name is it?
No doubt Mr. West has always assumed that the world needs to hear from him. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” is a pretty tough one to forget. As is, of course, “I’ma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the greatest videos of all time.” These episodes are more memorable instances of a creative formula to which Kanye has stuck throughout his career. When frustrated by the way he perceives his place in the world around him, Kanye tends to speak his mind as if he has no other choice. He is a figure of impulse, for whom patience and silence are hardly virtues. Limits, boxes, labels, taboos, lines drawn in the sand—Kanye abhors them all. Just as he seemed poised to enter the pantheon of this millennium’s great rappers following his third album Graduation in 2007, West turned around and gave us 808’s and Heartbreak, an album that channeled the personal turmoil surrounding the loss of his mother and longtime girlfriend into a serious exploration of autotune’s sonic possibilities. The reviews were certainly mixed, and many longtime fans of ‘Ye were disappointed (to put it mildly). But do you really think he cared?
Just like 808s and Heartbreak, Yeezus is an album forged out of frustration—though this time of a more professional nature—and with little regard for what you or I or anyone else thinks Kanye West should sound like. In a recent interview with BBC One’s Zane Lowe, West explained that he currently spends only about twenty percent of his time these days working on music. The other eighty percent he devotes to fashion, though he clearly does not yet have the results to show for it. Kanye’s neighbors in the fashion world have hardly embraced the pugnacious rapper as one of their own, much less granted him access to their most coveted keeps and cosigns. These days, Kanye’s frustration stems from his feeling that the world has not placed enough faith in him to create as an interdisciplinary mega-artist.
Everything about Yeezus—both the album and the concert—grew and developed from this ambitious and embittered seed. Through the careful integration of significant visual elements, Kanye’s live performance of Yeezus amplified his frustrations beyond the album’s exclusively sonic scope. In keeping with his wish to be remembered as more than just a rapper, or even a musician, the result was so much more than just a concert. It was, in reality, something closer to a piece of theatre.
Being the designer he is, Kanye clearly put a lot of thought into his onstage costumes, which he created in collaboration with the haute Parisian couture maker Maison Martin Margiela. When Kanye emerged to begin rapping “On Sight,” the crowd was shocked to see a fully bejeweled, lucha libre-style mask covering his entire face. He would go on to four different masks, before finally revealing his face about ninety minutes into the show. Kanye West might very well be a generation-defining narcissist, but the luxurious masks opaquely veiled the particularity of his persona for about two-thirds of his set. The results were fascinating.
Without a doubt, Kanye’s performance aimed to resonate on frequencies far more universal than what we usually see and hear from most musicians. In my view, his efforts were extraordinarily successful. As a live performance, the genius of Yeezus lay in the relationship explored and exposed onstage between the masked black entertainer and the mostly mute chorus of twelve fair-skinned women. It is not by coincidence that Kanye chose to lead the same number of “disciples” as Jesus had, though these women arguably wielded as strong a hold over the self-proclaimed God as he did over them.
The narrative in five acts (Fighting, Rising, Falling, Searching, and Ascension) coalesced around the ten tracks on Yeezus, rearranged and expanded to reveal something that the album alone could not. The monolith of whitened women came to symbolize the source of Kanye’s self-proclaimed godliness. Naturally, this much was made clear during Kanye’s dramatic rendition of “I Am A God.” Following a brief silence at the end of “Black Skinhead” (in which he collapsed on his back while hopelessly shouting “God!” to the heavens above), the twelve women emerged in a single-file line covered from head to toe in form-fitting, light-beige bodysuits. As the song’s first synth slammed open, Kanye slowly rose, resurrected. With erect postures and their gazes fixed on the masked rapper, the women slowly spread out across the stage and struck sculpture-like poses. Still rapping, Kanye (bearing his gold chain and dark torso under an open leather jacket), made his way towards the women, making a couple adjustments along the way—moving an arm here and a leg there, putting two girls together before gently lowering them onto all fours. As the song reached its climactic point, they all gathered around and lifted him into the air. From behind a sparkling black mask he delivered the song’s blood-curdling wails, much to the crowd’s delight. From omnipotence to veneration to inner torment in a matter of seconds, the ambiguity– the multiplicity– of being a God was never made more patently clear.
The question that most remained with me after the show: who exactly were those fair-skinned women? What was their strange relationship to Kanye supposed to signify? In an article [hyperlink] that unpacks the recently released videos for “Bound 2” and “Black Skinhead,” the commentator Hari Sethi offers an insightful clue: “Those with knowledge of semiotics will know that the colours white and black are age-old semiotic binaries, white denoting a positive purity and black denoting the negative unknown. By inverting these binaries, West is seeking to establish contradictory allegories of his own, therefore changing people’s perception of previously harmful stereotypes.”
When considering the live performance of Yeezus, Sethi’s point holds just as true. As the show went on, it became apparent that Kanye sought to present himself as the very embodiment of blackness, in all its messy and contradictory layers of meaning. Meanwhile, the chorus of women stood in the same way for whiteness. Aesthetically speaking, the black-white binary is the most basic and fundamental of divisions. The same could be said of these two poles as they apply to human bodies in American history.
When chained, lashed, beaten, raped, emasculated, and hung by the neck, black bodies have traditionally provided a reliable source of power for the white American imagination. The fact remains, the repercussions for public displays of narcissism in this country have historically been worse for folks with dark skin. In other words, the physical treatment of black bodies has provided a bloody system of justification for white folks to behave like gods, or at the very least masters, of this nation. Ingeniously, Kanye (whose mother, as he says in “New Slaves,” was raised in the era when clean water was only served to the fairer skin) inverts the formula, exploiting the allure of his dark skin and sculpted biceps for fame and fortune as a musician. In this sense, as a black American entertainer, he’s not doing anything new. In 1951, in his essay “Many Thousands Gone,” James Baldwin wrote perceptively that, “It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story.”
Following Baldwin’s observation, one realizes that the Margiela is actually the second mask to veil Kanye’s features. The first one is, and always has been, underneath it. One also realizes how important it is to consider the story of the individual mind behind these masks, as it has been shaped by the experience of growing up in a United States where the water fountains are integrated. The slim, white woman could mean a number of things to Kanye West. She could be the runway model who dictates the cuts of all the clothing he designs. She could easily be a girl who once told him that her dad would kill her if she ever gave birth to a black baby. Who knows, maybe she’s Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus. She could be any combination of these things, or perhaps something else entirely. That’s how loaded this image is.
At the very least, as Kanye himself tells us more than a few times in his lyrics, these white women are identical pieces of forbidden fruit who have consensually sucked his dick and then some. And in that respect, she can get him some of the attention he wants. Herein lies what’s truly revolutionary about West as a black musician. Fifty years ago, this nation was absolutely petrified by the prospect of racial amalgamation. Our notions of what is publicly acceptable may have loosened up a bit since then, but no way has the nightmare of racial mixing fully faded away from our national consciousness. Kanye’s entire self-presentation as a black American God is designed to exploit that nightmare. His symbolic treatment of the white female body mirrors the historical “white man’s” conception of blackness, as an all-purpose vessel for the whole gamut of erotic and primitive fantasies, fears, and frustrations.
Only several decades ago, this kind of behavior could easily have resulted in the artist’s imprisonment or lynching. But times have changed and we have progressed some, so nobody is really afraid of Kanye as much as annoyed by him. America has largely learned to live with his antics—as with everyone else’s—mainly by tuning out. To reach a broader audience, he’ll need to keep stirring the pot. He is perfectly aware of how unprecedented his position is. He thinks you should be aware of it too. He subsequently throws this knowledge right back in everyone’s faces because, true as it may be, he also knows that it will rub some the wrong way. The message is simple and guaranteed to get him plenty of attention: “I Am A God.” And though the wording may have changed, it’s also a message that he’s been putting out for a long time. Or have people already forgotten that “Jesus Walks” was his first major breakthrough single, almost ten years ago?
For his part, Kanye has not. After finally revealing his face during the previous song “Runaway” (to which the crowd collectively proposed a boisterous “toast” to “the douchebags” and “the assholes”), a costumed Jesus made a brief but memorable appearance on the Yeezus stage. He knelt with and blessed the rapper, then left as “Jesus Walks” dropped. As the song’s last line—“The only thing that I pray is that my feet don’t fail me now”—echoed into the applause, a new thought occurred to me. Maybe it’s a stretch, but I believe Kanye has gathered that, in order to please God, he’s got to stay mobile, that he needs his feet carry him further, always. “I am a God” is a message to keep it moving, upwards and outwards.
Given all this, it is only natural that a major glass ceiling in West’s own life should draw his ire and sour his tone. In his eyes, at this juncture, it’s not his feet that are failing him, but those who would keep him boxed in. What I’m suggesting here is that we not let his penchant for “rants” distract us from the quality of his artistic endeavors. As Kanye moves towards a field as unmusical as fashion design, while looking increasingly to architecture and the visual arts for inspiration in his music, I think his mind might be more occupied these days with images than words anyways.
Hence, we have his performance’s appropriation of the white female body, which functions as both as a display of multilayered personal frustration and a tool for public provocation. The twelve women accompanying him onstage during Yeezus play essentially the same role as the ballerinas in his film Runaway (as well as the cover art to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). In kind they are the same, both irreverent. The difference is only a matter of degree.
During “Runaway,” Kanye took a few minutes to address the crowd. If considered outside the context of his show’s personal and political dynamics, one could call it a rant. But as the central turning point in the actual plot of Yeezus, the moment of West’s self-revelation, it sounded more like a genuine self-explanation. “Why is it that when I do anything with a little energy people get so uptight?…When I was in high school they told me I’d never be here…I wanna give y’all more but they tellin’ me to stay in music like it’s high school all over again…It’s like, what do you have to do to prove you’re creative?!”
Inciting outrage is not a bad way to start. Our era is marked by an unprecedented number of ways for consumers to self-select their culture, and technologically tailor their experiences. The bigger the audience, the greater the creator. Half the battle for Kanye, it seems, is simply keeping people tuned in. Kanye West might shock you, but only because he’s betting that you’ll soon be awed—if only you’ll give his product a chance. To convince the designing world’s gatekeepers of his potential, he’s seeking to remind everyone just how unlikely and impure his ascent has already been.
I do not think that Kanye West is trying to be loved. But one could say that he would like to be understood. I think he wants, above all, for people to start reading his art more creatively, with the same amount of thought as he puts into the process of its production. To that end, I think he really wants us to just keep talking about him.
If we do, he just might keep teaching us to appreciate things that we didn’t expect to.