Why Kanye West May Prove to Be the Perfect Punk Rock Rapper
This weekend Kanye West released two new singles off his upcoming album, Yeezus , in the most grandiose possible fashion. On Friday, he announced the video for his newest single, "New Slaves," would be projected onto 66 buildings across six cities around the world in one night. Crowds gathered by the hundreds, the Wicker Park screening in Chicago shut down traffic for nearly an hour. In the video, a tight close-up shot of West's face stared blankly back at attendees, almost as if he was on the other side of the fishbowl for once. He spit vitriol at socio-economic racial double standards, the mainstream media, and the prison-industrial complex over a minimalistically sinister beat. That thousand-mile stare took over Vine and Instagram feeds all night. Saturday, he performed it on Saturday Night Live along with the previous unreleased "Blk Skn Head."
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As a daughter of '80s post-punk hipsters, I was raised on bands like Depeche Mode (who were the first band I ever saw live at age 12), Souxsie & The Banshees, and Joy Division. As I grew up, I came to find my own identity in hip-hop music and culture. For these reasons, "Blk Skn Head" might just be everything I've ever wanted in a rap song. It's dark, it's furious, it spits in the face of racial class-system hypocrisy. Sampling chords from Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" and drums from Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People," Kanye screams and shrieks through verses under a voice filter that can only be described as the harsh antithesis of his 808's & Heartbreaks autotune phase. This is Kanye at his most fed-up and fearless.
Some have argued that this new sound is derivative. Also, water is wet and this is Kanye West we're talking about. Everything he's ever done has been a little derivative, but you can't deny that he puts his own signature on every style and sound he references. Like Death Grips or more specifically, Apathy's 13-year-old "Personal Jesus" cover using the same samples, Kanye is exploring industrial and drone-influenced rap music. That doesn't mean anyone's been able to pull it off like this before. Like Saul Williams or Killer Mike, he's addressing heavy racial injustices in his music. But this is content that's bigger than hip-hop, and most often goes ignored by the mainstream media. So to hear this kind of subject matter on NBC, even on an edgier late-night show like SNL, is a major triumph in spreading the message behind it.
Whether it's Beastie Boys or Odd Future, music journalists have been searching for "the most punk-rock hip-hop" since 1977 when the two genres were born and blossomed parallel to each other. I know a lot of hip-hop heads who hate this. They'll argue that when truly transcendent hip-hop music like this comes out, by likening it to punk, the media tries to take credit for it away from hip-hop culture.
And in turn, take credit for it away from black culture. But in reality, six years before The Stooges, The Ramones, Richard Hell, or '77 New York punk, there was a band called Death. Punk rock belongs just as much to black culture as hip-hop does. At the end of the day, they are one in the same: music born of rebellion. If these singles are any indicator, as a body of work, Yeezus may very well prove to be the most well-done fusion of the two genres to date.
Due to a recent chain of events over the last couple of weeks, many have been quick to peg the possibility of Kanye West suffering some kind of nervous breakdown or mental episode. It's not entirely far-fetched. He's been running into signposts, publicly ranting about being a terrible celebrity from inside of a pyramid, and over the last few months being accused of abandoning his baby-mama-to-be by running off to Paris to record this album. At the Adult Swim upfronts, he went on a tangent about refusing to do any SNL sketches, at the show's suggestion that he should humanize himself. West suggested in return that perhaps he's been demonized.
The record will show that Kanye West creates his best material as a result of some of the most alienating positions he tends to put himself in. Take for example, the Taylor Swift VMA public relations shit storm he survived. Do you know how he survived that? He ran off to Hawaii and made an incredible album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. At times when he's most mocked and hated in the public eye, he creates music so powerful, it can't be denied. In his own words, he'll use the arrogance as the steam to power his dreams. This time around, it's looking like it's powered the worst nightmare of anyone who's ever tried to get in his way.
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