Sunday, July 10, 2011

When Meaning Dies

My local library is amazing.  Excellent selection of books, more DVDs than a Blockbuster, they regularly carry new independent music releases.  One thing I've found curious, however, is their tendency to only carry censored versions of albums with explicit lyrics.

Ordinarily I don't mind this.  I'm sort of a prude that way, but I tend to flinch when artists curse in their music.  With rap, which can get pretty raunchy, I tend to enjoy the circumcision.

But a curious case arose as I embarked upon digesting Kanye West's latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.  Rap music has a fascinating relationship with human expression, in all its forms.  Horrible, tragic acts are frequently described, even if a sense of remove or subtlety allows the listener to understand clearly what is going on, without having to dwell on the reality of the narrative.  And what is being described is a direct reflection, if at times embellished, depiction of the reality of inner city African American life.  Incredible pain and frustration, fear and nihilism, are mixed together, with beauty and excitement, to paint epic stories of triumph and tragedy.   The music itself, constantly evolving and competing and reflecting on itself, in a spirit of continuous, relentless ambition, seems often times to be the one bright force in the lives of so many of its subjects. 

Of the many iterations of rap - from old school to gangster, hardcore to conscious, R&B to crossover, Jamaica to East LA, Kanye West represents some of the best of it all, while still maintaining an innovative brilliance.

His latest album goes as far as any rap album I know in exploring larger, self-reflective personal themes.   Money and power, sex, drugs and violence, have always been a mainstay of gangster rap - sometimes as begrudging tools to escape the ghetto (reflecting classic real life aspirations), but mostly as glamorous measurements of ultimate status.  Conscious rap has always been about eschewing these things, looking elsewhere for affirmation, often in humor or lyrical abstraction, occasionally about looking critically at larger structures of social oppression.  Often times this was the music of children raised in suburbs, or in other ways sheltered from the darkened mental shackles of ghetto life.

Yet West finds a way to transcend these dichotomies.  His technique is, in a way similar to the fanciful, glamorous way in which rap music itself transcends the the ghetto by selling a cleaned-up, sexed-up version of itself that isn't always pretty, yet creates in the process a window into realities of the ghetto that otherwise would not exist, in no small part because their true, "ugly" form would simply be too hard to take.

West's album is conceptual.  In it he paints a portrait of himself which is both a sexed-up, more-perfect version, which he then slowly proceeds to dismantle, horrifically disfiguring it in the process.  He raps about the money, the women, the glamour.  But then (sometimes in the same song, through subtle suggestion) he describes himself as a monster, feeding off his fans like a vampire, pretending to be what he is not, getting lost in his own lies, his integrity cracking.

In the chorus of one song, he has guest rapper speak of him in honor, describing how he was going to play a sampling one of West's lines, a symbol in rap of ultimate respect - a sort of hip-hop peer review.  Getting sampled would be a dream come true for any rapper.  But the sample turns out to be a reflection only of West's greed: "I'm gonna need to see your mother fucking hands at the concert.  Profit... I got it."  The song's title is Monster, and features a variety of guest rappers bragging about how terrible they are, claiming to be so great yet being phony and never finding love.  Braggadocio, a basic feature of rap's puffed-up dream narrative, is turned on its head and exposed as a sort of nightmare.

Yet in my experience with the album, this nuance was not at first apparent.  This was in no small part due to the censorship policy of the library.

See, the line:"I'm gonna need to see your fucking hands at the concert", referring to the exploitation of fans, had been changed to what sounded like, "I'm gonna need to see you pee your pants at the concert."  Obviously this changed the meaning.  The guest rapper's sampling was no longer ironic.  The song's true meaning, while admittedly still decipherable, was not - at least to me.  Not until I looked up the real lyrics for the song. 

To tell you the truth, I had been quite put off by West's blatant braggadocio, and had missed much of what he was trying to do with the album concept.  What I had experienced was the inadvertent strangling by censorship of vital, important human expression .  West's statement is profound, and virtually unrivaled in rap music right now - maybe the strongest cultural artifact coming out of contemporary African American music.

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