On Kanye, Regular Dudes, and Douchebags

February 21st, 2012 by | Tags: ,

I asked Twitter what their favorite song on Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the other day. I got a lot of answers, most of ’em good, but the one that caught me the most was from my friend EC. She said this:

Runaway. At the end of the day, when Kanye feels like a douchebag, he needs a hug from Donda, but she’s gone. 🙁

A close second, and I mean painfully close, was this from Ray:

AllOfTheLights. Peak of his maximalism, sonically. But ponders depths of being minmal in life. Take together w/Power which is flip

These two comments unlocked something in my head. It’s dangerous to try to psychoanalyze somebody through their music, but Kanye paints a really interesting picture. He’s a regular dude with new money pretensions. Success is a goal in and of itself, and I think that goes a long way toward explaining why his sound is so different on each of his albums.

Kanye’s the picture of the regular dude who is good at something but feel he isn’t recognized enough for that fact. It’s not arrogance or egomania so much as having the confidence you need to make it. It’s about not getting what you’re due, whether or not anybody else agrees. I bet most creative people, whether they’re gainfully employed or just scribble erotic fanfiction in their dorm rooms when their roomie isn’t around, feel the same. If you don’t feel like you’re any good, then nobody else will, either.

At the heart of that creative drive is a sense of inferiority. What if you aren’t as good as you think you are, what if people hate you, or what if you are that good, but no one notices. And Kanye thinks he’s very good. So good, in fact, that he’ll drop an album like 808s and Heartbreak, which I thought was punishingly average, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a thirteen track album with six songs that approach or beat six minutes. That’s confidence, to me, because Kanye could’ve just made a bunch of College Dropouts and seen plenty of success instead. So I’d be willing to put cash money toward the idea that Kanye’s sense of inferiority is tremendous. He’s got to out-do himself every single time.

EC and Ray hit on what that regular dude style is so attractive, though. “Runaway” humanizes a champion when you realize what the song’s about. And Ray’s point about “All of the Lights” being the peak of his maximalism but being about mundane things is the perfect complement to that. It elevates the common man to where we think Kanye is, that point where life is majestic and exciting.

It’s such a subtle, unconscious thing, but it clicks so hard with me. My favorite Kanye song, or at least one of them, is “Mama’s Boyfriend,” which he has yet to officially release, and probably won’t since some scrub bootlegged it and threw a beat on top of it. It’s about growing up with a single mom and watching how men treat her, and then growing up to do the same thing to women even though he swore he’d do better. “I never liked you niggas,” goes the chorus, “who knew one day I’d be just like you niggas?” It’s about trying to protect your mother and then becoming the man you used to hate. There’s too much there for me to grab onto.

It’s kind of a sad song, in a way. It’s about cycles and inevitability and growing up black and poor with just your mom. It’s about a lot of things. I do like how it’s plain that it’s the man at fault in both instances, though. The kid is bitter and suspicious of newcomers to his family. The man loves a lady and wants his kid to like, or at least tolerate, him. The mother is immaculate in both verses.

I like that a lot. There’s a depth to Kanye that I feel like a lot of people miss because they don’t look past “I’ma let you finish” and “George W Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He knows about being the man of the house at a young age, heartbreak, confidence, perseverance, making the same mistakes over and over, and being a douchebag.

I forget what I said my favorite song off that album is. It’s changed by this point anyway. At the moment though, just after midnight on 03/21, it’s the 9-minute version of “Runaway.” No, wait–it’s that version of “Runaway” that he played on SNL, with the clusterbomb of live samples, painful snares, and Pusha mixed way too low for the track.

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10 comments to “On Kanye, Regular Dudes, and Douchebags”

  1. “the picture of the regular dude who is good at something but feel he isn’t recognized enough for that fact. It’s not arrogance or egomania so much as having the confidence you need to make it.”

    that’s the whole of Kanye’s entire career, it’s the idea that explains and contextualizes everything from “i’ma let you finish” to the video for “Good Life” to his clothing collections. What makes the idea even more interesting is that he in a way ends up speaking for whole sections of black america that were otherwise unrepresented.

  2. I think you nailed it. Besides hitting at the right time and speaking for/to an audience that wasn’t really being fully represented in hip hop, I think that his drive to prove himself (to whom at this point, I’ve no idea) and constantly outdo his last effort, is the biggest component of his appeal. In an era where rappers actually brag about not writing things down – which I get, but I’ll never get – here’s this dude who’s not afraid to work really, really hard, and he doesn’t care who knows it… In fact, he kind of needs you to know it. Which kind of flies in the face of traditional rapper “cool”, which generally stems from being extraordinary without looking like you’re trying too hard. And lyrically, yeah, he’s always been really easy to connect to. You could probably trace All of the Lights’ genesis back to Spaceships, another track where it feels like he’s speaking on some otherworldly shit, when in actuality he couldn’t be more grounded. Anyway, yeah. Great piece!

  3. OK, so my exposure to Kanye is basically limited to Gold Digger and Runaway (which I’ve literally just listened to), but, both reading this and some other stuff about him, I’m thinking I need to delve a little deeper – his music seems like my sort of thing. Where do you guys suggest I start? Is Kanye as easy as just picking up an album and listening, or should I start at a particular album/song and work my way through?

  4. Michael: Pick any album, they are all pretty different. He does a good job of picking his singles as well so you could just go through those and watch some pretty good music videos.

    Diamonds Are Forever Remix actually has the best verse Jay-Z has ever laid down so maybe listen to that one too.

  5. I find much of his work (the limited amount that’ve heard) impenetrable. I partly blame the influence of 90s Puffy and Ma$e singing badly in their own tracks – possibly followed-up by 112 sometimes singing just slightly better. There almost seems o be a wink in there except that it persists too long and sounds too wrong.

    That said, I thought Redman got it right a time or two. Really right.

  6. That inferiority confidence is something I dig about Damon Albarn, too. Age has mellowed Albarn a lot, but Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife, and Blur all seem to come from a Kanyesque place of “this is what we’re doing now. Fuck you, like it”.

    For both guys, it’s not enough to just be a genius or a pop dictator or just rich as balls…the current album ALSO has to be lauded. It’s a both-or-neither proposition that’s constantly handicapped/underdogged a little by them always changing one half of the “both” and still needing the same positive reaction.

    Which is different and weirdly more endearing than an artist who is confident, but rejects criticism of their current project because of it. Weirdly needy arrogance beats regular arrogance? It’s okay to be a shit if you give a shit? I dunno.

  7. While I think that the whole “single mom” thing frames a lot of Kanye’s personality and music, I don’t think the “poor” hard knock life story applies. While his mom’s paycheck didn’t stretch all that far, she was an English professor / head of the English department and he pretty much had a suburban upbringing. He’s more on the John Legend end of the spectrum than Jay-Z.

    Whenever Kanye goes on a Twitter rant or talks about Versace sofas, I think of him as this cloistered William Randolph Hearst type. Moneyed, but lonely, and able to buy anything he wants, but not quite willing to trust women. Able to distract himself for a little bit by flipping through a rack of Maison Martin Margiela brought to his hotel suite, but ultimately, a frail little boy who misses shopping with his mom.

  8. @EC(han): Ahh, I’d forgotten about Kanye and suburbia. Part of that (a large part, probably) was probably just me projecting.

    @Josh: I feel like when I can tell somebody cares, even if they’re abrasive about it, I’m more likely to appreciate them. I have issues with Tarantino, but a lot of them boil down to him caring about things I care about, but for different reasons. There’s always this conflict in how I feel about Tarantino as a result, but I’d never say that he’s hacking these works out, you know? You can feel the heart in it, even if that heart manifests itself as something you aren’t into.

    @Michael: I’d suggest full albums. For me personally, it goes Late Registration > My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy > Graduation > College Dropout > (most of) 808s & Heartbreak. At the same time, there are a few gems on Dropout and 808s. 808s is as close as he’s come to a bad album, I figure, but the highlights are still really, really high. The singles are good, but the albums will give you a much fuller picture of his range and talent.

    @raythedestroyer: Yeah, I feel like Kanye (and Cam/Dipset, of course) did a lot for redefining what’s acceptable in rap fashion and mainstream subject matter. You could probably draw a certain line from early Ye to skinny jeans rappers today and find little to argue with.

  9. I love the fact that 808 and Heartbreaks is what it is. It’s not a great album – by any means – but I would rather see someone take a swing at something interesting and different and come up short, then put out the same thing over and over again. Besides, without 808’s, I don’t think he would have put out My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the sonics on that album are totally the result of him marrying all the things he was trying on 808’s w/ more conventional rap songs.

    Also, Runaway is incredible – the minimalism of that piano line is brilliant, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Kanye was listening to modern orchestral music/avant garde when he wrote it. He has stated multiple times that he loves Thom Yorke & Radiohead, and apparently they totally dissed him – but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was wayyyy more musically progressive then Radiohead’s last album.

    I also feel as bad for Kanye as I can for someone who is worth millions of dollars. He’s been put under this insane microscope, and people overblow all his actions. “Imma let you finish” wasn’t anything more then a guy who got drunk and acted like an asshole, can anyone who drinks say they haven’t made a fool of themselves while drunk before? Kanye’s was just writ large for the world to see. And then everyone overreacted. Could you imagine if you made a fool of yourself drunk, and some old dick took you in front of a crowd of people and told you your mother would be ashamed – when she was recently deceased – like Leno did?

    In summation, I like Kanye- and fuck Jay Leno.

  10. @EtcEtcEtc – “Besides, without 808′s, I don’t think he would have put out My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the sonics on that album are totally the result of him marrying all the things he was trying on 808′s w/ more conventional rap songs.”

    If 808s is Sad Kanyebot is Sad, Fantasy is Kanye Westworld, where the robot’s gone berserk and is wearing the best clothes.