What happened to the Kanye who wrote killer hooks? What happened to the Kanye who spit crazy intelligent, insightful, and hilarious rhymes? What happened to the Kanye who sampled tunes that were rich in both groove and historical significance? That Kanye hasn’t been on the scene for a good three years now, and even though his evil twin has had plenty of commercial success and spent lots of time in the limelight, who cares? He’s not the same guy that gave us “Jesus Walks”, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”, “Stronger”, or even “All of the Lights”. I’m not asking him to never change, because half the fun has been watching this guy morph and shift and turn into the infinitely more challenging artist that he became at several points throughout his climb. But I am asking for tracks better than the two he debuted on SNL last weekend.
I gotta say, hearing these tracks for the first time was seriously exciting, particularly paired with the fascinating visuals that went well above the usual fare for an SNL musical spot. In fact, the visuals seemed like an integral part of the performance, pushing and prodding at the focal point of the songs, though what those focal points were wasn’t exactly clear. A pass through the lyrics to “New Slaves” shows that he’s up to something, but when the call to arms after a rant about modern economic and sociological slavery is more like a punch line (i.e. his plans for the Hamptons), what was the point? The catchiest part of the song is barely memorable, and it’s the titular line.
As a musical composition, “Black Skinheads” couldn’t be more different from “New Slaves”, but it falls victim to many of the same follies. That Marilyn Manson sample is dope, no doubt about it, but could you imagine if there were an awesome hook and a transparent structure on top of that pounding beat and heavy synth? Now that’d be something. Furthermore, what’s that song about? Or maybe a better question is why should we care? You know what was much more compelling? The Kanye that let his contradictions manifest themselves through smart quips questioning mainstream rap’s misogynist attitudes tucked tightly into a track all about living the major the high life (“We Major”), not the Kanye who displays his duplicitousness by saying things like, “I’m the worst kinda celebrity because all I do is make real music. All I do is sit in the studio and make real, real shit. And that’s it,” while fathering a child with someone who makes Farrah Abraham look sincere. Woof!
I started working on this piece by watching the SNL performances a few times through, and after a while something became apparent; the cool projected backgrounds that were synced up with the songs, well their timing was maybe two seconds off. On “Black Skinheads”, when the “hook” comes in, the found-art starts flashing a little after the beat changes, and from there on all the images are just a bit late. It kind of reminded me of the songs themselves- the concept was really compelling and challenging, but the execution just didn’t hit the mark. Edgy titles like “New Slaves” and “Black Skinheads” are what you want from Kanye, because he’s proven before that he can tackle difficult social subjects and say something extremely intelligent about them. But he hasn’t this time. He’s just tempted us with culturally dangerous advertisements and ditched the enriching substance. But alright, we’ve got some new Kanye tracks to talk about now, so I guess he thinks he’s done his job.
Hey, didn’t a new Beyonce track leak this week? Maybe that’s got something more to say.