It’s been little over a week since Kim Kardashian announced the revival of the much loved GOOD Fridays, the series in which Kanye West dropped a fresh track every Friday prior to the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In the largely dismissed “FACTS”, and the general lack of direction found within his sparse body of work in 2015, there was genuine fear within the music community that SWISH could flop. With the first post-announcement drop of said series, “Real Friends”, this fear was immediately expelled.
‘Ye on that Late Registration flow’, was the frequently voiced opinion.
‘This that old Kanye.’
But I, for one, don’t necessarily agree. In fact, with the exception of 2012’s excellent “White Dress”, I would say Kanye hasn’t released a pre-808s track since, well, before 808s & Heartbreak. A significant departure from his prior works, 808s is to-date his most unfiltered work. Stylistically, and thematically – with its focus on introspection, the record ushered in a new wave of artists; Drake, Kid Cudi, Future, Young Thug, alongside a wealth of non-hip hop acts such as Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, simply do not exist without the foundations that Kanye laid out.
Following the unqualified success that was Graduation – which similarly marked the turning point in mainstream hip hop, as it challenged and outsold the gangsta rap of 50 Cent’s Curtis – 2008 proved to be a difficult year for Kanye. He lost his mother and his fiancée, and was struggling to adapt to the global pop star status he had once striven to achieve. Case in point, the image below is comprised of two frames; the first result on Google Images for when you search ‘Kanye West 2007’, and ‘Kanye West 2008’, on the left, and right, respectively. This was clearly no longer the same man.
Pre-808s || Post-808s
This isolation and lack of connection translated directly into his music on 808s. It’s expressed best in the haunting closer, “Pinocchio Story”, a song Kanye chose to release in its live form, rather than a studio recording. As he tears himself apart on stage, blames only himself for his mother’s death and the lack of happiness in his life, we hear the crowd scream and cheer him on, oblivious to the words he’s singing. It’s eerily beautiful, both in its criticism of fame and the media, and for the raw emotion he expresses.
“What does it feel like, I ask you tonight / to live a real life.
I just want to be a real boy.”
And then there’s one of Kanye’s most underappreciated songs, “Welcome to Heartbreak”, with bars upon bars detailing his lack of real connection; “He said his daughter got a brand new report card / and all I got was a brand new sports car”; “My god-sister getting married by the lake / but I couldn’t figure out who I’d wanna take”. Though it could be seen in such a way, this isn’t Kanye being humorous or boastful – these are the words of a man so fucking lost in his wealth and fame that he’s lost sight of his own life; a form of classism, but directed at himself.
The parallels between “Welcome to Heartbreak” and “Real Friends” are evident. I’m choosing to highlight a particular lyric here, because I think it’s a little underappreciated.
“I couldn’t tell you how old your daughter was / couldn’t tell you how old your son is.”
The lines are reminiscent of the typical throwaway upper-class comments found within “Welcome to Heartbreak”, but without the obvious introspective lines succeeding them. But pay closer attention to the details – notice the lack of rhyme, highlighting the shift from past to present tense. He doesn’t care much about your son, and he never cared much about the death of your daughter either. In a song tackling the relationship struggles within his friends and family, when it comes right down to it, he knows he’s the only one to blame. No one knows that Kanye is a self-serving narcissistic douchebag more than Kanye himself.
But it’s his acceptance of this that distinguishes him. This acknowledgment of his public perception, of who the real Kanye is, allows him to write lyrics that no one else could possibly write – no one has both the power, and the attitude, to do so. There’s a terrific little section in Twisted Fantasy’s “Devil in a New Dress” that highlights this:
“I hit the Jamaican spot, at the bar, take a seat
I ordered the jerk, she said you are what you eat
You see I always loved that sense of humour
But tonight you should have seen how quiet the room was.”
Still, over 130,000 people signed an online petition to remove Kanye’s headline slot at Glastonbury last year, largely due to the notorious decisions he has made in his life. Actions speak louder than words, after all. Whether you loathe him or you love him, understand that four of his six albums have topped the illustrious Pazz and Jop poll – championing the four albums the best of their respective years – and that the other two have had unprecedented effects on mainstream music.
And now we return to the crux of the matter: “Real Friends” is my favourite Kanye song since 2010. Possibly longer. My favourite all time track of his, as of this moment, is still “Street Lights”, in which he repeatedly states, “See I know my destination, but I’m just not there.” Ever since the loss of his mother, a major turning point in his life, he’s been searching for something. I don’t think Kim was the destination – Yeezus more or less confirmed that. But in Nori, in Saint, I’m beginning to think Kanye may have found something real. The last time he was this transparent in his music, he crafted the most groundbreaking album since the turn of the century. I simply can’t wait for SWISH to drop.