My name is Chlöe Swarbrick, and I think Kanye West is a genius.
I am acutely aware that there is a large crowd of people sharpening their pitchforks for Kanye fans. He's one of those celebrities society just really, truly loves to hate. Case-in-point: the media shitstorm, and accompanying uninformed comments, surrounding the 'wheelchair' incident at his concert in Sydney.
"Throw your hate at me; want me to stay at ease. Fuck you and your corporation, y'all nigg*s can't control me."
- New Slaves, Yeezus
Last week I took my sabbatical to Melbourne, Australia, to repent my sins and open my soul to the almighty judgment of Yeezus (more so the quick-draws on social media who label me a 'bigot' for my musical preferences).
I landed on Tuesday, the day that Yeezy's Creative Director, Virgil Abloh, officially declared the Pop-Up Store had received enough coats of white paint and threw open the doors to a line of hypebeasts. Myself included. Although, I wasn't one to pick up the Yeezus-embellished MA-1 Flight Jacket without "ohhhh"-ing at the $500 price tag and putting it straight back on the rack. The unmarked, fully white exterior, guarded by a dude in a black suit precluded an only slightly less barren interior; each wall punctuated by only one feature. Two sparsely-occupied clothing racks sat opposite each other, whilst a cloth spray-painted with skulls and flames taunted the shop's only other seen employee, resigned behind the cash till. The fifth and final installation was Virgil's trademark dirt-bike. American thrash-rock gnawed noisily at the remaining gaping canvas. At first experience, and to those uninitiated with the raw gospel of Yeezus (the album, this time), the aesthetic seems rather inconsistent with the rapper that popularised, "Pink-ass Polos and a fucking backpack."
It was a dark and stormy night - and boy, Auckland's weather never prepared me for the bone-jarring daggers of rain. All the lost souls huddled for shelter under the ceiling of Rod Laver Arena, awaiting their prophet. But first, his protege.
Opening the concert, Pusha T and his crew got immediately familiar with the congregation, sharing bars and shooting a plethora of imaginary artillery. Out of this we got some thumping My Name Is My Name action, served with a side of crisp Good Music Cruel Summer verses, reminding everybody of the shoulders he's rubbed with.
Post Pusha, a good half hour left the crowd to recover their lungs, and ruminate in why they'd come. I spent the time engaged in some pseudo-psychology, attempting to discern why an 80% white crowd would pay to come and hear angry music about how they'd messed things up. Perhaps it was that the dominant social groups present - 'bros' and 16 year old girls - were more interested, respectively, in getting drunk and jumping to music, or following the celebrity star. These hypotheses appeared rather true, at least for the bro behind me who yelled vehemently at Kanye during a melody interval, "We aren't here for a fucking rant, mate! Play your music!"
I digress. But I simply can't talk about Yeezus without talking about race (which those of us who are familiar with Kanye and his appearances will know has, according to his opinion, evolved into classism). The growth of Kanye as an artist, from a confident, well-versed kid to a family man with a God-complex is reflected in his discography. His consciousness has shifted from the aspirational, shallow, Rolls-Royce and thots (don't get me wrong, they still have presence in Yeezus), to social commentary on capitalism, wealth, race and sex politics; he asked the crowd several times during the concert, "Since when was rap music supposed to be politically correct?"
“I just talked to Jesus, he said, what up, Yeezus?”
- I Am A God, Yeezus
West's evolution, and Rick Rubin's 'reduction' (a term the legendary producer prefers to 'production') of the hours of content the rapper brought to him, culminated in many critics' 2013 Album of the Year. Kanye lauds minimalism as the goal of Yeezus - pointing several times to the Le Corbusier lamp as his inspiration - manifesting itself physically in the absence of cover art.
“You see there’s leaders, and there’s followers, but I’d rather be a dick than a swallower”
- New Slaves, Yeezus
An infamous leak of the album four days prior to its official launch only added to the hype, which Kanye has spoken of numerous times as too charged to play on mainstream radio/TV (as far as I know, the only NZ station with it on a playlist is bFM). As for Kanye's own influence in the marketing of Yeezus, the underground hype juxtaposed harmoniously with 2013's perfectly coordinated hijacking of dozens of public buildings' exteriors around the world, overrun by projections of the first films accompanying the album. Here Yeezy exerted his dominance.
"I've been a menace for the longest, but I ain't finished, I'm devoted.”
- Black Skinhead, Yeezus
The album plays with race and religion, and so to does the tour. The dirt bike, and 'spray-painted skulls and flames' of Virgil's Pop-Up Store are only the first hints at inspiration taken from Southern American (derogatorily called 'red-neck') culture. All of the tour's merchandise does not at first appear to be terribly well designed for the usual Yeezy-lusting Kanye fan; bats, the Grim Reaper, skeletons, flames, and more skulls all make an appearance. Whilst they were eagerly snapped up at the merch tent and Pop-Up Store alike, I overheard more than a few stating they weren't too keen on the aesthetic.
I may be overstepping my mark here in adding more consideration than was ever intended, but I'm pretty sure the whole she-bang (merch, 'God' references, and racial commentary in the music) is no coincidence. The second coming of the Klu Klux Klan in 1920's Southern America came off the back of 'good ol' Christian values', disenfranchisement, hatred, and entitlement. Yeezus speaks to all of this, warping it into a unique perspective of corporate America, capitalism, ideology and 21st century racism and classism. The question really is whether anybody takes away any of this when Kanye dedicates a solid 20 minutes of his performance asking people to, "Make a circle," and throw down to Blood On The Leaves - which, by the way, takes an extremely gut-wrenching sample from 'Strange Fruit' by Billie Holiday, a pre-civil rights era protest song that very vividly talked of the lynchings of people of colour.
"You see it's broke nigg* racism, it's that, "Don't touch anything in the store." And it's that rich nigg* racism, that's that, "Come in, please buy more." "
- New Slaves, Yeezus
Australia's incarnation of the tour was a significantly scaled down version of the American monolith. We didn't get a mountain, or dude in Jesus costume. We got three costume changes (singlet/pants combo, drapey mad-scientist shirt dress, tie dye Texan tuxedo), two Maison Martin Margiela masks, and one polished 6ft catwalk stage bookended by an angled LED screen.
At the beginning, Kanye appeared in a puff of smoke. At the end, there was one encore. A second was hyped up when lights remained off, and fans encouraged to cheer for their idol with a musical underlay that crescendoed not with his return, but a flick of the light switch. When it was over, startled and reflective, those in GA were herded quietly out through a myriad of basement tunnels beneath the Rod Laver arena to the fresh air. An apt symbol of rebirth, really.
The seething hatred a lot of individuals throw Kanye's way only serves to reinforce his position as a deity of our time. The untouchable aura grows stronger the more we hypothesise and mythicise his actions.
Kanye is not my God, but he's a cultural icon that has arguably contributed more to our dialogues of racism, sexism, celebrity, wealth and aesthetics than any other leader in the past decade. Sure as hell, no one's been so specifically controversial and polarising. He's better described as a preacher, and I'm happily counted among the congregation.
"Lost in translation with the whole fucking nation, they say I was the abomination of Obama's nation. Well, that's a pretty bad way to start the conversation."
- Power, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy