Thursday, January 13, 2011

On Kanye

Chris Jackson writing at The Atlantic talks about Kanye, what Kanye is saying, and how to interpret rap:

I was the editor of Decoded, and one of Jay-Z's main ambitions for the book from the beginning is that it give both fans and haters a primer on how to listen to rap, and why it's always more complicated than you think it is. Rap can be free wordplay or linear narrative. Sometimes a rapper uses words as rhythmic devices, as percussion, with little concern about literal meaning. Rap can be polemic or stand-up comedy. It's autobiography, fantasy, confession, satire, lecture, dream. The voice of the rapper can be first-, second-, or third-person, comic or hyperbolic or earnest. Even then it's complicated: Jay-Z's voice, even in earnest first person, is not necessarily Shawn Carter's voice, but then again sometimes it is.


...but at the least I think it's hard to analyze Kanye's lyrics outside of the understanding that he's fundamentally a comic, a sometimes viciously comic, rapper ... and an artist . . ., and operating out of a tradition of which he's conscious (as indicated by the inclusion of Gil Scott-Heron and Chris Rock).


I think the most difficult, and most intriguing, aspect of Kanye as a rapper is that you never know whether he's celebrating or satirizing an idea, or doing both at the same time.


All of which is to say . . . that Kanye West may or may not be a racist and a misogynist, but before making that claim he deserves a fairer hearing than a surface reading of his lyrics. We all know that rap is narrative, with unreliable narrators, and that the point-of-view in any narrative is not necessarily the point of view of the writer, but then we occasionally choose to forget this; in those moments we make judgments on rap songs without making the effort to first understand them on the terms of the form.

H/t Ezra.

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