So I wrote this paper (and loosely adapted it for this blog) in History of Avant-Garde Art last spring and I thought the internet might like to see it.
Tis called Kanye West: The New Avant-Garde.
If the term ‘avant-garde’ continues to represent experimentation versus the cultural status quo, then the music producer-turned-artist Kanye West embodies the word in its entirety, from his work to his very being. In his work, West defies standard guidelines of the hip-hop genre, displaying a musical evolution over time mimicking the experimental progression of visual artists Marcel Duchamp or Edouard Manet. He himself shares the characteristics of early avant-gardes through his political and social agenda, as well as being an often-contrary voice to the various demographics he identifies with. West is one of the few active artists today that has the innovation, talent, and influence to impact the world so heavily.
West: The Man, The Inspiration
Inherently, West is a contradictory combination of many popular stereotypes but with unpredictable twists. These characteristics form the skeleton for West’s avant-garde nature and shapes the actions by which he creates groundbreaking new material. Perhaps W.E.B. Du Bois describes West’s personal conflict best: “one ever feels a two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” But the clash between what is expected of an American versus an African American from society is not his sole issue; Mr. West strives for social good, yet his lyrics boast narcissism. He is a rapper, but struggled to get a record deal because he lacked a “street image” and is often labeled a metrosexual. West’s contradictions outline an observable pattern of other avant-garde artists who have preferred to play out some kind of spectacle in the public eye—which doesn’t assume that the artist is acting—and these internal conflicts and personal traits have arguably developed due to his upbringing.
It is important to connect Mr. West’s past to his current state of being before discussing his actual avant-garde texts and stylistic tendencies. West and his recently divorced mother moved to the suburbs of Chicago, living a fairly normal middle-class-suburban life. He reported that he received ‘A’s and B’s’ mostly, eventually obtaining a scholarship to study at the American Academy of Art on scholarship. After a semester of art classes, he transferred to Chicago State, which confirmed his disinterest in collegiate academics. West had produced hip-hop and rap albums for local artists during his brief university stint, but decided to focus on his music career full-time. Even after climbing the production ladder and proving his namesake by working for Roc-A-Fella records (de facto producing for notable artists Nas, Scarface, Mos Def, Jay-Z, Ludacris, DMX, T.I., and more), West fought long and hard to secure a record deal with his own recording company. When his career first started out, it wasn’t unusual for Mr. West to be frequently caught in a pink polo shirt. And while his colleagues spoke for his talent, many believed that nothing inspiring for hip-hop could come from a middle-class college art-school dropout with an English professor and photographer as parents.
The combination of West’s background makes for a perfect storm: add together a smart kid, a normal suburban life, an interest in fashion, art classes, and involvement with the rap/hip-hop and African American communities, and what do you get? It can only be Kanye West. He is the everyman that had not yet existed in the exclusively ‘gangster’ world of hip-hop; he didn’t have to fear getting shot in his childhood neighborhood, had a functional family situation, and got a decent education. Jon Caraminica of The New York Times describes Mr. West as having “the most sui generis hip-hop career of the last decade. No rapper has embodied hip-hop’s often-contradictory impulses of narcissism and social good quite as he has. He has spent most of his career in additive mode, figuring out how to make music that’s majestic and thought-provoking and grand-scaled. And he’s also widened the genre’s gates, whether for middle-class values or high-fashion and high-art dreams.” Now that the basis of West’s upbringing and persona has been covered, an analysis of his work and its progression will follow.
The Work, Its Evolution, Its Effects
West’s work challenges social norms and provides commentary on a myriad of issues as well as current events. The term ‘work’ hardly applies to simply his lyrics, but continues on from his personality and the way he conducts himself in the world. Controversies that West has caused should not be unaccounted for in terms of the body of thought he projects, nor should special performances with deeper meaning be discluded as his ‘art.’ For the sake of organization, his work will be analyzed from subject matter, evolution of musical style, and then controversial performances and public appearances that epitomize his ambitions.
West’s commentary ranges from white oppression to the poor’s exclusion, and he knows what kind of impact that it has. “I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things,” he said in an interview with The New York Times. While the public may view this as cockiness, West believes that it’s simply his job; there are hundreds of people categorized as the rich and famous, but so few who use their fame and the public’s attention to achieve something. Barbara Kruger, for example, gained notoriety through well-placed images and thoughts critiquing rampant consumerism and the occasional feminist thought—but there are so many topics left unturned and so few have been willing to turn them. Often the artists who push the envelope for recognition of social issues are not the ones who gain popularity nor have far-reaching audiences. West has claimed multiple times that he just wants the world to be better, and trying to control him would only defeat his purpose.
The first topic on which West gives voice is religion; not a traditional Christian by any means, West was born and raised in the church and continues to be inspired by the faith. It can be argued that the US is a democratic state that is slowly working toward removing religion from its legislation. West both praises and critiques this movement in order to bring attention to the younger generations’ trend toward non-spirituality, as well as one major party’s seeming militarization of religion in politics. The best example of this (besides his album actually titled Yeezus) is “Jesus Walks.” The song begins on a military note with undertones of sampling from a gospel song, a commander’s call to attention, rhythmic drums, and marching implied with vocal sounds. The phrase ‘Jesus walks’ turns into an eerie chant that seems to be moving a massive army. This could be attributed perhaps to his very public dislike of George W. Bush and the Republican Party; the album’s release in 2002 was still early in Bush’s presidency, but West would soon move to more noticeable dissent of the president and his ideals. On the other hand, West has claimed that he is a religious man many times, but “Jesus Walks” contains many lyrics that allude to the nation’s increasing dislike for religion. In particular, the lines “if I talk about God / my record won’t get played” poignantly illustrates his ability to recognize a topic’s unpopularity and twist it in a way the public views as meaningful to a subset of people.
As for his commentary on views of African Americans, Mr. West offers a colorfully different perspective on white oppression previously expressed through violent diction by traditional “gangster-rap” hip-hop artists. West creatively incorporates his dissent into clever challenges to society and its subtle nuances that might evade those troubled to find racial inequality in today’s contemporary equality-minded majority. For example, the following are excerpts from songs by Rick Ross and Kanye West.
Excerpt from “9 Piece” (Ross)
I’m smoking dope, I’m on my cell phone
I’m selling dope straight off the iPhone…
9 piece, straight eight balls
MJG bitch I got eight balls
Excerpt from “New Slaves” (West)
You see it’s broke nigga racism, that ‘don’t touch anything in the store’
And this rich nigga racism, ‘come in please buy more’
What you want, a Bentley, fur coat, a diamond chain?
All you blacks want all the same things.
While the topics used to be gangster-centric, usually about guns and drug dealing, West opens up racial dialogue to include public discrimination of those who identify as part of the typical American middle-class. Many in America still unfortunately view African Americans with wealth as solely buying items of luxury, sporting Louis Vuitton and Rolex watches, because they have the money to wear tokens that display they have it. For West, the wealthy or middle-class African American has become almost as stereotyped as the “inner-city hoodlum.” Additionally, West has commented that though he has won several Grammy’s, he has never won one in contending with a white person—perhaps being fuel for the fire behind his outrage toward Taylor Swift, later to be discussed.
Just like the trailblazers of art movements before him, Kanye West opened up the hip-hop genre for contemporary artists to rap about subjects beyond the example above—including topics as controversial between religion and politics as gay rights. An MTV special aired in 2005 featured Mr. West claiming that hip-hop has always been about “speaking your mind and about breaking down barriers, but everyone in hip-hop discriminates against gay people” (“All Eyes on Kanye West”). For those not familiar with the makeup of the genre’s artists, it is uncommon for many of them to be openly gay. The rap group Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All (OFWKTA) consists of several members, their leader being Tyler the Creator. The rather vocal lyricist often used ‘faggot’ and ‘gay’ in his lyrics, only to announce that he used the terms ‘ironically’ and ‘out of love’ when fellow member Frank Ocean came out as homosexual and released a solo album. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis followed in 2012 and produced the hit “Same Love” featuring Mary Lambert, arguing for recognition of gay rights. Without West’s openly progressive agenda calling for social equality, fewer artists would be willing to be a voice of bombast. Following West’s ascent to fame, new artists of the socially and politically conscious introspective hip-hop genre have gained popularity, including Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco, Drake, and Childish Gambino.
Aside from the lyrical challenging, the evolution of Kanye West’s musical style can be compared to Daft Punk’s redefinition of electronic music with every new album release (coincidentally, Daft Punk directed one of West’s albums). It also can be compared to the evolution of medium and meaning achieved by visual artists Marcel Duchamp and Edouard Manet. Duchamp began as a painter and moved on to the iconic phase of the Readymades, while Manet skewed views of populist notions associated with realist and expressionist modern art.West did the same. His first album, College Dropout, began to give him a style heavy with wordplay and sampled songs to achieve a semi-familiar, fresh, and recognizable tune. Every song, however, experimented with different methods uncommon to hip-hop—including incorporation of orchestral instruments on “The New Workout Plan,” which hilariously contrasts strings and chimes with a semi-masochistic list of fitness advice for women to follow in order to attract a more attractive and wealthy male. This coincides with West’s contradictory nature in that the song is extremely anti-feminist while he still believes in gender equality. The song also introduces the beginnings of auto-tuning, later to appear en masse on his album 808s and Heartbreak.
For his next album, Late Registration, West collaborated with film score composer Jon Brion and explored heavily with intricate string arrangements, being the first hip-hop artist to tour with a personal orchestra of strings. Arguably the most avant-garde and groundbreaking song on the album, “Gone,” features strings as well as sampling, but West raps about the music industry and his experience moving from production to life as a solo artist. Following a breakdown of orchestral strings, he raps “I’m ahead of my time / sometimes years out” and later subverts time to a hypothetical situation in which he attempts to produce music and loses all inspiration by what the music world has to offer—practically a meta evaluation of how it would feel to make music if he didn’t push boundaries and do it in his own inspiring way. Appropriately, the song ends with:
They claim you never know what you got till it’s gone /
I know I got it, don’t know what y’all on I’mma start up a store for aspiring emcees /
won’t sell ‘em no dream but the inspiration is free /
Shorties at the door cause they need more /
inspiration for they life, they souls, and they songs But they said sorry, Mr. West is gone.
In addition to commentary on his life in the public eye, Late Registration builds the foundation for West’s next album, Graduation, which progresses through sampling to collaborations on the songs “Flashing Lights,” “Homecoming,” and “The Good Life.” Collaborations and auto-tuning lead West through a stunning progression from the next album 808s and Heartbreak to what is considered by many to be West’s masterpiece album thus far, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Apparently inspired by Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, and Gil-Scott Heron, West collaborates and explores the topics of carnality, masochism, power, responsibility, and the future of the human race. A beautiful capitulation of his past work, he combines all previously experimented methods of his style to produce an entirely different style of music, not just hip-hop, that is unmatched by any artist in terms of lyrical content, musical variety, and artistic talent. In a more in-depth paper, one could discuss the depth of “Monster”’s sadist music video and collaboration with female progressive rapper Nicki Minaj and folk artist Bon Iver to craft a storyline in 6 minutes and 18 seconds to rival Ayn Rand’s existential human condition in The Anthem. The song “Runaway” combines a single striking piano note, auto-tuning, and a backup chorus to point out West’s contradictory self-indulgence while proposing a “toast to the douchebags, [and] a toast to the assholes,” warning listeners to run away from him. “I always find, yeah I always find something wrong…you’ve been putting up with my shit just way too long,” West sings, something he has shied away from due to a lack of vocal prowess.
Some could argue that West is not avant-garde; that he indulges himself with many of the same tactics employed by others in his genre: self-appreciation, song sampling, guests from different genres, and political commentary. It could be mentioned that he has no specific written manifesto like the movements of Dada or Functionalism. Whatever West lacks in avant-garde technicality, he makes up for with his educated social and political views and inspiration of the socially progressive hip-hop movement, away from stereotypes of inner-city rap and uninspired background beats. Chris Richardson of Rolling Stone explains West’s musical genius in all its complicated glory well:
his musical appropriation of the past in order to keep it alive in the present…bring[s] its messages into the future. Though West is not the only person frequently to sample older tracks—in fact, one could argue that hip hop was founded on this technique—West has created a distinct sound by remixing the rhythms of 1970s Motown, soul, and funk favorites, speeding them up, and infusing them with heavy bass beats
The same argument could be made for every facet of avant-garde Mr. West possesses, but he simply makes significant changes and keeps pushing the envelope through his lyrics, topics, style, and public message with every album he produces.
Unlike other solo artists and music groups that grow tired making music of the same nature because the previous albums have performed well commercially, he simply makes music about what he believes is important. Even though Mr. West’s most recent album, Yeezus, has not been released long enough to do an in-depth analysis, it features electronic dance music, carnal screaming, barbaric references to the African American condition, and discussion on human social norms. West has reached the height of his over-the-top ego (naming the album after his godly nickname) as well as featuring the songs “I Am a God,” and “I’m In It.” In the song “New Slaves,” he simply sums it up by saying that he’d “rather be a dick than a swallower,” as West strives for honesty regardless of the public’s opinion or personal cost to his image.
This brutal honestly has led to many controversies that have become widely scrutinized across the world. The most well known occurred when West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Music Video at the MTV Video Music Awards by grabbing the microphone and famously saying, “I’mma let you finish…but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” This contributes to Mr. West’s ‘asshole effect,’ an unfortunate consequence of his inexhaustible attempt to be completely honest with the mostly-biased music world at large. In a New York Times interview, he claimed that even that event has not engendered regrets on his part. “It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness. That’s all it is…I don’t have one regret.” While West was still extremely disrespectful, it is significant that he spoke out against the decision; while the vast majority of the public had seen Beyoncé’s video for “Single Ladies” and could recognize the associated dance, a minority had also religiously learned the dance and could perform it at the drop of a hat. For Taylor Swift (a meek country-pop star) to win the award for an uninspired video about teenage unrequited love, it is considerably outrageous that she won the award over a video that reached viral levels worldwide. It might be contentious to claim that Beyoncé’s loss was a race-related issue, but it is hard to ignore that such an influential video could possibly go without the win.
West also stunned the world with his outspoken opinion on Bush’s actions following Hurricane Katrina. In his song “Flashing Lights” on the album Graduation, he raps that the situation at hand feels “like Katrina with no F.E.M.A.,” and later shocked the nation by going off-script on a nationally televised fundraiser for the hurricane by claiming “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Again, Mr. West went completely against social norms of respect in times of crisis, but voiced the opinion of many who saw the discrimination between white ‘survivors’ versus black ‘looters’ in New Orleans in the newspapers’ portrayals. West has caused race-related controversies on multiple occasions, another being a joint performance of “Niggas in Paris” with Jay-Z in Paris, France. The billboard-topping single was always featured heavily while the couple was on tour, but the Paris performance reached ludicrous levels when the two came on stage to play the song repeatedly, and for the duration of the entire concert. Two hours later, they exited the venue with no explanation. This situation in particular relates back to an avant-garde tenet of ‘the spectacle,’ an attempt to draw attention to an audience’s consciousness and social location at the time.
While Kanye West undoubtedly creates controversies because of his wildly unpredictable personality, the experimentations and risks that he has taken most certainly allow him to be classified as avant-garde. Taking that notion a step further, West adheres subtly to many of the characteristics of avant-garde movements quite noticeably; he was a university student of art after all, and it is very possible that he is conscious of this and is actively attempting to create a hip-hop avant-garde movement of his own.