September 20, 2007

Noses Up: Proud and Loud, With Skill to Match

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It all probably started when Sugarhill Gang boasted: “Ya see I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali and I dress so vicious/ I got bodyguards, I got two big cars.” It continued throughout the ’90s as “bravado” and “machismo.” As the 2000s began, hundred dollar bills swirled around hundred thousand dollar cars, and this in your face pomposity became integral to very idea of “rapping to the beat.”
And then came Kanye West. He’s the most publicly egotistical rapper/producer we’ve ever seen, perhaps more in what he says when the music isn’t playing than when it is.
Before we get into the politics, though, it should definitely be noted why we like him at all. West brought back the classic practice of meshing a modern beat and lyrics with an old, classic soul sample. He produced well-established MCs like Jay-Z and Ludacris before “going solo” (though how “solo” is debatable). He has won six Grammys, and has the attention of everyone in the popular music world, from the Billboard moguls to the striped-sweater wearing indie-lectuals at He won the recently publicized sales-battle with rapper 50 Cent, in a conflict reminiscent of B.I.G. vs. 2 Pac (though without any of the socio-cultural importance).
Less publicized is the fact that West legitimately is one of the most interesting rappers in recent music. His subject material transcends the standard “look at my wealth” approach in favor of a more self-reflective, juxtaposing style where the diamond trade in Sierra Leone appears on an album next to deep questionings of the bravado so integral to rap and hip-hop. He’s managed to do this without alienating the rap fans that just want a solid beat. His three albums have even kept a cohesive thematic thread, something that is almost unheard of in the ADD culture of today’s popular music, and how amazing is “Stronger?”
Somehow this wasn’t enough for Kanye West. Shut out at the MTV Video Music Awards last week, West threw a public tantrum, insulting Britney Spears and saying he would never work with MTV again. Many have likened West to a spoiled wonder-kid who may be artistically important, but who sure as hell knows it and also wants everyone to laud him with praise constantly.
It’s true that West is one of the more publicly brash rap stars, but I’ve come to believe that his actions aren’t isolated within his own ego, but rather grow out of the loud-mouthed, self promoting, bragging thread in rap and hip-hop that started with the Sugarhill Gang’s rhymes so many years ago. It’s such a part of the genre, either explicitly or implicitly, that I find it hardly surprising that in this case it has become manifest in the public persona of this rapper as much as in his music.
I don’t want to be an apologist for what has been some inexcusable behavior. I simply think it is worth arguing that this way of acting in public is exactly that, acting. Kanye West is a caricature of himself. Passing a judgment on Kanye’s actions on a trashy show of glitz and glamour like the VMAs is about as productive as criticizing Flavor Flav for picking the wrong girlfriend on his reality show. These are not “real” people, and they don’t operate in the “real” world. They are public personas performing in public arenas. This is why we’ve never really taken Michael Moore’s political rants at the Oscars seriously or the talk about the Dixie Chicks’ politics informing their wins at the Grammys.
West has said publicly that he loves award shows. Perhaps this is because they are the perfect forum for the performative, the pomp and the shamelessness that being a music star/public persona must entail.
Many people have said that they are not interested in really giving Kanye’s new album a chance because of this public persona. This doesn’t make sense to me in light of the way celebrities are usually treated. I could cite the number of people who went to Apocalypto, knowing full well about Mel Gibson, or the ways in which we still love Madonna and Michael Jackson, well aware of what they’ve said and done publicly.
In 1984, the movie Amadueus, a biopic of Mozart, explored the idea that this figure, who is lauded as the “greatest composer ever” fairly often, was in reality very crude and very bratty. People who watched the film probably didn’t stop listening to the icon of classical music, even if his personality most likely would have deeply offended them.
Had there been TV and big-time awards shows, would Mozart have been a little like West? We have no idea, but I think that if we don’t remove our appreciation of songs from how we feel about their creators, we’re going to miss out on a lot of great music.