May 3, 2016

JONES | My Inevitable Column: Bobby D and Yeezy

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“This is Jack Jones. He’s one of our Arts writers and he only writes about Bob Dylan and Kanye.”

This is how a certain previous Arts editor and close friend generally introduces me to new people. Before I go ahead and give support to this claim, I’d like to point out that I’ve only written one review of each artist’s work: my first piece for the Daily Sun was a review of Bob Dylan’s mediocre album of Sinatra covers Shadows in the Night, and my longest piece ever was a review of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. I’ve never used my column to focus on either of these figures, their music or what they mean to me. Doesn’t matter. I’m still the the Bob Dylan/Kanye guy.

Oh well. Here it is, then.

The most important similarity between Dylan and West is in the relationship between self-expression in their art and self-expression in their public persona. In their music, both artists often seem undeniably real and authentic; maybe messy and contradictory, but also viscerally convincing. Outside of their music, both are bizarre and frequently incoherent to the point that they often appear to be performing a character rather than honestly presenting themselves. However, both are far too consistently weird and surprising for me to really believe that they are acting out a calculated performance.

Both are committed career artists, shape-shifters that are never content with mastery. Both create, perfect and quickly discard styles, leaving imitators to mine them for years afterwards. Both are more unpredictable than any other artist in their field. Both can’t sing, at least under conventional definitions of what makes a good singer. Each nonetheless became one of the most influential and important vocalists of his respective generation. Dylan accomplished this by making his gravelly rasp indispensable to his music’s power; his voice was a stamp of authenticity more convincing than even the most penetrating, revealing lyric. West, on the other hand, took Auto-Tune, a tool that T-Pain had made famous in cheesy odes to strippers, and used it to distort his voice, creating the unsettling, uncanny cyborg effect that has become one of the most distinctive aspects of his music, an effect that conveys misery and alienation more acutely than anything else I can think of. Both artists are still dismissed by many for their lack of innate vocal ability.

Both artists started out by contributing to the creation of songs that went to other artists: Dylan as a songwriter, West as a producer. Both initially faced resistance to their attempts to become artists in their own right: for Dylan, because record executives thought he couldn’t sing; for West, because they thought he couldn’t rap. Both artists worked hard enough to convince these executives they could sell. Then each of them abandoned the style that made them popular. Each of them has a group of fans that still feels they were betrayed when Dylan when electric or when West made 808s & Heartbreak.

Both artists operate on a pendulum that swings between beauty and tenderness on the one side, and ugliness and chaos on the other. The farther they swing towards one end, the farther they swing towards the other in response (see Dylan’s turn to quiet folk/country after Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, or “Only One” and “Ultralight Beam” after Yeezus). Both artists have trafficked in desolate nihilism, and professed profound faith in God’s guidance.

Both are restless. Both are simultaneously uninhibited and impossible to truly know or understand. Both don’t seem to care at all about blatant self-contradiction. Each is the most important artist of his time. Each is my favorite.