The state of hip-hop as a significant genre of pop music has changed in just one week. Soon after the Pulitzer Prize committee cited Kendrick Lamar’s album Damn. as the first pop-music composition to receive its music award, a superior pop musician, Kanye West, posted a series of tweets that overshadowed Lamar’s album with a greater cultural impact than any pop-music production this century. The political world unfamiliar with the albums My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), a collaboration with Jay-Z titled Watch the Throne (2011), Yeezus (2013), and The Life of Pablo (2016) suddenly had to take notice of West as the most adventurous pop artist of the era. He bridged hip-hop’s R&B basis with punk-art fervor, dance-music flamboyance and art-rock audacity, but this is rare musical–political synchronicity.
West’s tweet (“I love the way Candace Owens thinks.”) was also trailblazing simply by voicing admiration for the podcaster Candace Owens, a 28-year-old black woman who asserts her disenchantment with liberal, Democratic-party politics. Owens’ perspective challenges the conventional lockstep willingness of black civilians and politicians to follow the same ideological sentiments laid out for them for at least the past 50 years. West’s Twitter agreement went viral, causing international response (some pro, but mostly con) that wiped Lamar’s Pulitzer win from public consciousness — after all, it was merely one of those racial “firsts” that liberal media likes to tout as an example of “progress.”
The real progress is that West immediately released a new track this weekend titled “Ye vs. the People,” which mops up Lamar’s litany of immiserated ghetto complaints by using hip-hop to revive black American discourse. In the style of a tweet that circumvents mainstream media’s filter, West (as “Ye,” one of his art-monikers) speaks directly to “the People,” the pop audience that has followed him from his College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation trilogy (2004–07) to his great success, latest artistic triumphs, and recent mysterious reclusion. West knows that the rest of the world will listen in on this new record, so his exploration of musical styles and public address in “Ye vs. the People” urges his widened audience to rethink the current controversy. West states his case while advancing political discussion, which recent hip-hop albums such as Beyoncé’s posturing Lemonade, Public Enemy’s Nothing Is Quick in the Desert, Jay-Z’s 4:44, and Lamar’s prizewinner have all failed to do. Despite their varied artfulness, these records repeated conventional, predictable social panaceas or else made no political impact.
West reimagines his media storm as an aural tempest, literalizing the sound of Internet chatter and whirling within it a thrusting, jabbing “private” conversation between his impudent celebrity self and a shocked, uncomprehending fanbase — “the People,” who are personified by Atlanta-based rapper T.I. (Clifford Joseph “Tip” Harris). They go back and forth, West’s remonstrations versus “the People’s” perplexity. Independent thinking vs. African-American orthodoxy. (“The greater good of the people is first you had a bad idea / And you making it worse.”) Despite the recent cliché calling for “a conversation” on all matters of social agitation, usually by politicians who really just mean “Listen to me,” West actually presents a conversation. The recording is nothing so simple or arrogant as propaganda.
Better than a “beef” track (the hip-hop genre in which two rappers battle their differences in public, to the delight of fans who enjoy an egotistical cockfight), this debate attempts a civilizing colloquy on the phenomenon of West’s Twitter messaging. (After mentioning Owens, his tweets have continued, waxing philosophical about politics and the need for self-awareness over group identity.) This buzzfest, showing the conflict between two people who are not out to destroy each other, instead presents fraternity at cross-purposes — a civilized way of portraying America’s current divergence. The People are not a test market for West’s solo venturing into lonely personal morality, but a sounding board refusing to absorb his best intentions and suspecting them as dangerous to black folks’ well-being. (“You don’t see the fine point / What you see equal / Make them see evil.”)
Behind West’s new Twitter infamy is the confounding memory of his 2005 impromptu TV statement, during a Hurricane Katrina charity marathon, that then-president George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.” Left media embraced that outburst for its expression of black disgruntlement. But these tweets are different: They’re not a complaint but an appeal to reason that disconnects from the party line that keeps black Americans tied to the aims of leftist doom merchants who continue to manipulate them as disaster-prone unfortunates. Race propagandists are disturbed that West has changed his thinking — or worse, they refuse to contemplate that when speaking from his gut, spouting a particular brand of Democratic racialized blather, he didn’t know what he was talking about. Now, especially after seeing the Bush clan recently join the “resistance” (thus gaining support from the same media folk who once scorned them), West’s unfair Katrina outburst almost seems prophetic. The great irony of “Ye vs. the People” is that West unmistakably cares about what black people think of him.
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“Ye vs. the People” doesn’t quite equal the iconic status of that famous photo of ideological opposites, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, that Spike Lee pasted onto the coda of Do the Right Thing, but, of necessity, brings that myth down to size. West vs. Public Enemy’s Chuck D might be devastating, but T.I. does not rap at West’s level. This problem goes deep into the aesthetics of hip-hop, catching a riptide in the racial currents of American pop culture.
As the song’s antagonist, T.I.’s voice has that Southern drawl that legions of white pop critics and culture vultures swear by as the only genuine Negro voice. (Stentorian Paul Robeson? He dead.) In counterpoint with Kanye’s snappish, agitated, Chicago-based delivery, T.I. sounds a little “slow”— and in playing the role of “the People,” he is deliberately slow to take up West’s message. (“It’s some s*** you just don’t align wit’ / And don’t go against!”) Yet this is not a snide conversation, showing off class snobbery (the fake vs. the real); instead, the disagreements arise from points of divergence: This is what black consciousness sounds like after the experience of unfulfilling, disorienting “progress.” (West’s summation “I know Barack was heaven-sent / But since Trump won / It proved I could be president” juxtaposes Democratic superstition to Independent possibility.) Now, with Obama out of the way, West and T.I. are actually discussing the freedom available for black people to break their ideological bondage.
Their argument revolves around various of states of cultural influence, in search of a common cultural/political identity. Kanye describes emerging into enlightenment from America’s (and his own) depression: “I was in the sunken place / And then I found the new me,” referencing last year’s horror-comedy Get Out. That film added little to the culture except that nebulous term for disorientation. Director Jordan Peele even tweeted a threat to write a sequel that would definitively portray West in “the sunken place,” but his peevishness proves he’s also an inferior artist to West, who launches “Ye vs. the People” with a gloriously agitating sample from the Four Tops’ 1967 Motown hit “Seven Rooms of Gloom.” It’s a rich metaphor for modern America: “I see a house / A house of stone / Filled with gloom / You took the dream I had for us / Turned my dreams into dust.” The Motown sound is intrinsically propulsive, at one with black America’s cultural future.
Peele lacks West’s vast sense of cultural heritage, and so Get Out merely rejiggered Hollywood’s old scared-spook racial stereotypes for Millennials who are inclined to accept a new set of supposedly “woke” racial cartoons. This generation, surprisingly unfamiliar with traditional Hollywood racism, was eager to see actor Daniel Kaluuya in totally naïve, ahistorical terms, overlooking his bug-eyed, frightened visage in order to desperately acknowledge their own deracinated but angry selves. He represented Black Lives Matter, newly entitled (and endorsed by Obama) to vent a revanchist paranoia that must be recognized and respected everywhere, even if on Get Out’s trifling terms. (Candace Owens’s dismissal of Black Lives Matter is at the root of the outrage about West’s endorsement because it deprives Millennials of their politically correct grievance reflex.)
The grievance reflex gives T.I.’s role in ‘Ye vs. the People’ the illusion of black solidarity — all blacks seen as cadging, feckless, pissed-off reprobates.
Given this new defensiveness, Millennials will not see T.I. as an uneducated, mentally meandering throwback, but as one with those brooding, unapproachable Millennial wastrels from the TV series Atlanta. The grievance reflex gives T.I.’s role in “Ye vs. the People” the illusion of black solidarity — all blacks seen as cadging, feckless, pissed-off reprobates. This perspective, which stubbornly adheres to old 1960s civil-rights imagery, is a political aberration. T.I. is well cast for the sound of black Southern and urban political loyalty (which one West tweet audaciously cited as “plantation mentality”). T.I.’s twang suggests a new version of the lazybones comic caricaturist Stepin Fetchit (whom Kaluuya also resembled). Black Lives Matter kids may not make the cultural association due to PBS and Democratic propaganda making sure that they connect instead to civil-rights-era lunch-counter beatdowns, despite the fact that they (and their Starbucks-restroom martyrs) have never actually experienced such atrocity.
Based on unresolved social issues (from housing to education to jobs), black Millennials ignore recent political change and possibility. They stick to the usual discontent propagated in hip-hop’s very rhythms and intonation, whether as the sped-up, psychotic cadence that Kendrick Lamar adopted from Eminem or the rap lingo that deliberately resists what used to be known as “proper English,” embracing slang and profane dialect as acts of defiance and self-redefinition.
“Ye vs. the People” is an art document that confronts the dilemma of a new “double consciousness” (to use W. E. B. DuBois’s legendary phrase to describe black folks’ awareness of their personal and social identities). In the form of an argument, West portrays the halting terms of black political discourse as led by black politicians and activists who prefer comforting stereotypes but are challenged by an increasing set of blacks like himself who pursue new potential and avenues of change.
West’s previous hit, “Ultralight Beam,” was an ecstatic neo-gospel tune that transcended politics to imagine black spirituality. Its beauty contrasts with the pathetic motif of Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. (His repeated lament “Ain’t nobody praying for me” pleased secular critics.) Acclaim for Lamar’s negativity by a major cultural institution is no surprise when that institution is part of the mechanism that perpetuates and fetishizes black misery. Mainstream media’s overall intention to make a monolith of black political thought goes against the best hip-hop from Public Enemy to De La Soul, Geto Boys to Migos (especially their recent “Walk It Talk It”), who all epitomize the range of black political thinking and social experience.
“Ye vs. the People” is the most audacious hip-hop single since Geto Boys’ Willie D released “Rodney K” in 1992 to condemn what he saw as the late Rodney King’s appeasement to the patronizing media. West has kept up the apostasy on Twitter, but this single moves into a realm that sustains the person-to-person essence of his argument. I’m reminded how in 1998 Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates wrote a promotion of Warren Beatty’s hip-hop-inspired political film Bulworth for The New Yorker that conspicuously repeated point by point from my 1992 City Sun analysis of “Rodney K” (included in my anthology The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World) without ever citing the source. But that was before social media made it possible to keep a record of nonconformist ideas and trace how they get twisted into conformity from the commanding heights. West’s single makes the ideological conflict among black Americans part of hip-hop’s drumbeat commentary, and that may be the toughest resistance of all.