♫: “Otis”, Kanye West and Jay-Z, ft. Otis Redding

It’s been a while since the release of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s collaborative project, Watch the Throne, and an even longer while since streaming platforms came to dominate the way we listen to music. Since the album’s release, it’s only ever been available to stream on Carter’s own Tidal platform. At the time that Watch the Throne came out, I naïvely considered it one of my most-loved rap albums, because I barely knew any rap albums at the time. It was a time when people still used to say “swag”.

I was thinking about Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness today, and when I heard that descending piano key I remembered the way it acted as the “bass drop” point in a Watch the Throne song, except I couldn’t remember which. (Incidentally, how funny that for most people around my age, their first introduction to various modern classics like Otis Redding are through the samples on contemporary rap music. It’s only through rap that I discovered Redding, Gil-Scott Heron, James Brown.) For the past few years, I’d been almost exclusively listening to all my music on Spotify and ignoring everything that wasn’t on it. I’d forgotten the days of downloading music illegally, of not having the entire musical world at your finger tips; the days when you could listen to an album on repeat for weeks straight for no other reason beside that you just hadn’t downloaded any new music recently. The days when discovery took a bit longer, but music was allowed to seep in a bit deeper. When I looked up Otis on Youtube for the first time in years, I couldn’t help a big grin spreading across my face in public at the memory of lines like, “They ain’t see me ‘cuz I pulled up in my other Benz / last week, I was in my other other Benz.”

A couple years after Watch the Throne came out, it would soundtrack Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Two black men deep in 21st-century American decadence soundtracking the decadence of white Americans in the 1920s. It seems odd that this album is now almost a decade old, odd that there’s such distance between now and a time when West and Carter would make music videos as simple and honest as the one for Otis, in which they’re smiling, revelling in their own excess; a time before Carter became more art-house following Beyoncé’s footsteps, a time before West went a little more off the rails in his success. They were still Gatsbys in the way they flaunted their wealth, not yet the Buchanans they are now.

The album, so deliciously, arrogantly titled, was my first introduction to decadence-rap. I hadn’t discovered trap music yet, in which everything –love, politics, anxiety — is put into the service of flaunting wealth. Maybe if I’d stopped at this album, allowed it to fade peacefully into the ether of not-on-Spotify, I might have been saved from discovering everything else that came after, all the Youngs, the Yungs, and the Lil’s. Watching the video now is a surreal retrospective realisation of how naïve we’d been, and by “we”, I mean me, but also West and Carter. How naïve I’d been to think this was the best/worst it could get, how naïve of West and Carter to think that one luxury car was enough, even if it did have suicide doors.


*Please read all my writing on rap music with a heavier dose of irony than usual.

♫: “Ghost Town”, Kanye West, 070 Shake, Kid Cudi, PARTYNEXTDOOR

Thinking about the betrayal of beauty through the penultimate song off ye

There are some songs that evoke so much within you that you believe that their author was writing from the very same experiences as you’ve had. I’ve felt the full force of Ghost Town most acutely when I was walking around on my own in Tokyo and feeling lonely and abandoned by something I hadn’t even known I’d possessed. (Any city becomes a ghost town if you’re the one who ghosts through it.) I felt it at sunsets, marking the sad passing of time and another day drawn to a close with everything much the same. I’ve felt it while in KLCC park on the eve of independence day this year, sitting alone and eating some bread and watching the crowd thronging around the colourful lights of the fountain. Feeling like there’s something monumental about to happen—or currently happening, all around me—but that I was not part of it, and could not possibly ever be. But some day, some day. The wide, rounded vocals by 070 Shake and Kid Cudi make something bloom in my chest. The latter’s “I’ve been trying to make you love me / but everything I try just takes you further from me,” remind me of that viral video of Barcelona’s “Please Don’t Go” set to a view of a crowd passing a gigantic tank in Japan’s Okinawa Chiraumi Aquarium. The anonymous strangers are bathed in blue light, in awe of the mysterious and fantastic beasts in front of them. Love and its attainment also being another mysterious and fantastic beast that we gape at as we pass through life. We’ll understand some day, some day, maybe some day.

For me, “Ghost Town” is the best song off Kanye’s 2018 album ye, and the only song that induces me to revisit the album at all. Yet it feels corny to say that a Kanye West song made me emotional, and this self-consciousness is probably a result of the total dissonance between the song and the leading man behind it. As 070 Shake herself said in an interview, her refrain (so crucial to the song, for me) was only added in at the very last minute on the day of ye’s release; the song “almost didn’t make it”. It’s for reasons like this that I don’t like behind-the-scenes information about music or musicians, because I don’t like to think that a song that has come to mean so much to me could have just been thrown together on the day of its release. This knowledge suggests a kind of artificiality or shallowness in its production that is totally discordant with the emotional connection I’ve formed to the song.

More than its production, it feels corny to say that a Kanye West song made me emotional, because it’s a song by Kanye West, the man who famously doesn’t give a fuck about how his music or personality makes other people feel. However, for me (and because I’m talking about the controversial figure of Kanye West, I feel like I need to emphasize the truly personal nature of this whole thing, so expect a lot more “for me”s), “Ghost Town” isn’t typically the kind of thing that Kanye has been producing in recent times. “Ghost Town” is different from his discography of recent years, because of how full it is of hope and, consequently, of hope’s cause, i.e. suffering. It is so full of hope for life, for beauty, for understanding, that it’s difficult for me to reconcile it with the Kanye of The Life of Pablo, full as it was of debauchery, racism and sexism. Even in TLOP’s more plaintive moments like “Wolves”, he undercuts the sentiment with a line so ridiculous that it makes you question the seriousness of the entire song. “You tried to play nice, everybody just took advantage / You left your fridge open, somebody just took a sandwich,” he says, plainly and apparently unironically. (Or ironically, but in either case it still undermines the sentiment of the song.)

Songs like “Wolves” and “Ghost Town” force the question of beauty. They lead you into a beautiful, mournful song, and Kanye himself undercuts his own sentiment by forcing something ugly and absurd into it. “Ghost Town” doesn’t have any “absurd” or “ironic” lines like the one in “Wolves”, but the beauty of the song is still undercut by the sole factor of Kanye West being Kanye West. ye was released amidst controversy with Drake and also with fans on Twitter over his support for Trump; the encompassing controversy affects how we respond to his releases. And yet, it’s the very fact of Kanye West being the sexist, racist, Trump-supporting person he is that gives “Ghost Town” its full force as a hopeful and vulnerable song; perhaps there’s no one else other than Kanye West who could deliver the line, “you may think they wrote you off, they gon’ have to rope me off”, and have it be considered so simplistically beautiful by the listener. Like “Bound 2”, the closing track to his 2013 album Yeezus, both songs successfully pull off this image of Kanye West as some naively foolish, thoughtless, Homer-Simpson-esque everyman who runs his mouth sometimes but loves his wife all the same, who has hopes and dreams and a conception of beauty all the same. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

“Ghost Town” shows Kanye as he isn’t, i.e. vulnerable, suffering a lack, striving towards something beautiful & lovely & transcendent. The final few lines by 070 Shake sound like a stadium song with the accompanying steady drumming: “And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free.” I love her refrain, but I also feel acutely the dissonance between these lines and the monumental figure of Kanye West. How hard it is to get your head around him being a man who could possibly be hurt, or possibly feel as if he were not free to do or say anything he wants.

I take Kanye West seriously as a musician and I appreciate his discography. Previously, I’d been able to do this because I ignored his politics, because I can’t bear to take them seriously. In a world where we get so inundated with new media, we sacrifice deep contemplation about personal ethics for the sake of enjoying a new piece of art. By now, a lot of people generally agree that there’s no point getting involved with an artist’s personal and political life when the music industry is powered by money. No matter how much we try to “hold someone accountable”, this sentiment in and of itself pales in comparison to how much the artist’s music brings the industry in profits. My approach to most forms of new American media has been one of mild indifference—enjoy the art, ignore the artist, don’t speak about idolatry or prophecy, and… whatever. Give up the art/artist if you can’t bring yourself to ignore the crime, but as Jenny Holzer said, “abuse of power comes as no surprise.” There’s no such thing as a fully perfect, ethical celebrity because the entire status of celebrity is corrupt.

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With “Ghost Town”, what I really wanted to know wasn’t how could Kanye West get away with saying the things he does? but rather, how could someone so horrible produce something so beautiful? I’m not thinking about how he could espouse the politics he does, or why he’s always insulting Kim in his songs, or why he starts unnecessary drama when he’s a full-grown man; rather, I’m more confused as to how someone so given over to the coarseness and superficiality of the entertainment industry could still produce something so touching and emotionally potent. (At least, for me. You can stop reading if you think I’m talking garbage.) How does that make any sense at all? When I think of beauty, I inevitably think of goodness, because the logic for me is that if someone is able to appreciate beautiful things, then it means that they should also know what is good. Beauty, for me, is inextricably bound up with the good, in that the things I personally consider “beautiful” often carry a kind of moral weight. For me, beauty is arrived at through sensitivity and empathy. Some of the most successful poetry and art are the ones that empathize with a shared feeling, and express this feeling with the trust that others will understand.

Knowledge is both an aid and a curse. Trusting one’s instinctual, emotional response to a work of art seems like a form of naivety, but it also seems wrong to deny the initial emotional response for the sake of privileging the technical production. 070 Shake returns to this naivety in “Ghost Town” when she sings, “We’re still the kids we used to be / I put my hand on a stove / to see if I still bleed,” childishly confusing the consequences of one act with another. Art is experienced through the senses—i.e. visually, auditorily, or kinesthetically—so it seems wrong to say that true art can only be arrived at/appreciated only once one has full knowledge of information external to the art.

There’s a certain repulsiveness in knowing the thought process behind a work of art, or even knowing the artist as a person, because with that knowledge can only come either a confirmation or a denial of your own emotional response to the artwork (emotion also formed by one’s own personal ethics, etc.). Ideally you’d want art to remain as it is when you first saw/heard/read it—as something purely yours, confirming your own ability to find beauty, and your own vision. A piece of art is often more a testament to our own capacity to empathise than it is the artist’s, which I guess is my main trouble with beauty. It is like admitting that you have loved someone more than they have loved you. The uneven empathy, the distance between two people, and the dissonance between what you give and what you receive—this heartbreak and betrayal is, for me, the same one at the heart of “Ghost Town”. I’ve been trying to make you love me, but everything I try just takes you further from me.

There doesn’t seem to be any rational response to this betrayal of art by its artist. Knowledge aids the appreciation, but it also allows cracks to appear in your initial response. Our emotional attachment to a work of art makes it difficult to give up an artist, and ultimately we will never fully know any of the artists we love, because of the distance between our lives and theirs. Music and art come naturally to us, in that we often have no say in what we listen to and how it affects us, because of the aforementioned saturation of media in our modern times; besides, the desire for beauty and art is wholly human and as natural for us to seek out as a fish for water. To Kanye West, “Ghost Town” is likely just a song he’s cobbled together and put out just like any other, and very likely that, on that last day before ye’s release, he wasn’t feeling the same intensity of feeling and I do towards that song. So it’s no good to live on beauty and emotions alone, but it’s no good either to deny them, or the fact of beauty’s necessity to us… How does that work?