The Genius of Kanye West
David Samuels has penned an incredible feature and profile about Kanye West for The Atlantic, perfectly titled “American Mozart.”
It’s an amazing bit of culture writing serving not just as an extended review of the Watch The Throne tour and the diametric artistry employed by West and Jay-Z, but by also zeroing in on exactly what makes Kanye such a genius.
That Kanye West is a musical genius is not new; it’s been accepted as fact since 2004’s The College Dropout. Still, assertions of that genius almost always accompany caveats about his attitude and his public behavior. Yeah, Kanye’s a genius – but he’s also an asshole. Or as President Obama is quoted in the article, “He is a jackass. But he’s talented.”
That caveat is absolutely well deserved but it too often acts to minimize that genius.
While Samuels acknowledges the personality issue – in fact, it’s a core tenant in his article – he also fully recognizes the talent.
As Kanye and Jay kick into gear on “Gotta Have It,” I finally recognize the James Brown sample that Kanye is using—a bare snippet of “My Thang.” It’s a sex song with sinewy-sweet, insistent rhythms and a knock-’em-dead vocal from the Godfather of Soul. The two-and-a-half-second sample that Kanye has woven into his new song is in a way a tribute to his own gift for economy. It shows that the same producer who can mix 11 different voices in the studio version of “All of the Lights” and clear the rights to half of “Try a Little Tenderness” at God knows what cost can also pinch a dollar when he needs to, and use a note of someone else’s voice as a single element in his own collage. It’s also a sign of how bleak this branch, at least, of black popular music has become since the days of James Brown, who embodied the sensual urgency of right now, baby—a far cry from the cold-eyed tales of drugs, ego, paranoia, and high-end luxury goods being retailed onstage. “Squeeze me, hold me, roll me, make me scream, make me feel, gimme my thang” was an urgent plea for sex, but the warmth of the music spoke of an even more elemental need for human connection. All that’s left now is a harder-edged version of the last phrase, in which the need for human connection has been canceled out. Whatever faults he may have as a person, Kanye is preternaturally self-aware. The sad, attenuated, one-note version of Brown’s lyric haunting the coked-out beat is the point of the song.