By Nicholas Brady
“1 God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.
2 How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah.
3 Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.
4 Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.
5 They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.
6 I have said, “Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
7 But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.
8 Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.”
-Psalms 82 (standard King James Version)
“With his first albums, West distinguished himself as a master technician, gifted at fusing elaborate networks of samples, bridges, and refrains into seamless compositions. On Yeezus he unlearns all of that, speeding instead from one sound to the next in a series of smash cuts. It’s an album of interruptions. Dancehall samples don’t decorate these songs as much as they butt into them. Every sound is fighting for itself in a survival of the brashest.” http://www.avclub.com/articles/kanye-west-yeezus,99105/
“Existence might be a daily struggle for us all, but for the black his being is the effect of a war fought on at least two fronts. He must enter into combat with the presentiments and premonitions of a world condemning him to nonexistence, he must also enter the lists against his own image. That battle, though principally conceived in grand metaphysical terms as an Hegelian war in which existence ‘is always a question of annihilation or triumph’, is also a tenacious street war over the simple right to live. That war, or wars, results in an irredeemable and massively expansive web of affect, verging on an imaginary, profoundly missed encounter with the ‘thing’ that one detests, that is the object of one’s relentless dread, the thing that is oneself.” -David Marriott “Frantz Fanon’s War” On Black Men
Yeezus is an album at war. At war with the world, with everyone, with anyone, but most notably at war with itself, its projected selves, its projected women that he conquers in order to recover a masculinity he only believes is lost (because he never had that position of the patriarch in the first place), its performed past, and its imagined future. While Kanye West has always been contradictory in his music, this album is less contradictory than it is fragmentary. We get a sense of this in the very first song, “On Site,” that begins with a lurching, menacing synth and grimy beat, yet suddenly breaks into a sample of Chicago’s Holy Name of Mary Choral Family’s singing “He’ll give us what we need/ It may not be what we want.” While the easy reading of this move is that Kanye West is using this sample to pre-emptively answer the inevitable frustration folks will have with the album — it may not sound like what you want, but it is what you need, so says the all-mighty Yeezus — one can hear the sample as its own fragment with its own perspective that cuts against the song, undercuts ‘Ye’s authority, and uppercuts the performance of a faux patriarchy Kanye West employs throughout the song. The sample is in an agonistic struggle with Kanye’s lyrics, revealing the general antagonism of the album: Kanye’s status as star, wealthy individual, and misogynistic man desiring power and status versus his blackness that marks the impossibility of buying one’s freedom — one’s subjectivity, their standing in the world, their status among “Men.” Abrupt and jarring, the sample escapes as quickly as it arrives, for it arrives bound to its particular time signal with no trace of its existence either before or after. The sample exists as a rip in the time and space of the song, not so much a part of the whole as a fragment that reveals the entire song as a stitched together series of fragments.
While one could say that an album about one’s godliness is boring (and I would certainly agree with this sentiment), it would seem the Kanye-as-God is at most an ambivalent position, a double(d) reference that becomes very difficult to properly mark in the album, even in the seemingly simple statement song “I am a God.” A boring performance of one’s “godliness” is when a finite being, often with tongue in cheek, attempts to claim the divine. This status of purity — of being perfectly pure and whole — is an illusion buttressed in the secular (and theological) schema through the normativity of white heteropatriarchy. It is, to invoke the cliche of the post-civil rights academy, a social construct and nothing more. This social construct of the pure being, the superordinate figure, the lord or the master, cannot be “achieved” so much as its illusion can be projected through the violent repression of its other, here figured most poignantly by the other so othered it is beyond a status we can adequately call “other”: blackness. We can call blackness, pace Hortense Spillers term, the vestibule of otherness in the sense that it is the pre-view, its absent center, and the topological hallway through which identities move in between and become that which they can never truly be, pure beings. In effect, Kanye West, as all other black people, is the condition of possibility for the social illusion of the superordinate position of white heteropatriarchy. Lyrically, this album is one of Kanye’s most simplistic performances, for it would seem that he is attempting to play God, to become this pure being. Yet to this point Kiese Laymon asks a very interesting question, “before we even get to what he’s saying with his voice on Yeezus, can we talk about what he’s doing with his voice?” To discuss “what Kanye is doing with his voice” is not simply to talk about the diversity of flows, clever punchlines, or lyrical prowess, but it should also cite the multivalent ways he plays around with his voice, breaks his voice down, the relationship of breath and screams and gasps, of interruptions and interpollations, and the relationship of his voice to all the other voices (and there are so many) on this album. From here on out, I will be studying this album though this question: What would it mean to hear the songs not as coherent wholes — pure, divine songs — but instead as fragments (within fragments) interrupting the whole, as holes interrupting any sense of the whole, thus constituting a blackened vision of a (w)hole, a world always already in darkness, broken, “out of course?”
Yeezus is not so much playing God as citing the contours of this impossible pure being and its relation to Kanye’s own ontological impurity. The album musically sounds like a blacked out version of the trends dominating radio, and this is no coincidence given his recruitment of many of the cutting edge producers and rappers of this popular moment (Hudson Mohawke and Chief Keef, just to name two). Radio is currently being dominated by the recent developments of Dubstep, in particular its amalgamation with several iterations of regional specific forms of “trap music” (in particular the production style that emerged in the early-2000s Atlanta mixtape circuit and the drill production style emerging from Chicago, among others), fronted by the rootless freewheeling white DJs that are moving across the globe taking little bits of whatever they come into contact with (Diplo, David Guetta, Skrillex, and some newer figures such as Zed and Bauuer, to name a few examples). This is not a new phenomenon, just a reiteration of the problem of the global popular culture founded on and perpetuated by anti-black racism (for an explication of this theme, check out another piece I wrote here). Yet, in this specific moment Miley Cyrus can freely request music that “feels black” or Pitchfork can make a video with Chief Keef making the enormous count of Black people killed in Chicago into a joke for its videos (they took down the video and apologized, but it is the simple fact they made it in the first place). We can also consider the movie Spring Breakers — called by critics and its Director an extended, dreamy music video of the moment’s hottest music — as exemplary of this moment. Four white girls from an unnamed boring town go to Miami in order to live freely and dangerously, meet a white “trap rapper” made in the image of internet clown Riff Raff, engage in some type of “war” with a rival gang headed by Gucci Mane, essentially playing himself, and the movie ends with the literal murder of every black character in the movie before they return home to become “normal” again. The message is obvious clear: black death is the condition of possibility for (white/nonblack) life, vitality, desire, sexuality, and (thus) normativity. This is the popular context that one can hear Yeezus reacting to, even if only tangentially.
Against these moves, Kanye reorients this white obliteration through a re-mixing of Jamaican dancehall with Chicago house and drill (along with a large global grab-bag of disparate sounds) to attempt to amplify the black death that popular culture uses as the energy for its institutionalization and commercialization of life. While throughout Kanye West’s career the city of Chicago has always been a central topic of pride and home, here Chicago has risen to the level of a theme, becoming the geographical metempsychosis of black death throughout the album. Chicago can be felt in the music — whether it is the sampling of Chicago house, drill, or even choirs as mentioned above — and can also be heard in the selection of controversial rappers from the city, King Louie and the lightning rod of criticism Chief Keef. Instead of attempting to play the veteran’s role and discipline them or even attempting to play “gangster” with them (as many of the examples listed in the last paragraph attempt to), Kanye affirms their perspective as something to be heard on its own terms. Raised to the level of a theme, this demand to hear Chicago on its own terms is a general call to hear blackness on its own terms, “Middle America packed in/ Came to see me in my black skin/ Number one question they asking/ Fuck every question you asking… Claiming I’m overreacting/ Like them black kids/ in Chiraq bitch.” Kanye is referencing how the death count in Chicago outnumbers the death toll in Iraq. The most interesting part in this section is when he raps “Fuck every question you asking,” for it comes in as a distorted interpolation – a scream engineered in. The scream is both a call and a response – a response to a call that precedes the call (the “question they asking”) and thus is a call that produces the question as response. As Fred Moten argues in In the Break, the irruption of the scream is proof that the black has “intrinsic value, it would be infused with a certain spirit, a certain value given not from the outside… [yet] That irruption breaks down the distinction between what is intrinsic and what is given by or of the outside, here where is given inside is that which is out-from-the-outside, a spirit manifest in its material expense or aspiration.” The scream is a motif throughout the entire album along these lines, as both the effect of violence (for instance the end of “I Am A God”) and the precedent that precludes the violence it is a response to. The scream signifies the vestibularity of blackness, simultaneously inside, outside, and the point through which, paradoxically, these terms lose all integrity and gain their coherence. They come to Kanye’s black skin with questions, desiring his life to become the source for their vitality, and he screams against them, both inside and outside the space-time of the song, “Fuck every question you asking.” This is not a noble resistance, but the scream of a dispossessive perforance – a performer possessed by, not in possession of, blackness.
Against the performance of anti-black popular culture that instrumentalizes the repression of blackness (its social death) as the libidinal energy to buttress the illusion of a normative social life, the chorus for “Black Skinhead” notes a different relationship to blackness and dispossession: “So follow me up cause this shit ’bout to go down/ I’m doing 500, I’m outta control now/ But there’s nowhere to go now/ And there’s no way to slow down/ If I knew what i knew in the past/ I would’ve been blacked out on your ass.” This is not black death that institutionalizes or protects one’s life, nor is it black death that provides the means for a sense of orgasmic vitality — pure white pleasure — but instead it is an expression of black death from the position of someone in the throes of death, one possessed by death. There is nowhere to go (no end to instrumentalize the death for) and there’s no way to slow down (the impossibility of redress, the impossibility of locating a “when” or “where”), yet the last two lines are most telling given this. In Kanye’s performance of “Black Skinhead” on SNL before the release of the album, the last line is “just enjoy the crash.” This last line signifies that Kanye is speaking to the general audience, telling them to enjoy his inevitable death, his performed death, his social death. In contradistinction the last line for the album version signifies something different, an affirmation of his own knowledge — here an ambivalent knowledge, a dispossessed sense of knowledge, something he “knew in the past” that he has only come to re-know now — that could, in a violent self-knowledge, become the tools to “black out” the general audience. This point becomes even more interesting if we consider that this chorus references black death metaphorically as a car crash, which is also a reference to the beginning of Kanye West’s rap career — a near fatal car crash that produces the moment that he records “Through the Wire,” his first solo hit single. In the past, this car crash has been Kanye’s narrative of “tragedy to triumph,” a victory of life over death. On “Black Skinhead” this is reversed and life is no longer that which triumphs over death, but is instead an inevitably violent ride that will crash right into it. This is one way to hear blackness on its own terms: to inhabit the problem of death not as a condition to be despised or instrumentalized for one’s life, but instead to be touched by blackness, to hear and inhabit the costs of blackness as its own world, its own life, a blackened sense of life, life out of the nowhere of death, dispossessed and speeding towards its own demise.
Kanye West’s performance of “New Slaves” on SNL reveals another layer to hearing blackness on its own terms, marking a general problem between the performative and the paradigmatic. Kanye West has always been an emotive performer, with dramatic sets, constant movements across the stage, screaming and full of sweat and his now patented freestyled “rants” The performance of “New Slaves” then is notable for its minimalism. Kanye West stays almost perfectly still behind the mic-stand and the musicians playing instrument are all cast in a shadow. Kanye’s body is also cast in a shadow revealing only his profile (neck and face) with a big screen behind him only projecting his eyes. His eyes can be read as the disinterested eyes of a God, one that cannot focus on the infinite number of insignificant subjects in his audience. I agree that his eyes in the performance remained unfocused, yet they are anything but disinterested. His eyes appear possessed by a barely veiled rage, yet they cannot find the object of their rage — there is no one person responsible for Kanye’s suffering, so his eyes continuously dart back and forth, completely disoriented. Frank Wilderson describes this as the objective vertigo of the black subject, “…the sensation that one is not simply spinning in an otherwise stable environment, that one’s environment is perpetually unhinged stems from a relationship to violence that cannot be analogized. This is called objective vertigo, a life constituted by disorientation rather than a life interrupted by disorientation.” Blackness affords no stable point to reorient oneself, and is itself non-orientable, so one is always already structurally barred from achieving the status of social stability marked by white heteropatriarchy. Yet this impossibility does not mean that one cannot attempt to produce a false sense of balance or re-orientation. How does one stop the world from spinning in order to stand up and become a proper subject? As Frank Wilderson has said in a few different places, what cannot be allowed can still be disavowed.
The end of the performance reveals the connection between the objective vertigo of blackness and the problem of misogyny in Kanye West’s music. At the 1:30 mark, Kanye West’s eyes are almost closed as if he were in a trance, as he raps, “I throw these maybach keys, I wear my heart on the sleeve/ I know that we the new slaves, I see the blood on the leaves.” After he repeats that line from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (famously covered by Nina Simone) the camera floats up and his eyes focus like a laser as his voice gets noticeably more aggressive as he raps, “They throwing hate at me, want me to stay at ease/ Fuck you and your corporations, ya’ll niggaz can’t control me.” As the performance continues the camera begins to move in for a close-up as he raps “I know that we the new slaves, ya’ll niggaz can’t mess with me/ Ya’ll niggaz can’t mess with Ye, ya’ll niggaz can’t mess with Ye/ I move my family out the country so you can’t see where I stay.” The camera continues to move in closer as begins his analysis of privatized prisons and the institutionalization of white domestic power and capital through the incarceration of black youth. The connection between the music industry and the prison system is clear: the world is adjoined by interlocking institutions that use black bodies as the molten materials for profiteering. Kanye West’s eyes are no longer darting back and forth, he has found and locked onto an opponent — the white men at the head of the households profiting off of black suffering. What is one way Kanye West can resist? Kanye employs an age-old trope of white heteropatriarchy, “Fuck you and your Hampton house/ I take your hampton spouse/ Came on her hampton blouse and her hampton mouth.” The camera is positioned slightly above his head and is zeroed in on his face, Kanye West is staring up and directly into the camera. The camera positions the viewing audience in the position of the “Hampton family,” socially positioned above Kanye, deserving his rage. Kanye does not simply want to destroy the family, that much is obvious and warranted, but there is also a desire to recover a lost sense of masculinity — “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.” For the majority of the performance Kanye’s eyes can’t focus, yet at the end they focus once he begins to discuss the position of white men in control. Here we can begin to mark the meaning of this distinction: the first part of the performance is a critical inhabitation of the objective vertigo of blackness due to its ontological vulnerability and the end is a disavowal of this structural vulnerability in favor of a performance of a faux masculinity in order to return Kanye to some mythological social position of the Father’s law.
The problem of misogyny is not surprising when we think about Kanye West’s music; yet there is a notable intensity with the album of Yeezus that can seem ironic given the overt political nature of this album. I think it is not ironic, but is actually in a causal relationship. The issue of misogyny on the album is not simply about political correctness that can be helped with editing and censorship, it is a problem that Hortense Spillers talks about poignantly in her seminal piece “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” and further elaborated in the 20 year anniversary interview on this piece titled “Watcha Gonna Do?”: “That is what I was trying to suggest about certain performances of maleness on the part of black men, and what i was helping to suggest is that black men can’t afford to appropriate the gender prerogatives of white men because they have a different kind of history; so you can’t just simply be patriarchal… As I see it now, success in black culture has brought us a lot closer to appropriating gender dynamics that I do not necessarily like.” It is not more than the bad taste and lyrical laziness of lines like “eating asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce” or “put my fist in her like a civil rights sign,” it is the problem of the woman, not so much as an “actual person” but a phantasmagoric figure, for his performance of maleness and his ability to avow his blackness. The objective vertigo of blackness is not caused by the emasculation of black men, for that assumes that which cannot be presupposed: white heteropatriarchy is parasitic on the structural vulnerability of black people, what Spillers calls “ungendering.” Black men were not “men” a priori and then were “reduced,” the category of the man was formed through the history of enslavement that, as Spillers puts it, “removed the African-American male not so much from sight as from mimetic view as a partner in the prevailing social fiction of the Father’s name, the Father’s law.” For much of Kanye’s lyrical performance, there is an attempt to pin down his suffering onto a repressive violence of emasculation that can be recuperated through the domination of the many women in his life — he would much rather be a dick than swallower. This is why this album, like much of Hip Hop, can easily become the soundtrack to white men freely living out their masculine desires through violence:
Given this argument, the fulcrum song of the album, “Blood on the Leaves,” provides an interesting point of ambivalence, simultaneously an affirmation of this problem and a departure from it. The fourth and last verse of the song certainly fits this pattern, with its almost illogical analogy that “gold diggers” are a modern day lynching force. Much attention has been given to the line where Kanye West discusses an abortion as a possible response to being locked down by a baby given that his baby was born the weekend before Yeezus was released. Yet the fourth verse stands in stark contrast to the rest of the song where Kanye West is almost completely diligent about using generic pronouns with no gender signification. The first three verses stage a drama between a “you” and “I,” with gender only barely implied. The first verse begins with an attempt to properly account his position, to “clear [his] mind now.” There is something he wants, yet money will not buy it. He is telling the “you” to wait for him to find whatever this non-capital form of payment will be. He is asking the “you” to trust him, to trust that he can pay, and is lamenting that the “you” does not wait. The second and third verse describe the violence of official ways of accounting for a debt to be paid — “the limelight” of the media or the lies of “the lawyer.” Kanye West is blaming these forces and the “you” who brought them into the relationship for causing “the blood on the leaves.” After the fourth verse, the song ends with an extended outro that trails off into stuttering, repetitious poetics: “And living and living like i’m lonely/ Lonely, lonely/ And living all I have/ And living all/ And live/ And live.” All of these verses are interspersed with the Nina Simone sample repeating the phrase “blood on the leaves” and “bodies swinging in the summer breeze.” Taken together, these elements work agonistically to produce an impressionistic picture of one subject’s suffering — it is neither adequately described nor resolved. As Fanon described the methodology for his text Black Skin, White Masks, the album ends like the stuttering of an engine failure. By the end living is not even what he “owns,” it is merely the put-put-put of an engine riding on fumes.
The fourth verse is an anomaly from these other verses for several reasons then: (1) not only is it the first explicit insertion of gendered pronouns, it is also a complete switch in perspective to impersonal second person (meaning the “he” is not the narrator, but is a character he is directly narrating to and about); (2) while the other verses notably lack a coherent narrative — they are mostly hazy memories melting into each other — the third verse has a very clear narrative that cannot be easily folded into the other verses (3) the most important, though subtle distinction, is that unlike the other verses there is no Nina Simone sample interspersed with this lyric. The absence of Nina Simone is a glaring difference given the centrality of her voice to the rest of the song. This marks the fourth verse as existing appositional to (not oppositional or completely outside of) the space-time of the rest of the song — it marks an acute disjuncture, what we could call a double consciousness or what Spillers has called a split subject.
If we choose to amplify the conflictual elements of the song versus an illusive search for a coherent meaning, a different sort of knowledge emerges to be studied: this song displays a similar disjuncture described above with the performance of “New Slaves.” The song is attempting to clear his name and account for his pain — to try to find the root of the blood on the leaves. Yet the first three verses are all failed attempts, inhabiting that failure as the foundation for its melody. The fourth verse is also distinctive as being the only rapped verse instead of sung with the help of a vocoder. The choice of what parts of “Strange Fruit” Kanye choose to sample is interesting, for he samples Simone singing about the “blood on the leaves” yet does not sample the line discussing the “blood at the root.” These two images — the leaves versus the root — mark a disjuncture between a gaze oriented by objective vertigo, one where the blood is literally surrounding the body, on every leaf, versus an ability to find the “root” of the violence. The distinction is slippery, but crucial: either one’s suffering can be successfully traced to a genealogical root (an event, an explicit cause, a villain) or one’s suffering can be traced to everything, to the very function of the world, and thus paradoxically can be traced to nothing in particular. The black is the strange fruit, the body swinging in the summer breeze, eyes looking here, there, everywhere, trying to trace its own blood from the leaves to the root. Yet the blood goes everywhere, binds the world together, and thus everytime the eyes focus on a culprit — the CCA or the DEA or the Media or the Corporations — it is in disavowal of our collective structural vulnerability. It is the CCA and the DEA and the Media and the Corporations and so much more. Forever more.
This song — this album — then is displaying this problem of trying to get to the root from the leaves. Each verse, each sample, is a different voice attempting to name an unnameable suffering — a suffering caused not simply by loss, but of never having had. There is no root perse, there is only the blood on the leaves, the blood that drips down the tree’s bark, the blood in the soil that becomes the nutrients that allow everything else in the field to grow and live and become. Black men do not lose their masculinity — the white man does not rob you of your masculinity — for we never had it in the first place and their sense of masculinity comes from our ungendered structural vulnerability. This song and album then sits at the crossroad proposed by Hortense Spillers at the close of her essay,”Because of this peculiar American denial, the black American male embodies the only American community of males which has had the specific occassion to learn who the female is within itself, the infant child who bears the life against the could-be fateful gamble, against the odds of pulverization and murder, including her own. It is the heritage of the mother that the African-American male must regain as an aspect of his own personhood — the power of “yes” to the “female” within.” It is important to note here Spillers says that the black man has an opportunity to affirm the female within: our ontological vulnerability and objective vertigo are forces we can choose to avow or disavow.
With Spiller’s proposition in mind, let us then return back to the Holy Name of Mary Choral Family sample that breaks into and through the first song, “On Sight”. Against the grain of Yeezus-as-God, if we think about this sample on its own accord, after the two lines Kanye samples the chorus continues, “But no prayer you say goes unanswered/ He’ll give us what we really need/ Give us/ Give us/ Give us.” The song ends with the kids singing the prayers people often throw up to God, “more money,” “new car,” and to win the lottery. Yet no prayer goes unanswered, for these infinite amount of prayers for our wants that begin with “give us” are cut off and, according to the song, God hears the shadow of the prayer, what you “need” instead of what you say you want. Against the grain of the misogyny of the album, we can hear Kanye’s faux patriarchy as a prayer — he wants to become a Man, the Man, the Patriarch, or one who can demand respect and control his own destiny and dominate according to his own desires and wishes. He wants everything that his blackness (in its hyper-a-sexuality and ungendering) cuts against and will not allow him to achieve — this is the “what I knew in the past” he marks in “Black Skinhead.” Yet the sample interrupts Kanye’s misogyny to tell him in coded language what Hortense Spillers rehearsed in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” — you may want to be a man, a powerful man, The Father, yet your blackness, in its monstrousness, its quotidian terrors and unspeakable suffering, is a gift, an opportunity to affirm “the female within,” and that force is “what you really need.” We can hear the last lines of “On Sight” in a different tone, for it is an interpolation of the last lines of previous hit single “Stronger,” when he screams “I need you right now!” For “On Sight,” he instead ends by repeating the lines “Right now, I need, I need right now.” As the Mary Choral Family cut off the selfish prayers into a general call for God to “give us,” Kanye West interestingly cuts out the object of his desire — the female “you” — in order to simply affirm the fact that “I need.” No longer a prayer for the patriarchal dreams he “wants,” it is at best a call for a blackened sense of time, an inhabitation of the moment as always citational, repetitious with a difference, and thus always at least, but never simply, double. If we study the album from a perspective inhabiting blackness as a problem for thought, pace Chandler’s groundbreaking theorization of Du Bois, we can amplify this small moment where Kanye’s misogyny is cut against by the sample, where its logic implodes upon its own neurotic pressure, and a paradigmatic lesson can be heard by us, if we tune into a different frequency than perhaps is obvious through a simple listing of Kanye’s lyrics.
Perhaps with this in mind, we can approach hearing the end of the album, “Bound 2” differently. Appositional to the apparently heterosexual relationship it seems to be referencing, perhaps we can hear the words of the bridge as a paradigmatic performance of an antagonism between the black and the world, of the black bound to the world, of the black bound to itself at war with its own captive self. Perhaps we can hear in this bridge, in these two lines, what Du Bois meant by a double consciousness, a second sight of two spiritual strivings at war in one body. Perhaps we can hear in these two lines, these two strivings, this general antagonism posed as a bound thought, the ending lines of Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, that this violence is a labor to produce the world of the you, the you that is I, the you in me, the me that can be nothing other than you, the black that is nothing other than the world that we are bound “2.” Here neither the constitution of the whole nor a part of the warring sides is affirmed, instead the future is to be found in the interminable war, an immanent transcendence found in falling into a new high, a rising down into the depths of a blackened sky. What does it mean to blacken the world? What does it mean to win the war Frantz Fanon theorizes? What does it mean to perform within the paradigm of a lossless loss, of this suffering that cannot be named, the suffering born of “never having had,” as David Marriott reminds us?
All them other niggas lame, and you know it now
When a real nigga hold you down, you supposed to drown
An Unaccounting of My Black Debt
Instead of a review, I choose to call my analysis of this album a “black study” in a reference to the phrase unearthed by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. While this phrase has an infinite number of meanings – and is explored in many different tones and valences within their book – I think this quote from their chapter “Debt and Study” can give a clue on what this term means to me, “But the student has a habit, a bad habit. She studies. She studies but she does not learn. If she learned they could measure her progress, establish her attributes, give her credit. But the student keeps studying, keeps planning to study, keeps running to study, keeps studying a plan, keeps elaborating a debt. The student does not intend to pay.”
I am not reviewing Kanye West’s album – I am not attempting to adjudicate the effectiveness of the album or rate it on any scale. This essay is not an exploration of Kanye West’s authorial desires nor an explication of its place in music history as such. This analysis is mine – is a reflection of my own studying – but I am certainly in debt to his album. And it is in service to this debt that I cannot and do not intend to pay, that I study this album. Here is an additional and incomplete list of works this study is in debt to. Consider this list unfinished, an unaccounting of unconsolidated debt.
Nahum Chandler, “Originary Displacement”
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study
Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in the Nineteenth Century
David Marriott, On Black Men
Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition
Jared Sexton, “Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism”
Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”
Frank Wilderson, “The Vengeance of Vertigo: Aphasia and Abjection in the Political Trials of Black Insurgents”
Nicholas Brady is an activist-scholar from Baltimore, Maryland. He is former debater and currently a head coach of the James Baldwin Debate Society, the only collegiate debate team housed in an African-American Studies department. He was also a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and currently a doctoral student at the University of California-Irvine Culture and Theory program. (check him out on tumblr or twitter @nubluz_nick)