#30: Kanye West, Yeezus

Dear Ralph,

When I saw this picture, I was so overwhelmed by just everything about it that I didn’t ask any questions.

1429809764-kanye-west-and-ralph-lauren

It just made me happy. Sure, I wondered what you ate. I puzzled over what you talked about. Who paid?

But I never imagined you at the pad in Jamaica popping Yeezus in the boom box and engaging with this album, an album that I think is one of the most remarkable sonic documents of our time.

It’s hard to talk about Kanye because he is entangled in so many disparate aspects of our modern confusion.

There is fame, the supposedly empty nature of which is best embodied by his wife, often dismissively referred to as being famous for being famous. (I feel like there is more than a hint of misogyny in this critique of a woman who has built a business empire through a shrewd understanding of the zeitgeist, but alas, I can’t think of a male equivalent to check the language against.)

There is the meeting of the atelier and the street; we are in the midst of the birth pangs of a new type of luxury (and a new understanding of luxury) that is embodied in the adventures of Kanye West in the rag trade. It seems impossible to guess what luxury will look like 25 years from now, but I don’t doubt for a second that it will owe its new shape to the collision we are in the midst of.

There is disruption; a word and a concept that swings widely through the culture, an empty gesture that was the razor-sharp blade of the cutting edge of capitalism until it put Donald Trump in the White House. We love disruption until we don’t. I’m fascinated by this: disruption requires a certain set of values, most of which are antithetical to the moral hot air filling the balloon of our supposedly better world. We accept certain disruptive behaviour and not others. Why? I think it comes down to products. As a thought experiment imagine some of the bullying brutality we know about Steve Jobs if it were applied to a disrupter of a different sort, Bill Gates. Would the halo still hover over the head of such a monster if it had only given us Windows 8? How easily we abandon “core values” (bullying is bad) if it means a better toggle wheel on our iPods.

In the Yeezy-verse this is the Taylor Swift moment, better remembered than when he went off-script during a Katrina fundraiser and said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” It fits our narrative of Kanye as ego-monster to see him disrupting a sweet moment for an innocent young pop star rather than to see him as a disrupter trying to articulate hard truths about race in America. That is not the Kanye we (collective) want to see. Even now, in a moment when racial bias is an important part of the way we discuss awards, Kanye’s “Ima let you finish” is still read as ego and arrogance rather than corrective protest.

And there is rage. There is an inchoate rage, a rage that stumbles and stutters as it tries to find a vocabulary, a target, an object for its cross hairs. (This is the ranting rage of Kanye late 2016, right before the meltdown.) And there is a rage that is shockingly fluent in its speech, a rage that is its own articulation, a rage that runs through things as diverse as the chants of ‘lock her up’ and the ravings of Alex Jones to that famous Zane Lowe interview. It is a rage that feeds on its own verbiage.

So when we talk about Kanye we can’t simply say he loves Ralph Lauren. It is true, but it can’t be that simple. So here goes: When Kanye first broke out, his style was pure Ralph. (Kanye, as I’m sure you know, turned you from a noun to an adjective.) He wore Polo bear sweaters and tan corduroy jackets. He wore striped rugby shirts. And famously, as remembered in “I Am a God” from Yeezus, he wore pink polo shirts:

Since the tight jeans they never liked you

Pink-ass Polos with a fucking backpack

But everybody know you brought real rap back

Nobody else had swag, man, we the Rat Pack

It is an important part of his mythology, something he brings up again and again. It is as though he had to work through you to find his own style. And even though, by the time you met, he had moved through an apprenticeship with Fendi, tried his hand at some sort of Lagerfeld-inspired afro-futurism and become a legend in the sneaker world, his concept of what clothing is and means still owed everything to you. The concept is simple and yet, as Kanye’s attempts to make it in the fashion business prove, remarkably difficult to achieve. It is a totality of vision realized through quality. So when Kanye, raving about what clothing means, shouts that it ain’t Ralph, though, we get it. Kanye gets it. You get it.

 

But I keep coming back to that image I imagine of you in Jamaica, sitting on a patio overlooking the ocean and listening to this album. What could a man like you possibly make of sounds like these?

I’ll stop now and write more next time, because unfortunately, I have so much more to say.

Until then,

S

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