Around the time you met him, Kanye had as close to perfect individual style as seems possible. It was as eccentric as it was cohesive: an odd mixture of super-luxe sweats, shredded jeans and post-apocalyptic military gear. Nothing he wore fit in any conventional sense, but somehow everything fit his body perfectly. And his body, incidentally, was perfectly suited for the type of clothes he was wearing; in his own formulation it was all chest and no legs.
I’ve bought more than a few items of clothing with Kanye in mind (most recently an army surplus raincoat that looks like it is made from industrial garbage bags and a pair of olive high-top sneakers from Uniqlo that I will probably never wear) but his style tends to be so singular that it isn’t instructive. Just think about how average everyone else looks in a bomber jacket and you’ll have some sense of what I’m talking about.
But leading up to the launch of The Life of Pablo Kanye was wearing a lot of “long sleeves”, a look that I will forever associate with the black metal fandom of my brothers. I guess that must have been the point, as the merch from the Pablo tour was flooded with things that felt metal to me: the long sleeves, the Teutonic script, the black hoodies.
This was right when I was making the transition to being at home all the time. So with Kanye somewhere deep in my sartorial unconscious and looking for clothing that was suited to the home life, I bought this:
I was trying to find ways to set the tone, to not let the fact that I was finally dressing for myself – and not just paying lip service to the idea that I was – descend into a universe of sweat pants and T-shirts. Well guess what, Ralph; I’m sitting here writing you this letter in my underwear.
I had imagined a lot for this time I have now. I had ambitions that went beyond the promise, broken almost immediately, to get dressed every day. I had imagined I would be making music. I would be writing. I would be reading. I imagined that I was the perfect candidate for what I was calling a “self-determined life.” But it is hard.
Above and beyond the chasm of time that each day has come to represent, a chasm that must be bridged with focus and self-determination, the very times we live in are so distracting as to make writing these letters almost impossible. Last week I said that I have so much more to say about Kanye, and I do, but doesn’t last week feel like an eternity ago?
I wanted to write to you about how even though I have loved music intensely for as long as I can remember, have been defined by music and have defined myself through music, there had never been – up to the point when I was closing down the retail store where I had worked for the previous 12 years just before this period of my “self-determined” living began, a period of great strain and stress for me – there had never been music that got me through something. But Kanye got me through that period, when I was alone in a cavernous empty store, sorting through years of paperwork, trying to make sense of the future before me and the time I had spent not doing all those things I imagined I would have done with my life. When I needed succour and salvation I played ‘Ultralight Beam’. When I needed something to match the rage that uncertainty so often folds into, I played Yeezus as loud as I could. It was the first time, after a life spent obsessing over music, that music got me through something.
I wanted to write to you about the shades of racism that I came to hear in almost every critique of Kanye. From the clichés about his narcissism to old white men (still agog that The Beatles played tape backwards) who can’t hear Kanye’s use of autotune for what it is: an incredibly creative way to make new sounds with the technology available to him. I came to hear these critiques as more than just the vapid analogue fetishism they seemed on the surface; there is something about a black genius demanding to be seen as a genius that deeply unnerves Kanye’s critics.
And then over the weekend Charlottesville.
I’m sitting here, in my underwear, trying to find connections between Kanye West and a shirt I bought, straining to make my obsessions mean something, thinking of those Kanye rants, the shots of him with Trump and the only thing that keeps running through my mind are some lines of William Carlos Williams that I read years ago:
The pure products of America
These are the only lines from the poem that I have carried with me, hearing them in my head whenever they suited my endless interpreting and apologizing for the American berserk. But today I read the rest of the poem and was struck by the last lines:
It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off
and adjust, no one to drive the car
It’s been almost a hundred years since those lines were written. The flecks are more isolate. Someone needs to take the wheel. If I were in a joking mood, this is where I would write #kanye2020, but laughter just won’t come.
I’ll get dressed instead.