In an essay to accompany our Excess All Areas feature in The Wire 427, Daniel Neofetou dissects the psychological and musical overload of Kanye West
There was much consternation caused by “I Thought About Killing You”, the opening song on Ye, Kanye West’s lukewarmly received mini-album of 2018. The first half of the four and a half minute track features a rambling monologue in which West describes his murderous intentions towards an unidentified addressee. Speculation abounded that the song was directed towards his wife Kim Kardashian, because he at the same time expresses his affection for the object of his intentions, at one point claiming that “you’d only care enough to kill somebody you love”. Many people read it as an inexcusable rumination on domestic violence.
Whoever you might argue the song is about (and there is a compelling theory online that he is dissociatively referring to himself), rather than identifying a univocal addressee, it is better to understand it as a generalised expression of the unfiltered affective excess that has always typified his music and public persona. As he himself says in that song, “Just say it out loud to see how it feels. People say, ‘Don't say this, don't say that.’ Just say it out loud, just to see how it feels. Weigh all the options, nothing's off the table”. The same restless abandon pushed him to announce in 2005 that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”, addressing the president during a charity telethon for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. But this excessiveness is also at the root of his notorious support for current incumbent Donald Trump, impelled by a pathological aversion to the conformism of bien pensant liberals more than any ideological alignment.
Until his sixth album Yeezus, this excess was generally conveyed in his music with aural bombast. The College Dropout and Late Registration pushed J Dilla's chopped soul sample template to plenitudinous extremes. The majestic layered synths of Graduation were designed to make its songs stadium-ready. 808s & Heartbreak seemed like something of a DIY curveball, but is far from introspective: West has scarcely been more grandiose than in his use of Patrick Doyle's soaring Hollywood score for Alfonso Cuaron's Great Expectations on “Robocop”. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is perhaps the most overwhelmingly baroque hiphop album ever recorded – “All Of The Lights" features 14 backing vocalists, among them Elton John and Alicia Keys.
Since 2013’s Yeezus his music has been remarkably sonically restrained. The first two minutes and 20 seconds of “I Thought About Killing You” are accompanied by nothing but a spectral ostinato, then joined by a bassline, kick and eventually a syncopated click. Yet the work still seems maximal, in a way which appears to be striving to outdo his earlier more luscious records. This isn't just the case of the braggadocio of his lyrics ("I Am A God”, from Yeezus). In terms of compositional precision, every element of every song (on a microcosmic level) and every album (on a macrocosmic level) has an impact that you would not expect from the sheer amount of collaborators Kanye ropes in. As Lou Reed wrote in an excellent essay on Yeezus, “Yeah, it’s minimal. But the parts are maximal.”
A sample in the original version of “I Thought About Killing You” was illicitly taken by one of its six producers Francis Farewell Starlite from "Fr3sh" by Kareem Lotfy, a track on the Pan compilation album mono no aware. In response, Pan label head Bill Kouligas claimed that this was “sadly another case of an artist who capitalises on culture without any original ideas and because culture trickles up, this means we are all basically working for him. Everything leads to him, he’s the ultimate narcissist.” It's true that the entitlement displayed by Kanye West’s camp in not bothering to clear the sample is testament to power dynamics outside music. But in terms of the music, Kouligas is wrong. To take West’s seventh album The Life Of Pablo, the record has a dizzying amount of producers, guest stars and, yes, appropriated samples. But rather than coming off as a homogenised mass feeding the ego of a power-crazed sovereign, it’s a fragmentary and yet coherent constellation, the whole of which exists only for the sake of its parts.
This essay was commissioned to accompany our Excess All Areas issue, exploring the times in music where where too much is exactly the right amount. You can buy a copy via The Wire shop. Subscribers can read it now on Exact Editions.