I wish I could quit Kanye, but the fact of the matter is that his whims and tantrums will never not be fascinating to me. Even if I'm gagging with distaste, I'm still paying attention, and so, like a kicking and screaming child, Kanye wins. I had many issues with the words he spoke in the February cover story of Vibe, and instead of doing my usual complaining-about-Kanye rant, I decided a different approach. I know the writer of the piece, Sean Fennessey, so I got on the phone for a discussion about the piece -- an interview on the interview, if you will -- as well as the man himself. "Rappers just never unravel, ever," says Sean on Kanye's...specialness. For better or worse, I'm captivated for the same reason.
[I know that the posting of this could have been a bit more timely, as the interview's been out for a while, but whatever, I was sick last week and napping was always a more attractive alternative to transcribing. Regardless, I still feel like this stuff is relevant. It's not like Kanye or his immaturity are going anywhere, you know?]
RJ: Making sense of Kanye requires combing through contradictions – the greatest of which finds Kanye's consideration of his work split between expression and design. He says, "I did these songs just to be doing good music," so right off the bat, there's an admission of calculation. He talks about feeling that people perceive his work as a test he must pass, and his answer to that is, "You just do a Basquiat painting over the whole test." The difference, of course, is that Basquiat didn't do Basquiat paintings. He just painted.
SF: He's clearly been going through something for the past year, and he's not just making music to make it; he's making music so he doesn't have to deal with the things in his life. To go to Hawaii and start making beats [for 808s & Heartbreak] and not confront that you feel bad about things in your life or yourself or that you aren't ready to come to grips with pain is normal. That's how a lot of people deal with tragedy, they just don't have the money to jump on their G5 to ride to Hawaii.
RJ: And yet, he doesn't pay much mind to 808s' therapeutic properties.
SF: I feel like he was just making beats and trying to find a way to work through whatever he was doing that way and he hit on something, a sound he had never really worked with before, and he thought, "You know what would be really appropriate for this sound? Me making a break-up record."
RJ: He claims he made the beat for "Say You Will" in 10 minutes, as though that should be shocking. But that song is so bare that it's like, I hope you didn't spend much longer on it.
SF: That's true, and the other thing is that I hope he realizes what a cliché it is for a producer to say, "I did this beat in 10 minutes." I'm really unimpressed with that. Every producer says it. Musically, though, I'm not sure how solid his reference points are. It's possible he could have pushed this album to a place where there was more depth and understanding what electronic textures are and what modern dance music sounds like or what Joy Division sounds like...or whatever his weird reference points were. Tom Yorke's The Eraser. He talks about Róisín Murphy, all these weird things that I get the sense he listens to, but they're sort of like Starbucks recommendations from him for cool people.
RJ: That's what I thought of those references, like, we don't have 120 Minutes so we have Kanye to tell us what just-below-the-surface stuff is worth listening to?
SF: Obviously, he really fancies himself a tastemaker, but to transmogrify that into this music, it doesn't always wash. He's not that kind of producer. If you talk to very serious rap fans about Kanye's production, the things they'd say are that his drums are kind of weak and he has an incredible ear for samples. He also has this impressive sense of grandeur: he knows how to make something sound big without being cheesy, necessarily. But those aren't great technical skills. Those are all emotional things. I'm not sure if he spent more time on "Say You Will" that it would have sounded like In Rainbows. I doubt it would have sounded like Pablo Honey.
RJ: He says he's amazed that people don't like him right after he's just finished bragging about making history with the Glow in the Dark tour. Isn't alienating people the risk you take with incessant talk about your own importance?
SF: He's both totally enlightened in the fact that he reads a lot of blogs so he's aware of the hate, but he also lives in a bubble. As with most famous people, they don't really hear the bad stuff. They're shielded by their publicist and their manager and their personal assistant and their friends. I don't think he thinks it's that weird for him to stunt the way he does, especially because he's a rapper and there's something rarefied about bragging when you're a rapper.
RJ: It's integral to the craft, for sure. It's basically the only thriving vestige from hip-hop's early days.
SF: I totally understand why people say they don't like Kanye for that reason, but that's sort of why I like him. I think there's something incredibly honest and very id about the way he talks, about the way people who are self-involved want to talk. You rarely say what you want to say in certain social situations and he knows that he has immunity because he's a) a rapper, b) famous, c) rich. He can get away with it.
RJ: That's true, but that doesn't make it less distasteful. And my major problem with Kanye, particular to this interview, is that he isn't even necessarily correct. He speaks about his accomplishments in the future tense. "[The Glow in the Dark Tour is] something that people will remember for the rest of their lives"; "'Love Lockdown'…[will] be around 10 years from now, 20 years from now"; "These 12 tracks are going to resonate more than any 12 tracks of any album this year." That's not supporting evidence. That's conjecture.
SF: There's no excuse for it, it's just his mode. I think if he thought anything but that, he'd have a hard time motivating himself. He's a bit self-deluded, but a lot of people are. He's at a weird place. In that interview, he was incredibly vulnerable at times, but in others, irreconcilably arrogant.
RJ: I just find something fundamentally endearing about humility. And even if his insecurity shines through a lot of his words, it's like he can't even take a loss. He can't even deal with the fact that "Flashing Lights" wasn't a hit – he rationalizes that it "penetrated culture" with no real support. He also got snotty when you referred to his dabbling with the 808s sound as getting it out of his system. He even references it again after some questions pass. Did his bristling make you uncomfortable?
SF: No, I wanted that. During the interview, I was trying to play moderator: "Well this is what some people think about this..." When I said the "out of your system" thing, that was definitely me reflecting on his career, like, "Well, when you get back to doing the old Kanye thing..." which obviously set him off because he doesn't want anyone telling him what he's going to do next. I'm still not convinced that this is what all of his music is going to sound like.
RJ: 808s definitely feels one-off. And even if he uses this as a jumping-off point, he's going to progress anyway, so your comment is all the more appropriate.
SF: It's OK if he adopts a spare sound, but I find it hard to believe that he's ever going to abandon sampling. It's a huge part of what's gotten him such success. Plus, he can't do another messy record like this again. He's gotten his late pass on the messy record.
RJ: I don't really believe what he says about wanting to have fewer fans. He seems insecure enough that a decline in popularity would take a toll on him.
SF: It's hard to say. I believed him when he said the thing about "less fans." I think he was being honest about admiring Björk's career. But I think you're right. At a certain point, he wouldn't be able to handle not being the No. 1 person in his space.
RJ: The grass is always greener. Björk has crazy freedom, but she's never had a radio hit in America. She can't fill venues like he can.
SF: He's not totally familiar with what that would look like. He's going to have to be. Nothing lasts forever. I've been saying that he's getting ready to catch a brick for the last two albums, and he hasn't. 808s has sold incredibly well considering what it sounds like.
RJ: And considering the market.
SF: It went platinum very quickly, and albums don't do that anymore.
RJ: "Heartless" is Top 5.
SF: He has three songs on the iTunes 100 now, which is crazy. So yeah, he won't know if he wants less fans until he has less fans.
RJ: It will certainly diminish his bragging rights.
SF: It'll be interesting to see his response. Maybe he just recoils and makes art records?
RJ: Part of what makes me think he's so brittle is that despite keeping up appearances by finally acknowledging that his work is up for criticism (and admitting he was wrong about that before), he still calls his album a "gift" and wonders why people are complaining about their gift. It's like, thanks for making me pay for my present, jerk. And second of all, his skin is so thin that he does this radical thing and then can't handle it when not everyone's on board.
SF: I never thought I'd hear him admit that his work is subject to criticism, and then he kinda lost it with the gift line. It's very funny to me, though. There's something patriarchal about saying that. Apparently, though, he's not over that and I don't know if he'll ever be over it. I think it's part of what keeps him moving forward.
RJ: I think that's why your questions about therapy that sort of bookend the piece are so apt. It's a natural thing to ask someone who isn't at terms with the way things are. It's in his best interest to understand that when you release an album, people talk about it, and often that talking amounts to complaining. It's how things work. The sky is blue; people bitch about pop culture.
SF: It's like with the Cardinals or the Giants last year, this us-against-the-world factor, and I think Kanye clings to that same thing. He needs to find the straw man and expose that so he can keep pushing forward. Even if the straw man in this situation was decay, his reaction was, "Well, you don't like my music. You're complaining about your gift." Even if that's not what's going on.
RJ: Even if that is what's going on: big deal. We should all be so lucky to be so discussed!
SF: I do think that he is savvy. He knows he has to say this stuff. He's already built this persona for himself. One thing that's funny is that when he was falling asleep during the first interview, he felt bad. He was like, "I don't mean to do this to you. I'm so exhausted." He was kind of coming in and coming out and at one point, he was like, "I just need to give you the iconic interview to go along with the iconic photo shoot." He puts pressure on himself to, you know, do the Kanye thing.
RJ: He doesn't put pressure on himself to converse with you as another human being, though. I know that's celebrity shit, though, but seriously: how entitled to worry that falling asleep might reflect poorly on his legacy, and not about how rude it is on an interpersonal level!
SF: A lot of times you talk to a famous person and they kind of bullshit you and pretend they're a lot friendlier than they are or more engaged in the situation. I'm kind of refreshed by the way Kanye acts when he talks to interviewers. Not just me. I'm sort of pleased by the raw frankness and assholishness to what he delivers.
RJ: I guess I would be OK with it, or at least more so, if I felt like he were as self-aware as he needs to be to act that way. But to say, "The only person I want to speak negatively about is myself," and then spend an interview praising yourself is just ridiculous.
SF: That's genius, though! I don't know if he's doing it on purpose, but if he is, he's the funniest person I've ever talked to. The other thing is that there's an undertow to that, which is the only person he's talking negatively about himself to is himself. It's possible that he has a lot of self-loathing and he keeps pushing it down so that he can show off in interviews. His level of self-awareness is lost on me.
RJ: And that's what makes him such a specimen ripe for studying. It's what makes his award-show tantrums interesting. If he were completely unaware, he wouldn't be able to function in public.
SF: And I don't think he'd be a good interview, either.