An Open Letter to Kanye West on "Power"
We’re a little worried about you. The blogs are abuzz with praise for your new single “Power,” but many of the praise-singers don’t look too closely at the song as a whole. Pitchfork calls it a “five-minute sneer session,” MTV talks about its “Biting aggressiveness,” The Rockabye Review says you’re “sneering at everyone less gifted.” And that’s all true—“Fuck SNL and the whole cast / Tell ‘em Yeezy said they can kiss my whole ass / More specifically, they can kiss my ass hole."—but, like every track you make, there’s a paranoid flip side to that larger-than-life Rapper Ego, a reflection in your Narcissus’ pool drawing you to the edge, and beyond. This is a dark song, dealing directly with the ramifications of fame, egotism, race, self-hatred, religion and suicide.
It wasn’t always thus, and the innate nostalgia of the song—“Takin’ my inner child, I’m fighting for it, custody”—makes us take a look back at the young Yeezy. Remember how it all started? “Spaceship” on The College Dropout: “Y’all don’t know my struggle / y’all can’t match my hustle / you can’t catch my hustle / you can’t fathom my love, dude / lock yourself in a room doing five beats a day for three summers / that’s a different world like Cree Summers / I deserve to do these numbers.”
You were practically possessed by exuberance back then. As you deserved to be: The work you did during those three summers under the steady hand of Jay-Z produced the beats for his legendary Blueprint, and made you a rising star in the hip-hop scene. And then you authored a few more beats for The Black Album, and you suddenly were the producer to beat. Of course, you attracted your fair share of haters, people who thought there’s no way you could be a producer and rapper at the same time. And you proved them wrong with a string of critically-acclaimed commercial blockbuster albums.
Then came Graduation. In that moment, you cemented your reign as rapper-of-the-moment. It was a momentous occasion for you, and you were well aware of the implications, as you bragged on “Stronger”—“I ask, cause I’m not sure / do anybody make real shit any more? / Bow in the presence of greatness / cause right now thou hast forsaken us / You should be honored by my lateness / that I would even show up to this fake shit.”
Haters, biters and backpackers be damned: You were on top of your game. Your very public beef with 50 Cent and subsequent trouncing of him in album sales certainly didn’t hurt things either. Fashion impresario and style icon, rap tastemaker, paparazzi fodder, quixotic critic of the Bush administration—you wore many hats, and you wore them all with enough loudmouthed swagger to make sure everyone knew your name, even if they didn’t like you. You were flying high like Icarus, and you probably knew it too.
The next two years played out like your own Greek tragedy. Your mother died, providing grist for your Phil Collins-influenced 808s and Heartbreak, and then you blew up all over Taylor Swift’s big MTV moment. Which might have been as good a reason as any for your sabbatical in India. But now that we’re hearing “Power” for the first time, we have to wonder: What happened there? Everyone joked that you were going to mob up with Ravi Shankar, and that your next album was going to be heavy on sitar samples. But was the experience more Heart of Darkness than Magical Mystery Tour?
On “Power,” you chose to sample King Crimson’s “21st Century Schitzoid Man,” one of the most dystopian prog-rock anthems of all time. The titular line you sample, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” sums up the dual themes—the thrill of power gained, the fear of innocence lost—you play against each other in “Power,” making you, in essence, schizoid. You establish your own innate power, which comes presumably from your talent in the opening verse: “Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it / Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it / I guess every superhero need his theme music.” But then you fracture, splitting into two voices, the media-skewering inner Kanye voice and the Kanye-skewering outer media voice, as though you’ve internalized both. Yes, you spit “Fuck SNL,” but then you slip into a self-critiquing voice: “No one man should have all that power / The clock’s tickin’, I just count the hours / Stop trippin’, I’m trippin’ off the power,” then right back into bravado: “‘Til then, fuck that, the World’s ours.” Later you boast: “My furs is Mongolian, my ice brought the goalies in,” then confess “Now I embody every characteristic of the egotistic,” and then immediately your voice splits into that outer critique (replacing the first-person with the third): “He know he so fuckin’ gifted.”
Ultimately, what these two selves mourn is the original Kanye’s lost innocence, that “You can’t fathom my love” passion for the music itself, which has been tainted by both the media-wary Kanye and the Kanye-wary media: “My childlike creativity, purity and honesty / Is honestly being prodded by these grown thoughts / Reality is catchin’ up with me … As I look down at my diamond-encrusted piece,”—that Jesus piece you agonized over in “Diamonds From the Sierra Leone.” There doesn’t seem to be an answer to your dilemma. Even the symbol of your religious beliefs—the beliefs you evangelized in “Jesus Walks”—is a commodity, studded with diamonds tainted by a bloody history. As you mourn purity and look at the symbol of that very purity, you seem to realize that even that is corrupted.
Of course, you’re not just talking about yourself. You make that clear in the line: “Lost in translation with a whole fuckin’ nation / They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation / Well, that’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation.” Your extending the “Schizoid Man” metaphor to the nation that freaked out, not merely at your rude VMA outburst, but at the spectacle of a black man verbally “accosting” a young white woman. And then, Kanye, (and this is the part that has us really worried) you slip into: “Now this would be a beautiful death / Jumpin’ out the window / Lettin’ everything go / Lettin’ everything go.” It’s metaphoric, of course—the only way you see out of your own “21st Schizoid Man” status, and it’s the inevitable end of the Narcissus-figure you outline in “Power.” It’s gorgeous, trailing Dwele’s descending vocal harmony to underscore the beauty of falling, but it has us worried about you nonetheless.
You’ve had a tough year, full of epicallty-proportioned bumbles, but you’ve constructed it into a hell of a song. And honestly, that’s why we love you. As surely and openly as M.I.A. wears her politics on her sleeve, you wear your weakness. Perhaps it’s intentional, perhaps it’s not, but your public screw-ups and confessional TMI-ish interviews and (emerging from them) your deeply personal lyrics make you the relatable pop star, the deeply human rapper. It makes your music compelling in a way that Jay-Z and Biggie and even Lil Wayne aren’t capable of. “Power,” like so many of your tracks, turns itself inside out, questioning the one who’s doing the questioning. It’s brilliant insecurity, and we want much more of it for years to come.
So please, please don’t jump out that window. We’re serious.
The Paste Assistant Editors