“Sasquatch, Godzilla, King Kong, Lochness,
Goblin, Ghoul, a zombie with no conscience
Question: what do all these things have in common?
Everybody knows I’m a motherfucking monster”
Jay Z in “Monster”, Kanye West (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy)
I feel like if you want to be talking about Yeezus–about Kanye at all–you have to be talking about monsters.
Yeezus begins with Kanye proclaiming “Yeezy season” is approaching. He tells us he’s “a monster ’bout to come alive again”. It’s not until later in the song that we realise we’ve been given an image of Kanye West being hunted. The track talks big, but at the end we hear simulated gunshots before the frenetic beat fizzles out.
That’s the first track on the album, and it’s followed immediately by “Black Skinhead”, in which Kanye, in reference to public perception of his relationship with Kim Kardashian, calls himself King Kong (“they see a black man with a white woman on the top floor / they gon’ come to kill King Kong”). “They say I’m possessed”, he says, the beat underlaid by the sound of frantic gasping breaths, “it’s a omen”. At the end of the track, after he’s also dubbed himself a werewolf, it changes: “I think I’m possessed”. In the song’s music video, Kanye makes the metamorphosis between Uncanny Valley and totally inhuman constantly, eyes glowing and framed by snarling hounds and the delightfully controversial suggestion of black-clothed Klu Klux Klan members.
[TW: epilepsy warning for the above video]
The idiosyncratic strangled cries of frustration in this track lead into the full blown primal screams of “I Am A God”. Another example of the tensions between the bravado that comes with his success and the fear that comes with still being a victim of racism that play out throughout the album, West can call himself a God here, and claim that as soon as people start liking him, he’ll try to make them “unlike” him–but when he screams and pants he sounds scared shitless.
The sound itself on the album is monstrous, too, at times even difficult to hear. Tempos change without warning, voices are distorted to the point of unintelligibility, the music is deep and dark and without an easy entry point.
Really, despite the characteristic braggadocio, Kanye spends the first half of the album running away. In the album’s first track, “On Sight”, it’s not apparent until the end that “on sight” refers to black men being shot on sight by the police. He’s being hunted again as King Kong in “Black Skinhead” (an ironic name drop invoking a violence in and of itself, given the white supremacy associated with skinheads), and screaming for his life in “I Am A God”. In “New Slaves”, not only do we hear him frantically repeat that he can “see the blood on the leaves”, a reference to black bodies being hung that hauntingly returns in the sample of Nina Simone in “Blood On The Leaves”, we’re also told he “move[d] my family out the country so you can’t see where I stay”. In contrast to his erratic thrashing in performing “Black Skinhead”, when he performs “New Slaves” live on SNL he seems rooted to the spot, caged in like an animal.
This, obviously, isn’t the first time art has made monstrous what society can’t pin down. Where liminality is frequently perceived as abject, many artists have taken that one step further and turned to the supernatural as a form of agency. I feel like it comes into its own in pop culture at the point of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. A black man, who takes up so many liminal spaces within the confines of race, gender, and sexuality, takes that sense of being ‘outside’ and takes it to its furthest possible point, turns himself into a monster. Having been pushed to the fringes of identity he pushes right back and becomes something terrifying. It’s fitting, then, that Kanye should be “the only rapper compared to Michael” (“I Am A God”).
Lady Gaga, self-appointed matriarch of misfits the world over, takes on the title of “Mama Monster”–she doesn’t become the Virgin Mary, but Bloody Mary in the bathroom mirror, and she asks us for our horror. Rapper Childish Gambino fixates on images of the supernatural, more frequently in the use of superhero metaphors (Spider-Man, The Hulk, Batman). Glam rock, traditionally a site for contextually “controversial” non-conforming expression of gender, has also made use of this link of abject and monstrous–songs like David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters” or The New York Dolls’ “Frankenstein”.
It’s not even the first time Kanye West has done it, having flirted with the idea in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the formidable “Monster”. The sound of Nicki Minaj’s “Okay, first things first I’ll eat your brains / then I’ma start rocking gold teeth and fangs / ’cause that’s what a motherfuckin’ monster do” is not easy to forget. Now, here, he name drops demons, King Kong, werewolves, snaps and snarls even as he’s being chased down.
As a successful, upper class black man (who, as he makes clear, has never experienced the cultural narrative of a “rags to riches” raising from the streets), Kanye is 100% aware of the way he confuses a kyriarchical understanding of what a black man should look like, and he understands that his occupation of that in-between cultural space makes him the subject of racial hatred, at the same time as it lands countless other black men in jail. And he’s fucking furious about it. He seems to be saying, look, if you’re going to make me an outsider, if you’re going to decide you hate me, then I can become something you’ll want to hate. I can be something you fear.
You want me to be an animal, fine. I can become a monster.
It’s a very Capital-R-Romantic idea, in many ways. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Creature tells his creator:
“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
In taking an active role in turning the parts of him that make him abject into something supernatural and frightening, in this turning of the perceived unnatural into the supernatural, in his fury against a society which doesn’t seem to be able to allow him to exist, Kanye West has become Frankenstein’s monster. If the world won’t satisfy his desire to be appreciated–if it wants to push him, if it wants to push all black men to its outer limits–then he’ll take it as far as it can possibly go in the opposite direction. In its form alone this album, stitched at times haphazardly together with mismatched samples and unlikely co-collaborators, is a perfect site upon which to explore that Frankensteinian question of what happens when the world rejects something it managed to create.
It’s an interesting thing to consider the potential of hiphop as a new kind of Romanticism more generally. The whole time I’ve been thinking about writing this piece I’ve had the mental picture of Kanye, Beyonce, and Jay Z as some weird The-Shelleys-and-Lord-Byron kind of threesome. It seems to be easy to write off rap as being totally void of deeper meaning and relegate it to the realms of dick-measuring and sexual aggression, but as a literary form it’s capable of a great deal. Even on Yeezus, the sexism and sexual aggression is often cleverly (if not unproblematically) expressed through metaphors relating to the Civil Rights Movement (see: “your titties, let ’em out, they free at last / Thank God Almighty, they free at last” and “put my fist in her like a Civil Rights sign” in “I’m In It”), drawing on a history of combative sexism in the Black Power movement.
It’s possible that Yeezus, which achieves some wonderfully complex if heavy-handed moments of commentary on intersections of race and class, is actually at its most elegant when its exploring this idea of liminal identities electing to become monstrous. And it just doesn’t mean the same thing when someone like Eminem attempts a similar conceit, because where Eminem is “friends with the monster that’s under my bed” (“The Monster”), Kanye is “so scared of my demons / I go to sleep with a night light” (“I’m In It”)–because in this story, ‘monster’ is something Kanye West didn’t want to be, until it became necessary to retaliate.
People are starting to talk about Kanye being “rap’s new arch villain”. But he’s only like that because we made him that way.