Yeezus and the Lomaxes

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Alan Lomax
  • Alan Lomax
It's been a few weeks since Yeezus started popping wheelies on the zeitgeist and I still have yet to see a cogent negative review of it. There are a lot of people who don't like the record, but most of the attempts at taking it down consist of little more than ad hominem attacks on Kanye for being an unbearable egomaniac, with his own lyrics submitted as evidence.

It's a reminder that even professional music critics are still capable of making one of the biggest mistakes you can make when analyzing a song, which is ignoring the possibility that the lyrics have a subtext beyond their most apparent interpretation. Part of the problem is rooted in a bias that's stylistically based at best and racist at worst, which is the widespread perception that everything a rapper (or a black musician in general) says is meant to be taken absolutely at face value—if Kanye raps about wanting his damn croissant it must mean he's actually a tantrum-throwing diva rather than someone who might be possibly be airing out his own selfish, divalike tendencies with deeply self-lacerating irony, which is actually the entire point of the song in question, "I Am a God."

The problem may stem in part from the tendency for hip-hop culture to overemphasize "keeping it real" as an ethos, but it seems to run deeper than that, to a refusal to acknowledge that a black performer is capable of deploying irony, metaphor, or any number of fundamental poetic techniques. For instance, there are a really shocking number of mostly white listeners who seem to think that the humor they find in R. Kelly's lyrics is somehow accidental, the result of an illiterate man struggling with language rather than fully intentional jokes that the man's deliberately worked into his material for the sake of getting a laugh out of his audience. (If you think that R. didn't realize that calling himself a "sexasaurus" in a song was hilarious I suggest you look into something called "the racism of diminished expectations.") On the other hand I've never heard anyone accuse John Lennon or John Darnielle of being homicidal misogynists despite having written lyrics that are explicitly about killing women.

Yeezus may have thrown a spotlight on the problem recently, but the need to find a one-to-one connection between lyrics and real life has been part of white audiences' appreciation of black music for ages. Rap Genius, the highly successful website that crowdsources explanations of rap lyrics, is essentially the modern version of what Alan Lomax was doing when he'd get onstage with Leadbelly during his concerts to occasionally break down a lyric for the white crowd watching him, even though Leadbelly himself resisted and resented that sort of translation.

Eric Harvey, who is one of my favorite music writers to read, explores this exact subject thoroughly and convincingly in an essay for The New Inquiry, which is what this whole post was meant to point to before it got slightly derailed. It's a great piece, and nicely timed. It may be the day before a holiday custom-designed to waste a summer's day in the most hedonistically brain-dead fashion, but if you have any interest in language, pop culture, and America's long-running inability to understand that black artists are capable of comprehending the subtleties of their chosen medium, it's worth checking out.

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