I have for more times than I can recall drawn a distinction between two pillars of modern music:
1. Technique, and
Technique relates to instrumental skill and general musical nous. Think musical theory but also the practical application of this theory. What space, then, does this leave for art? Art relates to a faculty which philosopher Immanuel Kant terms judgement, which bridges between theory and practice. But what makes good judgement? How do we gain an insight into how things really are, beyond the veil of words and phantasmic images? And what has musical artistry got to do with it? Let me explain.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy stands at a peculiar time for modern music. The review site Pitchfork, in its 10/10 review of the magnum opus by producer and rapper Kanye West, considers the classical and modern echoes of the album, which follows in both the hip hop tradition of Nas’s Illmatic and the progressive rock tradition of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The music video version of the album entitled ‘Runaway’ (after a stand-out track on the album) opens to the music of Mozart’s ‘Lacrimosa’ from the Requiem, Mozart’s own tragic magnum opus. This was a pivotal moment in classical music as the baroque tradition which Bach invented gave way to the romantic adaptation of classical music in the work of Mozart’s successor Beethoven. Romanticism proceeded to eat away at the structural foundations of classical foundations in the baroque period until little remained, and reinvention was necessary. After some false starts, jazz music opened the modern musical era with a neo-baroque structure, as crystallised in particular in the work of Miles Davis, whose Kind of Blue is comparable in its foundational role for modern music to the founding work of Bach on the Well-Tempered Clavier, innovating a firm harmonic structure for new melodic ideas to follow. Davis’ focus on melodic invention held the key to the artistic legacy to follow. Meanwhile, Bach’s B Minor Mass is but one example of the seeds of romanticism sown into the soil of religion in the early-modern period.
In political theory, Max Weber distinguishes between three forms of authority — legal-rational, traditional, and charismatic-personal. Certainly, classical music and jazz music now are deeply entrenched in our traditions as a civilisation. But hip hop is more recent, and its entrenchment is ongoing — as evidenced by the first all-hip hop performance at the Super Bowl Halftime Show earlier this year. But it was Dr. Dre, a founder of ‘90s hip hop, rather than Kanye West of mid ‘00s to ‘10s hip hop, who led the team. Kanye West inaugurated a new era of hip hop which tied material and moral concerns together in a rich tapestry of political commentary, as articulated in the wide-ranging and often acerbic tracks of Dark Twisted Fantasy, which contrast with the banal alkaline substance of much of modern music. But Kanye West is no ordinary musician, and is unafraid to draw on a variety of genres. After laying the technical foundations of greatness in his earlier albums, including through deft use of the ‘chipmunk’ style of production where old soul samples are double-timed (and, through wave-form compression, doubled in frequency), he founded an artistic imagination that continues to inspire musicians to this day, from Billie Eilish’s brother and producer FINNEAS to producer Jon Bellion, whose solo work matches his work with Rihanna and Rosé from Blackpink. The global influence of Kanye West is now undoubtable, with leading Blackpink member Lisa taking after Nicki Minaj (whose artistic career was made on the Dark Fantasy track ‘Monster’) in charismatic lyrical flows, while taking after Michael and Janet Jackson in definitive and confident movement, taking dancing to new musical heights.
It is Anthony Fantano’s opinion that Kanye West not only failed to do this, but made a mediocre album in the process. He also, as it happens, doesn’t like Kendrick Lamar’s album DAMN., which has similar rock influence to Kanye West’s Dark Twisted Fantasy. Fantano favours jazz music and the technically complex jazz elements of Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. But this is not all. He thinks Lamar’s latest album Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers still shows ‘toxic’ elements of his ‘saviour complex’ on DAMN., which happens to echo the saviour complex attributed to Dark Twisted Fantasy. But this is not an artistic critique. Nor is it a critique of Lamar’s musical technique. It is a political commentary on whether it is OK to voice emotions that are not usually given expression in popular culture, which tends to repress rather than express our deepest desires. In the psychoanalytic works of Jacques Lacan, this kind of repression is termed ‘psychoanalysis in reverse’ — therapy that does not heal, but rather exacerbates wounds by ignoring their source, and blaming their expression on the sufferer, rather than the suffering underneath. Equally, in the work of Michel Foucault, the attribution of toxicity to an emotion is a biopolitical tool of discipline. It is not a way of freeing us. It is a way of enslaving us to our emotions and those who would manipulate them to keep us in line.
Fantano also doesn’t like Drake these days, which would surprise those who see, as I do, parallels between Fantano’s deficit in musical knowledge and Drake’s. Equally, Fantano claims to not refer to music theory by leaving this to professionals like Jacob Collier. But this makes little sense, as Jacob Collier’s views on music theory are largely derived from blog posts he reads, rather than substantial deep thinking on the matter. Rather, instrumental and shallow thinking has come to dominate the universities and their external representatives in the music industry. The attempt to label some music as ‘low’ culture, as bland or uninteresting, and other music as ‘high’ culture has the tendency to distinguish between the ethic of the master and the ethic of the slave. It is a tool of domination. It is used to keep us in our place, differential to the powers that be. Only by turning this upon its head, and recognising those musical forms that can bridge the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’, and bring about a real union of conscious and unconscious expression, can we hope to overcome the limitations of psychoanalysis in reverse. For to reverse this is to negate the negation. It is to overcome the very limitation on freedom, by limiting it and showing it to be nought but fear and dread. In drawing on the old while promulgating the new, Kanye West ties traditional authority to charismatic authority. And as Jesus of Nazareth said, it is important not to follow the law in every detail but to realise it in its totality. Only then will the law be revealed through the world. Only by tying technical skill to artistic inspiration will the music shine forth. Let us go forth. We have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?