Donda, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, and the sonic revolution of the 2020s

Music since the year 2000 has gone through three phases, which can be bracketed by the most prominent popular song at the turn of each decade.

1. … Baby One More Time by Britney Spears (1999)

2. Bad Romance by Lady Gaga (2009)

3. bad guy by Billie Eilish (2019)

While the first and second turning-point songs tracked influence by already-established genres of jazz and rock, respectively, the third song is unique in drawing on hip hop, a more recently-established genre — one which was founded less than half a century ago (while jazz traces its roots to the early twentieth century, at least). And hip hop’s influence on the sonic landscape of music as a whole has only just begun. Here is one example.

Years of Yeshua: Kanye West in 2006 and Kendrick Lamar in 2022. Both wear a crown of thorns, imitating Jesus of Nazareth and the broader Abrahamic tradition of western civilisation. Kanye was going for fantastical realism, with the Rolling Stone cover reading ‘The Passion of Kanye West’. Kendrick was going for something rather different on his Big Steppers world tour, declaring on ‘Savior’: ‘I am not your savior’. Later in 2022, Kanye, now known only as the biblical Ye, released a song entitled ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’ (which uses the term Yeshua previously emphasised on this blog — and by ‘HUMBLE.’-era Kendrick) on Instagram, with the lyric: ‘I follow God so you should follow me.’ This is consistent with Kanye’s imagery since ‘Jesus Walks’ in 2004, while Kendrick’s use of the gospel motif is more contradictory.

The producer for Billie Eilish’s debut LP has admitted influence from Yeezus-era hip hop — FINNEAS cited Ye’s Black Skinhead in 2013 as an important turning point for live music on SNL in a tweet viewed by this writer. Billie and Finneas have also spoken of Kanye’s influence on their music through the artistic application of autotune — pioneered by Kanye’s hip hop/pop album 808s and Heartbreak way back 2008.

Most recently Kanye has released an album entitled Donda after his late mother Donda West. And analogous to the subliminal influence of Camila Cabello’s 2019 LP Romance on pop music, the influence of Donda on hip hop and the sonic landscape of popular music more broadly has passed music critics by — for reasons entirely tied to political opposition to Mr. West, and very tenuously tied to criticism of Ye’s longest album for some time.

The length of Donda is, I think, misunderstood. One of the great merits of Yeezus was how producer Rick Rubin insisted Kanye reduce its length to a modest 40 minutes with 10 songs. On Donda, Ye draws more extensively on the talents of the likes of synth guitar producer Mike Dean, whose extensive experimentation contrasts with Rick Rubin’s intensive focus. But on Donda, this decision makes sense. As a teacher at Cambridge once said to my class about history essay-writing, balance is not an absolute but rather a function of the argument. And Donda is, by this criterion, extraordinarily balanced — for it has a length justified by the subject matter: a marriage of grief and faith, half-way between 808s and Heartbreak and Jesus Is King, in combination with some of the punchy production of Yeezus.

The additional element is not so much thematic as it is sonic. Donda is characterised by a spaciousness that borders on the grandiose. There are some extraordinarily high moments — while the rest of the album trundles along with a certain resolute, grief-filled faith in a better world, which God shall make ‘New Again’. In ‘Heaven and Hell’, despair is juxtaposed with hope, while in ‘Jesus Is Lord’ the faith is channelled towards the liberation of the incarcerated from the carceral state inaugurated by Clinton-era paranoia about ‘superpredators’. The fury of Yeezus-era ‘New Slaves’ (also performed on SNL) is replaced by the faith of Donda’s ‘Jail’ in hope shining like a candle in the dark, or the ‘Moon’ in the night sky. ‘Even if you are not ready for the day, it cannot always be night.’

This theme is continued on the promotional song for younger rapper Kendrick Lamar’s latest album Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, ‘The Heart Part 5.’ Noting Kanye’s antics, Kendrick raps: ‘Friend’s bipolar, always on the offense / No option if you froze up.’ Released in early 2022, this song now seems quite prophetic as Kanye has soiled his reputation with mainstream media in order to deliver himself from exploitative clothing and music contracts, as well as making a subversive political point in the process — albeit one which is entirely contrary to conventional wisdom and directly oppositional to liberal moralism. In Christianity, universal love is not just tolerable but morally required. In liberalism, friends and enemies are distinguished with all the fury of religion but none of the depth or meaning. And if your enemies are not liberalism’s enemies — the racists, the ‘fascists’, the males, the whites, the ‘patriarchy’, or other such codewords or replacements for old-fashioned scapegoats like black or Jewish people — then the god of capital will damn you into obscurity and cancellation of bank accounts. This market discipline is vicious and sinister whenever and wherever it happens — and yet we think it is moral because only the ‘bad people’ are targeted. ‘Judge not lest thou shalt be judged’ has been replaced with ‘judge in order to avoid facing responsibility for your own actions.’ This act of collective buck-passing through holding individuals responsible for systemic challenges like capitalism, climate change, or the rise of China continues unabated.

Thankfully, music also continues, and so does the smuggling of moral ideas in the vessel of musical expression. The sonic structure of Mr. Morale echoes the atmospheric synth-heavy production of Donda, with songs like N95 improvising on the synth-laden production of Donda, taking the natural instruments of Kanye’s music and adding an artificial touch of electronic reengineering. The effect is dream-like and delirious, but also grounding and challenging. ‘What the hell is cancel culture, dawg / Say what I want about you __, I’m like Oprah, dawg.’ Condemning the ‘fake woke’, Kendrick aligns himself with the new Seinfeld-style School of cultural criticism characterised by Dave Chapelle and Kanye West, who nonetheless takes the brunt of the market discipline.

And yet, capitalism needs hip hop as a cathartic expression of repressed feelings. Rappers like Kendrick and Kanye cannot be so easily sidelined without popular discontent. Like Trump, Kanye functions as a guardian of the gates of popular discontent. Like Gandalf, these figures guard the Balrog’s entrance to the world of men, saying ‘thou shalt not pass!’ to popular discontent. Trump only let his guard down at the very end, when some admittedly siloed popular discontent bubbled up from under the surface after the election result was announced. Recall when Bernie Sanders was similarly labelled as supporting linguistic violence by his youthful, and almost entirely peaceful, supporters? Liberalism is effectively a conspiracy theory where all opponents — from left, right, or elsewhere — are sinister Palpatine figures who seek to control the world. This conspiracy theory, parroted by mainstream media outlets like the BBC and CNN, is functionally indistinguishable from twentieth-century antisemitism. It is not moral and it is not good. Scapegoating individuals in a systematic way for systemic problems is tantamount to reliving the Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s, when Alfred Dreyfus was scapegoated for the French military’s inefficacy, until Emile Zola in ‘J’Accuse’ pointed out the real conspiratorial cabal of generals to isolate and condemn Dreyfus to absolve themselves of responsibility.

Responsibility itself is a strange idea. But I am getting away from music, right? But I think one of the merits of music is how it gets us beyond the paradigm of individual responsibility, dissolving the subject in the waters of objective cathartic feeling. Music bridges the gap between subject and object, individual and collective, and thus represents another step toward resolving the riddle of history. The sonic revolution of the 2020s is one step towards this ideal.

‘Is hip hop just a euphemism for a new religion / The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing?’, as Kanye rapped on the 2010 song ‘Gorgeous’ from his magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Perhaps it is. Or perhaps it is more. As hip hop becomes the universal genre that jazz and rock once were, a new genre is being born. This is only the beginning.

Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals, institutions, organisations, or other persons, natural or artificial, 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?

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