Bey and Jay and Kanye

An­wen Craw­ford on The Carters’ ‘Ev­ery­thing Is Love’ and Kanye West’s ‘Ye’

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

One wishes that Bey­oncé would wreck a ho­tel room or drink her­self un­der the ta­ble or drive a Rolls-Royce into a swim­ming pool, just so we had ev­i­dence that she is, at heart, im­mod­er­ate and slightly wicked, like all the best pop stars are. But that seems un­likely. In 2016, she gave us Le­mon­ade, set­ting her own trou­bled mar­riage against the his­tory of Amer­i­can race re­la­tions. It was a bril­liant au­dio-vis­ual ex­plo­ration of con­flict that was con­ceived, com­posed and mar­keted – this be­ing Bey­oncé – with max­i­mum de­lib­er­a­tion and con­trol. There fol­lowed 4:44 (2017), an apol­ogy in the shape of an al­bum from Jay-Z, Bey­oncé’s cheat­ing hus­band, and now, to com­plete the pu­ta­tive trilogy, Ev­ery­thing Is Love, re­leased in June as a joint al­bum from the still-mar­ried cou­ple, who have billed them­selves as The Carters. It’s their first full-length col­lab­o­ra­tion, though they have been record­ing to­gether, semi-reg­u­larly, since “’03 Bon­nie & Clyde”, a song that ap­peared on JayZ’s 2002 al­bum The Blue­print 2: The Gift & the Curse. Along the way they have posed as con­spir­a­tors, lovers, ri­vals, best mates and, in­creas­ingly, as busi­ness part­ners. Ev­ery­thing Is Love is clearly meant as a survey from the sum­mit of pop dom­i­na­tion, but in be­ing so it’s also an apogee of in­dul­gence, te­dious de­spite last­ing only 38 min­utes, and lax notwith­stand­ing the min­i­mal ar­range­ments that suit Bey­oncé’s voice so well. Not since John Len­non and Yoko Ono re­leased Dou­ble Fan­tasy (1980) has a pop cou­ple, so pre­pos­ter­ously fa­mous and ob­scenely rich, given us such a self-sat­is­fied per­for­mance of mar­riage – en­thralling to them, maybe, but so re­mote from the rest of us as to feel use­less, if not in­sult­ing. “It’s dis­turb­ing what I gross,” raps Jay-Z on “Boss”. No doubt it is. “My great-great-grand­chil­dren al­ready rich,” adds Bey­oncé, a lit­tle later. “That’s a lot of brown chil’ren on your Forbes list.” Okay, but dy­nas­tic in­her­i­tance is hardly the same thing as eco­nomic jus­tice, and we would be wise not to con­fuse the two, as Bey­oncé and Jay-Z re­peat­edly do. Ev­ery­thing Is Love is a de­fen­sive record (though no less pleased with it­self for be­ing so) from two peo­ple who, com­mer­cially speak­ing, have nothing left to prove, and whose chart suc­cess has tended, more and more, to make them im­mune from any crit­i­cism of their mu­sic. “If I gave two fucks, two fucks about stream­ing num­bers / Would’ve put Le­mon­ade up on Spo­tify,” raps Bey­oncé on “Nice”, over a sour pi­ano sam­ple. For­give me, Mrs Carter, but I sus­pect you do give two fucks, and sev­eral more, if you’re both­er­ing to tell us this in a song. And what a dull, po-faced lyric. Ev­ery­thing Is Love gives the dis­tinct im­pres­sion that, rather than do any­thing fun with their time and money, the Carters spend the bet­ter part of each day read­ing through Google alerts on their own names and con­fer­ring with their stock­bro­ker. Nor are Bey­oncé and Jay-Z cur­rently alone in try­ing to pass off such scraps from the mul­ti­mil­lion­aires’ ta­ble as meaty pop state­ments. June also saw the Carters’ long­time fren­emy Kanye West re­lease a new al­bum, ti­tled – be­cause of course it is – Ye. Mer­ci­fully, it’s even shorter than Ev­ery­thing Is Love: 23 min­utes and change. It’s hor­ri­bly bleak, be­cause by any hu­man mea­sure West has had an aw­ful time of it over the past year or so, in­clud­ing a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tion, and it’s also bleakly in­ert – this from an artist whose fire-start­ing pro­duc­tions have blazed an in­deli­ble path through the past two decades of pop mu­sic. (May and June also saw the re­lease of no less than five other al­bums on which West has a pro­ducer’s or writer’s credit. The best of them, Kids See Ghosts, is a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween West and Kid Cudi – it’s ac­tu­ally in­ter­est­ing.) “I said slav­ery a choice, they said ‘How, Ye?’” West raps on “Wouldn’t Leave”, the mid­point of Ye. “Just imag­ine if they caught me on a wild day.” The ar­range­ment, with guest vo­cals by PARTYNEXTDOOR, Jeremih and Ty Dolla $ign, is a syrupy ap­prox­i­ma­tion of West on an al­right day. As for the lyric, it refers to a pub­lic-re­la­tions dis­as­ter that West vis­ited upon him­self in May, when, dur­ing a video in­ter­view with the en­ter­tain­ment web­site TMZ, and hav­ing al­ready sig­nalled his ap­proval for Don­ald Trump, he went on to say the fol­low­ing: “When you hear about slav­ery for 400 years – for 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” Com­ing from any­one, such a state­ment could do nothing but dis­tress and of­fend; com­ing from an African-Amer­i­can man who has been, in the past, one of pop’s most as­tute com­men­ta­tors on race, it was also con­found­ing. I don’t think it’s an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that fame, at the level Kanye West lives it, has caused West to lose his mind. The signs have been there for a decade, since 808s & Heart­break (2008), though West’s pre­vi­ous two al­bums, The Life of Pablo (2016) and Yeezus (2013), were also pow­ered by an en­ergy as daz­zling as it was dis­qui­et­ing. No one but West could have pulled off a song like “Ul­tra­light Beam”, the open­ing track to The Life of Pablo: a 21st-cen­tury hymn so au­da­cious, com­bat­ive and

‘Ev­ery­thing Is Love’ is clearly meant as a survey from the sum­mit of pop dom­i­na­tion.

beau­ti­ful that I hope to be lis­ten­ing to it when the Day of Judge­ment fi­nally does ar­rive. There’s nothing so tran­scen­dent on Ye, and no in­ti­ma­tion of apoc­a­lypse be­yond the lonely catas­tro­phe of West’s own col­lapse. (“Some­times I scare my­self,” he sings on “Yikes”, his voice pro­cessed as usual, his self-es­trange­ment be­com­ing ever more per­ma­nent.) Ab­hor­rent as his com­ments to TMZ were, I sus­pect that an ear­lier Kanye West would have found a way to push through the red zone of of­fence and into a space of con­fronta­tion where we, just as much as he, would be im­pli­cated. West has never, un­til lately, lacked the ca­pac­ity to gather in all the worst as­sump­tions about him­self – that he is a lu­natic, a mega­lo­ma­niac, a cretin – and throw them back upon his au­di­ence, in songs that had him will­ing to face up to his ap­petite for cru­elty, which meant, if you were lis­ten­ing, fac­ing your own. Only the queasy opener to Ye, “I Thought About Killing You” (yes, it’s that bald), en­ters into that space again. As for the rest, how lit­tle is at stake. On “Wouldn’t Leave”, West con­tin­ues to de­scribe the fall­out from his slav­ery re­marks: “Now I’m on fifty blogs, get­tin’ fifty calls,” he raps. “My wife callin’, screamin’, say, ‘We ’bout to lose it all.’” You mean to say that’s it – a risk to the fam­ily for­tune? A fall in pro­jected quar­terly earn­ings at West–Kar­dashian Ltd? (The wife in ques­tion is Kim Kar­dashian.) And we’re ex­pected to care? While the Carters front as if their own sta­tus were a moral virtue, West makes a trav­esty of his­tory and then wor­ries that it’ll eat into his prof­its. Ei­ther way, none of them has any­thing to of­fer on th­ese al­bums that comes close to con­vey­ing the erotics of wealth – its at­trac­tive­ness, its grotes­query, its power to turn us into the big­gest worst ver­sions of our­selves. The pur­pose of boast­fully rich pop stars, surely, is for them to act out a fan­tasy of ex­cess on be­half of the rest of us, who still have to work for a liv­ing. Pop­u­lar mu­sic has al­ways been a mu­sic for cop­ing with work, or bet­ter yet, for es­cap­ing it, and that’s

But there’s no con­spir­acy on th­ese al­bums for the lis­tener to share in: no re­bel­lion and no make-be­lieve.

been true since the spir­i­tu­als and field hollers of slav­ery. The found­ing con­nec­tion be­tween pop, black labour and cap­i­tal has made hip-hop, in par­tic­u­lar, com­pelling, con­flicted and in­dis­pens­able: a the­atre of re­venge by ac­qui­si­tion and tri­umph by riches, in which ev­ery­one knows al­ready that money changes ev­ery­thing, and fixes nothing. But there’s no con­spir­acy on th­ese al­bums for the lis­tener to share in: no re­bel­lion and no make­be­lieve. When the Carters boast about their pri­vate jets and $3 mil­lion watches, you can be sure, as Jay-Z raps, that it’s “all facts”. “Apeshit”, the lead sin­gle from Ev­ery­thing Is Love, doesn’t even sound fresh, lifted as it is from the trap tem­plate – ab­stemious bass syn­the­siser, pit­ter-pat­ter hi-hats, Auto-Tuned vo­cals – al­ready per­fected in re­cent years by rap­pers in­clud­ing Fu­ture, Mi­gos and Cardi B. (Off­set and Quavo from Mi­gos are cred­ited as co-writ­ers of “Apeshit” and both add vo­cals.) The weary sound of trap, its lack of any mu­si­cal flour­ishes or peaks, has tended to work pre­cisely against the op­u­lence that its lyri­cists de­scribe, ren­der­ing tracks like Mi­gos’ “Bad and Bou­jee” (2016) or Cardi B’s “Bo­dak Yel­low” (2017) di­a­mond-cold pan­e­gyrics to the spir­i­tual void of cap­i­tal ac­cu­mu­la­tion. But in the hands of the Carters, that sonic style only re­in­forces the dull, un­chang­ing lit­er­al­ness of their ma­te­rial suc­cess. “Put some re­spec’ on my cheque,” raps Bey­oncé, “or pay me in equity.” Com­ing next to a playlist near you: the hit song “Stock Op­tion”. At least the film clip for “Apeshit” is mildly provoca­tive. Shot in the Lou­vre, it shows Bey­oncé, Jay-Z and a cast of black dancers ar­ranged in var­i­ous tableaux, in front of art­works in­clud­ing the Winged Vic­tory of Samoth­race and Géri­cault’s 1818 can­vas The Raft of the Me­dusa. The Mé­duse, as it was, was en route to Sene­gal, colo­nially oc­cu­pied by the French, when it sank in 1816, oc­ca­sion­ing Géri­cault’s paint­ing. The his­tory of Western art is also a his­tory of colo­nial ex­ploita­tion, and black peo­ple have been part of that his­tory all along, even, or es­pe­cially, when they’ve not been pic­tured, which lends a cer­tain sting to Bey and Jay’s vis­ual iconog­ra­phy. If only the song it­self weren’t so damn solip­sis­tic. “Call my girls and put ’em all on a space­ship,” Bey­oncé sings, in the one line that reaches out­wards, from the self and from the present, the melody tak­ing off from an oth­er­wise fixed grid, to­wards a his­tory of free­dom that could have been and is also yet to come. No one’s get­ting there on the Carters’ pri­vate char­ter.

Photo by Robin Harper

Bey­oncé and Jay-Z.

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