Hogan’s Alley Remixed: Learning through Wayde Compton’s Poetics

Tomorrow, Friday, November 25, you are invited to step into Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver’s historic neighbourhood and a focal point of Black culture prior to its destruction in the late 1960s. I will be delivering the final Arts and Humanities Colloquium for the term, entitled Hogan’s Alley Remixed: Learning through Wayde Compton’s Poetics. 

My talk will look at the work of Vancouver-born poet, essayist, DJ, and historian Wayde Compton, whose collection, Performance Bond, explores the destruction of Hogan’s AlleyCompton incorporates hip-hop and turntable poetics in his piece to recover the past and effectively blend such histories into the present.

The presentation will mix images, sound, and text. VIU student and bassist Darin Nicolle will provide some bass accompaniment during the presentation and there will be an opening performance piece on mashup culture. 

The presentation is from 10-11:30 a.m. at Malaspina Theatre (on the Nanaimo VIU campus). The sessions are free to attend. Please join us at 9:30 am for coffee, tea, cookies, and conversation in the theatre lobby.


Nanaimo Bulletin: Vancouver Island University lecture examines poet Wayde Compton’s work

The Navigator: Exploring historic Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley through Wayde Compton’s eyes

Image Credit: RACHEL STERN / The News Bulletin


Special Issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation on Hip-Hop is Now Live

Cyphers: Hip-Hop and Improvisation

Vol 10, No 1

Edited by Paul Watkins and Rebecca Caines

To cypher is to rap, break, beatbox tightly together in a circle where each person just might get a moment in the spotlight. To cypher is to borrow and to lend, to playfully freewheel through whilst taking an exacting care for each word and carefully considering all the sounds, meanings, and interpretations. It is to fight back, to borrow, to steal, to represent, and to collaborate, whilst suddenly—surprisingly—at times aggressively claiming your own voice, your own right to speak. A cypher is a gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and/or breakers in a circle, extemporaneously making music together. In recent years, the cypher has also grown to include the crowd and spectators who are integral to maintaining the energy of a given cypher. In a cypher, one emcee will rap about a certain topic, which is quickly taken up or flipped by another emcee who plays off the prior words and themes. Each artist takes his or her respective turn, much like in a jazz solo. Cyphers flow freely between diverse performers who improvise their words, sounds, or movements to create a complex matrix of sharing. The circle can go on continuously, as long as emcees, beatboxers, dancers, and the crowd keep the fluidity of the cypher going. The cypher is welcoming and thus models a pedagogy that is inclusive and improvisational in nature.

This issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation/ Études critiques en improvisation aims to act as a cypher, engaging with the embodied practice of locally specific yet globally implicated hip-hop, as we consider the cypher as a metaphor for the complexities of critically thinking about improvisation more broadly. Appropriately, our theme of “Cyphers” attracted a wide range of analyses with many points of intersection. Our final selection ranges from discussions with historically significant scholars and practitioners in hip-hop and Black expressive culture to newer texts at the intersections between hip-hop and other art forms, as well as those tracing the improvisatory affects of hip-hop across cultural and technological boundaries.

Each paper in this issue addresses specific responses to the improvisatory impulse in hip-hop. We start the issue with a number of interviews. We are honoured that George Lipsitz agreed to interview Tricia Rose for this issue, bringing two significant scholars in Black Studies into conversation. This interview emphasizes Rose’s vital contributions to the field of hip-hop scholarship and addresses the broader importance of improvisatory Black expressive cultural practices as “sites and sources of knowledges, as repositories of collective memory, as sights of moral instruction, as ways of calling communities into being through interaction and through performance.” Rebecca Caines’ interview with leading Canadian hip-hop researcher Charity Marsh focuses on Marsh’s creation and leadership of the Interactive Media and Performance Labs in Saskatchewan as an innovative, exploratory space for disenfranchised communities to meet and learn about themselves through hip-hop practices. In conversation with Vancouver-based poet/scholar/DJ Wayde Compton, Paul Watkins addresses Compton’s work on history, identity, and race, exploring the idea of improvising Blackness from within both local (BC) and transnational contexts. This audio interview is then remixed a number of times to allow the conversation to interact with Compton’s readings of his own poetry and with a number of different music samples. Watkins then continues this exploration of critically engaged approaches to artistic practice with his review of Flying Lotus’s (aka FlyLo, born Steven Ellison) 2014 release, “You’re Dead!

Jesse Stewart examines the form of “jazz-rap” that emerged in the 1980s and ’90s. He charts the use of improvisational jazz forms in this type of hip-hop music and perceives this act as a kind of cultural memory practice that “mobilizes the musical past in the service of a socially progressive cultural politics of difference.” Niel Scobie addresses dissonance and “noise” in improvisation and in hip-hop music, with special attention to the music of Public Enemy. For Scobie, “anti-musical” aesthetics allow the group to create lineage with the “discordant cries” of African-American past practices whilst developing a potent improvisatory musical urgency and a call to arms.

Both Marcel Swiboda and Mark Campbell address technological mediation in hip-hop practices. Swiboda addresses “the break,” developing a new critical history of electronic tools for beatmaking to supplement existing scholarship, which has tended to focus more on the use of turntables for isolating and manipulating the breakbeat. Swiboda suggests that technological and material histories of improvisatory beatmaking practices can be “technologically driven, idiomatically specific vernacular modes of critical knowledge practice” and can also bear an “intimate link to improvisatory practices.” Campbell, on the other hand, focuses on current digital DJ practices. His ethnographic project is to discover how newer digital interfaces affect younger DJs in live performance and in radio settings. He argues that digital DJ interfaces might represent “ways to continue to humanize technology as a subversive afrosonic activity, while evolving the practice of DJing.”

See the full editorial and issue, here.

Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation is generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (through both its Major Collaborative Research Initiatives and Aid to Scholarly Journals programs) and by the University of Guelph Library.

You’re Dead!: The Afrofuturistic Sounds of Flying Lotus

“The future is always here in the past.”
-Amiri Baraka, “Jazzmen: Diz & Sun Ra”

From Sun Ra to Janelle Monáe, Afrofuturism lets us know where we’ve been (from griot traditions and Egyptian pyramids and astronomy) to where we are going (mixing culture, technology, liberation, and imagination), particularly as a new generation of artists embody the movement’s philosophy and push jazz and hip-hop into new realms. As Afrofuturist Ytasha Womack writes of the movement, “It’s a way of bridging the future and the past and essentially helping to reimagine the experience of people of colour.” Few working DJs in the “beat scene,” particularly with mainstream recognition, embody the creative spirit of Afrofuturism as much as experimental electronic artist Flying Lotus, whose aunt is the legendary Alice Coltrane. He’s also the cousin of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and the grandson of singer/songwriter Marilyn McLeod (notable for writing Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” and Freda Payne’s “I Get High (On Your Memory).”

Rather than letting his deep musical roots hold him down, Flying Lotus (aka FlyLo, born Steven Ellison) forges forward, sounding futures and making music that uses past recordings—made live through scratching and remix—as sources for improvisation. Flying Lotus first came to recognition making beats for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, eventually releasing a full-length record in 2006 entitled 1983. 1983 (of which I have a hard to find copy on vinyl), like its follow up, Los Angeles (2008), is a fairly straight ahead and accessible beats record, although it comes from the left field of jazz-based eletronica, video game music, and experimental hip-hop. His more recent releases include the albums Cosmogramma, and 2012’s sparse sounding and critically acclaimed, Until the Quiet ComesUntil the Quiet Comes displays the complexity of Ellison’s production, characterized by consonant and dissonant sounds, counterpoint, diverse shifts in tone and feel, and various improvisational modifications in mood, time signature, and overall structure. The psychedelic undertones, a mixture of downtempo jazz and post-rock ethos, add a dream quality to the album. Andy Beta of Spin described the record as the “dreams within dreams within dreams” concept of the 2010 film Inception while Karen Lawler of State insists that, “If the limbo between awake and sleeping, dreams and nightmares could be expressed through music, this album might well be it.”

Unique to Flying Lotus is how much sound he can get using a computer and digital production tools. Often he performs with live musicians (such as Ravi Coltrane) and his complex melodies, syncopated rhythms, and textured productions are largely a product of his own diverse interests. Some of his favourite albums, as he describes in one interview, include Alice Coltrane’s Lord of Lords; Radiohead’s Amnesiac; Charles Mingus’s Black Saint and the Lady Sinner, and J Dilla’s Ruff Draft. Stylistically, Ellison’s music reflects these diverse records, as Lotus’s albums contain free form jazz undertones and jazz-based patterns and time signatures. In 2010, Flying Lotus worked with the Ann Arbor Film Festival in a live scoring of the 1962 avant-garde film, Heaven and Earth Magic. Flying Lotus continues to surprise his audiences with imaginative live performances and by remaining true to the cross-fertilization of ideas and technological manipulation so present in Afrofuturism, Lotus (and the larger movement of young creative artists) continues to imagine possible futures.

Flying Lotus’s latest release, You’re Dead! (October 2014), embodies his mind-bending Afrofuturism more than any of his earlier recordings. The album is perhaps what Sun Ra’s and Miles Davis’s sonic child would sound like if they birthed an album together under the auspices of hip-hop. You’re Dead! is a breaking away and fresh approach to jazz-influenced hip-hop that feels a lot like Miles Davis’s On the Corner or Bitches Brew. In the liner notes of Bitches Brew, Ralph Gleason argues that “electric music is the music of this culture and in the breaking away (not breaking down) from previously assumed forms a new kind of music is emerging.” The great thing about You’re Dead! is that it recalls and echoes other fusion records, and yet its sounds are distinctive and in some ways unparalleled. You’re Dead! digs deep into jazz fusion, and takes the listener on a psychedelic journey into the unknown of the infinite afterlife. The exclamatory title (You’re Dead!) signals both the intensity and enthralled irreverence with which Ellison approaches death. Ellison’s own singing on the record is both goofy and haunting. Most impressive about this album is the well-orchestrated panoply of ideas, which are channeled through a tapestry of spirits and friends who converse together in the sonic afterlife.

Flying-Lotus-Dead-Mans-Tetris-608x804The artwork for the album is in itself a psychedelic trip.

The album’s musical influences range from the spiritual jazz of the Coltranes, the prog jazz fusion of Weather Report (a major stylistic conduit for Ellison on the record), to the humour and cosmic tones of Sun Ra. Such a mix makes You’re Dead! Ellison’s most free sounding album to date; impressively the record never spirals out of control because it clocks in at less than 40 minutes. In those 38 minutes we encounter a wide spectrum of sounds (and silences) with more live instrumentation than any prior Lotus album. The collaborative cast on the album is diverse, and includes Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar, Captain Murphy, Snoop Dogg, Thundercat, Angel Deradoorian, and others. Given his role at the helm of the fusion movement, Herbie Hancock is well deployed and his mellifluous keys on “Telsa” and “Moment of Hesitation” add to the jazz feel of the album. To really appreciate You’re Dead! you need to listen to the album in one continuous sitting: preferably in a smoky moon-lit room. The smoke could just as fittingly be from incense or cannabis. The tracks seamlessly flow together and the intense opening to the ethereal closing creates a cinematic experience that juxtaposes life and death, heaven and hell. This is cosmic music that is more meditative than it is consumptive. Yes, it is anthropophagic (cannibalistic) of other musical forms, but its channeling is meditative. We are not given a concrete answer to the nature of the afterlife, but I think that’s largely the point. The shamanistic journey FlyLo takes us on is Afrofuturistic because it lets us know that our past contains portals to explore the future of unknown horizons. You’re Dead! might just be the most exciting and confounding musical experience released this year.

images-4images-4images-4images-4 record 1:2(4.5 spins out of 5)

Check out some of Ellison’s music below, including the Kendrick Lamar collaboration on “Never Catch Me.”

Featured image from, here.

Deltron 3030, Event II Review


13 years after the self-titled left-field conceptual classic, Deltron 3030, Deltron returns with the long-awaited sequel, Event II, which takes place in the year 4010. Although only a fraction in space-time, 13 years is a long time to wait for a follow-up, and I can say it’s mostly worth the wait. Back are Dan “The Automater” Nakamura, turntablist extraordinaire Kid Koala, and funky lyricist, Del the Funky Homosapien. All three continue to make music and release albums, which is why it is surprising that it took so long for this album to come to fruition. Largely this was a result of Del’s writing process, which was in top form, even if his vocal delivery doesn’t always quite live up to what he pens. Last summer (2012) I had the pleasure of seeing Deltron 3030 perform with an orchestra in a free outdoor concert at the Hub in Toronto (part of the Luminato festival). Despite the rain, appropriate as nuclear fallout, the concert was fantastic, and although it was an album preview of sorts (without an album) for Event II, we had to wait over another year for the physical product.

Deltron 3030
Deltron 3030 at Luminato Festival, 2012. Photo by Paul Watkins.
Deltron 3030 at Luminato Festival, 2012. Photo by Paul Watkins.

It’s hard to please everyone, and another watershed album with the impact of the first is as unlikely as Dan “The Automater” making dubstep beats, Kid Koala using a computer to scratch on digital vinyl, and Del using autotune. Fortunately none of those things happen on Event II, as the supergroup mostly stays within their comfort zone, working with much of the format that made Deltron 3030 so appealing. Event II opens with a straightforward monologue by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt who provides the backstory like the opening of a sci-fi flick. Back is the imaginative sci-fi universe painted with Dan “The Automator’s” operatic space oddity of hip-hop beats, punctuated by futurist cuts by Kid Koala, with rapid-fire madcap lyricism from Del overtop the production. Del’s lyricism is still incredibly verbose, although his voice has mellowed and lacks some of the alacrity of the previous Deltron Zero character. Given Del is now in his 40s and has been rapping since his 1991 debut, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, shortly after forming the Hieroglyphics collective, it is understandable that some of his vigor is gone, although the storytelling is as first-class as ever. In fact, Event II will benefit from multiple listens given that there is so much happening in Del’s labyrinthine and dystopian lyrical supernovas. Further, on tracks such as “Talent Supercedes” and “Citing Rising from the Ashes” (with the gifted and inventive Mike Patton on the chorus) Del hardly misses a beat, delivering his poetic words with as much gusto as any Del track.

I know you need a little background clear though

About your boy Deltron Zero, your hero

In three thousand thirty

We ain’t in the clear though

We was near toast, doing too much, who to trust

In a land so scandalous and grand?

Even the President got his hand in the contraband

They done control the band of information

Leading to education to a brainwaves pulsatin’

Event II is a largely self-reflexive and fun album, full of humourous skits that provide reprieve from the heavy subject matter of Del’s lyrics. There are a few too many skits, which slow down the momentum of the narrative a little, but the oddball cast of characters (with appearances from Lonely Island, David Cross, and others) adds to the comic sci-fi pastiche of Event II. There is also an excellent cast of artists, including Damon Albarn, Emily Wells, Zach de la Rocha, Jamie Cullum, and Mike Patton, who appear on choruses and add a theatrical layer of the grandiose that reminds me of the Gorillaz, a group Del was involved with, being featured on tracks such as on the eclectic “Clint Eastwood.” While the first Deltron album encompassed concept-driven tracks like “Mastermind,” “Things You Can Do,” and “Virus,” and mind-altering tracks like “Positive Contact” and “Memory Loss,” (and the whole album really), Event II does have some highly enjoyable standout tracks, including: “The Return,” “Pay the Price,” “Talent Supercedes,” and “City Rising From the Ashes.” While Event II will unlikely reach the audience spectrum the first did, which managed to move out of the milieu of underground hip-hop, it will indeed satisfy most of the original fans, and perhaps win over a few new ones.

I still can’t get over the fact that this album actually came out, gifting us with a new rap opera from Deltron 3030. Even though the album relies heavily on the concepts of the first, sometimes you need to look to the past to understand the future. And given how boring much of the present state of hip-hop music is, Deltron 3030’s Event II is a welcome reminder of where we’ve been and where we can still go.

images-4images-4images-4images-4 (4 spins out of 5)

The 7th Annual Manifesto Festival (2013)

“Manifesto’s point of origin lies in hip hop culture – in its spirit of ingenuity, raw creativity, and people power, but we strive to stay out of boxes and create a platform with the potential to act as a catalyst for cross-pollination, collaboration, and the growth of new forms in this city of wildly talented people.” -Manifesto website.

7th Annual Manifesto Festival
7th Annual Manifesto Festival

The annual Manifesto Festival of Community & Culture is one of the reasons I love living right beside the Yonge-Dundas Sq.

Manifesto is a non-for-profit grassroots organization with a focus on youth and hip-hop culture, with the aims to educate, unify, and provide amazing music to the masses. The local and the global combine for four days of live events featuring musicians, producers, visual artists, and dancers, to panels with industry experts and even mentor sessions, and this year’s festival had even more in store than previous iterations.  Another great thing about Manifesto is that it brings hip-hop legends to Toronto – for free! In 2011, I saw Rakim rock the stage, and in 2012 Pharoahe Monch killed it live with hip-hop and local jazz upstarts, BadBadNotGood.

Rakim, 2011 at Manifesto.
Rakim at Manifesto, 2011.
Mharoahe Monch at Manifesto, 2012.
Pharoahe Monch at Manifesto, 2012.

This year’s festival featured amazing headliners, including soon to be big Jhené Aiko,
 and the legendary Souls of Mischief crew, 
celebrating their 20-year Anniversary of their classic, 93 ‘til Infinity! Souls of Mischief is a hip-hop group from Oakland, California, part of the hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics and consists of emcees A-Plus, Opio, Phesto, and Tajai. I remember seeing them back in 2003, and I can say with assurance, they are still every bit as dope 10 years later.

For those unacquainted with 90s hip-hop, here’s the video for “93 ‘til Infinity.”

…and here’s a recent remix of 93 ‘til Infinity aptly titled 93 Still by Gummy Soul.

…and here are some pictures I snapped of this year’s headliners.

Shad rolled through as a surprise guest, playing "Rose Garden" and some new material.
Shad rolled through as a surprise guest, playing “Rose Garden” and some new material.
The talented (and sexy) Jhené Aiko
The talented (and sexy) Jhené Aiko
Souls of Mischief take the stage.
Souls of Mischief take the stage.

DSC_0795 DSC_0794 DSC_0841 DSC_0839 DSC_0831 DSC_0808

From 93 ’til 2013 ’til infinity.

Photos by Paul Watkins.

“Unholy Matrimony”: A Review of Kanye West’s Yeezus


I encountered hip-hop music for the first time when I was ten years old. I remember bringing home a cassette of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle; the album’s iconography was brash in its explicit display of pugilistic eroticism (I borrow this term from a bell hooks film entitled Cultural Criticism and Transformation). Aesthetically the music was smooth, full of funk-infused hard-thumping gangster rhythms. Shortly afterwards, my parents found the cassette and took it away; this experience was also my first introduction into the world of censorship. Perhaps John Milton might have rethought his defense for the freedom of the press in his Areopagitica had he encountered gangster rap, although perhaps he would have deemed it a good starting place for a conversation. One of the things I appreciate about Kanye’s latest record, Yeezus, is the zealous discussion it started.

Kanye has always had a unique ability to spark conversation, controversy, debate, praise, and vehement responses to his persona and music—the two are often inseparably conflated. We all remember Kanye’s controversial statement that then American President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people” or his interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV music awards. Few musicians today are lauded or despised with the same fervor Kanye provokes. He went from a sought after producer to a rap god of his own making. Essentially, from “Jesus Walks” to I am “Yeezus,” or “I am a God” as he repeats over and over (with some hyperbole) as the egoist’s mantra on his sixth studio offering, Yeezus. I admit the first time I heard Yeezus I didn’t quite enjoy the experience or know what to make of it. Kanye’s music has always been intensely well produced, but here the concentration reaches new heights of desperation, self-deprecation and self-praise, as he howls into the void of his own notoriety with a clanging industrial reboot of his 2008 effort, 808s & Heartbreak. 

In some ways Yeezus is the antithesis to the maximalism of West’s last solo effort, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The beats are often sparse and what I really appreciate about Yeezus is how the record dances with silence. Traded in for the smooth soul samples are jarring electro and industrial grindings somewhat in the vein of Trent Reznor. And while Yeezus might change or influence the course of rap and pop music it does so largely on the craftsmanship of those who have come before him. The album would be much more impressive if hip-hop poet Saul Williams and Trent Reznor hadn’t already released The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! back in 2007, an ode to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. The differences and similarities between Niggy Tardust! and Yeezus are startling, although gone from Kanye’s album is much of the slick wordplay and social commentary found in Williams’s lyricism, which makes sense given Williams is a gifted poet, and while Kanye is a talented producer, he is hardly the poet laureate of hip-hop.

West’s album owes much of its sound to a long list of industrial hip-hop innovators, from the British trip-hop of Massive Attack, Dizzee Rascal, Roots Manuva, and Portishead, to modern innovators of the American industrial hardcore hip-hop sound including Death Grips, Odd Future, and the incredibly talented EL-P. This is not to say that the production on Yeezus is subpar. It’s actually quite fantastic— Kanye’s ability to make dope beats has never really been a concern. What was most alarming to Kanye fans was his choice to trade in soul samples for more electronic, synth-heavy, and abrasive dense drums, subtonic bass sounds, and trebles that clip off the meter—although there are a couple soul samples thrown in here and there, particularly on the track “Bound 2” which samples “Bound” by Ponderosa Twins Plus One. One of the first samples I noticed was on the thumping “Black Skinhead,” which samples the drums of Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People.” The involvement of veteran producers Rick Rubin and Daft Punk—rule breakers and consummate craft makers of popular music—help the album sound incredibly tight: the whole dizzying affair is only forty minutes long. In fact, the album grows on you like a fungus until you can’t help but be taken in by its infectious ziggurat of sound.

Kanye reminds us that pop music has always been a hybrid activity, mixing styles while creating new trends in the process. Static pop music as a kind of symbolic whiteness becomes dubious under the threat of atrophic productions that marry a variety of styles and themes. As music journalist John Leland argues in Hip: the history, it was the recording industry of the twentieth century that created the arbitrary separation of music into genres in order to meet market demands. In the early twentieth century many itinerant African American as well as white performers played a mix of minstrel tunes, ballads, folk songs, blues, and rags. Leland contents that “Black performers became blues singers in the studio, dropping their other master at the door; whites became hillbilly singers. The blues singer, then, was an invention of the studio, and often white record executives” (36). Are not the blues, jazz, and hip-hop mercurial forms that welcome deviance by their very nature? Kanye’s Yeezus does an excellent job of challenging and defying genre expectation—who would have thought that Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” (most famously sung by Billie Holiday and written by Jewish teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem) would be remixed into a piercing electro-pop anthem about consumption, alimony, and abortion with West’s emblematic and dichotomic blending of the sacred and profane.

Most of the lyrics on the album aren’t all too deep; rather, they are sexually provocative and often misogynistic, such as: “Fuck you and your Hampton house / I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse / Came on her Hampton blouse / And in her Hampton mouth” (“New Slaves”); “Careless whispers, eye fucking, biting ass / Neck, ears, hands, legs, eating ass / Your pussy’s too good, I need to crash / Your titties, let em out, free at last” (“I’m in It”); “Uh, black girl sippin’ white wine / Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign / And grabbed it with a slight grind / And held it till the right time / Then she came like AAAAAHHH!” (I’m in It”). I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Given the historical arch on songs like “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves,” and “Blood on the Leaves,” sex and miscegenation is put into a historical present where Kanye’s own relationship with Kim Kardashian is a case example of the negative attention he gets (in his opinion) in the spotlight for dating and having a child with a white girl—or for dating a Kardashian. I am reminded of the young Haitian narrator of Danny Laferrière’s How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired, who answers back with virulent force to a history “not interested in us” (30) through sexual intercourse with white women: “I’m here to fuck the daughter of these haughty diplomats who once whacked us with their sticks […] history hasn’t been good to us, but we can always use it as an aphrodisiac” (95). Miscegenation is a running thread in the album, which can be extended to the technique of Kanye’s own productions creating a mix that can only be described as an “unholy matrimony” (to borrow from Kanye’s own words in “Blood on the Leaves”).

No song is more captivating and explicitly concentrated then “Blood on the Leaves” whose title riffs on a line from “Strange Fruit,” referring to lynched black bodies. I still don’t know quite know how to feel about the use of the Nina Simone sample (particularly the chosen lines: “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”; “Blood on the leaves”; “Black bodies, swinging in the summer breeze”). The line “blood on the leaves” first appears on “New Slaves” and there is a direct connection between being a modern slave (largely to corporate superstructures) to Kanye being hung by his own guilt around his notoriety, fame, coupled with themes of divorce, betrayal, abortion, and the loss of a past love, he raps:

Before the limelight stole ya
Remember we were so young
When I would hold you
Before the blood on the leaves
I know there ain’t wrong with me
Something strange is happening

“Blood on the Leaves” uses the background of lynching to talk about infidelity and the loss of love as if the two are somehow equivocal:

Now you sittin’ courtside, wifey on the other side
Gotta keep em separated, I call that apartheid
Then she said she impregnated, that’s the night your heart died
Then you gotta go and tell your girl and report that
Main reason cause your pastor said you can’t abort that
That going to that owing money that the court got
All in on that alimony, uh, yeah-yeah, she got you homie
Til death but do your part, unholy matrimony

“Unholy Matrimony” is right. Only Kanye would think that divorce, betrayal, and the dilemma of dealing with a mistress who evidently will not abort your baby are akin to lynching. Or perhaps, in the way that “Strange Fruit” was an anti-lynching anthem, the song is as Nicholas Troester describes, an “anti-abortion anthem.” Conceivably, the inherent juxtaposition and grotesque discomfort experienced by the listener from the “Strange Fruit” sample with West’s lyrics is the point—but is it the right point and is it lost on his listeners? For me, auto-tune has never sounded more haunting than it does on “Blood on the Leaves” as Kanye’s voice flutters and breaks with a heightened dose of self-pitying clatter.

Kanye is the centerpiece of his album—as he usually is—and he inserts himself as a case study for his critiques of materialism and race within the context of his fame: “They see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong / Middle America packed in / Came to see me in my black skin” (“Black Skinhead”). The album is full of self-parody and monstrous spectacle and more than anything it gets us talking about Kanye, which might actually get us talking about the performance of race and the consumerism Kanye critiques in his own complicity. Given the mere 40 minutes running time, Yeezus packs quite the punch, which is why I think critics loved the album so much. As Griel Marcus argues, “The job of the critic would be to maintain the ability to be surprised at how the conversation goes, and to communicate that sense of surprise to other people, because a life infused with surprise is better than a life that is not” (23). As long as Kanye continues to surprise his fans and critics alike he will have a forum to make music (despite the album leaking a week early, it debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, selling 327, 000 copies in its first week). Yeezus is often a great album, but it is hardly the unequivocal industrial hip-hop album of its style. Is it full of misogyny and hedonistic self-aggrandizing bravado? Of course—it wouldn’t be a Kanye West album if it weren’t. While Yeezus is not an album for everyone, nor is it an album everyone should like, it started some interesting conversations and helped to open up a level of musical critique that I felt was absent for too long in popular music criticism.

Works Cited

Laferrière, Dany. How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired. Toronto: Coach House, 1987. Print.

Leland, John. Hip: the history. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.

Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989. Print.