A mind with a capacity for darkness wants, often, to bathe in other darkness. To indulge its negativity, to provoke its demons. Upbeat pop music, or folk pop, which seems so prevalent these days, is, for me, the path of most resistance. It is hard to “go there” with that music, to feel happy just because the music is assonant. Even in so-called happy music, like the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey,” I seek out the darker aspects: I don’t think you’re right for him. The singer is trying as hard as he can to live out his fate without the person he’s addressing, but the goal is still her. That cloying, addictive chorus is a plea. Yes, he belongs with her, and she belongs with him, but this song might not be able to save them.
It’s in this state of mind that I first listened to Yeezus. Multiple women in my life recommended the album to me with nothing short of ecstatic praise, and I suspected it was because the women I know are more forgiving of Kanye West the person — and probably more forgiving in general — than the men I know. Or perhaps it was because the ugly-prettiness that runs through this album just speaks to them more. But something had to grab them, something beyond Internet chatter, which doesn’t compel any of them. I think it was the knowledge that apparently terrible people (if West is even remotely that) can create beautiful things, that terrible circumstances can create beautiful art.
I live in a big city, but I first heard Yeezus surrounded by complete silence, through ancient but still good Bose headphones. This always helps. There were no traffic sounds, no human voices, no lawnmowers, not even animal sounds. It was one in the morning and I was lying inside a small wood cabin, somewhat tipsy, or at least I had been an hour before, and somewhat high. Earlier that day my neighbor had told me that he’d gotten the album from his son but deleted it within a few minutes. Huh? I was over the moon listening to this album. I was on the moon, more accurately. I was very, very far away and for all I knew, the cabin was hurtling through a black hole to another galaxy.
Yeezus made me happy, perversely, by indulging my sadness. It is a rare, glorious thing when a film, book, piece of art, or album, or even song, presents us with something we didn’t know we wanted to hear. Instantly I found “Hold My Liquor,” which is for some reason one of the least talked about songs on the album, soul-crushingly beautiful. The Pink Floyd-esque guitar solo cast far out in the mix; the pulsating, almost tactile synth beat; the grating mechanical sound, something like the sound of a car that won’t start, that punctuates each line of the lyrics. What the fuck?
I lay there, eyes wide open, staring up at a dark ceiling, high on everything that had happened that day, which included a drug but many other things besides. Things that made me too happy, things I wish didn’t make me happy at all, doses of a person who may as well have been a drug, someone who kept my heart going – and knew I would come crashing down, but suddenly there was a new pinnacle, a new vantage point from which to see it all. Music can color experience, I knew that. But this album completely elevated it.
On “I’m In It” West paints a picture of some hedonistic whirlwind (or several) of love and sex, or at least of lust and sex, and it’s impossible not to see things ramping up to some catastrophic climax. Justin Vernon’s vocals sound like some menacing ghost, a destructive voice in West’s head. At least, West is permanently worried that the ride will end in a crash. He doesn’t have faith in himself. Time to take it too far now, he announces in the final verse. But he’s trying: Gonna start a new movement / being led by the drums. Just maybe not tonight.
After listening to this masterpiece, I felt my own crash, my own fall, would be faster, harder, sure. It would be horrible the next day: the daylight and sobriety would conspire to formalize me again, to put some glass wall of politeness and tentativeness where pluck and affection had previously gone, but I could always return to this song, and I would, to remember the feeling of first hearing it, and hope that the pure feeling of enjoyment would eclipse the broader context of that enjoyment.
My life was a mess and my inner life was even worse than outward appearances indicated. I had run away, temporarily, it turned out. People were disappointed in me. People were wondering what the hell I was doing. It helped, somehow, to hear a person confront his own mess, a row of fallen dominoes, to the backdrop of such transportive and sad music. The music was not a solution for West, per se, but it was a big part of the solution. It was a way through, as opposed to a way out, which alcohol and drugs and bad relationships could have colluded to provide. The anger and defensiveness of “Hold My Liquor” felt all too real to me: Then her auntie came over / skinny bitch with no shoulders / telling you that I’m bogus / bitch, you don’t even know us / baby girl he’s a loner / baby girl he’s a loner / late-night organ donor / after that he disown ya / after that he’s just hopeless / soul mates become soulless. And the grumbling willingness to admit fault: I can hold my liquor soon turns into I can’t hold my liquor.
Down in the muck, which is certainly where West was, mentally, when he was rifling through the material that would make up this album, is of course where the best work often emerges. I was in my own muck and knew I needed something else besides drugs, alcohol and other people, people I loved excruciatingly, to get me out of it. Music is, of course, therapeutic, even if the context in which it’s first heard grabs us by the ankles and won’t let us walk anywhere without it.
It was its own kind of demon, the feeling that Yeezus gave me as I retreated back to my life, gave up the escape, tried to figure out a plan of action for my life that was sensible and not destructive, and continued to listen to the album obsessively. It made me feel, of course, that I was still intoxicated in the dark in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, in the place where my heart preferred to be. But it also had a way of making me confront my scars and the wounds I had given others. It made me see myself as a bad guy, as opposed to a victim. If anything, I was a victim of myself. The problems the album posed, each rant or confession it made, mirrored my own recklessness, my own cowardice. It was an intervention, and I was powerless not to listen to what it had to say.