Donda as late style
It’s not Kanye’s world anymore. The days when any goofy white boy could make the appearance of a personality from putting on stunna shades and singing along to ‘Flashing Lights’ are long forgotten. The critical reaction to Donda went from speculative horror—the Mercedes-Benz Stadium as vast race-car bed—to ridicule—why is it so long???—to amnesia in a month or two. It hit number 1 on the US charts, but that doesn’t mean what it did when people still bought CD-singles of ‘Heartless’. As one of the world’s most visibly divorced men, taking him down a few pegs is basically a social obligation for any right-thinking citizen and critic. Worst of all, his extravagant public breakdown in the summer of 2018, when a sudden turn towards a chauvinistic post-Farrakhan variety of black nationalism became linked to an admiration for Trump’s “dragon energy”, hovers around him as if it were a series of speech acts in Searle’s sense, harms visited on the world by words that did something to the prestige of liberal politics, though no-one can really say what. Like Trump himself, he lingers between cancellation and stardom, though unlike Trump he isn’t reduced to narrowcasting to his most braindead followers.
It’s partly this that makes Donda’s bathos inextricable from its genuine pathos. It attempts to fuse, to make co-extensive, the erratic secular force of Yeezus or Life of Pablo and the corny devotion running from his early work to Jesus Is King, formed into a vast additive architecture, a logic of unstoppable ego-driven growth usually curbed by the steadying hand of an editor. But the shredded and reanimated memories of the black church and its legacy in the civil rights movement, phrases and samples carrying whole structures of feeling as they have in hiphop since at least the 90s, are in service of lyrics about how he hasn’t got a home to get sucked off in but Architectural Digest are calling him anyway. (The album’s dedication to his mother is sappy, disingenuous and genuinely pained at once: as some critics pointed out, Donda, through whom he was connected to the same middle-class African-American nonprofit sphere in Chicago as Barack Obama, died not from addiction or gun violence but a plastic surgery her son paid for.) Recreating his childhood home for the third listening event suggests, unimaginatively, that Donda is an attempt to create a memorial to the experience and feelings that middle age have taken out of his grasp. But the grandiosity of that ambition—a rap Xanadu built around the absence of a Rosebud—tends immediately towards the condition of cringe. That’s fine though. None of us can rhyme “black Timbs all on your couch again/black dick all in your spouse again” anymore. Fragmented and undignified grandeur is the sequel to a composure that even his albums up to Graduation held onto only in their production. His remarkable dedication to being a narcissistic shithead, going back to at least the 2009 VMAs, plays differently in a media culture whose only substantial activity consists of pearl-clutching at broken decorum. Greg Tate warned in his review of Life of Pablo that Kanye needed to address his emotional problems no matter how much value-added his drama provided: “One can only pray now that all bile and vitriol is out of the lad’s system, that he… throws himself as hardcore into therapy or naturopathy or a Vodou ceremony or Yoruba bembé ASAP.” Donda suggests he both did and didn’t take the advice. He hasn’t put away childish things, but he doesn’t use them in service of appearing anymore to give a fuck, inflating them until they break up into constituent elements, drifting as unstructured masses or assembled into counterintuitive architectures, not bothering even with the sober business sense Jay instilled in him. The political oscillation in his repeated rants—appearing most strongly in his recent and peculiar Drink Champs interview—between the “we need our own businesses” variety of cultural nationalism and “fuck Nike” black iconoclasm is resolved in the jagged incoherence that Walter Benjamin identified as the mode of allegory. (Kanye’s actual businesses, even when realised, as in Yeezy Season, have a conceptual or paper architecture quality.) Craig Jenkins is quite right that a concise and brilliant album awaits the editor prepared to focus on minimalist moments like ‘Moon’, ‘24’ and ‘Junya’, even two if you were to somehow prise the gospel tracks (‘Jesus Lord’, ‘Praise God’, ‘Come to Life’, ‘Lord I Need You’ etc) from the secular tail-chasing. Indeed, the gargantuan length could be seen, as Jenkins does, as merely following the trend of Scorpion and Summertime 06. And yet, that misses the allure. If Kanye treats structure, tension and dialectical opposition as options to take or leave, it’s in the aid of a compensatory sublime of aggregation, congelation, half-finished ideas left to run—rap’s claims to a street modernist aesthetic realised as a semi-conscious joke, which may be the only fate left to it.
Hence: “late style”. Not necessarily late in terms of Kanye’s biography, even if he intimates the feds might pop him anytime. But a style that in the belatedness it carries within its form testifies to the devaluation of the conventions against which the “mature” phase of popular art was measured. It felt like a cosmic alignment when Dean Blunt’s sequel to Black Metal came out shortly before Donda: the same black square stares out. When I reviewed Black Metal in 2014, I saw it as a commentary from the margins on the crisis at pop’s black centre: Blunt had lamented the lack of a black popular audience for his own work, countered in the imagined notion of a “black metal”, one that would unite R&B’s musical sophistication with the vernacular hardness and global market share of hiphop, bringing back together the split culture of African-Americans under neoliberalism, as if re-running Metallica’s 16x platinum Black Album with actually black music. For, “[e]ven Kanye and Rihanna have to make do with virtual dominion these days, lives counted in Youtube and Spotify hits.” If, in the years since, that fantasy has been realised in the figure of Beyoncé, it occurred in tandem with the full spectrum broadcast domination of cultural liberalism, creating the opportunity for an artist who’d reconcile black power (as style) and market imperatives in a new if partial unity as product. Putting on the red hat might blow out your bottom line but at least you could actually get to have a bit of fun. While the notion of a communion between one-time ‘outsider’ music and major-as-it-gets-label rap is fanciful, Blunt and Kanye seem both to turn their styles, in their dissolution, into monuments to a failed ambition—a culture where the matter and mattering of black life wouldn’t be the subordinate material of works focus-grouped not to alienate any potential audience segment. Black Metal creates its meanings through the circuit between its disarticulated materials—80s cutie, trap, the disaffected mumble of Blunt’s Hype Williams work, 70s pop, Vangelis—never producing a unitary statement except as bad joke or non sequitur. Donda likewise refuses to make its contradictory components add up or cohere aesthetically—not that this makes it a good album, but it is at least deeply expressive of its historical condition rather than merely symptomatic, and funny as hell for that very reason. If Life of Pablo strung together an excess of ideas that, as Dan Neofetou notes, “rather than coming off as a homogenised mass feeding the ego of a power-crazed sovereign, [forms] a fragmentary and yet coherent constellation, the whole of which exists only for the sake of its parts”, Donda is the moment the stars begin to fall from their appointed places. What in the modernist era were for Adorno the “catastrophes” of the history of art become, in their repetition, extended jokes that no-one can really identify as jokes anymore. If the moment has passed when the autonomy of black art might converge with the kernel of universality in black popular culture, Donda is a laughing depiction of the monsters that propagate in its aftermath.