Kanye West, Jesus Walks (2004)

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Artist: Kanye West
Title: Jesus Walks
Description: single; album track, The College Dropout
Label: Rock-A-Fella
Release date: 2004
First heard: 2004

I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid ’cause we ain’t spoke in so long

I think I know what you’re thinking. But I used to like Tony Blair, Woody Allen and Christopher Hitchens, too, until I changed my mind (or in fact, to a degree, until they changed theirs). In the same way, we shouldn’t allow the global court jester Kanye West has turned into since his first two albums in 2004 and 2005 to blot his once good name. That was some run. (I know, other people retain a candle for his third LP Graduation in 2007, but he’d lost me by then and Auto-Tune and Trump have had him ever since.)

Having grown up with hip-hop, I’ve often despaired of the way it turned out in mainstream terms. The most powerful, profitable and influential music since piano-tie rock’n’roll, hip-hop has grown bloated and increasingly meaningless. Certainly, pockets of sincerity and invention exist, on the fringes (Death Grips, MF Doom, briefly Clipse – and those really date me), but since the Wu-Tang Clan’s glory days, little has floated my boat. This is not snobbery; I’ve been into Jay-Z, had a crack at Nas, but in the main, I find that the genre’s been co-opted by careerists and poppets.

In 2004 (God, that’s a decade-and-a-half ago), it looked very much like we’d found a new saviour. Kanye, a man with no gangsta credentials, had overcome the industry commonplace that he was a producer not a performer through grit and determination, and crafted College Dropout pretty much singlehandedly. It was a visionary record, personal, palatable, ambitious and honest. The calibre of guest stars didn’t hurt, of course (Jamie Foxx, Common, Ludacris, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, also credited as executive producer), but this was essentially all his own work. A star was born. I knew nothing about him when I first listened to the LP, but plenty by the time I’d finished.

He’s not the first rapper to thank God, but there’s something almost militantly theist about Jesus Walks, far away the best track on the album and a hymn to convert any unbeliever. It had me at the military “Order Arms!” at the beginning. Remember, I’m the bloke who bought the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack album on the strength of Abigail Mead (Vivian Kubrick) and Nigel Goulding’s title song, which adds a modern beat to R. Lee Ermey’s drill instruction and attendant Marine call-and-response. The Bill Murray comedy Stripes was the first time I’d encountered the melodic singing of square-bashing US platoons but it kindled my imagination. Jesus Walks, built upon a similar marching rhythm, also samples Walk With Me, performed by The ARC (Addicts Rehabilitation Center) Choir and (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go by Curtis Mayfield. If there’s a message above, it’s that God is good.

It is to West’s credit that a lyric which had singlehandedly failed to win him a record deal during his wilderness period because open Christianity wasn’t “marketable” in a world of 50 Cent (West would have the last laugh there) should be so robustly and thumpingly framed in song. If you’d never heard Kanye before this tune, you’d be intrigued by his opening remarks: “We at war, we at war with terrorism, racism … but most of all, we at war with ourselves.”

Now, I was still visiting Northampton regularly when the Jesus Army became a ubiquitous sight around town in their camouflaged bus and have long associated Christians with soldiers, “marching as to war.” Jesus Walks is a natural progression of that association and makes a compelling rap: “God, show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’-a beat me down!”, he implores, that voice gritty and honeyed at the same time, angry and beatific. Not big on cussing, West has his urban cake and eats it by affecting the cry of “Niggaz!” [EXPLICIT CONTENT] as if it were some kind of echo and not him uttering it in the stanza:

Where restless [niggaz!] might snatch yo’ necklace
And next these
[niggaz!] might jack yo’ Lexus
Somebody tell these
[niggaz!] who Kanye West is

Third person: always a warning sign of megalomania, but we’ll let it pass. Such intrigues are common on this record, which is lyrically fleet and thematically grounded. When he talks of being “breathless”, he draws breath and wheezes/jeezes in a way that will spook asthmatics everywhere, every time. He compares the way he believes in Jesus to “the way school needs teachers” and “the way Kathie Lee needed Regis” (a reference to the syndicated morning TV hosts). If he is testifying, he displays the common touch, insisting he “ain’t here to argue about His facial features,” or to “convert atheists into believers.”

He’s no angel after all, as implied by his fear of talking to God when it’s been “so long” since his last confession, or ecumenical equivalent.

It’s a pretty direct and inclusive concoction. The march time. The instructions. The shopping list of “hustlas, killas, murderas, drug dealas, even tha strippers”, accompanied by the choir invisible’s firm assurance: Jesus walks with them. For an artist-producer with all the tricks of the motherboard at his disposal, he and his collaborators are more than capable of stripping back and striking a line through some of the excesses that would dog his subsequent output.

It wasn’t long before West became the scourge of awards ceremonies, invading the stage when he didn’t win, and in the most famous case, interrupting Taylor Swift (“I’m-a let you finish”) and bloodsucking her moment of glory in 2006. Kanye the oxygen thief was not a good look. I could have lived with these antics if his music hadn’t started to reflect this messianic tendency.

It’s a free country and the lifestyle is not the artist (I didn’t go off Woody Allen’s films because of that business with his step-daughter, but because his films went bad). Kanye West can marry a woman from a reality show, start his own fast food franchise, design shoes, and it wouldn’t matter. But when a musician becomes more famous for being famous than for being a musician, I instinctively find myself looking elsewhere for stimulation. (It is not a pose to say that I didn’t really know who Kim Kardashian was for some years into her reign. The day I started writing this entry, her photograph was on the front of most of the smaller-format national newspapers, because you can see the whole of her balloon bum in it.)

None of which vampires the phenomenal impact of The College Dropout, or the aftershock of its follow-up Late Registration, whose singles Touch The Sky, Gold Digger and Diamonds From Sierra Leone shone brightly. One critic described Kanye’s arrival as “post-thug”, and I guess that’s why it felt as refreshing as De La Soul once did. But De La Soul never embarrassed themselves. Or sold their souls to Auto-Tune.

Remember him this way. After all, Woody Allen pulled one out of the hat with Midnight In Paris. And that all worked out well in the end, too, didn’t it?

Radiohead, Idioteque (2000)

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Artist: Radiohead
Title: Idioteque
Description: album track, Kid A
Label: Parlophone
Release date: 2000
First heard: 2000

It seems convenient, but you’re going to have to believe me. I fell for Radiohead when, during their support slot at the Astoria in London on October 9, 1992, Jonny Greenwood played those three “dead notes” on his guitar and the non-hit single Creep lurched into life. They were supporting The Frank & Walters, and their PR, Philip Hall, a man I liked and respected enormously, had talked me into coming with him to see Radiohead, whose first releases had not lit my fire, and who in my memory were playing to a virtually empty Astoria that night, but I may have idealised this detail.

From that day forward, I was essentially theirs. A fan of Pablo Honey when it was released in early 1993, I got to meet them before they were famous when they took me in their Transit to play a gig at Glamorgan University in Treforest, South Wales. They were polite and welcoming at whichever of them’s pleasantly appointed Oxford house we met in, and I was served hot, buttered toast made of thickly-sliced bread. Thom Yorke was harder to decode than the assorted Greenwoods, but I interviewed him alone in the back of the van at the university and a shared art school education bonded us. The “angle” for the piece I wrote for Select (headlined, “Super Creep”) was that Yorke represented a new, square-peg kind of indie “star”. Within two years, he was a star without speechmarks.

Come the end of the century, Radiohead were British music’s saving grace. Along with the Manics, they saw me through the Millennium. And Kid A was, for me, their first masterpiece. It remains a dizzying fusion of substance and style, ideas and technique, function and decoration, an experiment that worked, a bonfire of vanities that for most bands wouldn’t have even amounted to vanities that lit up the sky and a new leaf that wasn’t the same as the old leaf. Kid A reigns supreme. And of its ten tracks, Idioteque sums up its jagged glory in five tightly wound minutes.

On the back of a frantic, caffeinated electronic beat recalling Fad Gadget, what apparently originated with Jonny but was put through the Thom Yorke mincer before its oblique strategies could be unveiled to the world, Idioteque gets right under your skin with a remarkably rudimentary layering of ambient hum and interference, a mechanical concerto of rattling, shaking and shuffling.

Yorke’s snuffled, muffled distress signals may or may not presage a coming global apocalypse, but certainly conjure bunkers, an Ice Age and whatever emergency drill insists that women and children go first (“and the children, and the children”). Yorke’s first child – rather touchingly christened Noah – was not yet born when Idioteque was conceived, but it’s tempting to divine thoughts of fatherhood bubbling beneath the itchy surfaces of Kid A, and the anxiety about the future that starting a family engenders. With 21st century Radiohead particularly, it often feels like the end of days, even if the toast is thickly-sliced and hotly buttered. See them live – and I saw Idioteque essayed at Earls Court on the Hail To the Thief tour in November 2003, truly a night to remember – and your first impressions will not be of a traditional five-piece band, but of an industrial unit, busy with their machinery and infrastructure (too busy to face the audience, certainly, and often wrapped up in some function or maintenance side of stage that’s so pressing they just cannot tear themselves away).

The tumultuous “Ice Age coming, Ice Age coming” passage is what recorded music is all about, those multi-tracked vocals suggesting a choice invisible at a moment of existential truth. Rattling like a little girl’s toy, it makes you jerk your elbows, it makes you think, it makes Thom Yorke enter the same seizure-like state of grace that once possessed Ian Curtis. It’s surely an explicit reference to the nightmarish rape of Rosemary Woodhouse by Satan himself when Yorke intones, “This is really happening” (as in, “This is no dream, this is really happening” in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby – end of days, once again), but it might just be a thumbed nose to climate change deniers. You deconstruct Radiohead’s lyrics at your own peril.

That all of this industry conspires to create something as delicately balanced, emotionally affecting and ultimately human as anything on Kid A and its less socialised brother Amnesiac, but Idioteque in particular, is all the testament you should require that Radiohead are not as other bands. When they released Pablo Honey and I went down the M4 with them and Yorke had yet to grow the peroxide out of his hair, they were still as some other bands, but not for long.

Hey, Creep‘s a great song, too, but “everything all of the time”? No contest.