Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Kanye West Contemplates The Plight of Those in "Power"

By Scott Tre

The temperamental nature of gifted artists usually tests the patience of his public.  His most outstanding flaws can be forgiven as long as he continues to produce great works that curry favor with his audience.  An artist that is perhaps too self aware will sometimes push the envelope and end up overplaying his hand.  He then puts himself in the unenviable position of having to work his way back in the public's good graces.

Kanye West has emerged as one of, if not the most important rap artist of the last decade.  His ascent to the top, and his ability to maintain that position represented the beginning of a tonal shift in the genre.  This was cemented by his victory over 50 Cent in 2007 when Graduation outsold Curtis by a sizable margin during their first week of sales.  That event ended up being a flash point for the diminished importance of street credibility in modern hip-hop.  However, his blatant materialism and narcissistic tendencies have shown that the egocentric side of Hip-Hop remains a constant.  His penchant for attention whoring reached an apex last year with his inexcusable antics during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards.  The instantaneous overreaction of both his music industry peers and the entertainment news media showed that his brand of spoiled sport narcissism had finally run its course. Seemingly humbled and embarrassed, Kan-yezee went into self-imposed exile.

Chris Brown's warmly received tearful rendition of Micheal Jackson's "Man In the Mirror" shows that even the most seemingly unforgivable transgressions can be forgotten about.  The passage of time, coupled with the fickle and forgetful nature of the American public as well as the exhilaration of seeing a tremendous talent at the height of his powers can heal all wounds.  That is the purest definition of star power.  Kanye, while not interested in begging and groveling for our forgiveness, understands this.  His new single, fittingly titled "Power", is an effort by Kanye to remind us of just why we tolerate his foolishness.

Performed at the very same BET Award ceremony as Chris Brown's MJ Tribute, "Power" is typical post Late Registration Kanye West.  Sonically it casts a much wider net than the RZA/Primo inspired crate digging aesthetic found on his first two albums.  The hand claps and half-time sports arena stomp of the drums announce "Power" as a non dance oriented pop song.  The tribal choral singing gives it a subconsciously defiant feel.  The mournful Rock guitar gives it an air of privileged rich kid angst.  Kanye brilliantly interpolates a phrase that may be a reference to a line of dialogue uttered by Peter Boyle in Spike Lees epic biopic Malcolm X: "No one man should have this much Power".  As the track devolves in a flurry of synths towards the end, it may as well play under the closing credits of a modern day sports film.  It's not suited to my particular tastes, but it is undeniably effective. 

The video that accompanies the clip is much more to my liking.  It begins with an iconic image of Kanye glaring/glowering into the camera and wearing a Horus chain that is easily the coolest piece of truck jewelry I've seen in quite some time.  It makes Kanye look like a cross between a rapper and an Egyptian pharaoh.  He is standing in the midst of a heavenly background, amongst clouds and in the middle of two rows of Roman styled pillars that stretch into infinity.  The color scheme gives it a Zack Snyder, 300 sort of vibe.  The camera pulls back slowly.  Kanye is flanked by what appear to be two robed and horned albino beauties. A scantily clad angel is seated in front of him.  More is revealed as the camera pulls back even further.  An illuminated sword that appears to be descending from the heavens hovers ominously above Kanye's head.  More scantily clad, statuesque beautiful figures creep in from underneath the boundaries of the frame.  Two women in the upper left and right hand corners hang upside down and douse themselves with water.  As the clip comes to a close, the camera is liberated from its slow and steady trajectory and begins to map different sections of the frame.  Two warriors leap through the air from the left and right.  They are both wielding swords and seem poised to cleave Kanye, or perhaps each other, in half.  Kanye remains stoically in position, his glare intact.

The clip plays more like a brief commercial for Kanye's upcoming album Dark Twisted Fantasy than a music video (then again, aren't music videos essentially extended commercials?).  Almost any single frame could serve as the cover.  It was directed by artist Marco Brambila, who helped Sylvester Stallone stage an early 90's comeback with Demolition Man.  He has brought his knowledge of art to the table, as the sword hovering over Kanye's head is actually the sword of Damocles, from the classical Greek anecdote about the plight of those in power.  This is fitting as the picture has the feeling of a Renaissance painting come to life.  Remember the scene from Taylor Hackford's The Devil's Advocate, where the human forms in the sculpture hanging on the wall of John Milton's (Al Pacino) lavish office become restlessly animated?  It has that same quality.  

Nothing sells a product faster than packaging it in stunning, eye catching imagery.  Rap videos have never been known for stylistic or thematic innovation, usually becoming a showcase for arm movements that seem to be some form of sign language meant to be seen by NASA satellites.  Marco Brambilla not only gives us a pretty picture to look at, but invites rap fan to do two things that are rarely asked on them: think and interpret.  Message boards are already abuzz with talk of the illumanati and masonic imagery.  Arm chair conspiracy theorists seem to forget that rappers love to play around with such images in abstract ways.  If Kanye really was part of some ancient pagan cult set on taking over the world, I doubt he would drop clues to such affiliations in this fashion, or perhaps he and Marco are having fun with such theories.  Either way, it gives us something to talk about, as well as an album to anticipate.  Diva or not, Kanye continues to push the boundaries of how rappers are allowed to present and express themselves. 

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