Kanye West Makes The New York Times '25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going'
A strange thing you learn about American popular music, if you look back far enough, is that for a long time it didn’t much have “genres” — it had ethnicities. Vaudeville acts, for instance, had tunes for just about every major immigrant group: the Italian number, the Yiddish number, the Irish one, the Chinese. Some were sung in a spirit of abuse; others were written or performed by members of those groups themselves. And of course there were the minstrel shows, in which people with mocking, cork-painted faces sang what they pretended were the songs of Southern former slaves. This was how we reckoned with our melting pot: crudely, obliviously, maybe with a nice tune and a beat you could dance to.
Sometime in the 1950s, the mainstream saw its last great gasp of this habit. A nation that considered itself very space-age and worldly enjoyed quaint spins on sentimental Italian music (“That’s Amore” and its pizza pies) and Trinidadian calypso songs about hard, simple labor (“Day-O” and its bananas). You had your “Latin” numbers, your Hawaiian ones, your “Asian” songs — light ethnic pastiches laid out cheerily, like an international buffet that serves falafel one day and schnitzel the next, never too bothered about how accurate the recipes are.
There was a simple notion behind all this stuff, and it was the belief that music, like food, came from someplace, and from some people. Even when it was played in a condescending ethnic-joke burlesque of who those people actually were — even when it was pretty aggressively racist — the notion remained: Different styles sprang from different people. Then all of this changed, and we decided to start thinking of pop music not as a folk tradition but as an art; we started to picture musicians as people who invented sounds and styles, making intellectual decisions about their work.
But music is still, pretty obviously, tied to people. How else do you create a situation in which, after decades of hip-hop’s being the main engine of pop music, it can still be a little complicated when nonblack people rap? That vexed thing we call “identity” leans its considerable weight on all kinds of questions: which sounds comfort us or excite us; where and how we listen to them; how we move our bodies as they play. Watch a mere silhouette of a human being dancing to music, and you can immediately guess things about who they are and where they came from.
In 2017, identity is the topic at the absolute center of our conversations about music. There may be times when this fact grates at us, when it feels as though there must be other dimensions of the world to attend to; “surely,” you moan, “there are songs that speak to basic human emotions in ways that transcend the particulars of who we are!” But if you look through the essays in this magazine, you may notice two things. One is that, unbidden and according to no plan, they find themselves continually reckoning with questions of identity. The other is that they’re doing this because the musicians are, too.
A Japanese-American musician writes a song called “Your Best American Girl.” An R.&B. singer titles one “F.U.B.U.” — or, “for us, by us.” Are you part of her “us”? The house music in Kanye West’s “Fade”: Does it make you picture the black Chicagoans who helped invent it or the club-going Europeans who embraced it? How does it work when a queer woman matches the sexual braggadocio of male rappers, when L.G.B.T. activists sing a country song for a restaurant chain that once fired gay employees, when Leonard Cohen revisits his childhood religious inheritance?
This is what we talk about now, the music-makers and the music-listeners both. Not the fine details of genre and style — everyone, allegedly, listens to everything now — but the networks of identity that float within them. Maybe decades ago you could aim your songs at a mass market, but music does not really have one of those anymore. Artists have to figure out whom they’re speaking to and where they’re speaking from. The rest of us do the same. For better or worse, it’s all identity now. ♦
The genius of “Fade,” the penultimate track on Kanye West’s living work of art, “The Life of Pablo,” is evident from the opening lines, a sample from the white Motown group Rare Earth. But it was a half-minute in, at that first unmistakable rip of bass, that I lost my mind. Like many of West’s songs, “Fade” is built around several commingling samples. Its rhythmic backbone is the deceptively simple arrangement from the 1985 classic “Mystery of Love,” by Larry Heard, better known as Mr. Fingers. That track, along with a handful of others, marks a seminal moment in the history of deep house — a rich and criminally neglected chapter in the book of black music.
Today it’s easy to forget that in the early and mid-’80s there existed a window when New York rap, Chicago house and Detroit techno — as well as a slew of other fledgling genres and subcultures — functioned more or less as equals, each as likely as the next to flounder or thrive. New York won the contest handily, and now hip-hop has so thoroughly subsumed mainstream black culture that it often feels as if earlier artistic forms have either been eradicated or retrofitted to its preferences (see: funk, R.&B. and jazz). House music — much like West himself — is unabashedly black and Chicago-bred, but somewhere along the line, it grew cozy in Europe and came to be seen as catering to white people. And though it has only ever managed to find significant audiences overseas, this transfixing style of minimal electronic dance music was pioneered by Midwestern D.J.s spinning mainly for black and gay audiences looking to “jack” their bodies at Windy City nightclubs like the Muzic Box and the Warehouse (where, under the stewardship of Frankie Knuckles, the style was birthed and named). While trailblazers like Mr. Fingers — a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist — are worshiped in London, Paris and Berlin, they are barely remembered back at home.
“Fade” sets out to correct this. Onto the wide-open surface “Mystery of Love” provides, West spreads out his own sparse raps alongside what grows into an aural smorgasbord of samples, allusions and guest appearances spanning eras and ethnicities — ’90s Nuyorican house, the white rapper/singer Post Malone — a subtle reminder of the outsize influence of black aesthetics on all manner of American and global culture.
Which is why, as a radio-friendly hit (with an awe-inspiring video to boot), “Fade” feels not only generous but subversive: In the span of a little over three minutes, it gives the lie to simplistic conceptions of musical borders. West has always displayed a rare encyclopedic and intuitive grasp of both mainstream and regional black sounds, from traditional gospel and R.&B. to college-inflected spoken word and even black Greek stepping, not to mention dance, reggae, trap and drill music. He knows that, glimpsed from the proper vantage, these are but facets of the same, constantly shifting whole. I don’t think there is another pop star who could conceive of such a medley, let alone bring it to life in a way that coheres. Yet “Fade” doesn’t just cohere; it functions as a sly and infectious meditation on the variety of formal possibilities of black sound — as invented and interpreted by black people themselves as well as Latinos and white people. It also serves as a bittersweet thought experiment: Things could have been otherwise. Imagine, if you will, a world in which Mr. Fingers got his due.♦