Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Kanye: How much ego can you stomach?

Here’s something often overlooked in the whole Kanye/Taylor Swift dust-up that remains a cultural talking point some four years after it happened: Kanye was right.
What he did wasn’t right. How he’s discussed it since hasn’t been right. But his opinion—that Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies” deserved the award that Swift won—was on the money. And so, the moment serves as a nice microcosm of West’s career. He’s a blazingly intelligent artist who is unafraid to speak his opinion—but he’s unable to do so without being a complete and utter jerk.
And so, your opinion of Kanye often comes down to how much ego you can stomach or how much you can divorce your opinion of Kanye the Man from Kanye the Musician—something Kanye himself goes great lengths to unite. That’s why when, say, he releases an album called Yeezus, you’re almost forced to pick a side. His god complex is married to his art. Maybe even a product of it. And so we find ourselves stuck with an unbearably self-obsessed man who is churning out some legitimately incredible work.
And the music on Yeezus is fairly incredible. Artistically, it sounds like something recorded in the year 2020, which might be about the time the general public is ready for it. Here in 2013, it sounds more impressive than enjoyable. It’s a mish-mash of industrial sounds: fearsome bass and primal screams over which Ye rhymes furiously, sounding far angrier than he’s ever sounded. If you caught his SNL performance, you’ve already heard the blistering “Black Skinheads,” which is the closest thing to rap rock Kanye will ever do. That song works as a good picture of how different Yeezus is from anything else Kanye’s done.
The track that (rightfully) has everyone talking is “Blood on the Leaves” which blends TNGHT over a sample of “Strange Fruit,” Nina Simone’s chilling ode to a Southern lynching. That’s a brave move for a song that’s one scant remix away from a dance anthem, but if you’d hoped—as I did—that such a sample might signify an attempt to delve into issues deeper than Ye’s troubled and troubling romantic life, you’ll be disappointed.
Kanye can write spectacular (and spectacularly profane) lyrics in his sleep, but here, his subject matter rarely transcends Kanye’s favorite subject: Kanye. As on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, there are a few moments of genuine introspection in which Ye grapples with why he can be such a pain (though no song here approaches the revelation that “Runaway” was) but there are not many attempts to say anything of significance about the world into which he’s become such a major player. He takes stabs at talking about the corrupt recording industry (“New Slaves”) but Kanye is mostly finding endlessly inventive and appalling ways to talk sex.
Mean-spirited sex is a subject Mr. West has never been shy about, but he pushes limits here. Almost every track has some sort of reference to sex being used to degrade and demean his partners. The opening song, “On Sight,” is designed to shock, no two ways about it, but it’s tame compared to “I’m In It”—featuring his increasingly frequent collaborator Justin Vernon—which is unforgivably cruel.
American hip-hop is uniquely positioned to say something raw and honest about the national climate. It is to today what folk music was to the ‘60s—an unfiltered, unapologetic look at American life. As a recent example, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d City shed a light on growing up in the projects. In detailing his own struggles between feeling pulled between faith of his family and the violence of the world around him, Lamar said something vital about America. Yeezus, true to its name, only says something vital about Kanye.
Case in point: “I Am a God,” one of the album’s best and worst tracks, part of which finds Kanye “chilling” with Jesus, during which he observes “I know He’s the Most High / but I am a close high.” Following the Yeezus leak, it took scant minutes for the Internet to catch onto that song’s instantly quotable refrain of “I am a god / hurry up with my d-mn massage / hurry up with my d-mn menage / get the Porsche out the d-mn garage” and, of course, “Hurry up with the d-mn croissants.

It’s a ludicrous song, so much so that most are speculating it’s meant to be ironic. Kanye’s poking fun at himself, his celebrity and how he uses his divine authority to demand luxurious trivialities. It’s a larger commentary on celebrity culture. Perhaps, and if so, it only means we’re back where we began: Kanye West is saying something important, but it's impossible to hear it over the deafening shriek of his own bravado.
On Saturday, Kanye brought a daughter into the world with Kim Kardashian, and there’s a general sense of unease regarding this child’s well-being. However, one of the few things infants are adept at is humbling their parents. It’s hard to feel like a god while juggling diapers.
Could this girl, reportedly named Kaidence, knock some sense into her father? It’d be far from the first time a family humanized a brilliant-but-troubled artist (Johnny Cash comes to mind). While we won’t be getting any Will Smith-like tributes to the joys of fatherhood, it’s not too late to hope for a more grounded Kanye—a man who is, by any measure, one of his generation’s best and most important artists.
The only thing that’s holding him back is how well he knows it.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Where Does Offense Belong?

It’s happened to most of us. We’re cruising down the street, singing along to Justin Bieber’s sweet new jam when all of the sudden, some imbecile swerves in front of us and cuts us off. Not only does this give our hearts a shock, it usually unleashes a little monster we like to call “road rage.”
Our knuckles whiten, we grit our teeth, we may even let a dirty word fly out of the side of our mouths. We give our horn a long, harsh push or—even worse—we slip up that one finger that tells this reckless renegade exactly what we think of their driving. It’s so easy to lash out since, after all, we don’t know this person. They’re just some anonymous moron drifting in and out of traffic as they please.
This scenario is a classic American experience: we believe we have the right of way, someone compromises that right, and we take offense, often reacting in impulsive, unwise ways. And it doesn’t just happen on the road.
When you think about it, the same thing happens to us all the time in the public square—anywhere, really, where ideas are presented, debated and shared. And on the Internet, particularly, it happens a lot.
As with any large gathering of souls, the Internet consists of many different people from many different upbringings offering up many different opinions and beliefs. And for those of us who are fortunate to live in countries that afford us the freedom to live and believe as we choose, we’re granted the right to choose where our loyalties in religion and politics lie. Those choices aren’t taken lightly nor held loosely, and most of us defend them with our very soul. This being the case, the Internet often disintegrates into a hotspot of disagreement and offense; bursting with arguments, insults and accusations with little or no warning.
We've seen it happen recently in discussions of gay marriage, gun laws, abortion, gender roles and more. Someone posts something that offends our beliefs, and a counter is quickly posted elsewhere. It’s as if those attacking our beliefs and opinions are actually attacking us personally, and that’s something we just cannot and will not allow. What once had the supposed potential of a calm discussion soon turns into slurs and insults being tossed back and forth, growing more and more hostile as witnesses enter the fray to defend their friends and own opinions. Names are called, orientations are attacked, and opinions are ransacked—until it all descends into digital chaos. All because someone took offense to an individual’s opinion and acted out.
This raises the question: What right do we have to be offended at someone else’s opinion or beliefs in the first place? We certainly have the right to disagree with another’s stance, but to take a personal affront to the beliefs of another speaks to something else entirely. It’s as if we’ve adopted the type of selfish mindset that expects everyone to shape their every thought and response to what we’ve chosen to believe.
Who are we to assume that our opinions hold more value than those of another? In reality, each of us possesses the equal right to believe as we wish. We may not agree on faith or politics or a million other things, but we can be centered enough to realize that differing opinions are not a call for anger and harsh actions.
Even so, some feel it is their right to incite us to anger—or to be incited to anger themselves. If we’re honest, we sometimes take the stance that our taking offense is a spiritual posture—one of speaking truth, combating lies and championing What Is Right. This may be true or it may not be, but in the words of Paul, if we have not love, we are “nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2).
These interactions can lead to bruised feelings and angry responses, simply because that’s our first reaction as human. But as Christians who seek to be examples of God, it is our responsibility to turn away from those who would offend and malign us with aimed insults. Is it easier to respond in anger once we’ve been offended? Without question. But because we are called to love this world and to be more through Him, we should not only refuse to engage those who come at us with hate, but choose to look upon them with grace and a loving heart as well.
At the very root of our Christian identity, we are called to love this world as God loves us, and that means without condition. We are to show the kind of love 1 Corinthians 13:5 describes as not rude or irritable nor insistent on its own way. The disagreements aren’t going anywhere. We just have to accept the call of loving the naysayers anyway.
In the end, it’s not easy to respond well to that which offends or hurts us, but if we choose instead to fill our hearts with the love and grace of God, there will be no room for the pain or offense this world brings. Speaking out of offense rarely brings about good things. But speaking out of love—that’s what can move mountains.


The Modern Attention Span

Like most other mornings, I wake up early to the sound of a digital wind chime. I roll over and unconsciously slide the unlock bar on my phone, briefly checking my email and scrolling through last night’s Tweets and Facebook statuses.
Moments later, I’m at my desk with a cup of hot tea, ready to meditate on scripture and pray before rushing off to work.
Father, I ask for grace to walk in Your peace and presence today.
An Instagram image of my friend’s birthday party flashes through my mind. Was my ex-boyfriend there?
Teach me Your wisdom and help me share it with others.
I wonder how I should respond to my mother’s Facebook message. I need to do a better job of staying in touch.
Help me to honor Your name and remember Your ways in all I do.
My next thought is replaced by the image of college jocks doing the Harlem Shake underwater on YouTube … How do they hold their breath for so long?!
As I integrate more and more social media into my daily routine, I find it increasingly difficult to clear my thoughts and focus on one subject, and I doubt I’m the only one who struggles with this. Twitter feeds and Tumblr dashboards condition us to engage in multiple conversations at once. Instagram trains our minds to rapidly jump from one subject to the next in less than a few seconds.
Our brains effectively adapt to process the most common forms of sensory perception they receive, so this begs the question: Are our phones and social media killing our patience? Are they changing our conversations with one another and with God?
More than half the world is now on some form of social media. Today, one out of every seven minutes spent online is on Facebook. Twitter receives about 300,000 new visitors daily. Not coincidently, a study by Lloyds TSB Insurance showed attention spans have fallen to an average of five minutes, down from 12 minutes in the late ’90s.
Social networks reward us for responding quickly and encourage us to move away from conversations as soon as we lose interest.
They also allow us to process multiple subjects at once. For example, it’s not uncommon to scroll through Facebook and read a C.S. Lewis quote posted above a picture of your friend’s homemade sushi and below a meme comparing modern hipsters to Steve Urkel.
This rapid mental stimulation makes our minds adept at quickly interacting with vast amounts of information. But for many of us, this has a trade off. If we’re not careful, we might continue to lose patience for long conversations and prayers, especially those that do not capture our immediate attention.
Culturally, this loss of patience is seen clearly in the growing popularity of speed dating. A friend once invited me to go with him to a quick round downtown, saying, “You’ll meet 20 guys in an hour.” Since I had no other plans for the night, I lackadaisically agreed. Later that night, I found myself zipping down a line of tables, making fast-paced comments like, “I love dogs, too!” and “I thought about studying medicine.”
It seemed like a conveyer belt of conversations, and although I had never speed dated before, it felt oddly familiar to my online interactions. Sadly, I made no genuine connections and walked away with nothing other than the knowledge that most guys like dogs and medicine.
Of course, this is a goofy example, but a serious problem arises when our relationships with our friends, family and God parallel our interactions on social media. If we only have attention for that which is immediately pleasing, we might miss some of life’s most important interactions.
Throughout scripture, we see examples of God leading His people to listen with patience and focused attention.
When God calls Elijah to wait for His presence on a mountain in 1 Kings 19, for example, Elijah must resist the distractions of the wind, earthquake and fire before he hears the Lord’s voice in a “gentle whisper.” Had he let his mind wander, he may have missed the God of the universe speaking to him. Today, if we allow social media to deeply influence the way we think outside of digital space, we run the same risk of overlooking the most important voices in our lives.
Inherently, social media platforms are neither good nor bad. They are tools that allow us to globally share our thoughts, ideas and creative works with others. When used wisely, they have enormous social benefits (think Arab Spring, NGO fundraising and breaking news coverage). When used excessively and without proper perspective, they can shift our minds to demand rapid, widespread interactions and increase our susceptibility to distractions.
Most of us continue to have healthy, thriving relationships outside of social media. The key therefore is not unplugging altogether, but rather examining how each platform affects our minds, and then creating balanced approaches to minimize damage on our focus and patience.
Because really, Harlem Shake videos should never take the place of deep conversations.