As reported a few days ago, Kanye West revealed the cover art for his new album, now having an additional word in the title: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In Twitter, West stated that the cover was banned, at least in the U.S. The buzz had begun. A day later, West said that the banned cover would be one of five different covers. In my editorial piece, I felt that perhaps it was nothing more than a promotional tactic, the idea that a cover can be banned in 2010 is out but not entirely out of the question. Even before the news of this being one of five covers, I felt that perhaps he would just reveal a new image each week, and maybe the week before the release date, we’d see the final version.
This isn’t the first album cover that has been banned or changed in some fashion, nor is it the first album to be released with multiple covers. Jane’s Addiction‘s third album, Ritual de lo Habitual, featured a portrait put together by vocalist Perry Farrell that pictured him with his wife and lady friend. While it was illustrated nudity, some felt it was too naughty, so Farrell released the album in a “freedom of speech”-type cover. It was released this way on vinyl, cassette, and CD.
The Rolling Stones are known for the Andy Warhol-designed cover for 1971’s Sticky Fingers, but in Spain, their record label didn’t want people to see Joe Dallesandro‘s, um, “impression”, so an alternate cover was made. Arguably, a photo of fingers in what may be cranberry sauce almost comes off as blood, and maybe more sinister.
Led Zeppelin released six different covers for what would end up being their last album, In Through The Out Door.
The Police released not two, three, or six, but 36 different covers for their 1983 album, Synchronicity. A Tribe Called Quest released three variations for their album Midnight Marauders, The Roots played with alternate covers not once, but twice, for Things Fall Apart (five different covers), and The Tipping Point (promotionally, each member of the group had their own cover made up for them, although in stores and online, two covers were made and released.)
Playing with album cover art may be an oddity in 2010, especially as there is a belief that the album format is dead, but artists like West are letting fans realize that it’s not, it is still very much about the full-length experience. This leads us to West’s new thing to experience, that of his 33 minute “film”, Runaway. In my day, we called it a long-form video but since music videos are no longer on MTV and VH-1, people only remember videos by what they see on YouTube. People are comparing Runaway, directed by Hype Williams, to the works of Michael Jackson, since he was known for being extravagant with his videos, but take a look at it. It is nothing more than a very good, artistic, abstract “highlight reel”, on cassingles and CD singles they would call this the equivalent of a “snippet tape”, where all you would hear are excerpts. This video serves as a sampler of what’s to come on his album. I wouldn’t compare this to MJ as I would to artists who created long form videos that served as a sampler for their albums, including Tin Machine:
and The Roots.
So what about the West video?
For one, it is obviously a big budget music video, or for the sake of not arguing, a film. It’s a “mini-film” that represents the music that is on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and if you’re watching to hear the music, it shows that he is still being very intricate and deliberate with what he’s saying and how he’s saying it. You can complain about his methods of promotion, of his music or self, but he’s putting an incredible amount into his music and that pays off in the end. As for the imagery, it is not typical of an average music video, although you might see it in a lot of videos from Mexico or Spain, or something more arty in the indie rock world. I will go as far as to say the video reminds me of some of the more left-of-center films of the 70’s, such as Ken Russell‘s The Devils, Pier Paolio Pasolini‘s Salò (The 120 Days of Sodom), and Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s The Holy Mountain. All of these films play with spirituality and human nature, and while West’s video is not religious in tone, you do have the visuals of a bird that may be a fallen angel, which of course leads to the questions “who is the fallen angel?” and “who exactly does the fallen angel represent?”
Fans on blogs and boards have touched on West’s use of mythology, bringing up something Brian “B+” Cross stated in a reply to me on Twitter: “what is he really saying retelling the Phoenix myth? Neoclassical navalgazzery?” In comic books, one of the more celebrated stories in the Marvel Universe and X-Men legacy involves Jean Gray, known earlier on as Phoenix or Dark Phoenix. There was a storyline where Gray commits suicide, something you never experienced in a comic book, especially not in the 1980’s. Now, I haven’t been into The X-Men since the 80’s, but I definitely remember the image on The Uncanny X-Men #136, citing the death of “the child of light and darkness”.
Now go back to the album cover. Is West suggesting that he is “the child of light and darkness”, the dark beast and the woman of light complexion, of good and evil, two opposite forces uniting as one?
I think that will be a recurring theme for him in the next two years, the idea of renewal and resurrection of himself and hip-hop, if he is exploring the idea that hip-hop is dead. Is that what West is doing, and if so, is he doing it well? Maybe the unique imagery is fooling us into thinking this is good, or as B+ stated, “Runaway was like anorexic Cocteau”, in reference to filmmaker Jean Cocteau.
Compared to most hip-hop music videos, even the more independent works, this is fairly avant-garde and it may move someone to question West and whether or not he’s evil, demonic, or a disciple of Lord Satana. In a recent tweet, West said he calls his works “commercial art” and mentions it almost as if it was an epiphany. He is a commercial artist creating art, that’s what an artist is, but in a time when the public is unsure of what they’re seeing and hearing, that art is either unknown or brushed off as being too high-brow, especially by a black artist, as if great works of art by black people or anyone “of color” does not (or cannot) exist.
It’s not exactly a color thing, but it will be brought up because that is what’s being presented in the artwork for the cover and the imagery in the video. You see an ugly beast on the cover, that’s one issue. You see a ballerina on another cover, what makes one more beautiful and accepted over the other? Is it the colors and shades used, or are we in control of the unseen and unknown beast, as portrayed on the cover? Do we put blame on the beast when it is evil and sinister, and do we only praise what’s beautiful when it has an established and accepted look? Watch the video, it’s very elegant, and when was the last time you said that for a hip-hop video? It’s not hip-hop, and yet the nature of hip-hop suggests that it is. Hip-hop, at its best, has always been about a sponge that sucks up anything and everything, and spits it out in a new way. Writer/journalist Todd “Stereo” Williams watched the video, and posted on Twitter that “(The Pharcyde) did the ‘white servants’ thing in the “Runnin” video 15 years ago, because Runaway features scenes that look like it could have been pulled from that video. In a recent Twitter search about the “white servants” in the video, a lot of people are taken aback by it, but it was done before to great effect.
While it may not be 1995, it’s 2010, and a younger generation who have no idea of the references and suggestions might thing it’s revolutionary, but they’re not. The execution is great, but what I’m more fascinated with is more or less the telling of the story, whatever the story may be.
If anything, Runaway: The Movie and his latest music is making people discuss and decipher the art. Everyone knows what it’s like to go into the club, talk in the club, get high in the club, and drink up and sigh in the club, maybe get a little nub while piling up on the grub. Now, he’s giving you maybe not something different, but “something else”. That “something else” has existed for years in other places, but now it’s being presented to a new audience, a new generation, in a nicely dusted fashion. It’s the telling of the story that will determine its fate, and we’re only in the intro of the telling of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Maybe the end credits to this story will roll on December 20, 2012, the day before the much hyped end of the world, and maybe that beast on his album cover will “dominate and smile over us for all eternity (or its last 24 hours). Either that, or he’ll laugh at it all and start on his next album, to be released on the end of the world’s first anniversary in 2013.
(Mahalo nui to B+ of Mochilla for the feedback and last minute addition to this article, and Donald Ely for reminding me of the crotch ID error. I wrote this article late in the evening, I’ll blame that.)