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Kanye West Week: “Lost In The World” and “Who Will Survive In America”


After the navel-gazing posse cuts concerned with rapping and only rapping, and a quadrilogy of brilliant but petulant break-up songs, “Lost In The World” turns MBDTF back into a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot state of the world/state of one dude’s emotional life epic. We actually get to hear Kanye sonically massage Justin Vernon’s hushed, isolated (and auto-tuned!) cry of “I’m lost in the woods,” into the broader “I’m lost in the world.” He changes the words, he speeds up the melody, and then he piles on the instruments, and adds a ton of guests, until it’s a moving, post-global cry. Then, it simmers down for Gil Scot Heron to explain it all on “Who Will Survive In America.”

The song is assembled before our very ears, from a single voice without music, to a bunch of voices and instruments, and then returning to just voice. Cynics could use this as an example of the meaningless of Kanye’s record, that it’s all for show (the swooping strings, the A-list guests, the arty bent to it all) because what does it ultimately mean? But that is not the point. For Kanye and well, most human beings, the point is expression and emotion, absent of resolution or even, a clear meaning. Gil Scot doesn’t tell us who will survive in America, he just asks it over and over again because he doesn’t know. And Justin Vernon just keeps telling us that he’s lost in the woods and Kanye’s bemoans his fame and institutionalized racism and fashion industry hypocrisy and trifling females and ultimately, just throws his arms up and hands the thing over to the far more cogent, far less up his own ass, Gil Scot Heron.

Kanye’s sole verse here is a spirited burst of confidence, cockiness, and epiphany. A fuck-it-all, last-ditch pitch to the girl or maybe just a girl, any girl, to have some fun. He’s reconciling opposites and making them emotional facts (“You’re my heaven, you’re my hell, you’re my now, you’re my future”) and just kinda saying “whatevz!!!” to all the stuff that’s pained him throughout the album. Sure, there’s still this tortured acknowledgement of how fucking meaningless it is (“lost in this plastic life”) and there’s a deathwish hangover from “Power” (“If we die in each others’ arms, still get laid in the afterlife”) but Kanye’s comfortable, even invigorated by his realization that none of it ultimately matters. The world’s run by chaos anyway, so you might as well seize the moment.

“Lost In The World” is a rebirth. A slow, groan from Justin Vernon becomes a guest-filled death march club beat. Kanye leaps out of depression and confusion, declaring he’s “new to the city” and “down for the night.” The rebirth though, is by way of ignoring all the stuff that’s been sticking in his crawl. Kanye doesn’t actually figure anything out, rather, he realizes that none of this bullshit should really matter, and he says “fuck it.” He’s rapped, reasoned, and produced his neuroses away and well, that’s about as hopeful as MBDTF is gonna get.

The superstar rap and bullshit choir of “Lost In The World” orders Kanye to “run from the lights,” and those are presumably, the same lights that exposed the world to how weird and unglamorous it all is. Calling it escapism isn’t accurate because Kanye’s well aware of all the pain and problems right over his shoulder, he’s just keeping them all at bay for awhile. He’s buying time. Like everything on MBDTF, “Lost In The World” is about catharsis. Acknowledging the pain, expressing it, but never turning it into some life-affirming thesis or anything. Maybe next time.

Nowhere is this irresolution clearer than in the structure of “Lost In The World.” It’s an ideal ending song, one last sigh on an album of sighs, and every piece of it is put in place to maximize the effect of Gil Scot Heron’s “Comment No. 1,” which mind you, Kanye has sliced and diced like he would a dusty soul (or these days, prog-rock) sample. Kanye’s picked the least radical, most accessible aspects of “Comment No. 1,” mainly removing the piercing but for MBDTF’s sake, irrelevant critique of chic white revolutionaries, therefore recontextualizing “All I want is a good home and a wife and children and some food to feed them every night” as a humble, universal desire. This isn’t any different than taking an old Chaka Khan record and turning it into a self-mythologizing hit rap single, though many people will tell you that it is.

If sampling helps keep sounds of the past relevant, well Kanye makes Gil Scot Heron sound current here. It helps that Kanye’s spent much of the album reinforcing this sense that America is on the decline (and blending that decline in with his own issues with fame and love), but “after all is said and done, build a new route to China if they’ll have you,” sounds very 2010, given the current sense that China’s indeed the next world super power–that is, if all the super powers don’t annihilate each other with nuclear weapons first.

Mostly though, Gil Scot Heron, especially when his vitriol for hippies, yippies, and pretty much everybody else is removed, verbalizes the empathy Kanye is too confused, angry, and depressed about to verbalize. He’s the brave bold political poet that Kanye can’t be and maybe wants to be but just isn’t. What’s loud and clear on Kanye’s verse in “All Of The Lights,” and runs through rap-rants about the media, racism, and emotional warfare on every track though often in oblique, confused ways, gets balled-up and concentrated into Gil Scott Heron’s question to everybody. Who will survive in America? Who will survive in America?? Who will survive in America??? When MBDTF ends, it’s no longer about Kanye. It’s finally about all of us.

Written by Brandon

December 17th, 2010 at 10:39 am

7 Responses to 'Kanye West Week: “Lost In The World” and “Who Will Survive In America”'

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  1. Great writing here.


    17 Dec 10 at 11:42 am

  2. You should print this whole series and make a zine. I’d cop!


    17 Dec 10 at 2:39 pm

  3. great series man, been trying to wrap my head around this album for the past month, this has been the best explanation and writing ive seen on it. cudos


    19 Dec 10 at 5:48 am

  4. Cale-
    Appreciate it man. Won’t say it’s the best piece of writing about the album, but I do feel good about it in the sense that it seems to have filled a gap in the Kanye coverage. Most of which seemed to do little in terms of breaking down the album…


    19 Dec 10 at 8:23 am

  5. Yep, this certainly captures it.

    David Turner

    29 Apr 13 at 3:35 am

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    2 Jun 15 at 12:38 pm

  7. It was dark when I woke. This is a ray of sunshine.

    13 Aug 15 at 7:43 am

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