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Kanye West Week: “Power”

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“Power” isn’t Kanye’s first foray into progressive rock–that’d be “Drunk and Hot Girls,” which samples Can’s “Sing Swan Song”–but this King Crimson-sampling song is the most explicit and thematically consistent. Back when My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was still called Good Ass Job, George Condo’s art for the “Power” single depicted Kanye’s decapitated head, wearing a crown, with a sword sticking out of it. It was a pop-art mash-up of Gentle Giant’s regal cover for The Power & The Glory (both of those are Kanye song titles by the way), the grotesquerie of the cover to Gentle Giant’s self-titled, mixed with Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Not too long after that, we got Condo’s distorted portrait of Kanye–a clear homage to the King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King. What’s the deal here?

Well, imagine that you’re Kanye West and you’re somewhere or another, and you hear King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” What grabs you first is Robert Fripp’s monster riff, with one foot in the psychedelia of the immediate past and the other foot, paving the way for proto-metal. You grit your teeth as Michael Giles’ plodding but funky drums kick-in. Greg Lake’s heavily distorted vocals scream out poetic, apocalyptic lyrics and that “Oh shit!” look shoots across your face. Maybe that “nothing he’s got, he really needs” line hits home and you think, “Hey! I am the 21st Century Schizoid Man! That’s me!” So you sample it, but not the horns or drums like most hip-hop producers, you grab a slab of that riff and the grating vocals and you call the song “Power.”

Like Late Registration’s “Diamonds (From Sierre Leone)” and Graduation’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” “Power,” was the bitch-fit first single from Kanye. With petty digs at Saturday Night Live and the context of that Taylor Swift incident looming in the background, Kanye sent out a big, scary, angry “fuck you” to listeners. He doesn’t find room for regret or apology, the introspection is more like Kanye explaining himself (“This is way too much, I need a moment,” “I just need time alone, with my own thoughts”), and given the abrasive qualities of the track, it marked Kanye’s return from post-VMA exile to announce, “fuck man, I was right all along.”

“Power” isn’t the central track thematically, because MBTDF isn’t solely focused on Kanye West), but it does contains many of the ideas and recurring freakouts of MBDTF. The bitter asides about racism (“In this white man’s world, we the ones chosen”), the desire to return to childhood and to something simpler and innocent (“My child-like creativity, purity, and honesty/ Is honestly being prodded by these grown thoughts”), the whole “bravery in my bravado” thing of following up a confession or honest admission with a ton of shit-talk (the entire third verse), and of course, the overarching theme that eventually, everything’s going to go to shit. “No one man should have all that power,” is like a knowing threat and another way to articulate the “can we get much higher?” theme at the center of MBDTF.

The best part of this song and the part where it isn’t just typical, classic, conflicted Kanye is Dwele’s suicidal coda. Besides being an absurd, awesomely inappropriate reference to Ron Browz’s “Jumping (Out The Window),” it’s an effective and disturbing literalization of the album’s persistent theme: Everything that rises eventually falls. So, we’re given the image of Kanye jumping out of a window to his death, which he calls “beautiful” and declares a relief because he’s “letting everything go.” The suicidal melodrama’s earned because Kanye’s spent the song not apologizing and not confessing his supposed sins, and by the end, he’s got nothing else to do but end it all.

This is pop star melodrama, and it isn’t. There’s enough seething anger on MBDTF to think Kanye really felt like ending it all recently, he’s referenced leaving rap at the height of fame and controversy before (“I romanced the thought of leaving it all behind” from “Gone”), he did make 808s & Heartbreaks, and his rap career began with a near-fatal car accident.

The most despair-filled aspect of “Power” though, comes after the suicide and before the song’s instrumental outro of Rick Wakeman-esque keyboard freakouts, theatrical cackles, and gorgeous piano (it a bittersweet melange of sounds), when Kanye asks, “You got the power to let power go?” Just like “can we get much higher,” it’s a leading question because Kanye already knows the answer. The answer is no.

Written by Brandon

December 2nd, 2010 at 7:55 am

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