AUGUST 30, 2015
The following is a feature article from the new intern issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: The Magazine. The issue, which our interns produced as part of this past summer’s LARB Publishing Course, will be mailed to subscribing LARB members in September. Click here to get your subscription today.
SARAH BLAKE’S debut book, Mr. West: An Unauthorized Lyric Biography, opens with the poem “Runaway Premieres in Los Angeles on September 10, 2010,” referring to Kanye West’s fifth performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. Most biographies of West, authorized or not, would begin here. But while Blake starts with the expected scandal, her project totally diverges from previous writing about the controversial star. Mr. West is an exploration of celebrity in the form of poetry, engaging with its subject on a scale that is simultaneously more epic and more personal than anything before it.
West has a legendary relationship with the VMAs, one rivaled only by Madonna, who shares the record for most performances of all time (seven) with West and Michael Jackson, whose contributions to MTV are impossible to understate. But (Mr. West asks) if Madonna is the “Queen of Pop” and Michael the “King,” what does that make Kanye West?
The King and Queen courted their fair share of controversy at the VMAs, but neither has ever met the degree of public outrage faced by West. His reputation for poor sportsmanship at award shows reached its high-water mark at the 2009 VMAs, when West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video to insist that Beyoncé was more deserving, spawning the web meme, “Imma let you finish…” After effectively sucker punching America’s sweetheart on her bright red lips, West became the most hated man on the internet. Blake quotes directly from YouTube comments posted a year after the event, ranging from the uninspired (“fuck you kanye”) to the disturbing (“motherfucker need’s to do kkk a favor & kill himself”). The scene remains a defining moment of West’s career — in the poem “Aftermath,” Blake writes, “I mean, everyone, just everyone, asks if I’ll write a poem / about the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.” She doesn’t have to — chances are that anyone who knows about Kanye also knows about Swiftgate.
The following year both Swift and West performed at the VMAs. Swift debuted a new song, “Innocent,” walking onstage in a white dress like a sacrificial virgin after an edited clip of West’s interruption played on screen. West, however, was saved for last. Not only is the show one of the best performances of his musical career, it may be the capstone on his entire public persona.
West appears on stage alone. He plays a stark piano melody on a white mixer for 20 seconds before a tremendous beat drops with a Rick James sample repeating, “Look at you!” over and over. West then sings, “Yeah I always find, I always find something wrong. You’ve been putting up with my shit for way too long,” perhaps the closest thing to an earnest apology he has ever offered. Even so, the chorus, “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags, let’s have a toast for the assholes,” is a powerful affirmation of self. It is West’s first televised performance since Swiftgate, and the first televised performance of a song from his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the decade. After he finishes, he walks offstage to a resounding chant of “Kanye! Kanye! Kanye!”
Sarah Blake’s poem about this performance opens with the line, “Kanye is 33. If he were Jesus, he would die this year, / and be resurrected,” revealing the “lyric biography” to be more deification than historical account. Were Mr. West just an elevation of West to godhood, it would hardly be noteworthy; no one is better at that than Mr. West himself. The poetry isn’t interesting because it treats West as a messiah or epic hero, but because of the way Blake explores the layperson’s ability to find peace, understanding, and redemption through him. The best part of the “Runaway” debut is the difference between the album version, which includes the “Look at you!” sample, and the live version, which adds Rick James shouting, “I want to show you how you all look like beautiful stars tonight.”
Blake’s debut is notable on two fronts: first as a biography in verse, and second, as a biography in verse about a living celebrity. West’s public persona means that biographical information about him is readily available, and Mr. West is unusual among poetry books in its commitment to traceable facts. As the self-professed “number one rock star on the planet,” West has placed nearly his entire life under the microscope of public scrutiny, allowing Blake access to intimate biographical details.
The book is littered with concrete references — dates, complete URLs, Tweets, article quotes — grounding the poetry in a world immediate to the reader. Blake also includes several gray bars labeled “line X of verse Y” in place of song lyrics, ostensibly because Wesleyan UP couldn’t get legal permission to use them. Whether planned or not, the omitted lyrics are a stark reminder that Mr. West exists in a real world regulated by copyright law. You find yourself breaking from the poems to check Rap Genius pages, follow links, skim Wikipedia articles, and watch YouTube videos.
The best example of this appears after the poetry in a section titled “The Unending World That Connects Us: Notes and Further Reading,” where Blake refers to a variety of West’s songs, performances, and public appearances. A mix of a bibliography and a “Readers Also Enjoyed” sidebar, the section is one of many in Mr. West that reflects how the work is a product of the digital age where information is always only a mouse click away. Blake invites you to confirm the story for yourself, particularly in “Kanye’s Skeletal System,” where stanzas are interrupted by “Oh god, fact-checker,” and “Fact-checker, please.” But that instant accessibility can also be overwhelming. In “Like the Poems Do,” Blake discusses West’s Chaka Khan sample on his breakthrough track, “Through the Wire.”
“Through the Wire” came out fast, without permission for the sample of Chaka
Khan’s “Through the Fire.”
I tell Noah. We’re on our computers,
across the room.
He pulls up Khan’s song; I pull up Kanye’s music video.
The room is a mess of sound.
When Blake and her husband break away from their laptops to consume several parts of West’s work and life, there’s an unintelligible cacophony. Thanks to the internet, a celebrity’s entire life might exist in an instantly accessible aggregate, but you can’t consume all of it at once. Blake accordingly takes West’s biography piece by piece.
Mr. West isn’t the first work of poetry about a celebrity, or even the first “lyric biography.” It is one of the first attempts to worship a pop star while intimately engaging him. In “‘Runaway Premieres in Los Angeles on September 10, 2010,” Blake reveals that she was two months pregnant at the time of the show. She establishes a permanent connection between West and her son (how her son will feel about this in later years remains to be seen). Many of the poems search West’s biography for points of identification with Blake’s personal life, particularly impending motherhood. In “Kanye’s Skeletal System,” for example, Blake establishes the most literal commonality possible, the biological equivalence of West’s skeleton and her son’s. Even when Mr. West isn’t drawing explicit connections between West and Blake, or her son, Blake’s pregnancy looms in the background: “While swallowing a prenatal vitamin before bed, I’m watching an MTV interview.” The ubiquity of lines like these develops a convincing sense of chemistry between Blake and her subject.
This works in no small part because certain points in West’s life lend themselves surprisingly well to the epic hero/religious savior narrative. Mr. West revolves around three particular events. On October 23, 2002, a near-fatal car accident landed him in the hospital and inspired his breakout hit “Through the Wire.” On November 10, 2007, his mother, Dr. Donda West died while undergoing plastic surgery. Swiftgate took place on September 13, 2009. Mr. West moves through these events more or less chronologically, the “Runaway” debut, more a culmination of Swiftgate than a separate event, being the only meaningful exception.
“The Fallible Face,” the section of Mr. West that explores his 2002 car accident, has already garnered a fair share of attention. As the most obvious elevation of West into the sacred, it serves as prime clickbait for music blogs. The first poem, “Mythic,” inserts him into various creation stories: he supports the World Turtle, he is fashioned from dust, he escapes Kronos. But all these are subordinate to West’s car accident, which starts his own story: “And Kanye almost died in a car accident, / so he became a star.”
The rest of the poems in this section work to justify the car-accident-equals-creation premise. “God Created Night and It Was Night” delivers a play-by-play of the event in biblical prosody. See the melodramatic verse Wesleyan University Press has used to promote the book:
Let Kanye tell the truth.
Let Kanye’s jaw be wired shut.
Let Kanye write a song.
Let Kanye sing it through that wire.
Let the song reach over all the earth.
Let lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon Kanye.
Bring forth Kanye according to his kind.
The Creation of Kanye myth, however gimmicky, works the best of Blake’s other comparisons to epic and religious archetypes because it holds closest to form. The event did catalyze Kanye’s transformation from producer to rapper, and his face was quite literally recreated through extensive surgery. Blake’s prosaic style often allows the facts to speak for themselves.
After the accident, Kanye West wrote, produced, and recorded a song.
“Through the Wire.”
As the title suggests, Kanye rapped every word through his wired-shut jaw.
“The Fallible Face” poems are amusing for their cosmic scope, but they serve an important function by establishing West as a Christ figure. He becomes a religious icon, a touchstone for anything and everything.
With West thoroughly deified, Blake starts to invoke him as a referent in her personal life. She does so to greatest success in the section titled “Dear Donda,” where she explores her own anxiety and excitement about motherhood. Up to this point, Blake has briefly drawn parallels between West and her son, particularly in the trio “Kanye’s Skeletal System,” but the theme of maternal identification climaxes when she delves into West’s relationship with his mother. These mother-son poems form the emotional core of the collection, when, for a moment, West takes the backseat to Fulbright Scholar and Chicago State University Professor of English Dr. Donda West. Blake not only identifies with Dr. West as a mother, but also joins in her son’s boundless admiration of her as a Madonna.
West’s devotion to his mother is well documented, most famously in the track “Hey Mama” from sophomore album Late Registration, in which he details how she raised him as a single mother. Dr. West offers her own account in her memoir Raising Kanye, a testament to maternal devotion. Her death in 2007 was undoubtedly the darkest moment in West’s life, his 40 days in the desert. Yet in a twist as ironic as it is tragic, the event led to the highest public approval West has ever known. A moving performance of “Hey Mama” at the 2008 Grammys revealed a vulnerability in him the world had not thought possible. 808s and Heartbreak, the pained album following Dr. West’s passing, received the worst reviews (still generally positive) of any West album, but may prove to be the most influential of any of his records because of the way it opened a space for emotional reflection in hip-hop. 2007 and 2008 demonstrated West to be a man capable and worthy of empathy.
Blake taps into that empathy for great results in poems like “On November 10th, 2007, Donda West Died” and “Runaway.” The former hypothesizes where West was on the one-year anniversary of his mother’s death, the latter chastises a girl who tweets about fleeing her mother (#RunAway). Both sanctify the relationship between mother and son as a bond that transcends time, distance, and death. The standout of “Dear Donda” (and perhaps the entire collection), however, is “I Want a House to Raise My Son In,” where Blake abandons Kanye completely to focus on herself: “I am afraid I will be a horrible mother / because I am a horrible woman.” It’s a heartbreakingly honest piece, so much so that Blake needs to pause.
Can I write anything after that?
Can the poem continue?
Can I return to my love for my son?
She can, but only through West.
I lie in bed, as I can hardly leave it now,
and read books about Kanye…
Donda made it seem easy in her memoir.
To love Kanye. To unconditionally love him.
West comes to the rescue, the saving grace in the book’s darkest moment. Placed at the center of the book, “Dear Donda” is the strongest testament to Blake’s effort to find solace in a pop culture icon. Mr. West never reaches the emotional high of “Dear Donda” again.
The following section, “Aftermath,” tries to turn Swiftgate into the crucifixion necessary to develop the martyr promised by “The Fallible Face.” In “Hate for Kanye” and “It’s Hard Not to Be Moved,” Blake includes comments from articles and YouTube videos to uncover the racist undertones in responses to the incident. Mr. West explores race in America most effectively in poems like these, where it relies on the blunt force of quotation. Others, like “Twilight: Starring Kanye,” are less powerful under the strain of pop culture references. But for the most part, Blake reminds us deftly that racism continues to plague the upper echelon of the statusphere: “A black celebrity has privilege but not power and also discrimination.”
Despite Blake’s harrowing portrait of race-based hatred directed at West, the poems still strain to turn him into a victim. If the passing of his mother marks West at his most sympathetic, then Swiftgate certainly marks him at his most unlikable. In striving to redeem this moment, Mr. West’s premise of Kanye as a redemptive figure begins to collapse. In “Taylor Doesn’t Speak Out Against Racism,” Blake writes, “I’m starting to blame her, too,” a tacit admission that Swift might not deserve the criticism, and if so, West might not deserve defense. At what point does Blake admit that when the President calls you a jackass, you’ve probably gone too far?
At the end of the chronological account of his life, West’s glaring refusal in “Aftermath” to admit wrongdoing calls attention to the balance of selection and omission inherent in any biography — lyrical or otherwise. The events chosen by Blake are ideal for the Kanye West of Mr. West, but what about other possible versions? His 2005 television appearance for a Hurricane Katrina benefit, where he went off script (with tears in his eyes) to say, “George Bush does not care about black people,” is only mentioned once, as an event forgiven by his mother. Dr. West is rightly the most important secondary character, but what about West’s mentor and collaborator Jay-Z, mentioned only in passing, or his chief inspiration Michael Jackson, completely absent?
The most interesting omission, however, is West’s most recent album, 2013’s Yeezus. The title alone seems obviously in keeping with Mr. West, and the song “I am A God” and a sample of a church choir singing “He’ll give us what we need / It may not be what we want” only further the connection. The poem “I No Longer Have to Look Up Dates Like Your Birthday, June 8, 1977” and the endnotes both reach as far as 2014. So why is Yeezus never mentioned? Perhaps Blake omits it to avoid redundancy. Or perhaps the Kanye West of Yeezus has no part in the Kanye West Blake wants to portray.
Of all the lyrics mentioned in Mr. West, none is more important than the epigraph of “Dear Kanye,” the penultimate section: “Reality is catching up with me.” In “Dear Kanye,” reality breaks down the vision of Kanye West that Blake has built so far. In some regard, this process had already started. A poem from “Aftermath,” “It’s Hard Not to Be Moved,” humorously begins “I can tell — it’s starting to get to Noah.” Noah is Blake’s husband — he breaks into the world she shares with West without becoming a part of it. From there, Blake’s identification with West quickly unravels, unleashing a breakdown planned from the start. West’s lyric biography may have started as hagiography, but it concludes as an insightful commentary on why such a project was worth attempting in the first place and why it was impossible.
An early poem, “Jesus Walks,” poses the central challenge of Mr. West: “Kanye, if only I could write a poem for you and not about you.” The poem titled “Dear Kanye” offers something of an answer — it consists of a lengthy paragraph beginning “I can’t draw a parallel today between you and the branch I saw on the sidewalk.” After attempting to transform the branch into Donda West’s arm reaching out to West’s head, Blake concludes in good humor, “I realize some days I shouldn’t write about you.” West fails a Malebranchian litmus test for godhood — Blake cannot see all things in him. Doubt creeps in.
Mr. West draws slowly towards this manufactured crisis of faith to catalyze a reflection on celebrity. For most of the book up to this point, Blake takes themes and episodes from everyday life and projects them through the lens of someone larger than life. While in most cases, the grandeur of West’s lifestyle is shoved to the background, in the final poems it roars to the forefront. Blake introduces a Kanye West who replaced his bottom teeth with gold dentures, who designs fox fur backpacks, who goes by the nickname “the Louis Vuitton Don” and accordingly threw his 30th birthday party at a Louis Vuitton store. “Kanye West has a god’s face over gold. / But his eyes are like man’s.” This Kanye is opulent, resplendent, and inaccessibly distant for it. “Why am I not flying?” Blake wonders. “Why am I not covered in gold?”
Blake isn’t covered in gold because in reality she isn’t one of the most famous living hip-hop musicians with a net worth of $130 million, nor is she mother to one. Identification with celebrities is at best a dream and at worst a delusion — that reality catches up with Mr. West at its conclusion. Blake and West’s collision, however, yields the book’s greatest insight about what makes celebrity so captivating.
In “Kanye Raps, ‘————— ,’ Part 1” Blake dramatically shifts her characterization of West. He’s been a Christ figure since “Runaway Premieres in Los Angeles on September 10, 2010,” but now,
Paris is most definitely Kanye.
Helen, then, is Kim Kardashian.
King Menelaus is a great number of men in America.
Achilles. I’m not sure yet who Achilles is.
Not only has West been demoted from hero status, but he also takes up the role of a young, inexperienced man, bested by Menelaus, known for running away and firing potshots from a distance. “Kanye Raps, ‘————— ,’ Part 2” takes Blake fully away from West, back into the world where she’s the protagonist.
I couldn’t see it before
because I’m Achilles.
Mr. West’s greatest achievement is a successful bait and switch. The book ceases to be a biography of Kanye West and embraces the poet’s attempt to insert herself into his epic.
One wonders which of West’s raps are in the final poem. In a work so otherwise dedicated to specificity and citation, it’s confounding to confront such an open-ended reference. It could be any of West’s lyrics. Still, there’s something compelling about a biography in which you can choose the facts for yourself.