Does anyone remember Robert Mapplethorpe? He was the photographer who posthumously made federally funded obscenity a hot topic when a museum presented a display of his work in the early 1990s.
The display featured homoerotic photos, the kind that would’ve previously been sequestered in society’s darkest corners. So the public could know what the fuss was about, they were reproduced in magazines available at checkout counters. Suddenly, the taboo had gone mainstream.
That watershed is helpful to understand why the latest hip-hop albums by Kanye West and Jay-Z, Yeezus (Def Jam), and Magna Carta... Holy Grail (Roc Nation/Virgin EMI), respectively, have become two of this year’s bestsellers.
Mapplethorpe’s defenders championed his aesthetics—the way he used lights and darks to create powerful effects and so on. The subject matter, which remains too perverted to describe, was not an issue.
Something similar has occurred with West and Jay-Z. Sonically, they’re trailblazers, layering beats and hooks with an electronic sophistication that will provide musicians and producers with templates long into the future. The attitudes they’re expressing, however, once would’ve gotten their mouths washed out with soap.
Those attitudes are not without interest. Somewhere in the seemingly bottomless pit of West’s and Jay-Z’s anger and self-regard lie clues to nearly every dysfunction currently hastening Western civilization’s decline and fall. Yet despite a practically Joycean array of “shout-outs” that include fellow pop stars (Nirvana, R.E.M.), the Bible, Kubrick films (Jay-Z), or the very “zeitgeist” itself (West), the road the clues map is so land-mined with profanity, vulgarity, obscenity, and blasphemy that to travel it is to risk one’s sanity.
Quoting the lyrics is pointless. Suffice it to say that were it not for overdeployed rhythmic grunts and what George Carlin once called the “dirty words you can’t say on TV,” neither West nor Jay-Z could easily get from one of their quick-edit thoughts to another. Compared to their latest songs, toilet-stall poetry is the Norton Anthology of Romantic Verse.
Gavin McInnes has quoted the TV producer Charlie Corwin as saying, “Tattoos used to mean ‘Get away from me.’ Now they mean ‘Ask me about my tattoo.’” To the extent that profanity is to language what tattoos are to the temple of the Holy Spirit, a similar shift has occurred regarding pop lyrics: What was once spoken in closets lest it offend is now proclaimed upon housetops lest it lack mass-marketable street cred. Rappers are prime players in this degradation of the gift of speech.
That such stuff sells is to be expected, but that critics acclaim it is confounding. If only the praise were written by journalists too young to know better, one could at least hope they’d mature.
Enter Lou Reed, the 71-year-old rock poet who in the 1960s rode Andy Warhol’s pop-art coattails to a rock superstardom he still enjoys. In July, fresh from a life-threatening liver transplant, he took the unusual step of reviewing West’s Yeezus at TheTalkHouse.com.
Echoing Mapplethorpe’s admirers, Reed devoted his 1,800 words to defending West largely in terms of his technical achievements. “[T]he guy really, really, really is talented,” he wrote. “He’s really trying to raise the bar. No one’s near doing what he’s doing.”
“If you like sound,” he concluded, “listen to what he’s giving you. Majestic and inspiring.”
“Inspiring”? Perhaps. After all, that which inspires anyone to do anything can be called “inspiring.”
But “majestic”? Kings still in their graves are undoubtedly rolling over.