Let’s begin by trying to suggest what an encounter is (and is not). An encounter can take the form of an unexpected liaison; a kind of spark to begin thinking. But an encounter, in the sense of what I mean here, is about an ‘affect,’ the psychological term used to describe an emotional response, to a word, a gesture, a representation, a piece of music, a colour scheme etc. that has deep personal resonance. The idea behind this column is to discuss such emotional affects. Art is considered in a loose sense; as a piece of music, a photograph, a meme or an installation and so on; anything that touches us. In other words, art considered in its wider context as a repository for affects.
But I should also start by saying that emotional experiences are often thought to get in the way of serious discussion of such objects, emotions are often marginalized in favour of what is considered a ‘sober reflection’ on ‘serious’ issues. And it doesn’t have to be like this. For if we approach the encounter as affect-driven, we can think of the affect as coming before the evaluation of the experience in question. And it is important – if we are to set out on a journey of art encounters – to consider an affect as an emotional response, sometimes and in this case to art, that leads us to personalise and then analyse our experience. Call it a spark; a cue, we are encouraged to dwell on meaning. We feel, but we don’t know why. Only when we scrutinise the thing that we are moved by can some sense of deeper meaning appear.
I’m making all this sound more difficult than it needs to be, because what I’m really talking about is an experience of feeling moved by something unexpectedly. Moved to the extent that that our interest is tweaked beyond measure and we are compelled to examine the reasons why this is so. An example, please? Last week I was driving from to my hometown to do a number of jobs around my recently deceased father’s estate. Every journey home is tough, and when driving alone I exist in a kind of bubble, a space that is there only for me: the car. And I listen to music. And sometimes that music sparks something in me that causes me to cry a lot. And sometimes I listen to music purposefully, so that I won’t cry a lot. Before undertaking this journey, however I must add, I read an interesting review by the lead singer and all round creative force, Will Toledo, of Car Seat Headrest, of the album The Life of Pablo by Kanye West. Toledo began the review with a bang ‘The Life of Pablo is a repulsive album’ before in the next paragraph qualifying this statement with the opposing line ‘it’s also one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long time.’ And so, intrigued by this, I synced my Bluetooth to my phone driving and gave Kanye a go.
I didn’t think I’d agree with Toledo. Nor did I think by the journeys end I’d be listening compulsively to the final song on the extended version of the album over and over again; examining it in detail. Nor did I think I’d feel an overbearing sense of emotion, a connection with an album that repulsed as much as it seduced. Because Toledo is right, it is repulsive. Just as the first song Ultralight Beam unfolds in layers of gospel, forcing us to admire its intricate melody, in the next song Kanye recalls a casual relationship with a model that is, simply put, morally off-putting. And so the album proceeds to pull in these directions. Philosophically, we are in the crossfire of ethics and aesthetics. But the key to getting some relief is the rap that holds the album together ‘I Love Kanye’. Here Kanye proceeds to give us a clue as to what’s going on.
I miss the old Kanye, straight from the Go Kanye
Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye
I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye
The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye
I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye
I gotta say, at that time I’d like to meet Kanye
See, I invented Kanye, it wasn’t any Kanyes
Aside from Kanye’s obvious lyrical playfulness are some serious questions: can we ever know the real, one and only, authentic Kanye, through his music and art? Can we know an artist through his/her art? Or are there only versions of the artist that we ourselves help construct? By positioning the listener in this way, we realise that our response to art is always determined to some degree by the moral position we take towards it. In other words, we decide which Kanye to choose. Kanye can invent a series of Kanyes, each of which he presents as real, but it’s the audience that determines which one is Kanye West. So, let’s talk about the Kayne that I drove to Tuam with that day; the Kanye that I began to think of as Pablo.
The Life of Pablo is an undoubtedly sad album. It presents us with an all-pervading ego, while making us see how brittle this ego really is. Kanye, in the guise of Pablo, yearns for The Light to reveal itself, for a father cast in the position of a God to speak to him. And yet at no point does The Life of Pablo feel like a religious album. Instead, the songs manage to transfer what feels like a religious yearning for transcendence into a search particular to the black experience, the search for a cause everyone can unite behind. Kanye’s own search for the Light will see him rap about his own father in Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 & 2 who seems to hover like a ghostly standard that he can never fully measure up to, his struggle to know who his friends are when so immersed in the superficial world of modern celebrity, Real Friends, to his attraction, immersion and yet repulsion at the parties that he himself hosts in L.A., No More Parties in L.A. But the journey – over the course of the album – to this point, through the self-obsession, narcissism and sinfulness of modern celebrity, must end somewhere, and it ends with the saddest song on The Life of Pablo: Saint Pablo.
Of course, ‘Saint Pablo’ is not sad in essence. But in the way it veers so seamlessly between the gospel infused yearning for the Light, the father, God even, and the often-repulsive psychopathology of modern celebrity, there is something about it that draws us towards the contradiction that is Kanye West. For when Kanye raps about his genius and his financial problems, and makes some of the most audacious claims about the self ever put on record, he also calls for something greater than him to speak through him. Amidst all the repulsive narcissism is a desire to make his experience part of something that transcends him; to make art about the self which transcends it. It is at this point that Kanye West is Pablo, and the art usurps the artist.
I’m driving home to visit my father’s estate, and I listen to Kanye confess he’s broke, that he has to crowd source self-esteem. He turns his attention to a fractured black America, and then calls out to the heavens to intervene. A direct reference to the Christian poem Footprints, by Mary Stevenson, is made, at which point I become overwrought with emotion. It’s now, when the affect is felt in full, that my inner orbit of experience, driving home under such difficult personal circumstances, seems to align itself with the song, and whichever Kanye is singing it:
I know he got a plan,
I know I’m on your beams
One set of footsteps, you was carryin’ me
When I turned on the news and they was buryin’ me
One set of footsteps, you was carryin’ me
The British electronic musician Sampha’s harmonic verse is the perfect accompaniment to Kanye’s flow here, the eloquence of the pitch sung with such distinctiveness, seems to mirror in form the confessional content of the rhyme (one is sung in third person as a kind of rapture to the Gods, another in the first person). Saint Pablo works by making form and content resonate. But it’s not until the final verse that things began to get really interesting with regard to my own story driving home. As the song shifts from an intense flow to the melodic harmony in verse, there is a certain verve, a swagger of sorts, that carries the listener along, compressing everything into a final verse that I have come to perceive as a theme in the album thus far: the yearning to escape into some form of communality, the desire to be spoken to from above on high, for some divine power to make itself known to us, and of course, the need to be recognized and accepted by a totemic, one might say, symbolic Father;
Please face me when I speak,
Please say to me somethin’ before you leave,
You’ve been treatin’ me like I’m invisible,
Now I’m visible to you
[pullquote]There is a pronounced eeriness, as if the song is meant to affect only me and only in this moment. I look out upon the stonewalls of the N17[/pullquote]‘Please say something to me before you leave,’ Sampha sings as the car turns through Claregalway onto the road home and I feel myself awash with emotion; sadness at going home in these circumstances, joyful that music has helped recognise my sadness for what it is. Maybe the desire to be spoken to before you lose someone close has a universal reach that is tapped into by the song, a part of grief that will hit us all at some point in our lives. But I catch breath as Sampha sings out ‘father, father, father,’ and there is a pronounced eeriness, as if the song is meant to affect only me and only in this moment. I look out upon the stonewalls of the N17.
That evening, taken with the experience, I read up on Kanye’s childhood with added urgency, knowing he is in hospital with a suspected psychosis. I was interested to learn about his parents divorcing when he was three; an upbringing that was marked by the suddenness of absence, that all too present father retreating without heed or warning. My own father’s death was sudden, and my feelings about this at this point in time, made the connection with the song run even deeper. And then, by some weird impulse, I decide to look up the poem Footprints on line, in the knowledge that Kanye alludes to the poem in the final verse of Saint Pablo. The narrator of the poem is speaking out to a perceivably distant God, who seems to have forsaken them – she laments no longer seeing two sets of footprints in the sand. In the second last verse a pessimistic tone is felt ‘I’m aware that during the most troublesome times of my life, there is only one set of footprints. I just don’t why, when I need you most, you leave.’ But the tone, which evokes the doubt expressed to Jesus following the resurrection in the Bible, is relieved when God offers a final reply;
He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”
A strange feeling passes through me as I read these lines, a sensation of déjà vu that I’ve read the poem before somewhere, sometime, and so I begin to wonder whether some part of me had recognized the connection between song to the poem earlier that day. Maybe I was overcome with emotion because deep in the recess of memory this poem lay dormant, and I already knew the final verse. It was like a soother on which a young child sucks for comfort. I wonder whether, as I’ve read somewhere, we never forget our experiences; that memory is like a well where all the water of our life is stored. It’s only our ability to see clearly into the well that changes with time.
I listen to Saint Pablo over and over again in the coming days, buoyed by the affect I now realise has allowed grief to take its course. The impact is still there, bringing with it an opening for all sort of emotions to surface. Art is, in this moment, both remedy and cure. I turn on the news and see Kanye cavorting with Trump. It seems surreal. But then I remember that it wasn’t really Kanye I drove home with that day, but a version of him known as Pablo. And I recall fondly how Pablo’s life intersected with mine.