Like a lot of people, for the last few days I’ve been getting to grips with Kanye West’s megalomaniacal opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I’ve written on the Guardian website about the avalanche of praise that it has received thus far, why I think it reveals a hankering for a modern masterpiece which is not just a good record but a significant cultural event, and why I’m not convinced that this fits the bill, brilliant though it often is.
What I find interesting is that Kanye himself is so clearly reaching for that significance, and never more clearly than on the last song, Who Will Survive in America, where he turns to Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 recording Comment #1 for some climactic gravitas.
As I wrote in a recent blog, circa 2005 I thought Kanye might be undergoing a potentially fruitful process of politicisation. I gave up on that notion pretty quickly — Kanye’s favourite subject, to the exclusion of almost everything else, is Kanye — and that’s fine. Lots of artists dabble in politics, realise it’s not their strong suit and then move on. Better to do that than to make bad music out of bad politics. He’s even backed down from his seminal attack on George W Bush, in a rant crass enough to draw parallels with his feud with Taylor Swift. It’s depressing but, if he’s sincere, then, well, OK. So be it.
But it feels like he can’t bring himself to let go of the extra cultural clout that a political dimension brings, or to give up on the idea that he might tangentially belong to the tradition of Gil and Marvin and Stevie. In Gorgeous, an early track on the record, he makes a pitch for his music as “inter century anthems based off inner city tantrums” and hip hop as “the soul music for the slaves that the youth is missing”. When he compares his situation to “when they tried to have Ali enlisted,” the yearning for persecuted-hero status is palpable. That’s a delusion I can live with, but the Gil sample bothers me more each time I hear it.
Scott-Heron, like Chuck D, possessess one of black music’s great voices of righteous authority — he could read out a Facebook status update and make it sound like the “I have a dream” speech. Kanye sampled his Home Is Where the Hatred Is to good effect under Common’s ghetto-conscious rap on 2005’s My Way Home, giving a respectful nod to black music’s tradition of protest. As Public Enemy demonstrated, a historically resonant sample can work like a web page hyperlink: you click on Rebel Without a Pause in 1988 and it takes you to Jesse Jackson at Wattstax in 1972, and maybe you decide to find out more. In his book on PE’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Christopher R Weingarten talks about the band “dropping clues that their music was bigger than hip hop”. It’s a history lesson in disguise, there for those who are interested.
But if you follow the clue in Who Will Survive in America to Comment #1 you realize how bizarrely ahistorical Kanye’s sample is, thrilling and moving though he makes it sound. Even the heavily edited portion he uses is puzzling in 2010. “The new word to have is revolution”? No it isn’t. “Build a new route to China if they’ll have you?” Why? And then you hear the bits Kanye left out.
In 1970, Scott-Heron was a hungry, cocky 21-year-old novelist and poet. The cover of his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox breathlessly announced, “Gil Scott-Heron takes you Inside Black… His is the voice of the new black man, rebellious and proud, demanding to be heard, announcing his destiny: ‘I AM COMING!’” (That’s the kind of pitch Kanye can endorse.) He had a flinty, darting intellect and little tolerance for voguish revolutionary rhetoric. While the Last Poets were talking about confrontation, Scott-Heron tracks like Brother and Whitey on the Moon emphasised brass tacks: food, shelter, education and medicine.
Comment #1 was his dig at the informal alliance between the Black Panthers and the white radicals of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) (or rather ex-members: the SDS had split into feuding factions in 1969). Not a great fan of the Panthers, he had nothing but contempt for the “teenybopping, revolt-on-weekends young” who “vomit up slogans to stay out of Vietnam”. As the rant climaxes he tells a “paleface SDS motherfucker” to “find his own revolution”. When he suggests a “route to China” he’s talking about the SDS’s enthusiasm for Chairman Mao. The whole track only makes sense in the very specific political circumstances of 1970 and if Kanye is using it to draw an analogy with a period in which a black man is actually president (unthinkable when Scott-Heron recorded Comment #1) then I can’t for the life of me work out what it might be.
I don’t want to be pedantic — this is a pop record, not a school textbook — but Who Will Survive in America is fundamentally bogus. Scott-Heron always had immense curiosity about, and compassion for, the wider community. West used to, on songs like We Don’t Care and Jesus Walks, but he’s long since faded out we to concentrate on I. There are many people on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (42 performers on All of the Lights alone) but very few in it — it’s world begins and ends with Kanye West. After an hour of wall-to-wall narcissism, psychologically interesting though it may be, he fastens Scott-Heron’s words to his album like he’s slapping a Greenpeace bumper sticker onto a gas-guzzler. It’s not protest, it’s branding.
I wonder what Scott-Heron makes of the track. He must be accustomed to his carefully chosen, historically precise words being mangled and wrenched out of context (witness Snoop Dogg’s half-assed misquote on Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach album) and he likes Kanye enough to sample him on his own I’m New Here album. So maybe he’ll shrug it off. Or maybe, with justification, he’ll tell Kanye to go and find his own revolution.
Bonus beats: at the risk of Kanye-esque narcissism, here’s my 2005 interview with him and a recent interview with Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets talking about the febrile politics of 1970. Also, an excellent Rob Fitzpatrick interview with Gil-Scott Heron.