Understanding Kanye: Sweet, Sweet Robot Fantasy, Baby

If you want to put your finger on why Americans have this nebulous but persistent sense that the way we live our lives is in some deep way wrong, I would point you toward the unresolved conflict between our ethos of individualism and the fact that worldly achievement is now almost impossible without being what’s known in the dialect as a “team member.” While we can still chant “USA #1″ with perfect assurance, it all seems unreal without a life-size statue of a superstar. Which is why so many are fascinated with Kanye West. Kanye’s career is the story of one man joining and then transcending the organization, becoming the ghost in the shell: not in the system, but of it. But even this mechanized perfection does not necessarily bring happiness, and that is the message lurking in the cybernetic heart at the center of “My Dark Twisted Fantasy.”

The story of Kanye’s career is the story of his search to become a cyborg and then deal with the consequences of that transformation. In the early days, he was all too human, working at the mall and sleeping on a couch in an overheated Chicago apartment. When he finally got his foot in the door, it wasn’t as an individual artist but as a company man, becoming a house producer for Roc-A-Fella. This is the old-fashioned modern American path to success: work hard, get noticed by someone in power and then get promoted to a place of prominence within a larger organization. But Kanye wanted something more. He wanted to achieve on his own, to break free of the system. And he would slowly realize that the only way to do so is to become more than human.

Kanye had to fight to be taken seriously as a rapper, and he only succeeded once he started becoming a cyborg. A car accident in 2002 left him with a metal plate in his jaw, and instead of trying to cover up the unreal, he brought it to the fore, recording a song while and about how his jaw was still wired shut. The resulting single, “Through the Wire,” was his first hit, and the song that convinced Roc-A-Fella to give him an album deal. He had found beauty in a piece of machinery that would normally be hidden under a more believable imitation of the real. In so doing, he created a verbal analog of his most famous production technique, “Chipmunking,” in which a sample is sped up to match a faster beat and consequently raised in pitch as well. Chipmunking is a kind of joke about beatmaking; producers work to make a sample match their preferred tempo without changing pitch, but by exaggerating these seams, Kanye made the unnatural pleasing. He was learning the value of the mechanical in and of itself.

This influence of the mechanical floats in and out of his first two albums, though it fights with his natural tendencies toward the natural. You can hear the tension on “Slow Jamz,” a prime chipmunking track, when Kanye contrasts the unnatural speed and pitch of Luther Vandross with the biological abilities of Twista, someone able to imitate the hyperspeed feel of digital sound manipulation with natural verbal techniques.

When the other guest on “Slow Jamz,” Jamie Foxx, pops up on the second album’s “Gold Digger,” it’s to do the same convincing imitation of Ray Charles that he did in the movies. But after Foxx’s intro, we get the real Ray Charles, or maybe the “real” Ray Charles, since it’s a recording of a live performance that’s been cut up and rearranged. Foxx’s intro is a sort of signal to us that there’s more going on here than just sampling, but once you’re into the track, it’s easy to lose those issues given how closely the use of Charles’ “I Got a Woman” hews to rap conventions for sample use.

Where Kanye makes the big jump into the cybernetic, and where he consequently starts to become a real artist, is on Graduation. You can see it just in the progression of album covers.

On “The College Dropout,” the mascot, “Dropout Bear,” is sitting on the bleachers in a tableaux that sticks closely to the real (realness being, after all, a key component of hip-hop, and this when Kanye was still trying to prove himself). It’s dusty, there are cracks in the floor and discolorations on the wall, and it’s clearly Kanye in the suit. It’s taken from a particular perspective, and you can see wrinkles in the clothing.

The cover of “Late Registration” is still a recognizably real image, but everything is heightened. Dropout Bear is shot from a distance and as a physical presence no longer has much roundness. Strong backlighting is employed to throw Bear’s shadow toward the viewer, and the character manifests itself as two connected two-dimensional shapes that could almost be a three-dimensional shape split down the middle. There’s no longer necessarily a human presence in the suit, and instead of looking like a repurposed mascot costume, the outfit is now clearly custom-created, given its side-glancing eyes.

On “Graduation,” however, any pretense to realness is gone. Dropout Bear, as depicted by Takashi Murakami, is now no longer three-dimensional or even two-dimensional, but superflat. The multiple visual points of the “Late Registration” cover have merged into one consistent plane, sending the message that past, present and future are irrelevant; all can combine if seen from the right perspective, or by the right set of eyes. The physical form of Dropout Bear is now not a real suit or a fake suit but merely a cartoon. But, of course, that’s what it was all along: the placement of pigments on paper (or pixels) in a particular form. That a real referent does or does not exist is irrelevant. We have moved beyond the anxiety of the artificial to a full-blown embrace of the unreal.

Kanye’s cybernetic identity came to the fore on “Graduation,” and nowhere more so than on lead single “Stronger.”

Aside from the fact that it was built around a sample from Daft Punk, a group who maintain the semi-ironic schtick of always appearing in public as robots (with remarkable consistency), the track’s video showed Kanye literally becoming a robot. Placed inside a machine operated by the Daft Punk bots, heart covered with gauze as if it had been removed, he becomes a cyborg in a sequence similar to the title sequence of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated film Ghost in the Shell (he then goes crazy and wrecks shit in a brief homage to Akira). Unlike the Daft Punkers, cyborg-Kanye isn’t encased in metal, but is indistinguishable from a human; his time in the machine seems to have imbued him with a cybernetic sensibility without changing his appearance. When he lip-synchs, he appears only as a video image, filtered through electron scans or superimposed ghost-like on images of machinery. He submits to the machine and, in so doing, is able to become as powerful as a machine.

If the robot theme wasn’t as obvious throughout “Graduation” (though see also “Barry Bonds” and the mechanical manipulation of images in Spike Jonze’s video for “Flashing Lights”), it became unmistakable on “808s and Heartbreak.” But where “Graduation” depicted technology largely as aspirational and beneficent (that Akira nod seems out-of-pace with the general message of “Stronger”), on “808s” the mechanical, and particularly the digital, took a much darker turn. This was no accident. It seems almost unkind to point this out, but between “Late Registration” and “Graduation” Kanye’s mother died after complications from plastic surgery. Technology had always served Kanye well before—in the form of his producer’s tools, it was the vehicle that took him from obscurity to the cusp of stardom—but now his mother’s own cybernetic changes had ended in death. The mechanical had turned on him.

[More: Kanye was now a full-fledged cyborg.]