All Hail West Texas 005: Kanye and the Damnation of Faust
Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been)
Kanye West would never have to spend a Sunday shaving a near-dead lawnmower over a patch of seen-better-days grass whilst a talk radio presenter’s voices dribbled out of a shed-bound tinny transistor. He need not concoct a pre-payday meal from half an onion, a dash of spice, a rogue handful of penne shells and a third of an aubergine. There wouldn’t be mornings in which the thought of a new installment of a detective drama airing on television that evening, or the potential arrival of that month’s issue of Esquire magazine acted as the main reasons to get out of bed. Dinner parties – where the conversation turned with clockwork regularity to sub-prime mortgages or the city’s sanitation network, and the food was culled from the columns of lower-league TV chefs in that week’s glossy Saturday pullouts, and the guests were a mix of old friends whose supplies of amicability were dwindling and the rare new introduction to the fold – didn’t have to be penciled into his diary. He had diamond teeth and a bald girlfriend.
He had absented himself from reality’s grinding repetitions and existed as an embodiment of a foray into the semi-fantastical. Who would choose to live in the real world if it wasn’t necessary for them to do so? The real world was humping the trash out or buying gravel. No, the real world should always be traded for something more special if opportunity came knocking.
Kanye had been sat on opportunity’s doormat for years before he finally heard fame’s heavy footsteps wind their way down the drive. Employed by a variety of rappers and singers to be the effective brains behind their output, the producer, the American -Chicago born – boy spent years of his life toiling away for the benefit of others; snipping the exact snippets he intended to sample down to their specific point of optimum aural pleasure, agonizing over the oomph and bounce of a snare hit, working out the precise moment a cymbal splash needs to be rationed and from then on only used every 16 bars. Countless summers stuck inside watching lines progress horizontally along block-colour blocks earned him a decent living and the perennial ‘One to Watch’ status in the January issues of Vibe and XXL. He met, and worked closely with, big industry names, the type of rappers who put out their own range of sneakers, or collaborated with sport’s companies on customized basketballs. The majority of them were helpful and introduced him to other sneaker-moguls and the cycle of cruising record shops for dusty old soul songs to re-assemble, ready to be overlayed by the metrically-precise intonations of chain-wreathed men, began again. Eventually, after years and wrist ache, toil, and retina-burn, he was offered to chance to rap himself, put out a disc with his own name emblazoned on the front. The resulting record was a minor success and Kanye managed to poke his head out of the shadows cast by the watches that belonged to his more illustrious employers. A second record followed and he began to reap the rewards of an existence where passersby – white, middle-class, sometimes even middle-aged passersby at that – seemed unsure as to whether or not they were allowed to acknowledge the fact that they were aware of who you were. This meant free t-shirts, free drugs at gallery openings and free supplies of an energy drink you once mentioned in a song.
Kanye had become a familiar, a small star in the pop culture constellation that tried to shine real hard.
Fast forward to the September of 2009. Welcome to the post-Michael Jackson age. The music television stations went into hyperbole induced cardiac arrests when the now deposed King of Pop popped his clogs under mysterious circumstances earlier that summer. His videos, ergo his music and his image and the weird feeling of disquiet displacement that came over you when confronted with the erosion of a human face and the visualization of an irreversible loss of identity, were played on repeat. Zombies ceaselessly reanimated themselves, tigers appeared, disappeared and reappeared on flashing-pavestones, the same carpark-dwelling gangs were destined to brawl over and over and over into eternity. The deification of a strange and distant manchild who many saw as an oddly-never-convicted paedophile was troubling. The same rhetoric spewed forth time and time again, ‘troubled childhood’, ‘the soaring majesty of disco transcendentalism’, ‘unable to cope with the realties of being famous to an unreal degree’, ‘non-standard sexual and racial identities.’
The MTV Video Music Awards ceremony of 2009 acted as a vigil for Jackson’s death; singers lined up to utter platitudes about the boy from Gary, Indiana’s otherworldly presence and beauty, his humanitarian efforts and his near-flawless musical oeuvre. Kanye had been invited that year and found himself nodding along in agreement when, in a surreal and previously unimaginable moment, Buzz Aldrin, famously the second man to step foot on the moon, was heard praising Jackson to the high heavens to an audience who lapped the spoken admiration up. The show’s host was an English comedian with unruly hair and tight jeans, normally known for his polysyllabic archaisms managed to not make a single quip about child sex abuse or racial transformation, but did manage to squeak out a few anodyne remarks about ‘great music’ and ‘fantastic dancing’ and then went into routines about scrotal sacks and the possibility of performing sex acts with some of the artists in the audience that evening.
Television cameras panned round the tables clustered with immediately refilled upon finish glasses of water, now-empty plates, and a scattering of celebrities who flashed thousand-dollar smiles when the lens was on them but relaxed back into a state of near sleep when the steadicam crept away, heading toward the next set of rictus grins and breast implants. Kanye was sat at a table with his manger and her son, someone who used to dance at Jennifer Lopez live shows, and a competition winning teenage girl who remained resolutely mute throughout. The ceremony was, as these things always are, a dull, back-slapping affair that aimed for controversy by settled for mild diversion. At some point, around the time the nominees for the ‘Best Editing in a Video’ award were being announced, Kanye upped the table and left.
Wandering around backstage – look, there’s Lady Gaga dressed in a costume made from the remnants of a recently emptied municipal waste dumpster, over there it’s one of Coldplay quietly meditating, hey it’s Katy Perry getting changed into an outfit that, for no real reason, shoots fireworks from her breasts! – he became aware of the presence of something strange lurking alone between a cardboard cut out of Green Day’s drummer and one of Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler. This figure, upon closer inspection, was human. He, and even amidst the gloom of a dank corridor the figure was identifiably male, was rolling a few marbles from hand to hand. None of the other occupants of this humid, linimal space seemed to have noticed him. Kanye stepped closer. ‘Hey, you sure…’ His voice cracked once he’d caught a glimpse at the specter encased between the card likenesses of two old rockers. This man’s face, a face obscured by the hood of a robe riding over the top of the brim of a baseball cap, was one imbued with instantly haunting properties. Sad, girlish yellow eyes nestled between a scar so long and deep it appeared trenchlike. He looked like something from a Michael Jackson video.
‘Boy, I’ve got an offer for you. I think you want to be a superstar, would I be right? I think you got some money and some fame but you want more. You want to be a front page story, don’t you?’
‘I guess so.’
‘Well then, my boy, how about you do something for me? How about you, as they say, fuck some shit up at this here shindig, meddle and fuss, wreak a little havoc? Do you remember that thing at the Superbowl a few years back when that Mickey Mouse motherfucker showed the world Miss Jackson’s tit? Stupid question,’ the hood-wearer rumbled in a baritone drawl, placing the marbles in a shirt pocket, ‘Everyone remembers. See, that was my doing. That amiable, ingratiating Southerner act wasn’t working for him, no one but little girls gave a damn. So I gave him a chance to move up a gear. Do you want that same chance?’
‘I guess so.’ Kanye said
‘I mean, I mean do you want all the women and the drugs and the money you can handle?’
‘I guess so.’ Kanye rarely felt scared but this man’s weeping old eyes were causing him to palpitate and perspire in equal measures.
‘It’s yours. As long as you do a couple of things for me. We’ve got to play some games together, you see. I’m going to ask you to carry out few tasks, nothing too strenuous, just a few things for my own personal amusement. Are you in, Kanye?’
‘I guess so.’
‘The first one has to take place out there on the stage tonight, I want you go and show up somewhere you shouldn’t. You’ll know what to do. After that… well, we’ll see how tonight goes first. Rest assured, boy, things will come your way after this. Keep schtum.’ The figure, circling those marbles round the and through the welted indentations of his palm, made and maintained eye contact with Kanye. ‘You’ll find me around later, I promise you that much. See you around, kid.’ With that, he stood up, draped the robe round himself and sauntered through a backdoor.
Kanye stood about backstage considering this offer. ‘Offer’ is a word that implies the possibility of a kind and considered rejection and he didn’t think that the hooded man would take kindly to such a turn-down, so perhaps ‘offer’ isn’t the right word to use. If he said no, who knew would catastrophe could befall him, if any. And if he said yes…maybe he’d be able to install one of those swimming pools that had reinforced glass bottoms and a layer of tropical fish that swam underneath it. He reflected on his career up to that point and decided that he could do with just a little more fame, as if selling millions of records and insinuating that the president of the United States of America was an out and out racist wasn’t quite enough. He internally accepted scarface’s offer and used his laminated pass to get back to Table 329.
The ceremony went on interminably, each award seemingly dished out arbitrarily one of three ways. Kanye was getting restless. Three categories remained; the next to come was the Best Female Video of the year award. The nominees included one of the aforementioned arbitrary-threesome, Beyonce Knowles – the 00s sassy-yet-wholesome equivalent of Tina Turner -, a young country singer called Taylor Swift, the pseudo-punky, potentially-lesbian, peroxide blonde, angsty popstrel Pink, and the bug eyed and busty Katy Perry. Kanye honestly believed that the video for Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)’ was something that approached high art. And he should know, what with being a contemporary aesthete prone to posting breathless blog entries about super-limited edition Milanese dining tables. It’d one most of the other awards that night, so when the name ‘Taylor Swift’ pushed out from between the lips of whichever tanned, toned Hollywood actor it was presenting the award, Kanye’s initial reaction was shock, which then modulated into the potential for mischief. He had been handed his moment of notoriety on a plate: even more women, even more money, even more column inches and speculative articles on music websites, even more chances to live some kind of dream-life free of worry – it could all be his, all of it!
A clip from the winning video played on the screens behind the host. The award winner stood up a second before Kanye did and they both made their way to the stage from different sides. She got there first, accepted the statue – a statue shaped, presumably in honour of their esteemed inter-galactic guest, like an astronaut – and began her thank you’s. She managed to splutter an acknowledgement of the gratitude she felt towards her parents before Kanye, buzzed on a few glasses of complimentary pink champagne and the consequences of having an ego the size of Texan insects, grabbed the microphone from her dainty porcelain hand.
“Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!”
I trust you know what happened next.