"I know so now everybody's gonna say 'Lou Reed's mellow and he's older. He didn't act mean...' We'll mug you later, you feel better?" - Lou Reed, Take No Prisoners Live
I've always had a lurking feeling that Kanye West was aiming to be the Bruce Springsteen of Hip-Hop. Despite their status as my two favorite living musicians, the Jersey Boss and Dr. Martin Louis The King Jr. inhabit vastly different corners of American music and don't seem to be moving any closer any time soon. Hopelessly devoted to them both, I found myself day dreaming of a world where Kanye finds inspiration in Darkness On the Edge of Town and Springsteen runs on the treadmill to the tune of "Mercy." These situations existed solely in my admittedly specific fantasies whose very existence stood to demonstrate the real world incredulity of a relationship between the two artists whose work is separated by genre, race, fan base, and era. But a fan can dream and I certainly did, blissfully unaware that the Boss/Ye relationship was not only very real but an important tool for forecasting the highly anticipated and mysterious next step in Kanye West's post-Yeezus career.
"There some things I'm gonna do that are gonna work, there are some thing I'm gonna do that are not going work. But I'm telling you, Bruce Springsteen dropped this album called Nebraska and right after that he did Born In The U.S.A.. This next one, I have a feeling, because of what we did right now, has to be Born In The U.S.A.."
-Kanye West, Power 105 Breakfast Club, November 2013
Let me break this thing down for y'all not familiar with the timeline of Springsteen's discography and its conceptual arch of compartmentalized brilliance. By the end of the seventies, Bruce Springsteen seemingly had it all. Ever since the 1975 release of his mammoth breakthrough LP Born To Run, the Jersey kid who set out to write the perfect Rock N Roll song (and pretty much succeeded with the record's title track) had found himself a bona fide rock star with mounds of commercial success ("Born To Run," "Hungry Heart") and critical respect to match (Darkness On the Edge of Town). Six years earlier, Springsteen was a piss poor rail thin punk from the shore, dreaming of an audience who held him up like Dylan or Van Morrison, imagining a day where he could live as well as he did in the couple of weeks surrounding his latest advance from the record label that didn't seem to sell anything he put out. By 1982, that Bruce was long gone, buried underneath piles of royalties, Time and Newsweek magazine covers, and an audience capable of packing arenas in almost any given city worldwide. Still Springsteen spent the better portion of the years from 1980 to 1982 consumed with self-loathing and plagued by suicidal ideation. These years were largely defined by late night car rides, "sometimes three or four times a week," in which Bruce drove past his working class childhood home in Freehold, New Jersey, reckoning with a childhood haunted by his violent Bipolar father, and searching for some solace from the guilt concerning the people he left behind, lurking somewhere out there in the dark emptiness of the suburban night.
All that guilt and depression, self-doubt and anger, immense success and subsequent alienation led to a turning point as Springsteen the Rock star found himself alone in his bedroom, hunched over a four-track tape recorder, laying down in a single session the vast majority of what would become the most infamous record of his career: the harrowing Nebraska. Song after song, the lives of the characters that inhabit the world of Springsteen's Nebraska fluctuate between crushing banality and unholy violence. Teen lovers murder their parents and hit the road. Factory's close. Liquor stores are held up. Woman are raped and love dies. Springsteen's painful moans echo in the distance and hope is few and far between. Recorded entirely by Springsteen, Nebraska is a classic of the Lo Fi variety that eschewed any concern for financial success, providing an uncompromising glimpse into the artist's mindset in a way that made a lasting impression artistically, making the record a stand out critical favorite in Bruce's career.
I remember listening to the first-person violent storytelling of Kanye West's "All of The Lights" for the first time, considering a possible influence of Nebraska killer opus "Johnny 99" on the Elton John laced, Ghetto University 101 epic. While both songs detail the inner monologue of an American man driven to kill after finding himself at the end of his rope, Kanye's did manage to include more direct references to the defunct book chain Borders. It felt silly trying to find Nebraska in Kanye's beautiful dark fantasy. Little did I know, Kanye had indeed listened to Nebraska and was busy prepping his own version of Springsteen's outlier masterpiece, 2013's game changing Yeezus.
Now both records come from artists with large amounts of critical and financial success, frustrated with their inability to find solace in said success. Both records are built upon a distinctly uncommercial aesthetic that vastly differs from the previous releases in each artist's respective careers. Both records find warmth in the darkness of existence from the empty highways of Springsteen's American abyss to the dionysian orgies of Kanye's. The frightening shouts of Springsteen's "State Trooper," a direct homage to Suicide's "Frankie Teardrop," are neatly mirrored by Kanye's gutteral yawps in "I Am A God." "Reason To Believe" functions in the same way as "Bound 2," offering an uncharacteristic expression of hope in the wake of each project's vast darkness.
The true excitement to be had from Kanye's nod to Bruce Springsteen revolves around his assertion that his next album, "has to be Born In The U.S.A." Working off the same set of soul-crushing, downright scary demo recordings that made up Nebraska, Springsteen spent 1984 purchasing a couple synths, getting the E Street Band back together, and setting out to make the biggest pop record of his career. Specifically, he wanted to make a record that shined so bright, partied so hard, and caught on so thoroughly amongst the masses that no one would notice all of the lyrics are about the same state of crippling, suicidal depression that birthed Nebraska. Born In The U.S.A. provided not only a refreshing subversion of mainstream popular music but also a new vision for the capabilities of the medium for self-respecting artists like himself, fascinated by the reach and universal power of pop moreso than the profitable business behind it. To this day, Americans still boogie down to a myriad of lyrically miserable Born In The U.S.A. songs about everything from the horrors of Vietnam ("Born In The U.S.A."), the crushing reality of nostalgia ("Glory Days"), and Springsteen's own inability to look in the mirror without hating himself ("Dancing In The Dark"). The project turned out to be the most successful album of Bruce's entire career, firmly establishing him as a life long star. In all of its ecstatic misery and sloppy humanity, Born In The U.S.A. is my favorite record of all time.
"As Mick Jagger said fuckin’ you can say something really straight and status quo in an experimental way or you can do something straight and status quo and use that to make something experimental."
-Patrick Stickles, Titus Andronicus, ShufSounds Interview, May 2014
Now, if Kanye's Born In The U.S.A. promise is true, his imminent eight solo record aims to take the rebellious violence and pitch black despair of Yeezus, put a soaring arena ready chorus behind it, and sneak it into every speaker in America.
Considering Yeezus era Kanye and his furious obsession with the harsh realities of racism's systemic control within modern culture, Kanye's upcoming Springsteen-inspired subversive pop mission is all the more important and ambitious. It begins with "Only One" and "FourFiveSeconds," two singles released by West in early 2015 that are equally lush and warm collaborations with the Paul McCartney that stand as firm proof that this is the Kanye West record that makes my white Mom acknowledge the man's talent. No doubt still bitter from the ease in which the American public orchestrated his Swiftian public crucifixion and subsequent masterpiece-driven comeback, Kanye knows his only real chance of achieving immortality lies not in what the public thinks of his character but in the quality and innovation of the music he produces.
A part of me was troubled by "Only One" upon release. What happened to the filth and the fury of Yeezus? Could it be that the artist responsible for Hip-Hop's White Light/White Heat has gone soft? Is this whole thing Kim Kardashian's fault? The Born In The U.S.A. theory brings me solace. Take "FourFiveSeconds," a song so genuine upon first listen that its disgusting, placing Kanye and serial naked blunt smoker Rihanna on top of a bed of pop country acoustic guitar work. The track's video features the two alongside Sir Paul uniformed in denim on denim; a quintessentially American fashion statement with a firm link to Springsteen's big ol' ass on the cover of Born In The U.S.A. Despite the song's surface level pop sincerity, the lyrics paint a picture of repressed outrage as they're "four, five seconds from wylin'" in the same way Kanye "turnt shit up" on Yeezus, only encapsulated within a anthemic white friendly pop nugget. "Hold me back, I'm 'bout to spaz," asserts Kanye shortly before a claim that "they want to buy my pride but that just ain't up for sale," an assertion of independence and rebellion in the face of capitalism from a black artist within a song that has the potential to reach more white audiences than "New Slaves" ever did. There's no saying how successful Kanye's newest experiment with pop subversion will be. Maybe no one will notice. Then again, maybe that's the point.
By enlisting Paul McCartney, the greatest living member of the greatest Rock N Roll band of all time, to contribute to his music not in voice but in organ, "Only One" begins Kanye's pop domination in his home genre, blowing every single living Hip-Hop competitor out of the water with the stunting reality of the song's very existence. The real target of the song is the pop masses, especially the white ones for whom Paul McCartney's inclusion hits at home as he was a primary creative force in The Beatles, the whitest band of all time. Lyrically, "Only One" is the sound of lived in grief, evolved to a point somewhere between tearful acceptance and sentimental anguish, as Kanye mourns the loss of his mother as only Kanye could - in the form of a love song about Kanye himself appropriately titled "Only One" which is a literal translation of the word "Kanye." By touting his new material around white havens of network television from the premiere of the baby home movie "Only One" music video on Ellen to sharing a stage with McCartney at the Grammys in front of a curiously spartan white backdrop, Kanye's replaced the Margiela masks of the Yeezus tour and the freedom they afforded him with a new mask with greater freedoms: one of the charismatic family man, talented musician, and all American pop star. All the while remaining the highly political and fiercely rebellious artist he has always been, only now he opts for subversion over explosion.
"Kanye West is incredible, you know. I mean, the record-making facility, you know, there's a lot of hours in those records..."
-Bruce Springsteen, NPR Interview, January 2014
Words: Nick Boyd