David Tries to Talk About Music: “Black Skinhead.”
It’s 1996. I’ve finally broken past the parental wall (actually self-inflicted due to having nightmares from other stuff by the same dude) and gotten a copy of The Downward Spiral. “Hurt” ends for the first time. A painted wire-mesh shelf, simultaneous with the final chords of that song, collapses from my wall, leaving open screw-bore holes in the wall.
It’s 2013. I like Kanye a lot.
Actually, “like” might be too weak a word. I’m the dude who oh-shitted himself when Love Lockdown premiered at the MTV Music Awards; I’m the dude who spent his univeristy career DJing parties with Kanye songs; from College Dropout to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, this is one of those arenas of pop culture where I will utterly, unapologetically, declare myself a “fan.”
So. “Black Skinhead.”
One of the things I love about Kanye’s music is the sense of momentum. A lot of RZA beats, for instance, while incredibly clever, are by their very nature laconic (notable exceptions: Triumph, for one), but something I love about Kanye’s production style is that everything is leading towards a crescendo. It’s one of the reasons “Devil in a New Dress” was by far my least favorite song on MBDTF; there was an… overbearing, repetitive consistency to it that wasn’t shared by tracks like “Monster” or “Gorgeous,” and it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason why “DiaND” bored me where those two tracks didn’t. It’s totally possible it was due to the seeping knowledge that Kanye didn’t produce the track, but even if he didn’t, he chose that production, so it’s equally part of his artistic statement.
In the parlance of American comics, an album like Jay-Z’s Black Album is a bunch of oneshots with different artists — Timbaland ‘draws’ “Dirt Off your Shoulder,” Rick Rubin ‘draws’ “99 Problems.” The tracks aren’t Jay-Z, but Jay-Z writing rhymes for the world’s best producers, and it’s very, very good.
Kanye, though — the dude is Frank Miller, or Dave Sim, or whoever you feel like throwing into the “talented writer/artist” paradigm. And “Black Skinhead,” the first time I saw it during the first time I ever downloaded an SNL episode to watch the musical bits instead of the skits, that shit is exemplary.
When it comes to my taste in music, everything boils down to shades of Trent Reznor and Billy Corgan, the progenitors of my adolescent love for the medium. One of them is a forward-thinking elder statesman; the other is a hysterical, delusional laughingstock. Pretty clear where I throw my allegiance. From the rapidly-flickering black-and-white stage show, to the hard-edged production that Spin would have called “industrial” in 1998 (which is accurate because it’s the drumbeat to Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” a song produced by Trent Reznor, sampled and filtered through KanyeWest(x)), to Kanye holding the microphone stand rather than just dropping that son of a bitch and walking around on stage with the mic in his hand — that shit was a musical performance designed to make me sit up and listen; one of my favorite musical artists (MBDTF is my most listened-to album of the ’10s so far, I’m pretty sure) embracing an aesthetic I’ve adored since before I developed a scrotum.
And why? Momentum. Listen to that song — listen to the increasing crescendo in Kanye’s anger and frustration, the almost-sexual tension-and-release, the overwhelming passion that comes across is incalculable. I fucking love it. I can’t explain why lyrics that are far more clever — from dudes like GZA/Genius to, I dunno, like anything by Biggie — leave a scant echo of the mark that tracks like “Black Skinhead,” or Outkast’s “Gasoline Dreams,” or Tyler, the Creator’s “Yonkers” get me utterly revved-up and excited about. Maybe I’m just more attracted, musically, to anger than chillness, and this is why I’m the only dude alive willing to admit that he still listens to U2.
Basically, I’m fucking clueless and dumb about music, and I’m actually tone-deaf, as any poor asshole who’s ever had to witness me performing karaoke can attest, at least after ear surgery. But there’s something about “Black Skinhead” that makes me want to go be active, DO something. For my own dumbass self, that’s the best quality music can have.