I profiled Kiese Laymon, essayist, college professor, and the author of Long Division, for Hazlitt. Some of our totes fun conversation (you can hear a portion of it on The Arcade, Hazlitt's podcast) was cut for relevance/brevity/just cause, etc., but our back and forth on rap narratives and a bunch of today's most popular rappers was too good not to share, UOENO.
For decades, the perspective of young black dudes in America has been restricted (at least, in the mainstream) to hip-hop and the vantage point offered by John Singleton and Spike Lee films. What impact does that have on the culture?
Kiese Laymon: I don’t know why it’s important to talk about being a young black male in America, but I think it’s important for me to write through it partially because hip-hop narratives have done such a good job at talking through some parts of young black male imagination and experience. I know we always talk about when it’s done poorly -- and I think it has done some things poorly, particularly thinking about how gender and sexuality work -- but at the same time it has created so many rituals and brought our rituals to us, not just to other people. I wanted to create a book that was as connected to the idea of black boys having rituals, so my novel starts with these kids in a cypher, but they’re not rhyming they’re trying to diss each other with sentences. Without hip-hop that scene doesn’t exist. I can’t compete with that hip-hop shit, but I can let it complement my life and what I’m trying to do with these characters.
Structurally, there's also the meta component. Hip-hop is so often written off as ignorant and, you know, back in the day it wasn’t even seen as music, but when you apply intellectual academic standards, it’s the most thoughtful music created. It’s so self-referential: people call it sampling, but it clings on to other forms of knowledge and changes those forms of knowledge. It does all these things that academics supposedly adore. When I have a character in a novel who is reading a novel about himself, in some way that harkens back to Don Quixote and Cervantes and some Borges back in the day, but also so much hip-hop is meta. I just wanted to borrow from some of the dope things hip-hop artists are doing, and then also push some of the things hip-hop artists don’t allow themselves to do like with notions of masculinity and understandings of what we call effeminate and this idea of what it means to actually love in a post-racial society. I think my book’s argument is that in a post-racial, quote-unquote multiracial society what’s lost is the work and the stank of love.
Without Andre 3000, without Big Boi, without Goodie Mob... without all these emcees I wouldn’t have a book. But I also wouldn’t have an identity, because those dudes were talking to me, and so I think it’s important for us to create books that are also talking to young black people the same way hip-hop, at some point, seemed to be talking to other young people.
Who do you think hip-hop is talking to now?
KL: A lot of different people. You look at Kanye's song "I Am A God" -- everyone now knows he wrote that song in response to not being allowed to come into some fashion show. Now, I think that’s wack to write a song to a white dude who won’t let you into a fashion show telling him you are a god, but that’s who he is writing to. I think Kanye is one of the greatest American musical geniuses ever, but even being *the one* you can be susceptible to wackness.
When you spin your art and are talking to people who don’t deserve your art, often you’re gonna be wack. So I think a lot of the failure of Yeezus is that Kanye forgot who he was writing to, and I think he forgot he was beautiful. Who gives a fuck about you being a god, brother? Like, be beautiful. So you going out of your way to prove you’re a god? We know, but what made you that was that you were so human. You wanted to explore parts of your humanity that other people didn’t want to explore. Now you wanna say you’re a god and show people you’re obsessed with porn? Okay? A lot of us are obsessed with porn but that shit is boring to me.
Whenever people use that "but he's so egotistical" argument against Kanye, I'm just like, 'OKAY BUT HE'S ACTUALLY WARRANTED IN SAYING ALL THAT SHIT BECAUSE HE HAS DONE THINGS FOR/TO MUSIC THAT OTHERS HAVE NOT.'
KL: One of the things that makes great artists great is that
they’re super sensistive. You listen to Jay Z's albums and he's constantly responding to critics. He’s mad
sensitive. When we talk about these black male emcees, we never talk about how
sensitive they are. I love that about rap: these black emcees are mad sensitive, they really do care. The art of not
giving a fuck... people who've mastered that art are people who give a fuck too
I think Kanye has shaped and informed music over the last 10 years. This album, musically, instrumentally, he’s doing things that are incredible. But he’s not rhyming so effectively, and he’s talking about shit that just feels so unimportant and I guess great artists can do that but I heard that album and I’m like, ‘Damn Kanye, I thought you were better than that, man.’ So that’s about me. I I thought giving a fuck about what stupid people say was the lot of people like me, but you, you shouldn’t care! You shouldn’t be trying to prove to people you can fuck good! Talk about some other shit.
I mean, we've seen tinges of this from the start though. I feel like Kanye laid all of his hypocrisies bare on "Self-Conscious." He's always been on this material vs. militancy tip...
KL: Look at the lack of the 'B word' on College Dropout. I’m not sure what it means, but look at the abundance of the use of that word on Yeezus. For me, it feels like it means something. I do know that when I listen to College Dropout he’s really insecure about his ability to rhyme because that’s when people were saying, 'you can’t rhyme good but you have good beats.' And then Late Registration comes out and he’s a much better rapper than he was on College Dropout. That anxiety over his craft... I don’t feel like that exists as much on this last album. And I don’t think it should, I think people should change, but it's like, 'man, what happened to the Kanye who, for some reason, wasn’t super interested in calling women the 'B word?' What happened to the Kanye who was mad anxious about being a great rapper?' For me, the rapping wasn't as good on this last album.
Yeah, but Kanye's never been top 5 though.
KL: You know, for a few month span he was top 5. Remember when Wayne convinced the world he was top two, and Kanye went on "Barry Bonds" and took him out? And Kanye went on that song with Drake and Eminem, and Em got the shine but he held his own? He hasn’t been top five in my mind but he has, at one point, said, “I’m top 5 emcees you gotta remind me... you gotta rewind me.”
There's also this Kendrick Lamar effect that people don’t talk about. When you compare Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City to everything that came out afterward, it’s just frightening. I wouldn’t have put out Magna Carta, I wouldn’t have put out Yeezus. If I was J. Cole, I wouldn’t have put out that shit J. Cole put out, because Kendrick just dropped some shit that should make y'all never put out an album until you can get close. But tell me, teach me, you’re smarter than me. You think J. Cole is boring right?
Yeah, he has no personality. His personality is that he has a huge chip on his shoulder. Kanye does too but he makes up for it in other ways - namely, pushing practically every boundary he's confronted with. And, like, I don't like how J. Cole is fronting like he's smarter than he really is, because he's off this whole college narrative. On this one song on his new album, he uses the word 'faggot' and then tries to justify it in rhyme, like, 'I said it but that's not really what I'm saying, and if you think that then you're sensitive.' And it's, like, if you're gonna be about that shit then just be about it.
Okay, but how do you rank Kanye's discography?
KL: You first.
Umm... College Dropout, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Late Registration, 808 & Heartbreaks, Yeezus, Graduation .
KL: You don't count Cruel Summer ? Okay: College Dropout, MBDTF, 808, Late Registration, Graduation, Yeezus .
Dead last, okay...
KL: I mean, I’m a fool for this cat man. I listened to Yeezus for four days straight on a road trip, trying to find something. I don’t want to listen to it again, which is strange because that’s the only time that’s happened to me.
But, you're from Toronto. Tell me about Drake, because today I love Drake. I think the dude’s art requires you to be great with words to talk about what he’s so good at. He’s so good at hook-writing, and making traditional songs, but I think there’s something else about him.
I hate talking about Drake sometimes because it's too close to home. Today you love Drake... Yesterday? Tomorrow?
KL: Sometimes I like him but sometimes I feel embarrassed for him. Sometimes I feel like Drake is that light-skinned dude you went to school with who was an awkward light-skinned kid. He wasn’t good at sports, but the girls kinda thought he was cute. He was more interested in having you as a man like him than the girls. He would try to get you to like him by showing you he could mack on girls. That’s always embarrassing when dudes triangulate like that. Like, 'let me show you how down/black I can be by macking on the woman with the biggest ass at school.' That’s embarrassing for me a bit, but I still like that dude.
I still wanna put my arm around that dude and be like, 'homie you crazy, you crazy.' That’s how I usually feel about Drake. But lately, I feel like no artist in the world can stunt like Drake. Since my book has been out and good things have been happening.. I mean it's not like you have haters like that but when I’m thinking about haters I don’t want to listen to nobody but Drake! He is the best 'talking shit to haters rapper' in a long time.
But he never calls anyone out by their name!
KL: EXACTLY! But in "9 A.M. in Dallas" when he says, “I love to see you fail, that feeling there is the shit," and, “if you ain’t got it you ain’t got it, the theory is brilliant.” Right now in my life, where I like calling people out but can’t no more because I don’t want to say peoples names? I just feel it. I love how he fronts and goes so hard talking shit about people without saying their name in this very childish, completely brittle, no-substance way.