Breathe in breathe out

To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that.

– from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric

Kanye West’s vocalizations, on and off record, have always been heard as barking. Rather than resist this perception, Ye insists on it on Yeezus. The album is “a barking dog high on hubris.” On tracks one through four, Ye “barks about dicks in mouths,” he “barks with animalistic aggression,” “he petulantly barks that he’s a God,” and he “barks about contracts”; track five features “Keef’s thoughtless barks.” Finally, on “I’m In It,” Ye lets an actual dog do this work: in the hook, a canine’s cry marks the off-beats. And in the video version of lead single “Black Skinhead,” three dogs provide a cacophonous intro. They reappear throughout the clip, while Ye bounces and his human body’s boundaries blur.

The dominant conception of the human is predicated on an ugly white twisted fantasy of transcending animality; in order to achieve this humanity one must leave the body, and barking, behind. Ye’s proximity to and collaboration with dogs indicate his refusal to try for this transcendence. Perhaps this seems reckless: to emphasize his embodiment is to confirm what’s already assumed by white supremacy, that black lives are merely matter, that black bodies are more nonhuman than human. But Ye’s racialization assures the impossibility of his transcendence before he opens his mouth. “You know that niggers can’t read,” he says on “New Slaves” – so why are you throwing contracts at him? Likewise: you know that in our culture black bodies are a priori subhuman – so why are you freaked out by his declining to politely petition for full humanity?

Fuck it. C’est la vie (des Noirs).

The boundaries of the human are constantly threatening to blur and must be reinforced via the disavowal of dogs and other deviants – tell me that isn’t insecure – not because dogs are qualitatively different or because some dogs seem aggressive but because all dogs, all bodies, are vulnerable.

from the Watch the Throne album artwork

from the Watch the Throne album artwork

A dog’s supposed lack of speech, her supposedly inarticulate bark, marks her vulnerability. A body’s breath – involuntary, imperative – is even more to the point. Yeezus is avant-rap, industrial rap, future electro, and it’s the album of animal noises that was rumoured to be Ye’s next move after the squawking and roaring of “No Church in the Wild.” There are bodily sounds in addition to barking, like breathing and gasping and panting and screaming, throughout Yeezus.

“You niggers ain’t breathing you gasping,” Ye taunts on “Black Skinhead.” And yet the song’s percussion is partly composed of his own gasping and breathing, and the track is punctuated by his paralinguistic yelps. These yelps become terrified shrieks followed by desperate panting on “I Am a God,” and again, these sounds belie the song’s superficial message: what kind of god ends up bawling like that?

More generally, what kind of god needs to breathe this much? “Bound 2” sounds like a throwback partly because, despite all of the long-ass verses, there are hardly any breath sounds – as on his previous work, Ye has deleted most of them, or used punch-ins, and he’s kept what’s left far away from the listener. Elsewhere on the album, however, one hears, high in the mix, almost every breath he takes. He’d rather not be a swallower (and concomitant to this essay, of course, are considerations of the disavowals Ye makes in constituting himself), but Yeezus declares that he sucks air. This avowal is simultaneously articulated and enacted in the culmination of the album’s centerpiece, “Blood on the Leaves”: “and breathe / And breathe and breathe / And breathe and breathe / And breathe and breathe…And live / And live.”

And this is why West is a perennial source of white worry: the prevailing theme of his work is the persistence of black breath. On the first track of his first album, the fact of black lives past age twenty-five is told as a joke on a culture that is structured to produce black death; later on Dropout, Ye keeps breathing, barely, while observing a Chicago that, today, evokes images from Staten Island: “the view alone will leave you breathless / Try to catch it, it’s kind of hard / Getting choked by detectives…” On Cruel Summer it’s the media that look forward to his death: “They want to find me not breathing like they found Mike.”

But he continues to breathe, not passively or politely but purposefully, pointedly. The video for his first post-Yeezus release, “Only One,” co-stars North West. It opens with the sound of Ye’s breathing, mingled with the somewhat less familiar sound of his laughing. The joke’s on the hope that black life will cease to exist: he’s still alive, and North embodies another kind of hope.

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Works consulted:

Corbell, Laurent Bastien. “Mourners Gather to Remember Andrew Loku, Shot Dead by Toronto Police.” Toronto Star, July 18, 2015.

Curry, Tommy J. “Pessimistic Themes in Kanye West’s Necrophobic Aesthetic: Moving beyond Subjects of Perfection to Understand the New Slave as a Paradigm of Anti-Black Violence.” The Pluralist 9.3, 2014.

Dibben, Nicola. “Understanding Performance Expression in Popular Music Recordings.” Expressiveness in Music Performance: Empirical Approaches Across Styles and Cultures. Eds. Dorottya Fabian, Renee Timmers, Emery Schubert, 2014.

Gumbs, Alexis. “That Transformative Dark Thing.” The New Inquiry, May 19, 2015.

Porco, Alex S. “Throw Yo’ Voice Out: Disability as a Desirable Practice in Hip-Hop Vocal Performance.” Disability Studies Quarterly 34.4, 2014.

Weheliye, Alexander G. “‘Feenin’: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music.” Social Text 20.2, 2002.

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