Issue #183: Donda Rollout Leaves Zoomers in Shambles

To begin, I’d like to congratulate our Olympic basketball team on their gold medal victory. It looked a little shaky there for a minute, but I’m glad our guys brought it home.

This is, of course, bracketing the serious economic and moral issues with the Olympics proceeding at all despite the reservations of Japan — all of which are proving to be well-founded. We can’t have nice things, can we?

I’ve continued my Samurai Warriors 5 (2021) playthrough this past week, but another game, NEO: The World Ends with You (2021), has begun to more urgently command my attention. The first installment of the series, released in 2007, was a thoughtful and unique experience examining young people’s social isolation in the metropole. The new installment seems to meaningfully continue exploring those ideas in light of social media and close online friendships. For the protagonist, Rindo, the interpersonal relationships he maintains with the friends he spends his time with languish in comparison to the one’s he fosters online — in stark contrast to the protagonist of the original game, Neku, who simply had no friends at all.

NEO also interestingly adapts the “death game” structure, as did the first game, to fascinating results. If you’re a JRPG head, I definitely recommend NEO. The original TWEWY was also re-released on Nintendo Switch last year.

This week, well… you can probably guess most of what’s on the docket.

Finally, as you read on, forgive me for any shortcomings of my interpretation of Roman history.

Freedom and Justice in a Staged Fist-Fight

Last Wednesday, August 4th, The Institute of Art and Ideas hosted a talk called “Liberty and the Left: Does the left need to re-engage with freedom?”. Hosting Slavoj Žižek and two panelists with which I am less familiar: Ella Whelan and Kareem “Lowkey” Dennis; moderator Philip Collins led the three through what seemed like a friendly discussion until it concluded on a particularly contentious note with Lowkey taking concerted aim at his co-panelists, especially Žižek. He delivered a high quality zinger, "to call my co-panelists friends of the left is like calling Marcus Brutus a friend to Julius Caesar." But Lowkey’s clever comments ultimately gave way to a pretty spurious cheap shot regarding a misrepresented excerpt from Žižek’s book Against the Double Blackmail (2016).

Regardless of the debate’s tenor, its framing was fascinating. From the IAI website:

Does the left need to re-engage with freedom and overcome its distaste for views it does not support? Or should the left move on and leave freedom behind in pursuit of fairness and justice for all?

There’s an opposition being set up here between the notion of freedom and the notions of fairness and justice for all. Implicit is the concession that meaningful fairness and justice might be achieved through a means other than freedom, something I think which runs against most people’s intuition — but does accurately reflect the state of leftist politics today. Certainly many self-styled leftists believe restricting certain freedoms means a greater degree of “equity,” whether they would admit it or not. This notion is rather Rousseauian in its most fundamental aspects.

Žižek, operating within a discursive frame of the political (my least favorite of his), echoed this Rousseauian viewpoint in a manner that may have surprised many of his detractors (such as Lowkey) but is entirely consistent with the work he has done up until this point. He says during the debate:

Freedom has to have a material base, you are free, but to exercise that freedom ... you always have to obey certain rules … We are free in our thoughts, but to articulate what we want we have to perfectly master the rules of language. I don't want to live in a situation where I have to learn or invent the rules again and again … Freedom has to be grounded in a complex set of unwritten rules which are acceptable.

In this schema, there is a meaningful difference between the unwritten rules one willingly accepts with the freedom they’ve been granted even if they’re also the necessary condition for that very freedom’s perpetuation. If it seems tautological, it’s not quite. Žižek has always, rather ironically, favored a laissez-faire approach to the practice of what one might contemporarily call “holding others accountable,” instead hoping for social customs to do the work.

As an example, he cites himself and his own exclusion from publication in The Guardian and The London Review of Books. Perceiving himself as excluded by avenues of publication which would have otherwise afforded him opportunities to be among their contributors, this minor sob story is actually exemplary of how he believes these things should work, “Nothing happened at the explicit level, but all of a sudden I was out.” There’s no doubt he feels some resentment, believing himself to be wrongfully censured, but yet again he draws a meaningful but narrow distinction in a way that many liberal-centrists might — being “deplatformed” (banned from posting on social media, invitations rescinded for speaking engagements) and publicly criticized by organizations or publications is a method that is too reactionary in Žižek’s view. Instead, he would rather see the possibility of certain repugnant utterances be reduced within a discursive frame, make certain forms of prejudice unimaginable to speak, and let social engineering do its work in cases where those customs are violated. He does not mention in this talk that the content of the utterances that are made obscene by custom is crucial rather than just understanding the mechanism that is desirable for enforcing prohibitions against those obscenities. Likewise, there is an extent to which Žižek seems to be imagining the fantasmatic formation of the so-called marketplace of ideas.

I’m a supporter of freedom, particularly in the realm of discourse, but I do not believe it exists nor is it possible for it to exist. There is no freedom of speech. But it is an ideal that is crucial to a dialectical structure of knowledge production. It is aspired to, but if its achievement meant a leveling of all speech, that would be a disaster. It is the content of speech that is contested that is valuable for its own sake. Contrary to popular belief, it will always be the speech that proposes the most good for the greatest number and opposes hegemony and capital that will be the most incendiary, not the “hate speech” which has been, at various times and in some ways even today, written into the fabric of American society and even its law.

Even with Žižek’s shortcomings, the world he envisions seems more appealing, at least to me, than the one offered by his opponent in this case. Lowkey’s analogy, Žižek is to leftism as Brutus is to Caesar, hides within it a greater truth. Depending on who is telling the story, Brutus may well have been the usurper of a tyrant and a defender of precisely what is at issue in the IAI debate — freedom. By killing Caesar, Brutus overturned a status quo and challenged conventional wisdom about who should lead Rome and what one owes another in the realm of interpersonal relations — as well as to who one’s allegiance truly lies. In the end, being a Brutus, rather than a Judas, doesn’t seem so bad.

“I Repent For Everything Imma Do Again”: Kanye West’s Divine Repetition on Donda

Note: YouTube links of unreleased songs from Donda may not be long for this world, so apologies for any that are dead by the time you get here.

Donda (2021), the new album from Kanye West, marks both his latest frontier of music making and his latest instance of doing-the-same. The album has been marred with delays, much like The Life of Pablo (2016), ye (2018), and Jesus Is King (2019) before it. In fact, there’s no guarantee it won’t suffer the same fate as ill fated scrapped albums like So Help Me GodSwishTurbografix-16, and Yandhi – the last of which was, by all accounts, a more or less finished record before it was vaulted for lyrical content Kanye no longer felt was consistent with his faith. Yandhi’s botched release in 2018 marks what is perhaps the darkest moment in Kanye’s bizarre, inconsistent late period, one during which Kanye’s behavior has become more erratic and concerning for fans and, I’m sure, those closest to him.

But, today, people are less worried about his mental health and more worried about the status of Donda which, at time of writing, has not yet released. Despite that, the album has been publicly played twice, at two listening parties in Atlanta, Georgia two weeks apart from one another. Having heard both versions of the album, the two weeks certainly did wonders. The album is drastically more complete, although it still has moments that seem to be missing Mike Dean’s mastering touch. It’s a platform for collaborators who seem to get more time on the album cumulatively than the artist of record, Kanye himself. The album will come as a relief to Kanye fans, though, in whatever form they hear it. After the strange diversion of Jesus Is King and the numerous collaborative gospel albums he has produced with his choir, Donda is pre-loved Kanye — though not quite vintage. In its current state as of the latest listening party, the album is most similar to The Life of Pablo, similarly disjointed and filled to the brim with high-profile collaborators.

Not following the path set by the Arthur Jafa and Travis Scott assisted 2020 single, “Wash Us in the Blood,” Kanye returns to clever witticisms and confessional rapping. And while allusions to Christianity are frequent, there are no hymns here. Donda certainly won’t be up for a gospel Grammy. At times, one would be hard pressed to locate the Kanye of Jesus Is King here, as he sings about his preferences for receiving text messages. On “Shoulder to Lean On,” he discusses his distaste for capital letters at the beginning of sentences, “you will speak to me with only no cap,” and “New Again,” he remarks that he only wants “hi”s and “hey”s with elongated vowels in response to his “wyd”s. His “damn croissants” sense of humor remains intact, and he only rarely sounds like a man in the midsts of a mental breakdown.

I am sure part of the reason for his immediate deficit in mental wellness can be attributed to the two weeks he has spent in a closet-sized room with painted brick walls that certainly evoke a high school as well as a prison (what’s the difference, right?). This point isn't lost on Genius (fka RapGenius) annotators who have written in the margins for the Jay-Z assisted "Jail" about both the Biblical theme of imprisonment, "Kanye fatalistically knows that he will inevitably fail in his Christian walk, but relies on God to save him from his sins., i.e. post his bail," and the sparsity of his digs at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

The anxiety about imprisonment also carries over to the register of criminal and racial justice as Kanye raps "No more chokeholds," on a song alternatively titled "New Peace" or "Heaven & Hell / Future Sounds" and returning to the sense of freedom that Christianity provides on "Pure Souls" when he says "I'm loose, I'm free," also evoking the necessary counterbalance of Lucifer.

Ultimately, though, Kanye is doing the Kanye thing. This is the album anyone would expect if they thought Kanye would move away from the Jesus Is King style. When Kanye raps on “New Again,” “I repent for everything Imma do again,” one can’t help but think of the sad state of affairs of his album rollouts. But, again, it’s to be expected, right? I wonder how much I’ll have to repent for writing about him and his music yet again, and for what certainly won’t be the last time.

The aforementioned "Pure Souls" and "Jail" are early favorites on an album that hasn't — and might not ever — release. “Pure Souls” is a tough song to review. As excellent as it is in its current form, the organ melody replaced a great piano version from the first listening party. While the new song benefits from filled out low-end, drums and a clap, the organ is a downgrade from the Nujabes-esque piano. At the same time, I can imagine that the final product might be a little too noisy with the different discernible piano notes. The organ, as it is, blends into the background and calls little attention to itself. Over my repeated listens (20 times at least to the new version of the song, and at least 12 full listens of the "album" as its currently constituted) the current mix has grown on me. "Jail" is just an instant classic, reuniting Jay-Z and Kanye with the classic Mike Dean electric guitar driving the melody.

One of the things that has fascinated me about "Pure Souls" is a line from Roddy Ricch, "the truth is only what you get away with." Downright bewildering, one might assume that the truth is precisely what one does not "get away with," if the truth is ultimately revealed in some fashion or another. I find it a little funny that I am confounded by a Roddy Ricch line, but I guess that just reflects my own biases toward his music. I'll be interested to know what the geniuses over at Genius make of it, or if the meaning of the line is clearer to me upon further reflection.

On "Remote," Kid Cudi makes his second appearance along with Young Thug — both slurring lines near incomprehensibly. Though far from his hyper-enunciated performance on "Portland," Thug delivers a paradigmatically strong verse blurring the distinction between singing and humming.

"Hurricane," a song that has seen a number of different iterations since the discarded Yandhi, is supposedly the first "single" for the album. A CDQ version exists and briefly appeared in East Asian regions via Line Music and Russia via Yandex. However, it was later pulled from both services. This version has been ripped and is widely circulating on YouTube, though it gets taken down as quickly as it is uploaded. The ostensible final version seems like a natural progression from the second listening party version, keeping the new song structure (from Yandhi to Donda) and the new verses from The Weeknd and Lil Baby (from the first Donda listening party, which only featured Ant Clemons, to the second which boots him in favor of the new duo of features) but excising some of the clumsiness and character from the second listening party mix. Mike Dean even consulted the rapidly-moving Kanye subreddit, r/WestSubEver, while working on the final product.

Some fans blame forum discontentment at the CDQ version for it being pulled from Line Music and Yandex. I was slightly disappointed by the eliminating of a choir vocal track in the concluding seconds of The Weeknd's chorus, but it remains a good, single-worthy song. But it would be remarkable if Mike Dean is truly taking fan reaction into account in real time while mixing this album, and a tremendous mistake for the tenured sound engineer. It doesn't seem like the poll, which favored a "blend" between the many versions of the song, had much influence on the decisions he made for the version that was uploaded to streaming services. But considering fan theories that the widespread dissatisfaction with the version that was supposed to be final fueled another mix, I can't help think about what my parents said Santa would do if I tried to peak at my presents before Christmas. They told me he'd ship them all back to the North Poll, and this parenting parable holds true for artists like Lil Uzi Vert who have scrapped songs after they've leaked repeatedly and, in fact, pointed to leaks as the cause for an unwillingness to release new music.

While the prolonged release period has been fun and almost festive for fans, my hope is that the artists involved are truly not taking cues from the litany of Reddit posts. If Mike Dean, or god forbid even Kanye himself, is reading and reacting to Reddit and social media reactions, all due respect to r/Kanye and r/WestSubEver, they're getting bad advice from a bunch of loudmouthed morons. Mike Dean has mixed UGK, Scarface, and Geto Boys records for fuck's sake. Say what you will about the quality of his mixes, but he's been working on Kanye's music since the beginning. There's no reason for him to second guess himself now. Fans (myself included) are entitled to their fun and their opinion, but it's not something Dean should be reading into. If The Life of Pablo set a precedent for 'patching' an album, let not Donda do the same for sound engineers taking instant feedback from Zoomers on the internet. And while my suspicion is fans giving themselves credit for the delays of "Hurricane" and Donda is just a delusion of grandeur, if the album is scrapped there will doubtlessly be a great deal of online finger-pointing that, without a clear explanation as to why, will be impossible to decisively refute.

Nonetheless, Kanye fans in relative crisis have reached out to me and I've given them all the same advice: enjoy what we've got so far (the listening parties) and let the album come when (or if) it comes. At this stage, we have an album that is both listenable and good, maybe even great. Time will tell if an official release emerges to supplant it.

Weekly Reading List — Reigning (I think? I haven’t seen today’s ep) Jeopardy champ Matt Amodio talks to EW about his record-breaking winning streak and entering the halls of the GOATs of the game. I’m a huge fan of Matt and his play style, so looking forward to hopefully seeing him continue his run. — The Lopez brothers are making a basketball manga. Though there’s only one chapter out so far, this kind of cross-cultural product is fascinating. I’m excited to see how this continues and if the comic ever makes it into physical production or if it will remain a webcomic. Thanks to Ace Mendoza for putting me on to this.

Until next time.