Pre-Playoff Ennui: Where “Amazing” Happens

April 17th, 2009 by John Krolik

 

 

As it so happens, the NBA has decided to make “Amazing” by Kanye West their playoff anthem that they are going to absolutely run into the ground over the next 40 nights. 

I’m extremely happy about this for a number of reasons:

1. I am a massive Kanye West apologist, and pretty much love everything he does.

2. This is a much, much, much better song than previous choices.

3. Instead of being merely listenable, it fits in tone and message with what the NBA wants the playoffs to be-a hard, mournful, conflicted journey that never produces what most want, but is amazing nonetheless. And it goes with “Where Amazing Happens,” the best league-wide promotional campaign in my memory.

But more importantly, it gives me some sort of valid excuse to make this post. I kid you not, I’ve had this post on the back burner for at least a week and was planning to put it up, but things like games and basketball kept getting in the way. But now I get to unveil it: the complete ClipperBlog-style breakdown of Kanye West’s fantastic, unique, and bat-poop crazy live performance of “Amazing” on VH1’s “Storytellers.”

First off, a sidebar: I absolutely love Kanye West’s “Storytellers.” It’s an absolutely fantastic made-for-TV live performance. It adds a ton to that album and strips it back to what it is; a soulful plea and attempt to make sense of life and fame from an artist entering a mid-career crisis. Up close, everything he wanted to do with that album comes together in ways it couldn’t possibly in recorded form, and his performance is anything but manicured, allowing us to get a better sense of Kanye than any of the fragmented and bipolar looks at him we’ve gotten have been in the past. If Nirvana’s “Unplugged” is the Jordan of made-for-TV concerts, Kanye’s “Storytellers” is late-90s Vince Carter; you know it’s not actually on the same level, but you can’t help but have the comparison flash in front of your eyes. 

Without further ado, here’s the actual video:

 

  • [1st verse, 0:10] What makes this mini-meltdown awesome is that “Amazing” could well be Kanye’s best work, lyrically. For all his unparallelled skills as a producer and solid rapping, Kanye’s lyrics have always lagged a little behind; he’s best when speaking directly from experience and playing it straight with his lyrics. When he tries to get fancy, his lyrics usually veer more towards “cute” than punch-line worthy or powerful. On “Amazing,” he displays a lyrical depth and ambiguity almost completely absent in his canon, displaying his trademark contradictions with a subtlety and contemplative streak. The first instance of this is in one of the first lyrics of the song, “It’s Amazing…I’m the reason…that y’all fired up this evening.” Here, he acknowledges that the ability to give joy to listeners and connect through art is what is truly amazing about his work, while making sure to give himself credit for doing it. 
  • [1st verse, 0:21] On the second important line “no matter what, you’ll never take that from me…my reign is as far as your eyes can see” notice not only how he uses the backup singers to create a far more powerful arrangement than he would be able to with only his auto-tuner, but the flipping of the line is important here too. “My reign is as far as your eyes can see,” ostensibly meaning he rules only himself, is at once a justification and apology for a narcissist.
  • [2nd verse, 1:29] Here is perhaps my favorite line in the song: “I’m a monster…I’m a Maven…I know this world is changing.” The juxtaposition of “Monster” and “Maven” is as good as you’ll find in modern music. Not only does the use of a Yiddish word for “intense gatherers of information and impressions” in a rap song automatically make it more awesome and bring a completely new element to the song, but it introduces a very important idea. The idea that a monster is one with a lack of information and knowledge, acting only out of impulse, is an accepted one. Here, West introduces that the thesis that the two are not mutually exclusive, and, in fact, an acceptance of the fact that Kanye’s “monstrous” activities have come not from acting out of impulse or with limited capacity, but rather because he has believed he knows more than anyone else and has attempted to bring an air of superiority and an over-abundance of knowledge to all the things he does instead of simply accepting humility. In AA, a popular phrase is “your best thinking got you here,” i.e. trying to outsmart the simple rules of The Program ultimately leads to failure. Here, Kanye may be acknowledging that his refusal to stick to to the accepted cliches of “humility,” because he believed himself above them, may ultimately have hurt him and made him into a “monster.” And after introducing his paradox of knowledge, his admission that “[he] knows this world is changing” could be taken a number of ways-does the fact he knows help him at all? This is really the line that holds the most thematic weight out of the whole song-the idea that a belief in self, or a belief in superiority of knowledge, can ultimately lead to downfall in the world around, but he chooses sovergnity over self rather than integration with the world.
  • Why have I waxed “I’m trying to convince myself I didn’t waste three semesters of my life being an English major” about Kanye West? Because the complexity of this song makes what comes next all the better.
  • [Between Verses, 4:25] Kanye is speaking at this point, and says, in a voice slowly creeping towards psychosis, “Now I know I do not always state…popular opinion.” This ties into the theme of the song, stated above.
  • [Between Verses, 4:31] “Michael Jackson, Amazing.” What I’m taking away; despite his fall into insanity and probably pedophilia, Michael Jackson’s acheivements as a pop star are still amazing.
  • [Between Verses, 4:39] “Michael Phelps, Amazing.” Despite his weed controversy, Michael Phelps’ olympic acheivements are amazing.
  • [Between Verses, 4:44] “OJ Simpson…Amazing. Is he not? What he did…when he did…when he did…was he not amazing, though?” Okay, this is where I get a little confused. The pattern of the previous two would suggest that what Kanye is saying that OJ Simpson, despite the fact he killed two people in cold blood, is still amazing for what he accomplished as a football player. But does that make sense? Kanye was born 4 years after OJ rushed for 2,000 yards in a season. Does he really know him as a football player, and doesn’t his notoriety far outstrip whatever fame he had? And if we’re not talking about football, what are we talking about? Killing two people? Getting away with it? Becoming a symbol for African-Americans getting the “system” back? Playing golf and maintaining his innocence? Writing a book called “If I did it?” Robbing a memorabilia dealer at gunpoint and going to jail after all? WHAT WERE YOU REFERRING TO? WHICH PART IS THE AMAZING PART? I’M JUST CONFUSED. And if you think Kanye is going to clear things up, there’s just more crazy.
  • [Between Verses, 5:01] “I get my quotes from movies, because I don’t read.” Kanye as self-depricating. Okay.
  • [Between Verses, 5:06] “Or from, (sarcastic) you know, like, real life, or something, like, live real life, talk to real people, get information…ask people?” Wait, did he turn that around into condecending to people who read? Only Kanye. Only Kanye.
  • [Between Verses, 5:22] “And it was something about, you either die a hero, or you live long enough to become a villian.” That’s from Batman. EVERYBODY ON THE PLANET SAW THAT MOVIE THIS SUMMER. THERE IS NOT A LESS IMAGINATIVE MOVIE QUOTE YOU COULD HAVE GONE WITH THAN A STILTED, SELF-AGGRANDIZING, OVERTLY MORAL LINE FROM A BLOCKBUSTER ABSOLUTELY EVERYBODY SAW. THAT WAS LITERALLY THE LEAST DEEP THING YOU COULD HAVE SAID. How does Kanye advance this line, which attempted to give a moral justification to his existance as an artist and a man?
  • [Between Verses, 5:30] “I’m Chilllin’.” Rhymes with Villian.
  • [Between Verese, 5:35] Inexplicable bird noises. 

There’s more from there, most notably Kanye’s dual apology/non-apology for “acting like a b***h at award shows,” but most of the good stuff is right in that bridge. This is your spokesperson for the playoffs, and in a way it’s inappropriate-we pretend to know what will happen, but we only know ourselves. We want to be confident, but every game terrifies us as fans. The playoffs aren’t a disney movie. They aren’t scripted. They aren’t neat. They’re a mess. So kudos, NBA, for finally choosing the right artist and song to personify that messy, uncertian, and, yes, amazing, thing that is the best time of the year, the NBA playoffs. I might post a preview for the series at some point.