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Snap Judgment: Kanye West samples King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" for "Power"

May 28, 2010 |  1:22 pm

Getprev You know something's up when you check your Twitter feed and one of Kanye West's collaborators is trending. Sure enough, this morning saw the R&B singer Dwele on the list, his name quickly leading to a leak from what seems to be the new single from West's upcoming fifth studio album.

"Power" is a strong shot across the barricades for West, boding well for "Good Ass Job" -- the album he hopes will return him to pop's top spot after his interruption of Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards sent him into semi-self-imposed exile for nearly a year.

"Power" is a hyped-up battle rhyme that throws off the public shaming West suffered because he insulted pop's top ingenue. "No one man should have all that power," the rapper repeatedly snarls, intimating that the wave of disgust his spontaneous (and undeniably rude) declaration of Beyonce's superiority to Swift was really a move to dissipate West's cultural influence. This being Kanye, however, he spins out something more complicated than a simple counterattack.

The rhyme includes a potty-flavored slap back at the cast of "Saturday Night Live," who've made fun of West's tirade a couple of times, and the pouty explanation that West's intentions were "lost in translation with a whole ... nation." Linking himself to Obama, West suggests that he's a flavor too strong for this supposedly "post-racial" era before getting down to some basic assertions of macho superiority.

What makes "Power" more than just a surly act of retaliation, from the start, is the music. Most early responses have noted the King Crimson sample that complicates West's words: a clip from King Crimson's 1969 protest song  "21st Century Schizoid Man." That's interesting as a reference point -- we knew 'Ye was into hipster rock, and this confirms the prog predilection suggested by the stage set for his "Glow in the Dark" tour.

But more important is the hook that anchors the song. It sounds like a vocal re-creation of the King Crimson song's monster guitar hook; but as it's been transformed, it invokes another acute examiner of current cultural-political dramas: M.I.A. The hook's hand claps and feminine tone -- as well as the Symbolyc One-co-produced track's whole sound, much more redolent of global hip-hop than of electroclash, which West may have left behind -- sets West's verbal tirade within M.I.A.'s larger context of global oppression and resistance by people of color. Justified? Maybe not. But it's a typically bold Kanye leap.

Then there's the song's strange ending, which features Dwele's dulcet tones singing about how lovely it would be to jump out of a window. One commenter on Miss Info's blog, which has the song, drew a comparison to the suicide of Donny Hathaway, the soul genius whose paranoid fantasies helped lead him, in 1979, to do exactly what West and Dwele describe in "Power." That's a heavy fate for West to ponder, but he's never shied away from examining his own psychological troubles in light of sex, race and politics. That's what "808s and Heartbreak" was all about, in fact. It will be interesting to see where he takes these themes on "Good Ass Job." If "Power" is an indication, he's coming back stronger, but no less determinedly troublesome.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Kanye West. Credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press


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