Kanye West premieres the long-delayed video for 'Monster,' attempts to skate controversy
Five months ago, an early draft of the video for Kanye West's "Monster" surfaced on the Web. Rumored to be banned from MTV for its lurid content, it marked another controversy from an artist who perversely relishes and reviles his lightning-rod status.
It's these contradictions that make being a Kanye West fan a maddening proposition. You thrill at his rococo arrangements and gifted pop ear. You cringe at his Austin Powers jokes, Sun King pretensions, and insistence on collaborating with rock singers more mellow than miso soup.
So it's no surprise that the Jake Nava-directed video for "Monster" finds West pushing the envelope and giving himself paper cuts. In six hyper-kinetic minutes, West eggs on a mob baying outside his window, has a menage a trois with two vixens from the realm of the undead, and is pawed by a pack of writhing hands.
Set in a haunted mansion and taking cues from Michael Jackson's "Thriller," Rick Ross wields a chainsaw, and Nicki Minaj plays a dominatrix controlling a pink wigged-version of herself. Jay-Z looks professionally expensive in an Italian suit. And at all nodes in between are shots suffused with enough gore, violence, sex and sin to make Hieronymus Bosch blush.
But maybe the most shocking moment arrives at its onset, when West issues the disclaimer: The following content is in no way to be interpreted as misogynistic or negative towards any groups of people. It is an art piece and shall be interpreted as such."
Riffing on Michael Jackson's repudiation of the occult, West's defense seems to be a preemptive response against the same people who maligned Rihanna's "Man Down" video. Or possibly the criticism of Odd Future's lyrics. Regardless, it's a safe-as-soy-milk gesture from an artist who has prided himself on not "being able to be told nothing." And as one might imagine, it's already drawn scorn.
The most incisive commentary comes courtesy of Eric Harvey, who derides "the rhetorical out [of] a powerful coward afraid to stand behind the political implications of his own work. A multi-millionaire aesthete trying to reframe a tawdry music video as a propaganda film for some imaginary set of uncontroversial morals. A pathetic, pseudo-intellectual excuse at preempting critique, a radical misunderstanding of how visual representation and reception works, and a direct insult to his fans' intelligence."
Since he was the first backpacker with a Benz, West has attempted to reconcile seemingly antithetical stances. He wants "art girls" and hood rats. He wants the love of art-school kids and critics and Taylor Swift fans. And he wants it while wearing sequins and a chain worth six figures symbolizing an Egyptian god that he presumably believes himself to the reincarnation of. He has the blind delusion of a brave man.
That doesn't mean he needs to force feed an interpretation down everyone's throats. If he doesn't want to offend or be negative, it's his right. But no one ever sustained a hip-hop career rapping about ice cream, sunshine and balloons (not unless there are drugs tied up in those balloons).
For a generation weaned on cartoon violence and Internet porn, it's unclear what's really so controversial about this video. For all its (para)psychology 101 symbolism and visually arresting images, it's about as provocative as an episode of "True Blood." Or maybe the rap version of Walt Disney's "Haunted Mansion" movie.
If you're curious to watch a music video that works similar nerves but with a more subtly radical vision, nerves, there is always Massive Attack's "Paradise Circus" video from 2009. (We'd link to it, but it's definitely not safe for work.)
Featuring an interview with aged porn star Georgina Spelvin droning over her performance footage from in the 1970s film, "Devil and Mrs. Jones," "Paradise Circus" deftly addresses questions of misogyny, desire and the sex business. It is creepy, grim and unsettling. It addresses the subjects without being misogynistic, and you can walk away with your own interpretation, no avenues occluded.
Watch: Kanye West's "Monster" video (Warning: contains objectionable language and sexual content).
-- Jeff Weiss
Photo: Kanye West at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit. Eric Thayer / Reuters.