Zarathustra vs Kanye West

Thus Spoke Zarathustra – First Part – Chapter 17: ‘On the Way of the Creator’
vs “POWER”, Kanye West (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010)

Are you ‘a self-propelling wheel?’ And, ‘can you compel the very stars to revolve around you?’ The title of Chapter 17 is a lure and a ruse – the creator refers not to the way of some god, but to the possibility of becoming free, and to become free is to be a creator of new values. To create ‘your own evil and your own good, and hang your will over yourself as a law’. Here – in other words – we encounter some early intimations of Nietzsche’s teaching of the will to power.

And such is the ethos of Kanye West’s abrasive hip hop track ‘POWER’. Are you ‘a self-propelling wheel?’ Kanye is! ‘Can you compel the very stars to revolve around you?’ Kanye can! Can you create your own good and evil? Over bare chants: ‘I’m living in that 21st Century, doing something mean to it / Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it’.

Yet immediately, Kanye senses dangers, doubts and discordances: ‘No one man should have all that power / The clock’s ticking, I just count the hours / Stop tripping, I’m tripping off the power’. Kanye sees the dangers of such power, it is transitory and doubts it can be sustained, knows that the will to power can get captured up into something else entirely – drive coalesces into privilege, entitlement, absolutism. Such movement from affirmation to problematization is captured in the main sample of ‘POWER’, King Crimson’s ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’, the distorted vocals of Greg Lake ripping a ragged hole in the hip hop beats for the prog rock guitar of Robert Fripp to burst through. Screaming: ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’. Stunning!

And it is just this oscillation between affirmation and problematization that Nietzsche explores in ‘On the Way of the Creator’. Zarathustra is addressing one of his companions; one – it seems – who has heard Zarathustra speak of becoming a solitary (see, for instance, Chapter 12: ‘On the Flies in the Marketplace’). For seeking solitude is a necessary moment in cutting your teeth, cutting your own path. In ‘POWER’: ‘I just needed time alone with my own thoughts / Got treasures in my mind but couldn’t open up my own vault / My childlike creativity, purity and honesty / Is honestly being crowded by these grown thoughts’. This formulation by Kanye – where creativity is childlike – is pre-echoed in the first chapter of Zarathustra, ‘On the Three Transformations,’ where the camel transforms into the lion, and then the lion into the child: from bearing the weight of the world, to becoming a warrior, to rediscovering the joy of play and creativity. ‘POWER’ was written in the wake of the death of Kanye’s mother and then the VMA incident of 2009, the artist going on to retire to the solitude of Hawaii to work on material for a new album.

Nietzsche began Thus Spoke Zarathustra with the teacher achieving ten years of solitude and thus ready to return to the world. In this way, we now learn of Zarathustra’s experience of becoming and being a solitary through the warnings of the ‘Seven Devils;’ seven devils his companion will now have to confront (riffing off and twisting the idea of seven deadly sins, no doubt). For embodying and embracing the will to power is accompanied by many doubts, dangers and discordances.

The first devil: Beware the herd! Why? In becoming a solitary, in cutting your own path the herd will disavow you. You have, after all, rejected them and their way. The trouble is – of course – ‘the voice of the herd will still resound in you’. Kanye has cool advice here: ‘Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it / I guess every superhero need his theme music’.

The second devil: Beware the ‘lustful and ambitious!’ Lustful for empty fame, ambitious with an empty voice: ‘there are so many great thoughts that do no more than a bellows’ make. Kanye reflects on just such fame and emptiness: ‘these responsibilities that they entrusted me / As I look down at my diamond encrusted piece’. And Yeezy tells us more, these moments seep in to the lyrics continuously.

The third devil: Beware giving up! Beware disavowing your own way, and crying ‘Everything is false!’ ‘There are feelings that want to kill the solitary; if they do not succeed, well, then they themselves must die!’ But are you capable of being a murderer?’ The beautiful coda at the end of ‘POWER’ has a strange duet which is explicated through this thought of Zarathustra. Kanye: ‘Now this will be a beautiful death’. Dwele: ‘I’m jumping out the window, I’m letting everything go’. Kanye: ‘You got the power to let power go?’ The idea of willing your own death, for a new self to arise occurs throughout Zarathustra. ‘With my tears go into your isolation, my brother,’ concludes the teacher, ‘I love him who wants to create beyond himself and thereby perishes’.

The fourth devil: Beware ‘the good and the righteous’: ‘they like to crucify those who invent their own virtue for themselves’. Those who believe themselves good and righteous believe all others are evil – and such evil must be hunted down. Kanye: ‘The system broken, the school is closed, the prison's open / We ain’t got nothing to lose, motherfucker we rolling’.

The fifth devil: Beware ‘the holy unity’. Compliance to the way, whatever that may be. ‘In this white man world,’ raps Yeezy ‘we the ones chosen’.

The sixth devil: Beware ‘the attacks of your love’. Zarathustra warns that the solitary will extend their hand in friendship too easily. Rather to some you must give ‘a slap with a paw: and I would that your paw might also have claws’. In ‘POWER’ Kanye asks rhetorically, ‘I’m an asshole? You niggas got jokes’ in response to ‘Tell them Yeezy said they can kiss my whole ass / More specifically they can kiss my asshole’. Loving the specificity there Mr West.

The seventh devil: ‘the worst enemy you can encounter will always be yourself; you lie in wait for yourself’. This devil, of course, is implicit in all the other devils. ‘And I embody every characteristic of the egotistic / He knows, he’s so fucking gifted’ – Kanye here (as he does so often) switching voice from first to third person, speaking of and about himself from different perspectives, so that the voices appear as a clamour, so that first and third person lose their co-ordinates, can no longer fully be understood as first and third person. Who is this Kanye?: ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’!

Zarathustra warns: ‘a God you would create for yourself out of your Seven Devils!’. So – be aware, and beware! Reject the becoming of this God – god is (we know) dead. Free yourself. However – and this is the most essential lesson of the way of the creator – understand what the nature of this freedom (of positive, not negative freedom) is: ‘Free, you call yourself?… Free from what? What is that to Zarathustra! Brightly shall your eye announce to me: free for what?’

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