Power is a strange thing. There’s the power wielded by kings and generals, the kind that requires armies or political clout. The kind we associate with people like Genghis Khan or Napoleon or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s the ability to change worlds and affect people.
And then there’s Kanye West’s version of power.
I don’t know that West’s power can be described as artificial. He certainly does have a sort of influence. When he does things, people pay attention. And he’s got a lot of money, so when he wants things to happen, he can make them happen. That’s power of a sort. But what kind of power does West imagine that he actually does have? And how does he feel about it?
Well, he’s given us his answer in his song “Power.” And it’s great pop music, sure, but it’s also totally fascinating.
For starters, West imagines himself as the best at what he does. And there’s a good chance that he is the best at what he does. He’s created something of a masterpiece of pop here. It’s catchy as hell (something that’s difficult for rap songs to do), it has a real sense of drama, and it makes use of a huge variety of sounds while still sounding like a fresh version of the pop music we’re used to. It is innovative but accessible, fun but dramatic, the kind of thing that great art aims for, but a lot of pop music doesn’t reach.
There’s also West’s money and fame, the more traditional trappings of power. West talks about the women and the recklesness that comes with his kind of fame. It’s a major theme in a lot of hip hop, and West’s work is no exception.
And then there’s West’s more global conception of power. He devotes a verse to talking about how those in power have failed the inner city: “the school’s closed, the prison’s open.” No one man, West probably rightly insists, should have all that power. Maybe he’s talking about George Bush, or maybe he’s just talking generally about those that have failed to help America’s most disadvantaged citizens. But West certainly recognizes the tension between the self-serving and the altruistic sides of power.
It’s the King Crimson sample that really sums up what makes this song a real standout: West knows that the person he is on this album is a quintessential “21st century schizoid man.” He’s an almost Joyce-ian bundle of contradictions, plagued by the idea of power, both the power of the world’s leaders and his own power. He describes himself as egotistic and gifted in the span of seconds, he follows his lamentations about the failings of our government with a few lines about his own excess, and he discusses taking global responsibility while looking down and his “diamond encrusted piece.” The song ends with a repeated refrain about the beauty of suicide. It’s a dark end to a tumultuous exploration of how power not only corrupts, but haunts.
Selecting a song from this album was pretty difficult, because Kanye West has slowly become a master of the album. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has so many coherent threads battling against each other throughout that a single would be in danger of selling the strengths of the album short. Instead, “Power” encapsulates all that is great about the album and about Kanye West as an artist.