Ever since the sleek, electronic-influenced Graduation, Kanye West has mostly stayed encapsulated in his own celebrity bubble, concerning himself with little other than fake friends and shutter shades. His few rapped verses in 2009 (Kid Cudi’s “Make Her Say,” Drake’s “Forever,” Beyoncé’s “Ego”) were good, but they, too, revealed a self-absorption that provided old Kanye fans—ones with a hankering for the kindliness of cuts like “Family Business” and “Through the Wire”—with reason for concern. When West drunkenly disrupted an acceptance speech from 19-year-old country-pop singer Taylor Swift at the VMAs last fall, it was sad but not unexpected. He had long since lost any sense of humility, a tragic truth that is reinforced by his new single, “Power.”
West has spent the last nine months recording in Hawaii and citing everyone from RZA to Gil Scott-Heron to Nina Simone as influences. He knows his way around a Simone sample (the West-produced “Misunderstood” was one of Common’s last great songs before he began a steep decline), but “Power” shares little in common with 1970s R&B. Instead, the track recycles the echo-y tribal drums from “Love Lockdown” for strident effect, and that chaos builds toweringly as West growls at his staunchest critics. He’s taking no prisoners, and he’s making no apologies for the erratic behavior that landed him in the pop-culture doghouse.
“Power” is dark and strange. It’s also thoroughly absorbing. “Fuck SNL and the whole cast!” he proclaims, referring to a November 2009 skit in which he was lampooned. (Here’s hoping that Bill Hader responds with a scathing diss of his own.) In the meantime, all we have to marinate in is this surreal, alarming piece of work, one in which West reveals an off-putting and almost Stalinesque facet of his personality with smarmy lines about how “no one man should have all this power.” He’s bullshitting, of course. West relishes his position. It’s no mistake that “Power” sounds like the soundtrack to an Inmun Gun march: He’s nearly as megalomaniacal as any dictator on the UN watch list. When the 33-year-old isn’t barking threats, he’s mocking his critics (“They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation”) or speaking cockily in third-person (“He so fucking gifted”).
To his credit, “Power” sounds like nothing in recent hip-hop history other than Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard,” the indie-ish banger that West himself produced back in 2008. He is in a league and a world of his own, however warped that world might seem: Just listen to the clear delight he takes in making listeners recoil. America has long been vexed by hip-hop’s treatment of black women, so what does West do here? Boasts of his fondness for light-skinned girls. In the aftermath of the Swift scandal, rumors of substance abuse began to circulate; here, he jokes about driving drunk. These are not altogether shocking sentiments, but they’re delivered with disdain and a desire to create discomfort. He’s succeeded: The misanthropic “Power” will surely alienate those longing for another sunny hit like “Hey Mama.” At last, West has emerged steely-eyed, bold, and out of his mind.