Kanye West performed at the BET Awards on June 27, 2010.
Comebacks used to be straightforward. Take Kylie Minogue: she went number one with "Locomotion" in 1988 and then came back thirteen years later with an arguably more delicious confection: "Can't Get You Out of My Head." Great comeback, Kylie! Great to see you back. She's on top of the charts again this week (in the UK), proving that a good comeback means you're actually back, in full form.
But the boundaries of the "comeback" are beginning to blur. Tiger Woods got himself the "comeback" label recently, in a very different way from Minogue: at the top of his game, he very publicly slipped, he apologized profusely, he disappeared, and he got back in the game. As Maura Johnston points out in this edition of Pop Off, it seems you need the self-help, Dr. Phil language "I need to change" in order for the public to rally and support your comeback. "That’s why 'Man in the Mirror' was played the most in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death," she says. "People loved that message. People loved that you can change, that you can make yourself a better person." (You can listen to Maura's comments in the audio at the top of the post, or subscribe to Culturetopia here.)
So we love comeback stories, because we want to imagine that it’s never too late to re-invent ourselves. But why are stories about indulgent, meglomaniacal celebrities coming back from meglomanical mistakes so appealing? Tiger Woods has a million opportunities to cheat because he's so good at golf, and that's a lot of pressure, so he makes the most of those opportunities. Then he plays some more golf.
There seems to be an increase in that kind of comeback story, where people are screwing up being famous, getting famous-er because of it, and then getting even more fame for overcoming that error of famosity that they only made because they were in a famous-type situation. Take Kanye West at the Video Music Awards last year. He ran up on stage and told pop music's latest ingenue that Beyonce had one of the greatest videos of all time, and that Taylor Swift didn’t deserve her award. Awkward, sure, but the kind of mistake you’d make only if you already had front row seats at the VMAs anyway. Not so relatable. But people loved this moment.
Kanye West feels like a friend I've known for ages who's always precociously smart but unable or unwilling to shut up about his insecurities. He just released an audacious single, called "Power," in which he does not use Dr. Phil's comeback prescription. He opts instead to yell back at the haters, with his lower lip pushed out in a sulk. But the production, the sound of this comeback — the exquisite, totally Kanye designer outfit the comeback is wrapped in — speaks louder than words. The "Power" lyrics include thoughts like: "Reality is catchin' up with me/Takin' my inner child, I'm fighting for it, custody/With these responsibilities that they entrusted me/As I look down at my diamond-encrusted piece." The production belies the lyrics: it's bombastic and sophisticated, announcing "I'M BACK," with a hint of uncertainty about how to take the next step. (Please note: this song was co-produced with Symbolyc One, who gets credit for the sample.)
I wish Kanye wouldn't waste his time complaining about the flak he got from the run-in with Taylor Swift. He knows what a real comeback should be: something actually inspiring, not a casualty of the high life, that gives the listener something to strive for. Remember "Through the Wire," the lead single off his debut album, The College Dropout? In 2002, Kanye was in a near-fatal car accident, right when he had just signed a deal to rap as well as produce. His whole jaw was wired shut. Two weeks later, he was back in the studio to "spit [his] soul through the wire." You can hear his perpetually gritted teeth on the track, loud and clear. Kanye’s always pretty vulnerable in his lyrics: you feel like even though he’s a madman, he’s telling you the truth.
"Through The Wire" is a cut above his typical vulnerability. Not only is he talking about real obstacles he’s overcome, he’s overcoming an obstacle right there in front of you. You can actually hear it happening. You can feel how much he loves the game, how much he wants to take his turn in fron of the mic, how his production chops are such that you gotta let him on. He's like an eager intern who comes in on weekends and shares a room with four other people, just for the opportunity.
That’s how a comeback should sound. That's how you rally me: you wear me out with your skills, and you make something totally unexpected and new. I'll listen to "Through the Wire" again and again — and because of it, I'll always be on your side, Kanye. Keep dropping hits.