I, like Kanye West, take great pleasure in talking about Kanye West. The brilliantly talented, ubiquitous egomaniac is a dual force of unbelievable music and even less believable controversy. Ye’s lyrics are witty, provocative, and complex, sometimes even bordering on academic (perhaps appropriate for an artist whose early career was university-themed)—check out this rhyme off Graduation’s “Good Morning [Intro]”: “Good morning, on this day we become legendary/ Everything we dreamed of/I’m like the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary/Detroit Red cleaned up.”
Kanye indeed does compare to Malcolm X in his history of public proclamations that are shocking, uncouth, and brutally honest. Remember when he accused George Bush of not caring about black people during a Katrina relief telethon, or when he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to announce that Beyonce’s music video was better, or when he posited at a concert this past August that he is more hated than Adolf Hitler? But Kanye differs from both Malcolm X and Hitler in one major way: Kanye, I am pretty sure, is part goose.
There was a time when Kanye was but a mortal, pureblooded human. Ten years ago, Ye lived the humble life of a producer, mixing samples for other rappers to spit over. Only the most informed of hip hop aficionados might have known his name, let alone how to say it—on Late Registration’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” he quips, “Now all I need is y’all to pronounce my name/It’s Kanye, but some of my plastic, they still say Kane.” Now, Kanye’s life is as far from humble as anyone could possibly imagine (1), and every American with a newspaper subscription or an Internet connection not only knows it’s |KÄN-yā|, but likely has a strong emotional connection to the man, and either worships or loathes him. In my experience, it’s usually the latter—after the Taylor Swift incident, even President Obama famously called Yeezy a “jackass.”
I doubt Obama watched the 2009 VMAs live. It is perhaps ironic that despite his enormous success as a musician, Kanye is probably better known from being read (and read about) than heard. His Twitter account has more than 4.5 million followers (2); his controversial quotes are printed and reprinted by the mainstream media; his lyrics serve as captions for the yearbook photos of precocious middle school seniors. Kanye West’s soaring celebrity is ultimately fueled not by the sound of his music, but by the written word.
But to understand Kanye, you must listen to his music, not only to hear his unparalleled beats and nasty flow, but to experience his most signature non-verbal vocalization, a curious utterance referred from here on out as the haa. Part curt laugh (ha!), part inquisitive mumble (huh?), part masculine grunt (uh, hunh, ungh), the haa is a sound all its own. It more closely resembles a goose’s honk than any familiar human noise. You know what I mean if you’ve heard it. The haa is an audial watermark. The haa is a bullhorn. The haa is Kanye.
The sound makes its first appearance at 2:50 on “Jesus Walks,” the seventh track off Kanye’s 2004 debut album, The College Dropout. After illustrating his need for Jesus (“the way school need teachers, the way Kathie Lee needed Regis”), Kanye laments: “So here go my single, dog; radio needs this/They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes/But if I talk about God my record won’t get played/Haa.” It’s an arresting moment, a raw animal cry, born out of the desperation of a man who has realized that words cannot do justice to his seething emotions.
The lyrics website Sing365.com concludes the verse not with “Haa” but instead the more familiar “Huh?” (3) And I don’t blame them—“Huh?” is appropriate in this context, with its connotations of frustration, accusation, and frontin’. It has become a staple of the movie badass’s argot; see Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (“Huh? Huh? You talkin’ to me?) or Scarface’s Tony Montana (“Bet you feel good, huh?”). But seven years of hindsight allows us to identify the noise as a nascent haa, a honk not yet realized, foreshadowing the sound that will come to define its speaker.
Years pass before we hear the haa again. Late Registration, Graduation, and 808s and Heartbreak all come and go without a notable grunt to speak of. Sure, there are ohs and uhs and heys, all the standard gasps and moans and snorts that human rappers use to fill in the blanks between verses and punctuate the beat’s measures. But then in 2010 Kanye drops My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with its five album covers and its billion-dollar guest voices (“All of the Lights” alone features Rihanna, Elton John, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Kid Cudi and Fergie), and something big happens. Kanye transforms.
When on MBDTF’s second track, “Gorgeous,” Kanye spits “This pimp is/at the top of Mount Olympus,” he not only suggests his grandness and immortality, but also, I have intuited, reveals his metamorphosis into Zeus, the ancient Greek god known for his ability to shapeshift into miscellaneous waterfowl. The haa proliferates on MBDTF, no longer a grunt but a full-blown honk, and comes at you right off the bat, too—“Dark Fantasy,” the bizarro, Brothers Grimm-esque opening track with its talk of Sleepy Hollow, demons, and a shopping center séance, includes this inscrutable verse at 2:37: “Don’t make me pull the toys out/Haa/Don’t make me pull the toys/And fire up the engines/Haa/And then they make noise.”
But fire up the engines Kanye does, and he continues to makes noise (specifically, goose noises) throughout the rest of the album. You can find the haa at 0:45 and 0:57 on “POWER” and at 1:10 on “Devil in a New Dress,” and probably in some other spots too. In the places I’ve isolated the honk, it is clear that despite what lyrics websites might write, the haa is an entirely different animal from the “Huh?” of “Jesus Walks.” It expresses not an emotional reaction to a specific circumstance, but the entirety of Kanye’s being, compressed within a single syllable.
On “Dark Fantasy” and “POWER” the verbal contexts in which the sound appears do not justify the inclusion of a laugh or a question (e.g. firing up engines); it is neither “ha!” nor “huh?” but a new, unique vocalization. Its usage in “Devil in a New Dress” is a bit more nuanced: According to Sing365, one verse goes, “Hood phenomenon/The Lebron of rhyme/Hard to be humble when you stuntin’ on a Jumbotron/I’m lookin’ at her like ‘This what you really wanted, huh?’” Here, if I didn’t know better, I might have settled for “huh?” and understood the lyric to mean, “Are you sure this is what you really wanted?” But given our new understanding of the sound, we must parse the verse like this: “This what you really wanted—haa?” Meaning, “Is haa what you really wanted?” Is Jumbotron-adorning, goose-honking Kanye West what you really wanted? Because Kanye is haa. Kanye is a goose. There is no changing him back.
But what does it mean to be a goose, and why would Kanye choose to become one? I think it’s because Kanye, like Icarus, has always dreamt of flight. In the 2006 music video for Late Registration’s “Touch the Sky,” Ye becomes Evel Kanyevel, a rocketeering daredevil who attempts to fly across the Grand Canyon but crashes to his death. By MBDTF’s release four years later, Kanye is no longer afraid to take off, and wants all of us to know it. What better way to communicate the message than by imitating one the loudest, highest-flying animals out there? The haa, like the honk, is an affirmation of greatness. It says, Look at me: I am the chieftain goose, flying at the crest of our great V formation, leading my gaggle of featured rappers and musicians from the lowly earth up into the heavens.
The most recent chapter of Kanye’s career is Watch the Throne, this summer’s monster collaboration with his old mentor, Jay-Z. If MBDTF was expensive to make, Watch the Throne is downright decadent, and includes, for example, a sample from Otis Redding’s 1966 superhit “Try a Little Tenderness” that critics speculate cost Ye and Jay a gazillion dollars in rights and royalties. “Otis,” the song in which the sample is used, notoriously appears on the album as “Otis (feat. Otis Redding),” as if the rappers collaborated with the dead legend in the song’s production. The implication here is that Kanye and Z literally flew up to heaven and found Otis Redding, and the three got together not as hero and imitators, not as king and successors, but as equals, of a single level, producing music that transcends space and time.
Kanye honks all over Watch the Throne. Just about every song features at least one haa from Kanye, but, like geese, they usually appear in groups. Kanye honks to announce his presence, to emphasize a particularly clever line, and sometimes, just for fun—get online and listen to a supercut of Kanye’s noises, and you’ll feel like you’re at the zoo. (4)
With Watch the Throne, Kanye has expanded his flock. The V now trails miles long, its numbers growing as its zenith ascends higher and higher into the astral plane. Down one diagonal, every living musician flaps its wings in beat—grungy rockers, pop stars, and rap moguls stretch in a line from downtown Chicago to Andromeda. Down the other, the ghosts of artists deceased fly in formation—classical composers, jazz virtuosos, and soul singers all flap silently, but pleasant sounds emerge from the tape recorders they hold in their beaks. At the V’s head, flanked by Shawn Carter of the Earth and Otis Redding of the Afterlife, the lines converge upon a single entity, a goose with golden down bearing a crown, a goblet, and a rolled-up Persian rug with cherub imagery. He leads his gaggle into the sky by the sound of his mighty haa, a sound that transcends language and tells you everything about talent and legacy and ostentation and honesty and history and beauty and excellence and greatness that words cannot.
Ask not for whom Kanye honks. He honks for thee.
(1) In August 2010, Vulture (New York magazine’s Yeeziphilic entertainment blog) tracked all of the expenditures Kanye tweeted about over the course of a single week, and summed them up to a grand total of $87,451.55. (Click here: http://bit.ly/9iHgWm, or I’m Feeling Lucky “kanye cherub vulture.”)
(2) Kanye’s Twitter feed warrants an article of its own, and has: See Jonah Weiner’s excellent 2010 Slate piece, “Kanye West Has a Goblet.” (Click here: http://slate.me/q4TL0p, or I’m Feeling Lucky “kanye weiner goblet.”)
(3) Click here: http://bit.ly/hYuDb4, or I’m Feeling Lucky “kanye jesus sex.”
(4) Vulture (again) cut out all of Kanye’s grunts and moans and honks (some ohs and heys but mostly haas) from Watch the Throne and assembled them into a video. Click here: http://bit.ly/nCG027, or I’m Feeling Lucky “kanye vulture cornucopia.” Then, I’m Feeling Lucky “kanye weiner goblet” again for good measure.