There’s been a lot of discussion about Kanye West’s latest music video for Bound 2. Considering the controversy that follows West wherever he goes nowadays – some incidents more deserving than others – it’s hardly surprising to hear that the rapper has divided audiences once more with his latest output. Working with renowned British fashion photographer Nick Knight, the four minute video is an onslaught of vivid cultural imagery and oft-unconvincing green-screen simulations, and the general reaction has been that ‘more’ was ‘expected’ from this creative duo.
Having watched the video a few times, I can see where these sentiments come from, but in the same way that the release of Yeezus was followed by comments that the album was nigh on impossible for the audience in terms of radioplay and commercial accessibility.
These comments are all well and good but it reminded me of comments West made in his interview with Zane Lowe on Radio 1 about how he produced Mercy with GOOD Music because he knew it would be a hit single. It was simple and easy and made a lot of money, and at that point West already felt as though he had proven his ability to make radio-friendly hits, and felt more than entitled to exercise artistic liberties. Quite right, Mercy is a banger and still better than half the Top 40 dirge out there at the moment.
So basically, taking a look at West’s recent history like his Zane Lowe interview, the merchandise for the Yeezus tour, the few elements of the Yeezus Tour set design with which I am familiar – having not been able to see the show myself – I think it’s important to treat this latest work as a text to be analysed like any other, and there are some interesting points raised once we begin to look beneath the surface.
Firstly, let’s look at how the video starts; long shots of hilltops, mountain skylines, rushing time-lapses of passing clouds, shots of the Grand Canyon. A majestic eagle spreads its wings as it passes us on the screen, shortly followed by shots of wild white horses running through splashing water and across an open plain. Very quickly, it becomes clear that this film is about America, its historic Frontier Spirit and the American Dream. Shots looking down on the world from on high suggest a man at the very top of his game, while the wild horses present notions of unbridled passion and pure, natural energy.
The video quickly cuts to close-up shots of West’s face and simulated footage of the rapper riding a motorbike through the mountains, inter-spliced with silhouette shots of a female figure laid back on a motorcycle. Yet more images of classic Americana are fed to us but increasingly their inauthenticity becomes prominent; this motorcycle ride is clearly simulated, and the scene behind West often becomes distorted and blurred; could it be that West himself is unsure of the image that he is trying to project?
Shots of Kim Kardashian then follow, splayed across the same motorbike, cut alongside shots of her face, blonde hair, wind blowing, as if she were the star in an advertisement for perfume or a similar luxury product.
The video then cuts to footage of Kanye and Kim simulating sex whilst riding through a forest setting before moving to another classic American scene; Route 66. Moving beyond the forest’s subtle allusions to the Bible and Genesis, we are again presented images of the West couple indulging in an archetypal vision of American liberation – how many songs can you think of that talk about riding on down Route 66?
The whole time that this happens, the two behave in a way that actively violates and disrupts the physical reality of the implied scene; Kim rides Kanye and kisses him lovingly, at points she vanishes entirely before reappearing on the motorbike, he raises his arms and they’re suddenly flying through the air. The two are engaged in the total liberation of the realisation of a dream world.
Bringing things back to reality, it’s important to consider where Kanye West has come from. Born in Atlanta before moving to Chicago, Kanye west has grown up in two cities in America with notorious social divisions along class and racial lines; if you haven’t watched Chiraq by Will Robson-Scott yet, it’s only 13 minutes long and I really recommend it. Growing up in that environment until the age of ten, it’s not a stretch to assume that during his time in school and elsewhere he came into contact with the shining beacon of the United States: The American Dream.
In the US Constitution, the American Dream is founded upon the principle that ‘All Men are Created Equal’. Branching out to more liberal definitions, there is a general spirit that any person can start from the bottom and build themselves up to realise their own success and to truly live their own ‘dream’ in America.
Footage of Kardashian is similarly provocative to the American Spirit. Many of the shots, for me, immediately hearkened back to Madonna’s video for Ray of Light. Although tenuous on my part, it remains a bold reference to one of America’s most famous female pop stars; blonde hair, blue eyes, white skin, named after the archetypal woman, perpetually reinvented and always welcomed back with open arms – if you disagree with this sentiment then read more about Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson and see if you still think Madonna had it hard.
Kardashian is in fact the daughter of an Armenian immigrant and is not herself an ‘American’ either, but with her hair blonde and flowing in the wind, subtle nods to classic imagery of beautiful Western women dripping in each shot, West highlights the idea that Kim has necessarily had to ‘assimilate’ in order to be accepted; almost every shot of her face is superimposed over this dominating image of the Western Frontier, unifying her beauty with that of the American aesthetic, not her own personal story. Though Kanye is central in the video, there are moments when Kardashian’s mouth moves almost as if singing a melody and her role within the scene is virtually equal to West’s. Interestingly however, the anger is still directed in one direction when the comment sections blow up. Hint: It isn’t to the ‘white woman at the top floor’ – it’s at ‘King Kong’.
In the Bound 2 video, Kanye west has placed himself in a physical representation of the American Dream. The classic scenic imagery, the visual signifiers in the eagle and sprawling highways, it all culminates into the idea that Kanye has dominated this landscape. The problem for the audience arises because the entire scene is so clearly simulated; we could perhaps forgive West if it wasn’t so painfully obvious that the motorcycle is in front of a green screen in a studio, but it’s so obvious that we feel almost insulted.
Returning to Kanye West’s story, his life adds depth and weight to this backdrop. Spending his childhood in disenfranchised parts of America and truly building himself up from the bottom, it could be argued that Kanye West is one of the real-life embodiments of the American Dream being realised; he had a dream, he followed it and made it happen, and now he’s truly ‘free’ to do what he wants to do artistically, professionally and so on.
But, if we look at the way Kanye West is portrayed in the media, such as reactions to his outburst at the MTV Awards – come on guys, the Beyoncé video was absolutely incredible and we all know the decision was politics – or media outlets that turn every single vocalization of his into ‘a rant’, it’s quite clear that ‘America’ (or at least, it’s representatives in the media and politics) aren’t happy about West’s own realisation. It could be argued that the ‘Keepers of the Gate’ to the American Dream have tried persistently to keep West out. Remember Hedi Slimane at PFW; people really don’t want him playing in their sandboxes, but they’re awfully ambiguous about why.
But hold on, if all men are created equal, if the dream is accessible to all, then who are these gatekeepers that perpetually deny Kanye’s right to the dream? How can it be that in the ‘Land of the Free’ and the ‘Home of the Brave’, he is constantly reminded of where he cannot go and what he cannot achieve? Why is it that the rapper-designer-artist-fashionista-creative is told, over and over again, to go back to hip-hop where he belongs?
In the same way that Kanye and Kim violate the physical realities portrayed in Bound 2, West feels that the very foundation of the American Dream is being violated by external forces – manipulated and controlled. In fact, it could very well be that the American Dream is not real at all, that it is just another simulation, and one in which West, and millions of people like him, will always be ‘out of place’. Despite his life playing out as a physical embodiment of the American Dream, West continues to be demonised for his work. Why does he look so out of place on that motorcycle? The same reason all the townsfolk kept staring at Django on that horse.
Kanye knows that the image of the American Dream that is fed to thousands of people across America, particularly young people, is not the whole story; as one of the few people that made it out of those marginalised American communities, he knows all too well that the scenes constructed for the American Dream were never built with people like him in mind. That he would ever be able to be ‘fully in the scene’ was never in doubt for him, and perhaps this video isn’t to do with the falsehood recognised by the many audience members; perhaps it’s to do with the falsehoods that they fail to recognise elsewhere.
As a result, in the same way that we feel cheated to see this ‘half-finished’ video that barely even tries to convince us of its authenticity, West too feels cheated by a philosophy that screams Opportunity and American Dream, but always refuses to relinquish the keys when that opportunity finally knocks.
Just as we could forgive Kanye if the scene wasn’t so lacking in authenticity, West too feels like he could forgive the mainstream media and American society for its denial of his right to success if it didn’t do so under a manipulative veil of equality and opportunity. Yes, Bound 2 presents a totally fake and falsified notion of the American Dream; what West is asking is where the real image can be found.