Arthur Russell, Kanye West and the Restless Creative Genius
Like Kanye, disco auteur Russell was known for obsessively re-mixing the same track hundreds of times
Nothing totally coalesces on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. Like compressing an entire movie into a selection of short scenes, the album often feels incomplete and rushed.
Arthur Russell was another restless musician, prone to manic bursts of creative energy that resulted in incomplete-sounding pieces. On 1986’s World of Echo, his only full-length album, songs start and stop frenetically. Like entering a conversation halfway or walking into a room to find Russell fiddling with his cello and whispering to himself, the music offers a glimpse into a restless world.
So it makes sense, that on The Life of Pablo, Kanye samples Russell's melancholic romance tune "Answers Me," on his track "30 Hours" and turns the lyric: "Baby, I'll be / where the eyelids go" into "Baby, I still / drove 30 hours to you," as he recalls a long drive to see an old lover.
It’s a fitting ode to restlessness that’s emphasized by Kanye’s rambling ad-lib outro.
Sampling and reworking lyrics is nothing new to Kanye. In 2006 he mixed the Chaka Khan lyric “through the fire” to sound like “through the wire” on one of his debut singles and his use of samples from acts like Can, King Crimson and Aphex Twin, have helped would-be snobby music haters, if not warm to him, at least hate on him less.
Sampling Russell will do much the same.
The Life of Pablo like World of Echo will one day be seen as an overlooked art-pop masterpieces created from a visionary ahead of his time. Both albums give the impression of an artist working on several different ideas, never committing fully to any one aesthetic but instead providing listeners with a bit of everything.
Like Kanye, Russell was known for obsessively re-mixing the same track multiple times. Of the 1000 tapes uncovered after his death in 1992, 40 were different versions of the same song. Kanye recorded an insane 75 different mix downs of “Stronger”.
This endless tampering and perfectionism borders on the unhealthy; but without it, we wouldn’t’ have Loveless, Smile or Chinese Democracy.
“Name one genius that aint crazy”, Kanye raps on “Feedback”, the most potent line on The Life of Pablo.
Arthur Russell was simply a quiet genius; Kanye is the loudest of this century.