Wabi–sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.
To be honest, I doubt my Western World rap-centric reading is entirely in keeping with the pure Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, but I’m going to use it as a jumping off point to talk about something that’s very important to me: art that sidesteps any aims towards the conventional metrics of “beauty” or “perfection” and why it’s important.
One thing that’s really cool about the old world, and mostly lost in today’s world, is that everything was made by hand. Part of the wabi-sabi aesthetic arose out of the practice of peasants taking and using pieces of discarded pottery – cups, or bowls, or teapots – that were thought by the craftsman to be failures. Works with cracks or awkward shapes, blemishes, and imperfections. The idea for the craftsman was to create “perfection” but in many ways those flawed off-casts, with all the personality and uniqueness those very human mistakes granted them, were even more beautiful. And today, those discarded pieces are often more sought after and valued than the “perfect” pieces the potters were chasing to begin with.
This is all the more relevant today; in a time when machine-crafted teapots can fly off the conveyor belt by the hundreds of thousands, every single one looking perfectly, completely, systematically identical to the last. Those beautiful blemishes are all the more difficult to find. From the intricate effect chains of the modern recording studio with their glossy mix-and-masters, to the special effects our films and television programs employ, we’ve empowered the craftsman to hide the cracks in his pottery on a level never before seen. There’s a sense of uniform, calculated “perfection” to almost every piece of media that we’re presented with in our day-to-day lives.
The rap world is bucking this trend in some pretty phenomenal ways right now, and while there are still plenty of sanitized, fast-ball-down-the-middle-of-the-plate rappers in the game today (I’m looking at you; Macklemore, Wiz Khalifa, Tyga, New Yorker Magazine-era Jay-Z, et al) by and large there seems to be a movement by both established acts and up-and-comers to make rap a little bit more warped and ugly.
Mac Miller, for example, cut his teeth spitting accessible, hook-ey lifestyle raps over the most inoffensive of jazz-rap production imaginable. In recent years, however, his work has taken a turn for the dark and disjointed. Mixing warbled and pitch-warped vocals over starless-sky-black textured productions. The same kid who used to drop cheesey lines about letting girls wear his snapbacks has taken to dense, multi-syllable free-associations blending together obscure pop culture references and recreational drug use with themes of the outsider, paranoia, depression, and alienation. In the process he’s crafted a major testament to the 21st Century quarter-life crisis. He’s also done everything that an artist with his marketability would be unable to do if he were working on a Record Label assembly line. He’s no longer putting out those perfect teapots.
It really can’t be overstated how important the home-recording and indie explosion has been for the hip hop world, culturally. No other genre has embraced and exploited the model on the same level that rappers have, to the point that today even major artists (like Mac Miller) are recording the majority of their material in their own homes, far from the prying eyes of the industry suits and teapot inspectors. The biggest breakthrough rapper of the year, undoubtedly, is Young Thug, and Thugger has built his leaned-out unorthodox aesthetic almost entirely by bouncing from one Atlanta bedroom to the next, spitting his one-of-a-kind, off-key gurgling autotuned wails into anything that looks like it might record sound, over anything that sounds like it might be a beat.
The glittering, stratospheric spire to this phenomenon is of course 2013’s most polarizing album: “Yeezus” by Kanye “Kanye West” West (yes, his own name is also his nickname.) Much has been made about the rushed nature of “Yeezus” with Rick Rubin on record as saying nearly half of the vocals were recorded in a single 2-hour session, and that many of the lyrics were written at a similar breakneck pace, in order to mesh with Kanye’s insane schedule. Necessity is the mother of invention, though, and a strong argument can be made that these limitations unlocked all of Kanye’s greatest strengths. Bled dry of the sort of “technical” markers that rappers usually try to highlight, the writing on the album is instead an expression of pure id. A speed-of-thought gutting and shedding of every last bit of stuffing that Dropout bear still had stitched inside himself. The words seem to tumble and foam out from Yeezy’s pen with a furious abandon that defies any designs he might have of arranging them into nice, accessible, symmetric rows for you.
The recording process follows the same hurried schedule. For the first time in his career, Kanye – a notorious lab rat, perfectionist and constant tinkerer – left mixes raw and did a minimal amount of vocal takes for each track. ‘Ye’s voice careens and ricochets through the gravel-quarry production, cracking with emotion, crackling with energy, cackling with lunacy. Every flaw in his vocal becomes a strength, every break and stumble puts cracks in the veneer and bathes the inner-workings of the machine with brilliant-white moonlight. It reinforces the visceral beauty of the work being created. In the end, it’s all these little imperfections that make this the greatest album of his career. It’s every wrong turn we make that makes us who we are. I’ve heard albums like “Yeezus” referred to as “flawed masterpieces” and I think that’s kind of an awkward phrase: in fact all true masterpieces should be deeply and intrinsically flawed for as long as all master craftsmen are just as flawed themselves. Presenting a surface “perfection” that doesn’t reflect the reality beneath does a disservice to both the artist and the audience.
So next time you’re writing something – maybe make one less pass editing. If you’re drawing, try putting the eraser away and you just might be amazed at what begins to take shape.