There is an aesthetic phenomenon which I sometimes think of as the Season Four of life. Kierkegaard says in his Repetition, that the first repetition of something — the second instance of it — is not really the most important one, but that the third one is, because that sets up that this is a series and not just a fluke. My interest immediately turned to fourth things: once the series is set up, what can something new do? Several television shows that I like — LOST, Mad Men, The Wire, The Office — happen to have major culminating moments toward the ends of their third seasons, and I was fascinated by the fact that despite that…they kept going. (Breaking Bad and The Sopranos have similar moments at the ends of their fourth seasons; Silicon Valley does it every year; I think the point stands). This fascination can run good or bad; with some of these things, there’s a sense that they should have ended at their big fireworks. With others, culminations culminated, they seemed to just have more space: the major tensions resolved, it was something to see what these characters will just do, particularly as the mode of storytelling on these shows often entered, around the same time, into a kind of mannerist explorative mode. Aesthetically, this came to be one of my favorite things to observe; as a kind of way to live, it is worse. Nevertheless, apart from occasional panics, I have felt myself to be in some version of the Season Four of life since about the time I graduated from college.
I graduated from college in 2007 and was miserable. Sometime in the middle of my third year of college, I had decided that going to college was the only thing I really felt like doing. I had no prospects of doing anything remotely college-like after May 2007; the unformed mess of a future reinforced no idea to me so much as a squandered past. I spent most of my time frowning and listening to Sunset Rubdown. Every idea for improvement — go to grad school, learn how to teach, get a writing job — seemed instead like something I would have already had to do. I felt myself to be in some profound way off of schedule; everything was untimely.
Here is one untimely thing: I had an idea that one of my friends had given me, just before graduation, a CD with Kanye West’s Graduation burned onto it, but a look at the drop date for my Graduation – which was in September – suggests that that can’t be right. But anyway this friend did give me Graduation, on which the tracks were out of order. I had something of a crush on this friend, and so I assiduously cultivated things to think about Graduation so that I could have a good reason to talk to her about something. There were other albums and songs – lots of them – which we both loved, and which I could have tried to work up into conversational grist, and I did; but the haptic connection to an actual CD that she had given to me made Graduation special, despite the fact that, as I recall, we barely ever talked about it apart from me idiotically telling her on three different occasions that the sample in “Good Morning” is “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” by Elton John.
Graduation was the Kanye West album that came after The College Dropout and Late Registration, and therefore it had, in terms of the semi-narrative that these albums have, culminating force. I am a mostly casual Kanye fan, though I had something like a religious experience when I heard “Ultralight Beam,” and I am told that I was extremely boring and annoying about my enthusiasm for The Life of Pablo by people who would know; in April 2016 I was in an apartment in Philadelphia at four in the morning and kept playing songs from that album until another member of the party, fed up, commandeered the aux cord and put on “Gravel Pit.” Graduation not only ended the series of albums with higher-ed titles, but also marked the last album cover with the bear, transformed into a sleek Takashi Murakami guy hurtling into the unknown. I cannot now, of course, have much of any sense of Graduation in a sequence without thinking about the albums that came after it. The post-Graduation albums do exist, I think, in something like the Season Four of life. They are certainly more spacious, a departure from the “chop up the beats Kanye” that describes the soul samples in the first two albums but also the production on Graduation. It is something of a mystery what I must have thought of those aspects of the album then, without knowing, as I do know, what was to come later. It is similarly difficult to remember precisely my frame of mind in the months that I listened to the album all of the time, living with my aunt and uncle and their children on Massachusetts’s South Shore, going out to get the (since discontinued) White Hot Chocolate from Dunkin Donuts in my (since sold) 1996 Toyota Camry, listening to my friend’s Kanye CD on which the tracks had mysteriously, I learned years later, been placed out of album order.
For all that, I want to talk a little bit about the line from “Everything I Am” that I heard at the gym the other day, and which got me thinking about all of this in the first place. That line is this installment’s sentence:
People talk so much shit about me in barbershops/they forget to get they hair cut
The lyrics are sweetly arrogant and capacious (the chorus goes, “everything I’m not made me everything I am”). He raps about various places in which he fails to fit in, and ends with a socially conscious verse about Chicago. In the middle of all this, though, comes this great line about barbershops, the delivery of which is breathtaking. The line occurs in the middle of song that consists for its first two verses (from where this line comes), mostly of end-rhymed (or end-near-rhymed) schwas; the choruses, which begin with the nice flat a of “Damn”, continue with that sort of vowel (“fan”, “jam”, “am”, “again”, “him” pronounced almost to sound like “ham”). For this one line though, Kanye seems almost to stop rapping and just speak, a little louder than he had been: “People talk SO MUCH SHIT ABOUT ME AT BARBERSHOPS,” landing on the decidedly un-schwa-like, SHOPS (which does carry over the terminal p from the last two lines, but which just sounds so different); and then winding down with the triumphant hyperbole, “they forget to get they hair cut.” The next line is “okay, fair enough,” as if to settle back down, conceding a point. The line runs roughshod over the timing of the song; it’s a little piece of versification that to me, now and I think then, like the disruption or abrogation of correctly ordered time. The haters, missing their haircuts, are out of time too; their pre- and post-haircut selves too much the same. What sounds like Kanye unhitching himself from meter has done this.
What it sounds like, too, though, is Kanye from about five or six years later, the Kanye who sings a cappella about missing the old Kanye for a whole track. And when I think about the general out-of-time sensation that I felt like I lived in for years, starting when I lived in southeastern Mass and continuing up to today, it’s hard not to think — even though it’s anachronistic — that Kanye is not only stepping outside of the song’s versification, but also into the future. I keep giving myself the sense that I must have somehow known this too when I was driving around with my white hot chocolate, that I knew that the Kanye of Graduation and I both were into the Season Four of life; which is of course under normal conditions impossible. It’s not a category that actually exists. This is one of my problems with time, when time is going in the direction in which it is usually understood to go. There is so much semantically encrusted around this one moment of me staring at myself (which is what this all is) that it seems, though, that the loops of meaning that almost but doesn’t quite cohere might suggest, or begin to, that the usual understanding could be subject to some pressure.