We are never going to completely understand Kanye West. Let’s all acknowledge that now — nothing he does should be taken at face value alone. Even after his most literal tweetstorms, we’re still left scratching our heads wondering what it all means. That much can be said for the video for “Fade,” the third single off The Life of Pablo, which debuted at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday. We can’t fully understand it, but we’re sure as hell going to try.
In many ways, “Fade” is very much in line with West’s recent work: committed to a specific artistic aesthetic, celebrating the power of a woman while simultaneously sexualizing her, making a statement about society. And, like West, it’s unpredictable.
Initially, the viewer is entranced by G.O.O.D Music artist-slash-Yeezy-protégée Teyana Taylor — her dance moves, her ripped body, and her obvious send-up to Flashdance. Then, the video takes a turn for the borderline pornographic, showing Taylor, naked, in a NSFW shower session with her real life fiancé Iman Shumpert. But just when you think “Oh, okay, I think I get it,” the video cuts to the final, and most puzzling, shot: Taylor, as a lioness, posing amongst a flock of sheep with Shumpert and (presumably) their baby.
“What the actual fuck does that mean?” could sum up the majority of the internet’s initial reactions.
Reddit users were quick to come up with a starkly sexual interpretation of the video: “At the end, Teyana becomes a cat. She literally becomes pussy. This stands out a lot to me, especially after such a sexualized video,” wrote user ChipSkyLurk. Several agreed: West is using the jarring pussy metaphor to shock viewers, to make you feel dirty for “being a slobbering horny animal.”
Well, sort of. But not completely.
Others want to point out the biblical aspect of it — “the lion and lamb shall lay down together” thing — which doesn’t fully cover it, either. Yes, religion is an important component of West’s career. He calls himself Yeezus, won a Grammy for one of his earliest singles, “Jesus Walks,” and his catalog is full of religious references. The thing is, there aren’t any in this song. “Fade” has nothing to do with the Bible.
(His previous single, “Wolves,” was ripe with references that would have made a lion-sheep visual metaphor work, what with all the comparisons of Kim and Ye to Mary and Joseph, the imagery of daughter North in Jesus-like rags, and the extended reference to the Matthew 7:15. That is a song that sets itself up for a video that could be 100 percent explained by religion and yet it ended up being a Balmain ad instead… But I digress.)
No, “Fade” isn’t built upon a purely biblical explanation, either. Sexuality and religion are influences, but we need to pay closer attention to the aesthetic. That Flashdance homage isn’t just a stylistic choice.
The ‘80s film has multiple parallels to West’s life. A blue collar girl aspires to great artistic achievements but is a woman in a man’s world, working as a welder by day and an exotic dancer by night. The professional dance world is not her world — it’s polished, stuffy, upper class. When she finally lands an audition at an elite dance conservatory, she initially turns it down after realizing it was an opportunity born from someone’s personal connection and not based on her own work and merit. But she recognizes the need to seize every available opportunity, the fact that getting an audition is one thing, but being good enough to make it in is another. She goes through with the audition in her own way: gritty, unconventional, authentic.
Multiple people in West’s life fit into similar storylines: West himself, a college dropout from Chicago who wanted to be a star and had to work through ghost producing gigs for years to get there. His wife, Kim Kardashian: one of the most successful women in the world, who was able to turn her sex appeal into a lucrative business — an unconventional woman mogul in a man’s world. The video’s star herself: Teyana Taylor, who went from being in an episode of My Super Sweet Sixteen to a G.O.O.D. Music signee and West mentee by way of Pharrell Williams. Even West’s ex Amber Rose, a former stripper turned entrepreneur, fits in there.
The Flashdance homage is aesthetically pleasing, yes, but it serves a greater purpose, especially when the final twist comes. Put in the work, and do things your way, and you’ll succeed. While you’re at it, embrace your sexuality. There is nothing shameful about the human body; it’s powerful.
But when you succeed in a world where you don’t naturally belong, in a world that doesn’t want you to succeed, there are going to be a lot of critics. This is something West is no stranger to. People don’t want him to succeed, they don’t want him to even think of success as a possibility — something he even referenced it in his speech setting the video up:
“I know times for me, I sit down and talk to older, like, like, rich people. You know, a.k.a. white, you know. And they tell me, ‘Don’t compare yourself to Steve Jobs. Don’t compare yourself to Walt Disney,’ and my friend Zekiah told me… they tell me, ‘Don’t compare yourself to these people, right.’ My friend Zekiah told me there’s three keys to keeping people impoverished: that’s taking away their esteem, taking away their resources, and taking away their role models. My role models are artists, merchants. There’s less than ten that I can name in history. Truman. Ford. Hughes. Disney. Jobs. West.”
To West, all those voices of doubt are meaningless — they’re all sheep. The final image of Taylor isn’t of the singer as a cat. No, she’s a lion — a lion surrounded by sheep. Hate on Kanye West all you want. Try to hold him back. Talk down to him. It doesn’t matter what you say.
A lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of sheep.