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What Happened: September 9, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Cryptocurrency vs. Govt; Men drop out; Kanye’s Donda

The Scroll
September 09, 2021

The Big Story

With the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) threatening to sue his cryptocurrency company, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong took his complaints public Tuesday. Armstrong accused the SEC of “sketchy behavior” in a tweet thread challenging the agency’s regulatory jurisdiction. The exchange previews the fight between decentralized cryptocurrencies and the federal government that will be one of the defining political conflicts of the next decade. The immediate dispute centers on whether a digital lending product called Lend is a security, which would make it subject to SEC regulation, or a different kind of product outside the agency’s purview. Armstrong not only maintains the latter but also claims that the SEC refused to answer Coinbase’s queries, including “why they think it’s a security.” After Coinbase became the first U.S. cryptocurrency company to go public in April, Armstrong claims that “[t]he SEC was the only regulator that refused to meet with me, saying ‘we’re not meeting with any crypto companies.’” On one side in this fight are the anti-centralization crypto companies. They argue, correctly, that much of what passes for regulation is a bricolage of bureaucratic red tape that kills innovation and of rules shaped by more established industries whose lobbying has bent the system in their favor. On the other side are the regulators who claim, with reason, that crypto companies are turning their attempt to avoid any meaningful regulation into a matter of principle, when it’s really driven by profit.

Read it here:

Today’s Back Pages: Ross Anderson on Kanye West’s Donda

The Rest

The college gender gap hit an all-time high last year, with women leading men by almost 20 points and making up 59.5% of current students—compared to 40.5% who are male. According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group, men made up an overwhelming 71% of the total 1.5 million student drop in enrollment over the past five years. Hopefully, one day scholars will discover why so many privileged and toxic males are leaving these safe, intersectionally appropriate spaces.
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The Taliban announced the formation of a new government Tuesday, three weeks after seizing control of Afghanistan in a rapid offensive that met little resistance. Unsurprisingly, the government is dominated by ethnic Pashtuns and Taliban loyalists. The U.S. State Department responded Tuesday by voicing its concern over the lack of female representation, which was—not to put too fine a point on it—a cartoonishly stupid objection, like complaining to the KKK that it doesn’t have enough Black members.

An unknown number of Americans were among the 200 foreigners allowed to leave Afghanistan today on a flight from Kabul bound for Doha, Qatar. “The White House said before the flight that there were roughly 100 American citizens left in Afghanistan. But several veterans groups have said that number is too low, off by perhaps hundreds,” according to the Associated Press.

Wrapping buildings in foil until they look like baked potatoes can help them survive wildfires, including the ones now burning across the western United States. The specialized material looks like standard aluminum foil on the outside, but the inside is made of strands of polyester and fiberglass that can block up to 92% of the convective heat. It won’t save a cabin already engulfed in flames, but “it is effective for protecting structures for a short period while the wildfire front passes—five to 10 minutes,” engineering professor Fumiaki Takahashi tells the San Francisco Chronicle.
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Mark Ronson, an A-list music producer and big-time tastemaker, got married to Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer. Ronson, 45, whose producing credits include Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga, made the announcement Saturday in an Instagram post featuring a photo of the newlyweds in front of a chuppah.

More bad news for Chinese online gaming firms Tencent and NetEase, whose value took another steep drop Wednesday after a public warning Wednesday from Beijing that they had better comply with new restrictions sharply curbing video-game usage for minors. It’s estimated that the Chinese gaming industry has lost more than $1 trillion in value since the government began its campaign to limit gaming addiction and reduce “dangerous” usage among minors.`

Daily COVID-19 cases in the United States were four times higher following Labor Day than they were in the same period last year, while daily deaths have doubled compared to then. Top health officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci are blaming the dramatic increase on holdouts refusing to get vaccinated, but that explanation does not account for why countries such as Israel and Mongolia, with some of the highest vaccination rates in the world, are now leading the world in daily COVID-19 cases. 

Israeli police raised the country’s alert level to three Thursday, its second highest, as a dramatic prison escape discovered Monday led to riots and other disturbances in jails across the country. A massive manhunt continues for the prisoners who escaped from the high-security Gilboa Prison in northern Israel, while the government prepares to form a commission to investigate the causes of the security failure.

Pay attention and you’ll notice that the hiccups and shortages in the global supply chain are starting to add up, such as the price at the gas pump. “Milk, juice, car repairs, these are all small. Little disruptions,” writes Dr. Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of an organization called Climate Interactive, who puts some of the pieces together here:

My new “hobby” is watching supply chains do weird stuff. I don’t think most of us are fully seeing what’s happening yet, and I think many are dismissing things that we do see as one-offs of a weird year rather than looking for the patterns underneath.

— Dr. Elizabeth Sawin (@bethsawin) September 4, 2021

The Back Pages

Scroll contributor Ross Anderson on Kanye West’s Donda

“All black everything.”

So repeats the chorus of the clipping track “All Black,” about a slave on an abandoned spaceship, crying out hopelessly against the infinite emptiness of space.

I’ve been thinking about this song a lot. For all the bombast and theater of its launch, and all its various controversies and delays and the stories of its guest appearances and maker, Donda is fundamentally about that blackness: the darkness of the void and mind, which colors Kanye’s flak-jacket costumes and fills Donda’s empty album art. It’s about a post-divorce dad and long-mourning son in the midst of mental shadows, reflecting on his place in the dirt and how little the extravagances of his life actually matter but—unlike that space-faring slave—seeing a way to meaning when he looks to the sky and sees light from his creator.

The reason Christian rock can only aspire to mediocrity is for the same reason that propaganda never reaches true artistic greatness: The messages always override and dominate the artistry, so experimentation and novelty can never be tolerated if it obscures the point.

Often, Kanye’s experimentation does harm this album, but it also allows him to grasp greatness that only art inspired by the divine really can. I share Christopher Hitchens’ argument that the great religious artworks could never have been made about evolution or the cosmos, for art made in awe and celebration of a divine creator can capture a spirit that no secular art can. And Donda is a great example of that.

Or, at least, that’s what Donda aims to be, when its maker isn’t wandering down detours in this 27-track goliath.

Each Kanye album brings with it a new style and sound for the artist—and often, the whole industry after it—and that of his 10th album, Donda, is a blend of gospel, rock, and traditional Kanye production. This is introduced immediately with the odd, eerie “Donda Chant,” in which Syleena Johnson repeats the titular name of Kanye’s beloved, lost mother as a heartbeat and religious mantra before spilling into the bombastic electro-rock “Jail,” and in these first two minutes, you are introduced to both how Kanye uses strong gospel elements, in the choirs throughout and the emphasis on repetition and mantra over lyrical complexity, and how he smashes this into sounds he’s played with before. “God Breathed” takes inspiration from the glitchy electronica of (his greatest album) Yeezus and the beautiful transition of its best song, “New Slaves,” and melds them with choral ecstasy. “Heaven and Hell” is a lyrical power ballad, akin to “Gorgeous and Power” but with a new emphasis that goes beyond disregarding consumerism and nay-sayers, to considering a purpose other than yourself. And there’s a lot of Life of Pablo too. This infusion of gospel and preference for electric guitar over drums also elevates otherwise flippant songs, such as the “Moon” interlude and fame ode “Pure Souls.” Both sound far more impactful, and deep, than they ought to.

Songs such as “24” and “No Child Left Behind” return to a more traditional gospel style, which he also played with on his last two albums, Jesus Is King and Jesus Is Born (the latter with his “Sunday Service Choir”), but it’s in the less traditionally religious songs that Kanye is at his best. “Hurricane” was originally recorded in 2018, years before his return to religion and recent divorce that makes its central verse so potent and heart-wrenching:

It’s a lot to digest when your life always movin’
Architectural Digest, but I needed home improvement
Sixty-million-dollar home, never went home to it
Genius gone clueless, it’s a whole lot to risk

Similarly, though “Jail” is a pulsing, energetic hit with a rascally chorus, the lyrics speak to loss and the acceptance of it, either as a part of God’s plan or an inevitable failure on the path of righteousness. And then there’s “Jesus Lord,” his longest, most narrative verse in many years. He slightly stumbles through each of its many lines, trying to express more words than the beat can hold, but this rough tone gives them urgency and significance—that they have to be said—and an intimate, personal tone that polish would ruin. Throughout the album, his words are often powerful precisely because he isn’t spilling his emotions but rather communicating how he feels as men often do: indirectly. The deflection and complex emotions behind lines such as “you made a choice that’s your bad, single life ain’t so bad” is what makes it hit.

However, the lack of discipline and consistency erodes the quality when it comes to the (many, many) features. When making his opus, My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy, Kanye rejected good guest verses, telling them that he knew they could do better; and they did. Donda is anything but that, bloated with unnecessary guests whose quality varies dramatically.

Some are stunning. Vory’s inclusion on “God Breathed” and “Jonah” are utterly beautiful, and Lil Durk interjects the latter song with the album’s best verse, about loss and violence. Similarly, Fivio Foreign distinguishes himself with an extended verse on the drill-inspired “Off the Grid,” and Conway the Machine is surprisingly intimate and sensitive on “Keep My Spirit Alive.” However, the ad-libbed gun-pops of his Griselda co-member, Westside Gunn, shows where laziness and Kanye’s belief in an artist let the quality slip—as also seen in Jay-Z’s unremarkable “Jail” verse, written four hours before the first Donda performance and sounding like it. And then there’s complete garbage, such as Baby Keem’s verse. There is no excuse for lines like “Bada the bada the boom, I bada the boom, I bada the bing” and “Tame Imp—, Tame Impala, Tame Impala, stay outside, huh”—and certainly not with an album of this tone.

There’s no discipline here, and it’s particularly frustrating considering Kanye’s blanket “no cursing” policy, which weakens his guests verses and cost him André 3000’s contribution on the leaked track “Life of the Party.” André’s other issue with that track was Kanye’s inability or unwillingness to stay on point. André’s verse spoke beautifully about mourning, religion, and his mother—the core themes of the album—which Kanye followed with a long verse about … Drake? Similarly, some of his typical, corny Kanye-isms add to the album—such as the joke about Adam being black at the end of “Off the Grid”—but others just detract from otherwise sober verses: for example, describing his relationship with Kim Kardashian as “the best collab since Taco Bell and KFC” in the raw, tragic “Lord I Need You,” about the collapse of his marriage and how it has wrecked him too.

There’s a similar fog in the theology of the album, as it features many biblical references (though fewer than on Jesus Is King) but also plenty of unapologetic sinners, be that Marilyn Manson (sexual assault/grooming), DaBaby (homophobia), and Jay Electronica (constant antisemitism, and he opens his verse with a reference to Rothschilds—again). I have no objection to music by “problematic people”—be these claims spurious or all too credible and serious—but serial domestic-abuser Chris Brown singing on “New Again” that “I repent for everything that I’ma do again,” is more than slightly sickly and treats divine forgiveness like a loophole.

And yet at the core of this album is the yearning for God’s embrace, the singing out to the silence of God; and when it touches that spirit, the effects are heavenly—namely on the album’s gold star, “Come to Life,” one of Kanye’s all-time greatest songs. With a rising, complicating piano backing and dissonant choral vocals, Kanye sings from his post-separation darkness, imagining that he had lived another life: one in which he listened to his wife more, and she was still there, and the fear of dying alone and regret for his mistakes weren’t. And, in vain hope, he asks if by putting these thoughts into “pen, maybe they’ll come to life.” It’s no accident that the powerful visuals from the last live performance have been the album’s only music video, with Kanye sitting alone, in a specter of his childhood home, engulfed in flames, and then coming into the light, living that alternative life and remarrying his now separated wife. If you’re anything like me, you’ll watch and listen to it on repeat and have a tear in the eye more than a few times.

Like the best of this album, the video is pious, vulnerable, epic, and intimate, and everything you want from Kanye; the religious embrace of Donda allows him to achieve something that none of his previous work truly could.

This is a uniquely flawed album among his discography, having the least discipline and most inconsistency. There’s a 10-track album-of-the-year masterpiece within this, but it’s bloated at 27 tracks, with the four “part 2” bonus tracks being wholly unnecessary for the “standard” edition of the album, and tracks such as “Remote Control,” “Believe What I Say,” and “New Again” completely incongruous with the overall themes and tone of the album. Similarly, the inclusion of a reworked version of Pop Smoke’s already threadbare posthumous “Tell the Vision” is a nice tribute, but an utterly unnecessary downgrade.

But when Donda is great, my god is it great. And, in many ways, it’s due to Kanye’s rough spontaneity.

In its vulnerability and honesty about his confusion and disarray and darkness, it’s relatable and moving; but unlike that great clipping track, Kanye shows a way out of the shadows.

For a religious man like him, it’s through divinity. For an atheist like me, it’s in the inspiration and brilliance that people like him can create amid the darkness.

It isn’t all black everything. There is still light in the darkness. And it’s truly spectacular.

Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel.