If one were attempting to define black genius in its modern form, the week of April 16 provides no shortage of starting points. We could begin with Beyoncé Knowles-Carter—the singer, mother, and pop maximalist who understands that music can, and should, be a kind of cinema—and her historically transcendent Coachella performance. Or we could just as easily begin with Kendrick Lamar; the Compton, California artist became the first rapper to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, for his searing album DAMN. Or perhaps it’s best we start with Kanye West, who reemerged this week on Twitter with a meditative shortform treatise on human existence and the nobility of creative production.
Rendered through these three artists, the sweat and gristle of black genius—which is to say, the bone-tough work of black genius—was nearly impossible to escape, online and off. Its ubiquity, too, inflamed the kind of lazy criticism that seeks to invalidate the precision, thunder, and totality of artistic exceptionalism (this is especially true when cultivated outside the white mainstream). Has Beyoncé eclipsed Michael Jackson as the greatest entertainer of all time? Was Kendrick Lamar actually worthy of such an award? Is Kanye going on another one of his insane rants? Such misguided inquiries are fortified with an identical structural curiosity. They are criticisms that wonder, dangerously: Just how should black genius occupy our world?
Black artistic genius is a statement or body of work that exists in the absolute; it is singular brilliance that, even if consumed by the masses, was nurtured in and speaks to the pulse of black life. Such work confers an awakening upon its audience. Black genius work is transformative and transcendent, illuminating both the interior self and the behaviors of the exterior world. (Think of Stevie Wonder’s music or of Toni Morrison’s writing.) It’s not hard, then, to see why the Pulitzer committee might select DAMN., a bold account of fact and prophecy. Lamar now finds himself in the company of supreme storytellers like Ornette Coleman, Margo Jefferson, August Wilson, and Philip Roth.
According to Billboard, the vote among jurors was unanimous in the rapper’s favor—since the inaugural music prize in 1943, recipients had exclusively been classical or jazz musicians—with one committee member citing the album for its symmetry of “melody, harmony, counterpoint, [and] texture.” The album’s strength, though, lies in its insistence on sight. Lamar’s is a divine vision, and much of the album is filled with a linguistic searching. A track like “FEAR.” charts the rapper’s private frictions—he wants us to see what he sees; the pull of death, the despair that feels a crater wide. “I’ll prolly die tryna defuse two homies arguin’/ I’ll prolly die 'cause that’s what you do when you’re 17,” he raps. “All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things.” He wants to make sense of the fog around him. He looks for a way out of it; he searches through verse. What secures the album as a chronicle of force and feeling is its sustained elevation, its mastery of self.
The equally masterful work of Beyoncé conjures a comparable insistence on the senses. Her headlining performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival this past weekend (she’ll headline again on Saturday) was genius in real time. It wasn’t so much a vision of black genius being born as it was black genius, thoroughly defined, doing what it does—stir, exclaim, surprise, fulfill. From the moment she materialized on stage as Nefertiti, it was clear: this would be no uniform benediction. She was going to lead the audience somewhere untraveled.
Beyoncé's Coachella performance wasn’t so much a vision of black genius being born as it was black genius, thoroughly defined, doing what it does—stir, exclaim, surprise, fulfill.
Across a two-hour set, the most meaningful striations were in fact the images she mustered so alluringly. This was no mistake; as Instagram and her recent visual projects can attest, the singer’s greatest unsung gift is the art of image curation. Her source material was radiant and exhaustive: HBCUs and historically black fraternities and sororities; Houston’s chopped-and-screwed music; the black church; the Afro-diaspora. Most of all, it was the very sight of Beyoncé herself—and understanding that there’s a tangible power found in seeing what she presents as ordinary, grand, and beautiful. There was Coachella before Beyoncé; now there will be Coachella after Beyoncé. (#Beychella has remained a top trending topic all week.)
Kanye West embodies singularity in this way, too. He belongs to a genre of artist whose creative outpouring—particularly his music, prolific and glacial, with an appetite for theater—marks a before and after. In recent years, he’s taken a multi-hyphenate approach to his work: he raps and produces (his follow-up to 2016’s The Life of Pablo is said to arrive June 1), he conceptualizes furniture, he designs clothing for Adidas. It’s genius as abstraction—free-flowing and open-armed. “I don’t wish to be number one anymore, I wish to be water,” he said in a recent talk with interior designer Axel Vervoordt. “I wish to be closer to UNICEF or something where I can take the information that I have and help as many people as possible.”
One way West intends to help people is through Break the Simulation, an experimental “philosophy book” he’s issuing via Twitter in scattered bursts (Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell performed a similar literary feat in 2014 when he wrote a short story across 280 tweets). West is an enigmatic presence on the platform—he’s scrubbed his account clean more than once—and whether Break the Simulation bears the authority of an actual book is beside the point. His ruminations point to a larger undertaking. “No publisher or publicist will tell me what to put where or how many pages to write,” he wrote in one tweet. “This is not a financial opportunity this is an innate need to be expressive.”
Expression is also a matter of sight—the desire for others to see as you see. One might be quick to misunderstand his theories on self-value (“As a creative your ideas are your strongest form of currency”) or purpose (“Some people have to work within the existing consciousness while some people can shift the consciousness”) as total bluster, but West’s tweets sync squarely with his career-long artistic project: to create a new template with the hope that one might access a vision of untapped possibilities.
I get it. It’s much easier to be cynical. The revolutionary nature of black genius, and the pressures of sustained excellence, invite all manner of heresy. It welcomes unwarranted crucifixion. One common rebuke to black genius in the public eye is the belief that it can only prevail as a single entity: there can only be one of us. This week an argument broke out online pitting the otherworldly talent of Beyoncé against the otherworldly talent of Michael Jackson (who many regard as the greatest music artist to ever live).
The work of Beyoncé, West, and Lamar was a reminder that black genius exists in the multiple.
Fans eagerly debated the dispute, but that it was even volleyed gives credence to a cultural falsity. In part, it’s reflective of how blackness is often puppeteered in the mainstream—the notion and need for us to have one black leader, one master artist, one athlete of wonder-inducing fiber. And it’s not that the world only wants to grant black excellence a single avatar, it’s that there’s always been a drive to crown a Greatest of All Time. This sort of argument works to disparage the majesty and might of Beyoncé’s Coachella set. Her work can sit alongside Jackson’s; it need not bow to it or unseat it. They can live together in conversation, emboldening each other.
This week the work of Beyoncé, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar was a reminder that black genius exists in the multiple. It has many forms, faces, shapes. It does not seek to be made small through cynicism or control—only to be itself, loud and unyielding. Thursday afternoon, West let loose another barrage of tweets, one of which was a clip of Lauryn Hill from her 2001 MTV: Unplugged live show. He included no commentary with the footage, and let Hill do the speaking.
It was a fitting selection; the years following her 1998 debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Hill’s genius was cast as obnoxious and difficult. But the work itself could not be denied. “It took a long time for me to understand, you know, what I am is what I am, and I can’t be afraid to expose that to the public. Always getting in trouble, trying to dress it up,” she says in the clip. “I’m just tired of that. Tired of that. Tired of frontin’.”
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