An Open Booklist To Kanye West

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Dear Kanye,

I hope this letter finds you…in a better place than you’ve been lately.

We don’t know each other – or rather, you don’t know me, and I only know of you – so that might not mean much to you. All cards on the table: we probably wouldn’t be friends in real life. It’s hard to say, since I know a lot of what you put into the world is for effect, but even having considered that, I’m generally not real close with people who are capable of those kinds of displays.  You seem like a dude who’s always “on” and I’m a dude who’s mostly “off” unless I’m performing, which isn’t really being “on”, but pretending to be “on.” You know, for effect.

Anyhow, regardless of what I may think of some of the stuff that hits the internet or your catalog, I feel like there’s something I can offer you at a time like this. No jokes, no pot shots, no judgement…just straight offering.

When I’m not writing essays and poems about who doesn’t like black people, I’m a librarian. I know, I know: you think reading is mad overrated (to put it mildly). And I’ll be honest, I’m about to do that shitty thing where someone offers something they do all the time that works for them as though it were a given that it will work for everybody else. I’m going to present some book recommendations that no one can convince me wouldn’t act as a salve for your wounds, whatever wounds they might be. That admission is part of what makes people who do things like this annoying: we don’t really know who we’re talking to, but we do it anyway. I’m totally about to do that, but I’d ask you to bear with me because I’m really, really good at this. Also, I’m a black man who works in the library field, which, statistically speaking, makes me kind of rare. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m the Kanye of librarianship, but I got a couple of fire mixtapes floating around.

Most importantly, I genuinely think this booklist might speak to you. I tried to pick things that I thought, given a fair shake, you might dig. I won’t pretend to know what you’re going through and real talk? I’m usually blasting something you did, not trying to figure out why a celebrity is saying something unconventional. A lot of people do that to you already and even the people who are longtime fans are probably 90% wrong. I get that almost no one actually knows you and that it has been difficult for some time to tell who means you well. The curse of celebrity, and all that. I understand how that can be crippling, not knowing people’s intentions or ever meeting them on unconditional terms. Not to mention the realization that because you are who you are, that is likely to be the case for the rest of your life. So I’m not at any point trying to unpack what you’re dealing with. I don’t know, and I recognize that I don’t know, and human being to human being, I hope you work it out.

Anyway, here’s a list of things that, since you’re not on tour or actively in the spotlight right now, you should think about having someone pick up for you. If you have time, give any of these books ten pages of your time and see if they stick. I think at least one of them might. Be well.

The Hip Hop Wars – Tricia Rose

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This one is about hip hop and its effect on society, if such a relationship exists. I think we can both agree that it does, though we might differ on what that looks like. What Rose does here is not only dig into what’s wrong, but what hip hop could do right. You took some swings at these questions with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This is kind of the thinking behind why swings like that are important. Keep swinging, Ye.

Book of Hours – Kevin Young

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A lot of people speak on your grief like they know it. That’s unfair to you and probably reductive, but in case there are parts of what you’re dealing with related to grief, this is a book you should check out. I’ll warn you now: it’s poetry, but it’s poetry by one of the best cats doing it today. And he isn’t dusty with the shit: Kevin Young is about our age, black, and knows his way around the realities of loss, grief, and how to process them through art. He lost his father a while back and he’s come back again and again to that reality, unpacking it over multiple books, unconcerned entirely about the market for what was his necessary work. That’s because no one book – or album – can contain it. You should know that there are people at your level (in this case in other fields) that understand that. I imagine the composer of 808s and Heartbreak might relate to that.

Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views – Edited by Dore Ashton

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You’ve mentioned Picasso in relationship to yourself in the past, so let’s talk about it. I found those comparisons patently ridiculous, partially because I’ve read this book. Picasso had a great many insights into every level of the game, but the stuff that really stuck with me was how hard he was on his own work. People would gush at an exhibit and he’d be like – and I quote – “Museums are just a lot of lies, and the people who make art their business are mostly imposters.” And every time someone tried to dissect what he was doing with his art he shut them down pretty hard. Not rudely, just anti-intellectually. Someone would ask, “Did you consider this technique over that one?” and Picasso would be like, “Uh, what technique?” You have gangsterism in common with Picasso, but he was the epitome of a fuck-you life. We could all stand to take a little more of that away from Picasso instead of “That drawing is worth a million dollars.”

Hamburger America: A State-by-State Guide to 150 Great Burger Joints – George Motz

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I don’t know what your diet is like, so feel free to switch this out for something similar, but I’m not recommending it for the nutritional value. I’m recommending it because you should add a passion to your life that isn’t tied to anything else you already love or do. We should all keep activities in our lives that are strictly ours, that we can do alone and don’t lend themselves to approval in any way. It’s about the journey, kind of like collecting vinyl or building model train sets (holler at Rod Stewart about that one. His set is SICK). I once read this series by Lawrence Bloch (starts with Hit Man) about an aging assassin who took on jobs later in his career just so he could keep his new stamp collecting habit going. I’m not suggesting you should take up wet work, but you should definitely take up something that requires passion to see through, and is just a little past what you know. A tour of hamburger joints across the country in low key or small town establishments was my thing, though I didn’t get very far down the list. Take the baton, Kanye!

Mingering Mike: An Amazing Career of an Imaginary Superstar – Dori Hadar

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Imagine digging through a record store’s catalog, the used and dusty stuff in the back. Imagine finding some interesting records by this cat named “Mingering Mike” whose album covers suggest he was one of the biggest names in the music business at some point, but you never heard of him and you KNOW music. Imagine finding fifty of those records and 45s, complete with hand drawn covers and liner notes. Imagine that when you check the records for condition, you discover that they’re all cardboard – that there are no actual albums – and that every record you found is one of a kind because they were all done by a teenager trying to escape the world around him. And then he disappeared without a trace. Now imagine all of that really happened because it did. This book is mostly pictures of the album covers and “records” (“Mike” drew the grooves on the records, Ye…the grooves!) with some story mixed in, so it’s a quick burn that you’ll definitely relate to. I remember wanting to be famous in high school and making fake album covers. You know, trying to throw that into the universe to see if it would answer. Mingering Mike took that expressive energy to the next level, except he wasn’t really making the music. That’s some hardcore vision work.

Democracy in Black – Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

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A lot of people would tell you that if you’re going to read one book on racism written in the last few years, it should be The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. I absolutely agree with that recommendation in most circumstances, but this is my list to you, so I’m suggesting this one. It lays out almost all of the same issues and ideas, but in a form that lets you see how they play out in individual people’s lives instead of broad statistics. Glaude puts you in the room with the people in the middle of these true stories, and sometimes we need to see how these things we think we have a grasp on affect real people. Also, if you want to run for president in four years – and apparently that’s less unlikely a goal as anyone assumed a month ago – you’ll need some on-the-ground anecdotes. Again, you could pick either book and not be wrong, and you should definitely get to both, but my gut tells me you’d dig this one more because of the narrative style.

How Music Works – David Byrne

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Former lead singer of the Talking Heads wrote this huge tome about music from historical origins to working in a nightclub to dealing with record labels. You obviously don’t need the mechanics here, but consider the last chapter, “Harmonia Mundi”, which talks about how sound and music have historically been perceived to affect not only the body, but the universe around us… how it might be changing how we perceive reality. Or something like that. It’s a bit heady, but the rest of the book you already lived. The last chapter speaks to something you may be experiencing when you create and perform, but may not have considered scientifically. His chapters on the business are eye-opening and you’d probably nod your head in agreement while reading all of that. If you have his phone number, give him a call. Dude is deep.

Frontal Attack, Divide and Conquer, The Fait Accompli and 118 Other Tactics Managers Must Know – Richard Buskirk

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A collection of tactics for dealing with shady people in business, this book has been my go-to for about 20 years for times when I run out of answers and patience with folks, but don’t want to just put them on blast (or rather, when I want to, but probably shouldn’t). In the age of instant drags, it helps to stop before hitting “send” and consider at least one other option before you go in. This book gives you options to Twitter rants, and in tight bite-size chunks. I want to be buried with this book just in case Hell is as mind-numbing and ridiculous as America is at this very moment.

Erasure – Percival Everett

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Someone who follows me regularly just sighed really hard when they saw this book on the list. That’s because this one ends up on a lot of my lists. In my defense, it appears so frequently because it works on a lot of levels. It’s heady stuff, probably the hardest of the books I’m recommending here, but I think the overall message might speak to you. It’s about a writer who puts out books that no one wants or understands, and in a fit of conformity (or worse), he writes a hardcore ghetto-ass novel under a pen name that blows up. So now he has to figure out how to navigate the world as someone other than who he is.

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