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In 1923, German psychologist-philosopher Sigmund Freud published a controversial theory called The Ego and the Id, proposing a theory of human psychology that changed the way Western culture sees human identity.
According to his theory, the ego is the part of our minds that "prevents us from acting on our basic urges (created by the id), but also works to achieve a balance with our moral and idealistic standards (created by the superego)" (source). A more common dictionary definition for ego is just "the self especially as contrasted with another self or the world" (source).
In everyday language, we tend to use Freud's idea of ego in a less general way, talking about an inflated ego or an egotistical person to describe someone whose sense of self relative to the world seems off base. We might also talk about a wounded ego—the same sorts of people who need to see themselves as larger than life are often easily hurt and cut down by the words, actions, or expectations of others.
If you have listened to Kanye West's acclaimed 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, you should have a good guess as why we're talking about Freud's concept of the ego. The album, which is chock full of wildly creative beats and awe-striking celebrity cameos (it features Elton John, comedian Chris Rock, John Legend, and indie rocker Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) alongside rap giants like Jay-Z and rising star Nicki Minaj), was received as West's deepest artistic dive of all time.
This might sound a little highfalutin' but we brought up Freud because we think the tension between West's own ego, superego, and id is the force driving the album's brilliance—and its missteps. Stick with us, and we'll do our best to tell you why.
First of all, it's pretty obvious to anyone paying attention that Kanye West is a contradictory genius. While he was wowing critics and fans with a series of hit-making and innovative albums beginning with 2004's College Dropout, his public image was on a fast track to self-destruction. Despite being one of the most broadly celebrated and rewarded rappers in history, he quickly became known for embittered rants at awards ceremonies—none as infamous as his rant against Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
The situation only worsened (or got more fun, depending on how you look at it) when West got access to a blog and a Twitter feed. He started blogging out his hurt about everything from PETA's criticism of him for wearing fur ("Let the ball players dance after they score!") to an apparently very hurtful rumor that he was a high-maintenance airline customer ("I'm not bigger than feeling pain, embarrassment, stress and worry!"). Anyone who's been following 'Ye knows that, while he may in fact be a gift from the gods of rap, checking his ego is not his greatest strength.
Critics almost universally praise My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as a revelation of West's touchy psychology, musically and lyrically. The album is supposed to be about a guy who is tortured by his own demons, trying to go deep into the core of those desires and work out why he's such a troubled person—or at least admit that he is one. This impulse to confess is especially apparent in the hit single "Runaway," in which West ruminates on his own pitfalls while recommending that any woman interested in him "run away as fast as you can."
Now let's get back to modern psychology. Freud's idea of the ego, which was popular enough to take a firm place in our daily vocabulary, was balanced by a theory about an id and a superego, equally important parts of the human psyche. In every person, the id is the inborn self, the source of the desires and impulses that we have from childhood. The id creates hunger, love, and dreams. The superego, in turn, is the part of the self that absorbs social norms, rules and expectations, internalized from our families or cultural surroundings. It is the job of the ego to regulate these sometimes polarizing forces of superego and id.
In other words, we may have dark twisted fantasies (in the id) but social norms say that these aren't okay (the superego), and we figure out a way to self-regulate (the ego).
Upon the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Rolling Stone declared that "Being crazy is this guy's job, and judging from the sound of his music, business is booming" (source). "Crazy" might be a strong word, but we can probably all agree that Kanye is not the best with self-regulation: He's easily angered when he doesn't get what he wants, and easily hurt when he feels limited by social norms (not all social norms are agreed upon, by the way—for example, when Kanye told a TV audience that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, some castigated him, while others congratulated him).
Whether or not most people agree with his message, his slip-ups in the self-regulation department have created a feeding frenzy for a hungry gossip press. They make Kanye look "crazy," off-the-chain, out of control, and larger than life at all times, and he does little to reduce the attention on him.
"Monster," the third single released from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, crashes head-on into the land of these depictions, apparently trying to beat critics at their own game.
The beat is crazy (in the awesome sense), the Bon Iver intro is crazy (in the off-kilter sense), and the video is truly deranged. The premise of the song is the admission that West himself may actually be deranged—he takes the words out of the mouths of the eager press as he monotones "I'm a motherf-----g monster" over a beat partially constructed from groaning human voices. But rather than turning into a probing attempt to analyze the more grotesque sides of his own psyche, "Monster" turns into a long comeback, mocking those that would see these stars as such monsters (and taking the occasional jab at a girlfriend, too).
This approach ends up being sort of like when someone tells you to stop arguing, and you respond "I'm not arguing" and then get more and more angry that they said that. Rather than dive into the depths of what it means to see himself—or be seen—as a "monster," West sardonically reiterates for the audience that he is one. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but as listeners, we end up on the defensive by the end of Jay-Z's performance. Where do we go from there?
The answer becomes more obvious every time we hear the song: Nicki Minaj is where we go. Minaj, the exciting and controversial young rapper from Queens, New York, knows about the pitfalls of fame. A mixtape-making emcee and acting school graduate, she took the pop world by storm in 2009 and 2010, getting pulled under the powerful wing of Lil' Wayne.
Her voice is capable of wild transformations, allowing her to perform as a range of characters she's created, including Nicki Minaj, Nicki Lewinski, and Nicki the Harajuku Barbie, and an über-weird Roman Zolanski. Before even producing a full-length album, Minaj built up such a culture of expectation around her work that almost right away, she began to disappoint people. In November 2010, Rolling Stone declared her the New Queen of Hip-Hop and immediately asked why she was so "cranky." She was praised as a genius and immediately accused of being shifty on issues of sexual orientation and identity, lacking a musical backbone, and selling herself short.
Nicki Minaj's first full-length album, Pink Friday, was released the same day as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but it was a disappointment to reviewers, who felt album-length Nicki lacked the bad-girl energy that earned her early comparisons to Lil' Kim and Missy Elliot. Ann Powers' generally positive review still suggested that it was "super-lame," and the Chicago Reader moaned that "the fear of being defined seems to have made [Nicki Minaj] unwilling to say anything of interest at all." According to the Pitchfork review, "the most unpredictable voice in hip-hop decided she wanted to be like everyone else."
Why all the disappointment? Well, admittedly Pink Friday is full of sentimental pop-rap tracks where Minaj sometimes ends up singing more than she raps. And a lot of people felt like this just wasn't the Nicki Minaj the world knew. But who did the world know?
The Trinidadian woman from Queens who can give a whole interview in a flawless-sounding British accent? The baddest and best female rapper, some say, since Lil' Kim, maybe the best female emcee ever? Whoever Nicki Minaj really is, people liked that bad, extreme, crazy Nicki Minaj—the one who raps on "Monster"—better than they like the more balanced, toned down Nicki Minaj unveiled on Pink Friday.
Nicki's epic performance on "Monster," full of growling, screaming, sudden tonal shifts, and ample demonstrations of her command over her own versatile voice, has a few key things in common with Pink Friday: First (as Nicki is happy to remind listeners), they are both performances, not manifestos on who Nicki Minaj "really is." Second, on both the track and the album, Minaj summons up multiple distinct personas, sometimes to shocking effect. You get sweet, sappy Nicki, bitingly mean Nicki, and scary man-eating Nicki. (This is starting to sound like a list of the Spice Girls—will we ever get Sporty Nicki?)
The key difference is that on "Monster," Minaj brings all this out in 32 lines and 80 seconds, while Pink Friday takes a whole album to flip through the catalogue of Minaj personalities. The speed and efficiency of the whole multiple-personas process is what makes it so enjoyably alarming.
And that's where the brilliance of Minaj's performance on "Monster" starts to make so much sense. Both anticipating and responding to the judgment she is subjected to as a quick-rising female star, Minaj faces the critics ferociously. She's been called "bad," and she shows just how bad she is—and brings M.I.A. in the car along with her. She's been called a Barbie, and she does a jittery, sugary Barbie voice. She tells the listener, "First things first, I'll eat your brains," and soon her voice starts to growl and fly, destroying everything in sight and then suddenly cutting into a sweet series of retorts.
The object of both her shots and her comebacks is her own image, and the victory of the performance is that her image is a moving target, never the same for more than a couple seconds before seamlessly shape-shifting again. In other words, when Nicki Minaj says she's a "monster," she means it. And on "Monster" she brings it with a conviction that outshines some of 2010's shiniest rap stars.
The many personas of Nicki Minaj are in as great a struggle with ego, id, and the societal forces regulating them as anyone else (possibly more, given her combination of fame, youth, and being a woman in a male-dominated field; see Shmoop's article on Beyoncé Knowles' "Single Ladies" for a deeper discussion of the good-girl/bad-girl problem in pop culture).
But in "Monster," we find out that Minaj has a fearsome artistic response to the problem. Rather than be destroyed or limited by labels, she is capable of an artistic aggression that destroys categories and labels before they can even get to her. As music critic Ann Powers dramatically explains, "She takes the art of the fluid self into new territory by cultivating multiple vocal personalities, making her not just another fashion plate but a true spokeswoman for the split and shattered female self" (source).
Is Kanye West, in turn, trying to become a spokesman for the split and shattered male self, exposing the ego's battle with the id in a great display of Freudian sensitive-guy-ness? One critic thinks he's not up to the task, calling My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy "the work of a failed provocateur boorishly brandishing his ancient affects. The obvious defense is that this is an exploration of West's psyche, of his fantasy. But actually it isn't. This is an aggressively external album obsessed with dismissing haters, slut-shaming women (Black and white), and ultimately, not with Kanye or his fantasy, but with what you will surely say about his fantasy." (Source)
But another reviewer credits him for balancing his prideful egotism with a bit of introspection: "The set…is an arrogant, remorseful, refreshing probe of perhaps the most complicated figure in pop culture today. The fact that West is the one examining himself makes it all the more brilliant and transparent." (Source)
Another rave review says Kanye West "ranks near the top of a short list of innovative and eloquent musicians so bravely willing to probe their own self-loathing and admit their inherent unlikeability" (source).
Ah, if only we all had the luxury of being wealthy, famous musical geniuses in those moments when our egos felt a little hurt. "Monster" is a track that sits on that luxury, but manages to do it triumphantly, holding the audience's interest in the same psychologically edgy way as a campy horror movie, but with a much hotter beat. Whether its ability to grab our attention so fully makes it a brilliant work of art is yours to decide.