Chapter 5 – “Sophisticated Ignorance”: The Deformation of Mastery

In chapter 5, “‘Sophisticated Ignorance’: The Deformation of Mastery” I argue that Jay and Ye’s resignification of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” on track 4, “Otis,” is a form of sonic and social subversion that Houston Baker terms “the deformation of mastery”—a mastery so complete and aggressively forthright that it undermines, exceeds, and redefines the category of mastery. In this analysis, I track the history of “Try a Little Tenderness” back to the original Great Depression–era version by Bing Crosby and track the discourse further back to James Reese Europe, suggesting that Ye’s resignification of the Redding version during the depths of the post-2008 Great Recession expertly indexed how much had changed—and how much hadn’t.

With this background, I suggest that this performed attitude of deformation exemplifies my theory of critical excess and move toward my final argument, that in exceeding conspicuous consumption, the album exceeds Europe and heralds the end of capitalism. In other words, that by mastering capitalism in the context of the (then) worst financial downturn since the Great Depression, Jay and Ye pour salt in the wound of a severely compromised white supremacy and primed the pump for Donald Trump (and condescending “Bernie Bros,” it should be noted). The chapter is thus a case study in Baker’s theory of the deformation of mastery, examining the übermaster category of superhuman and centering the concept of anti-anti-essence—a critique of postracial (white) fantasies.

Indeed, Kanye’s line, “I adopted these niggas / Phillip Drummoned ’em,”—a metaphor on “Otis” in which Ye takes on the role of a white millionaire adopting Black kids—functions as a perfect encapsulation of the double move of anti-anti-essentialism. Indeed, the line weaponizes anti-anti-essentialism through the lyrical image of a Black man playing a white man playing father figure to Black boys.

Listen to these three back-to-back:

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