Kanye West saw his beams during a visit to the dentist.
“I’ve heard that there are colors that are too bright for our eyes to see,” the rap auteur said during a concert in Washington last summer, explaining how a few puffs of nitrous oxide had recently enabled him to catch a direct glimpse into heaven. The prismatic rays he described sounded as astonishing as your imagination would allow — and then you had an opportunity to feel them on your ears during “Ultralight Beam,” a song that captured all of the beauty and bewilderment of West’s epiphany in the dental chair. “This is a God dream,” the lyrics went. “This is everything.”
Philip K. Dick saw his beams a few days after seeing the dentist. But once they started, they didn’t let up for weeks.
The first one came glinting off a Christian pendant hanging from the neck of a pharmacy delivery girl standing at Dick’s doorstep — and as subsequent visions arrived, the oracular science-fiction author famously convinced himself that higher powers were uploading volumes of sacred knowledge into his brain via pink laser beams. These episodes took place in February and March of 1974, so Dick dubbed his revelation “2-3-74,” and then spent the next eight years trying to explain it through his most mystical writings. He’d already written so presciently about the delicate fabric of reality in “The Minority Report,” “The Man in the High Castle” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” — the spore of the “Blade Runner” franchise. Now, the line that separated Dick’s life from his fiction was dissolving in a halo of laser light.
Before 2-3-74, Dick’s novels anticipated our latter-day anxieties about virtual reality, artificial intelligence, the surveillance state and more. After 2-3-74, his work may have predicted West’s great unraveling.
In the wake of their respective religious hallucinations, both Dick’s and West’s work became increasingly muddled and intermittently profound. In 1981, Dick published “VALIS,” a quasi-autobiographical novel about a man who can’t discern whether he’s experiencing a spiritual awakening or a psychotic collapse. In 2016, West released “The Life of Pablo,” an untethered album teeming with crazy talk and God dreams. “I can’t let these people play me,” West sneers in the first act. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy.”
Or instead, answer this: If you’re an artist ahead of your time, how do you keep from losing your mind once the future you’ve predicted starts coming true?
Could Dick have dreamed up the afternoon of Dec. 13? That’s when West — having recently kiboshed 21 tour dates after an eight-day visit to UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Hospital Center — materialized in the lobby of Trump Tower for a surprise photo op with the president-elect of the United States. Suddenly, the guy who once said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” was posing next to the guy who never apologized to the Central Park Five, and the cameras flashed and clicked, capturing two highly impulsive, fame-thirsty egomaniacs who would do anything to generate attention, even if it was ugly or wrong, even if it was as bizarre as this. (For people as deeply insecure as Donald Trump and Kanye West, attention must feel something like power.)
But wait, wait, wait — was Kanye okay? Was he all the way there? Was this really happening?
Reality is still a guiding force in rap. And with nearly every artist in the game touting themselves as the realest, the music continues to generate a patchwork of competing realities — something Dick probably would have gotten a kick out of. To assert your unassailable realness, you must be skeptical of whatever reality you’ve been dealt — which means that rap music, much like science fiction, perpetually refuses to accept the world as it stands. Disbelief becomes the fuel of imagination. “There is nothing fantastic or ultradimensional about crabgrass,” Dick wrote in 1977, “unless you are an SF writer, in which case pretty soon you are viewing crabgrass with suspicion.”
West’s music has always crackled with suspicion, and like Dick’s writing, it has always felt prophetic. West’s knack for habitual reinvention has made him the most consequential pop star of our young century — something that first felt apparent in 2008 with the release of “808s & Heartbreak,” an album on which the rapper chose to sing his paranoiac blues through Auto-Tune software. He was roundly mocked for it at the time, but West’s big pivot eventually changed the entire mood of popular music, while his big mouth foreshadowed the say-anything culture of the social-media age. Since then, he’s remained a disgruntled futurist, blazing an angry path into a doomed tomorrow. Just like Dick.
Here’s everything else these great American malcontents have in common: Both Dick and West were raised by single moms. Both were college dropouts, bitter and proud. Both started their careers as hyper-prolific workaholics, then quickly transformed into self-mythologizing narcissists. Both felt belittled by their job descriptions (sci-fi author, rapper). Both suffered delusions of grandeur. Both had an appetite for spiritual chaos. It’s unclear whether West has read Dick’s books, but he’s probably seen the movies. The stage design for his retina-burning 2016 tour looked as though it could have floated out of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.”
Surely those commonalities are enough to make you wonder if Dick’s crisis following 2-3-74 might illuminate the unknown head space where West currently resides. Dick’s definitive novel from that era is “VALIS,” in which the author conveys the book’s tangled essence in 11 words: “It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”
And while many view “VALIS” as an example of Dick’s failure to wrangle his wild religious visions into a tautly plotted novel, Lawrence Sutin, one of Dick’s biographers, deemed it a masterwork — “a breviary of the spiritual life in America, where the path to God lies through scattered pop-trash clues.”
Is “The Life of Pablo” littered with the same golden garbage? “Ultralight Beam” is clearly one of West’s most magnificent songs — a hallucinogenic neo-gospel plea for universal peace in which West seems to have acquired some sort of godly knowledge. “This is everything,” he sings — but after that, everything goes lukewarm, mishmash or haywire. Across the tracklist, his rapping feels petty and aimless, while the motley rhythms supporting his voice lurch and skid. “I’m not out of control,” West promised toward the end of the album. “I’m just not in they control . . . I can see a thousand years from now in real life.” It was difficult to believe him. And it hurt. For the first time in his career, West’s music had failed to convince our ears that he knew the way forward.
But now, if we try to listen to “The Life of Pablo” as some kind of spiritual echo of “VALIS,” it might become easier to forgive West for his incoherence. Maybe there is no way forward. Maybe there never was. Maybe incoherence was the point all along. Instead of establishing a new aesthetic center of gravity, maybe West was honoring the power of disorder. Maybe “Pablo” sounds messy because reality is a mess. Maybe he was still telling the truth.
Maybe that’s being charitable. But if the arc of West’s career continues to bend to the contours of Dick’s, that means the rapper is currently plunging into a deeper, murkier spirituality — a zone Dick explored most ferociously in his “Exegesis,” an epic 8,000-page journal that the author filled with theological speculations until his death in 1982.
Throughout the pages of this hulking manuscript, Dick believed he was teasing out God-sent “messages disclosing the deceitful nature of reality,” writes Kyle Arnold in “The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick,” a book chronicling Dick’s work following the “psycho-spiritual emergency” of 2-3-74. By most accounts, these were Dick’s most imaginative and difficult years, his relentless quest for self-knowledge often resembling a prolonged act of self-annihilation.
We don’t want Kanye West to self-annihilate, but he seems entirely capable of it, which is what makes the months when he’s gone invisible feel so worrisome. We need him around. We need him to keep moving the music forward (or outward, or inward) — and especially right now, when so many things in this country feel as though they’re sinking in reverse.
West reportedly spent the warm months of 2017 sequestered in the mountains of Wyoming, or Utah, or some other high-altitude shrine where he could work on new music in solitude. When he finally comes down the hillside, we should remember to recalibrate our expectations. If he sounds as though he’s lost his mind, it might mean he’s found himself.