There’s an emerging consensus that Kanye West is a spent force. Respected music producer Bob Ezrin (most famous for working with Pink Floyd) recently wrote an essay deriding Kanye’s influence, claiming he was irrelevant since he didn’t address social issues, unlike Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah echoed Ezrin when he tweeted that “Kendrick is what Kanye would have been if the Kardashians didn’t get to him.”
The narrative seems to be that Kanye’s once acclaimed musical talents are a thing of the past, subsumed by his quest for fame, and that he’s been left behind by more radical artists like Kendrick. It’s not just media figures and musicians laying into him. Even long term fans have started jumping ship, citing his apparent musical decline since his relationship with Kim Kardashian, his self-obsession and his erratic public persona. The public is turning against Kanye.
But this isn’t the first time the tide of public opinion has shifted against Kanye (recall his run-ins with George W. Bush and Taylor Swift), and it’s not the first time people have written off his artistic merit. The current narrative, despite its dominance, is based on an entirely incorrect reading of Kanye, his art, his public identity and the contemporary cultural landscape. Far from being a spent force, outshone by fresher artists, the rise of Kendrick, the radicalisation of Beyonce and the obsession with his every utterance demonstrate that Kanye is probably more influential and potent a force than any other time in his career.
The current campaign against Kanye gained momentum after he started building hype for his new album, by deploying unusual tactics like changing the name from SWISH to Waves to nothing, before ultimately landing on The Life of Pablo or releasing it on his site for a brief period and then only releasing it exclusively on Tidal.
In another time and perhaps with another artist, these developments would be treated as a successful, if blunt, strategy to build free publicity in the lead up to an album launch. But with Kanye nothing is that simple. He hasn’t just built up hype for an album, he’s created a fissure across the musical and cultural scene, but also across society at large.
If that seems hyperbolic, consider that it’s not just music websites like Pitchfork and Noisey writing about his music and his antics; it’s virtually every media outlet in the world. It’s not just hip young people sharing and tweeting articles about him; it’s your parents.
Wherever you look everyone has something definitive to say about Kanye.
Now this isn’t particularly unique. Artists have always been brutally dissected by critics. Hip-hop, in particular, is a musical genre that forces listeners to interrogate the lyrics and find meaning – Kanye is hardly the first rapper to be criticised for controversial lyrics. And pop culture titans often find themselves mired in controversy when they weigh into public debates, as Kanye has done.
Welcome to pop culture!!!
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 24, 2016
But what’s different this time around is the sheer intensity of the scrutiny and the fact that it’s not only divorced from the cultural context of Kanye’s music (hip-hop) but the context of Kanye himself.
This is where the current drama over Kanye is completely ahistorical and disconnected from his work. He has always been controversial, largely because he has always been incredibly political. Rather than fizzing out, even a cursory glance at his musical career shows he has gotten more, not less, political over time.
The idea that his relationship with Kim Kardashian somehow “broke” him as an artist is not only ludicrous, it’s lazy and sexist. Of course musicians are influenced by their relationships and experiences, we all are. Kanye’s previous relationships have had a strong influence on his music, and his marriage to Kim is no different. But the suggestion that it de-politicised his art is just objectively wrong.
Kanye’s first album following his relationship with Kim, Yeezus, was not only his most critically acclaimed ever, it was also his most politically potent. Kendrick has rightly attracted praise for his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly which grapples with questions of race and racism in the United States, as well as his decision to perform at the Grammy Awards in chains. But To Pimp A Butterfly didn’t magically appear out of a vacuum – it’s clearly influenced by Yeezus, something more informed critics have highlighted. Yeezus deals with slavery, segregation, racism, police violence and the high incarceration rates of black Americans – all themes taken up by To Pimp A Butterfly.
Bob Ezrin, Trevor Noah and plenty of other people have completely missed what’s going on in contemporary hip-hop. Kendrick and other “social issue” rappers aren’t some reaction against Kanye, they are directly influenced by his work – particularly Yeezus, in much the same way that Kanye’s earlier album 808s and Heartbreak birthed the music of Drake.
Storm in a tweet-cup
There’s another phenomenon occurring around Kanye, that seems to drive the sharp, hostile reaction against him. It’s this idea that every lyric he raps and every word he utters in public is not only supposed to be interpreted literally but through the frame of inexperienced, unsophisticated gossip news websites.
Again, this isn’t an entirely new occurrence in hip-hop, but back in the 90s when rap was hitting the mainstream, most of the controversy around the lyrics of groups like N.W.A. was drummed up by conservative politicians and media figures. These days it’s a free-for-all – everyone is an expert on what a specific lyric means, and how it’s meant to be interpreted by listeners. Of course, rappers shouldn’t be automatically excused from ever being considered sexist or offensive, but the main task of online news websites isn’t to police appropriate language and take part in battles over social justice, but to get people to click headlines.
For example, Ice Cube, one of the founding members of N.W.A., is well-known for having penned some of the most violent, misogynist lyrics in rap history. And what’s Ice Cube up to now? He’s starring in animated family movies. Meanwhile, everyone loses their minds when Kanye drops a lyric that’s far more docile than Cube at his mildest.
This isn’t a defence of every Kanye lyric or tweet, but a criticism of the current situation where people writing about and critiquing an enormously influential artist (whether you personally like his music or not is irrelevant, his influence is undeniable) are oblivious to history and context and are applying a double standard.
When artists put themselves on a platform and announce they’re running for President, they deserve scrutiny. When they tweet questionable things they deserve scrutiny. But right now with Kanye we aren’t getting scrutiny. We’re getting pretty woeful, by the numbers clickbait masquerading as news. Virtually everything Kanye tweets (except for a few specific things we’ll discuss below) gets breathlessly written up as though there’s definitive meaning and truth behind each 140 character snippet of braggadocio. We even have psychiatric analysis based entirely on his Twitter feed.
The end result is an entirely manufactured public debate about an artist’s legitimacy, character and cultural influence that is entirely divorced from their actual work.
For example, let’s look at the tweet that caused the most controversy recently:
BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 9, 2016
It’s confusing. There was no context and no explanation. Media organisations around the world had a field day, running headlines that definitively stated, “Kanye West declares Bill Cosby innocent”. But does that stack up?
A few months prior to tweeting about Cosby, Kanye actually dissed him on his track “Facts”, over sexual assault allegations. A declaration of Cosby’s innocence doesn’t really gel with his own lyrics. Then there’s the fact that on the same day Kanye tweeted the controversial statement, Cosby had secured a court victory. Was the tweet a statement of defence or one of surprise?
We have no idea what Kanye meant when he tweeted about Cosby. But neither do the people who wrote that he had declared him innocent. Why was everyone so ready and eager to believe it? Because it fits the narrative of him as a washed up has-been, courting controversy for the sake of it. It’s this narrative that warrants interrogation because of how disconnected it is from not just Kanye’s history and actions, but everything he represents as an artist.
“Name one genius that ain’t crazy”
On Feedback, a track off The Life of Pablo, Kanye raps “Name one genius that ain’t crazy”. He knows there’s a massive media machine churning out content about him, writing him off as a madman. But the lyric is a signal to his listeners – don’t worry, he isn’t having a meltdown. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
And you know what else? He’s right about geniuses.
The reason we praise and worship boundary pushing and genre re-defining artists, whether it’s in music, writing or the visual arts, is because of what we perceive as their craziness. They look at the world, see its beauty and its flaws in a way that we can’t and then project that back to us. This artistic ingenuity often goes hand in hand with eccentricity, but ultimately it’s why we consume their work.
Kanye likes comparing himself to artists like Pablo Picasso, individuals who were similarly acknowledged for their creative genius, but simultaneously derided as crazy or eccentric. It’s a comparison that some writers have found apt. The difference between Kanye and Picasso is that he’s conscious of the accusations against him, and reflects them back through his music, taunting his critics.
Another track on The Life of Pablo, “I Love Kanye”, is told from the perspective of a disgruntled fan or critic. “I miss the old Kanye” he raps, echoing the growing, dominant public discourse around his identity. “I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye”. Halfway through the track he flips perspectives, rapping as himself: “See I invented Kanye”. Despite the perception that he’s burned too bright and lost his brilliance, he’s reminding us that he’s still in control.
When we demand artists create extraordinary work that invents new musical styles, tells us the truth about what it means to be black in the contemporary United States and paves the way for universally lauded musicians like Drake and Kendrick, yet still expect them to play by the rules, we’re kidding ourselves. It’s the fact that they look at society and flip it on its head that we love.
And here’s the thing – none of this means we need to defend everything Kanye says and does. We can accept that he’s flawed. But why do we hold certain artists up to this pedestal of perfection and deny them the right to be just as human as anyone else? Why do we call his tweets about music, culture, society and race “rants”? When white, establishment musicians like Bob Ezrin write ignorant critiques of contemporary hip-hop we call them essays. But when Kanye writes about the importance of black music we call it a rant.
That particular use of language is designed to delegitimise his views and reduce his perspective to something barely coherent, regardless of what he actually said. Why do we react so negatively to the fact that he’s angry? Isn’t he allowed to be? There’s a lot to be angry about in the United States – gun violence, the education system, the prison system, racism and poverty. And Kanye’s rapped about them all. So let’s acknowledge the issues without allowing them to completely overwhelm everything about his identity and his art.
Consider the amount of condemnation that’s been directed at Kanye so far this year. It’s hard to think of another public figure that has attracted that much vitriol. Is there really no one else, who ventures outside of their work, that deserves it? Not Sean Penn, whose bizarre venture into gonzo journalism sanitised a murderous drug kingpin? Not Charlotte Rampling, the actress who accused the #OscarsSoWhite campaign of being “racist to white people”?
There’s another double standard at play here – the way we excuse privileged, rich white people for their fuck-ups while hounding outspoken black artists for having the audacity to be angry.
Black, successful and outspoken in America
That’s one of the big reasons why Kanye attracts so much hate, and why people are so ready to take him down. It’s because he’s an angry black guy. You personally might not dislike him because of his race or his outspokenness. But how easily can you disentangle your feelings about an artist from the way they are publicly talked about and critiqued?
Consider a very recent example of another artist generating controversy for broaching political issues. Both the lyrics and the accompanying video for Beyonce’s latest single, Formation, address themes of race in the United States. The song, along with her Super Bowl performance, has attracted the ire of conservative politicians and police unions who view it as “anti-cop”.
I’m a fan of pretty much all of Beyonce’s work – from Destiny’s Child, to Crazy in Love, to Single Ladies, to Formation. But let’s be real – the amount of criticism and blowback she has received is massively disproportionate to the political themes in her latest song. Sure there are subtle references to Hurricane Katrina and the way the United States political establishment ignores the plight of black people, but it’s largely symbolic and never explicit. Yet she has still been the subject of protests.
Compare this situation to Kanye. On his first album, he was rapping about drugs, the prison system, the education system and growing up black in America – explicitly. Beyonce may have made a subtle reference to Hurricane Katrina on Formation 2015 – 10 years after it happened – but Kanye set the country alight by declaring President George Bush’s response to the natural disaster showed he “hated black people” just two days after the hurricane hit.
Take the establishment backlash against Beyonce, ramp it up about 50 notches and let it play out for a decade and then you’re somewhere to understanding how the public discourse impacts our understanding of Kanye.
If you think racism doesn’t play a role in defining what we look up to and respect as art, you’re kidding yourself. Look at the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. Do we really think no black actors, writers or directors were worthy of even being considered for an Oscar this year when we saw the release of films like Selma and Straight Outta Compton ?
Similarly, it was a complete joke that Kanye released two critically and commercially acclaimed albums in 2011, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne, which were dominated by themes of race and power in contemporary society, and they were both overlooked at the Grammys. Neither was nominated for Album of the Year, instead, we were graced by Bruno Mars, Adele and the Foo Fighters.
It’s when Kanye takes on figures that represent wholesome, white America that he attracts the most ridicule, scorn and vitriol. Look at his feud with Taylor Swift. First off, he was objectively right when he stormed the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009 in protest of Swift picking up the award for best video against Beyonce’s Single Ladies. I’ve written elsewhere about my appreciation for Swift, but there’s no way You Belong With Me deserved to win over Beyonce. Single Ladies was a cultural tidal wave, completely rewriting the rules of pop music and choreography. You want to talk about politics? It exuded powerful, black femininity. Meanwhile, the You Belong With Me video was cliche, crossover country that looked like it was set in a bad episode of Degrassi. Kanye reignited the controversy by rapping on The Life of Pablo that he “made” Swift famous. Kanye’s critics may have erupted, but even the Wall Street Journal objectively demonstrated the incident boosted her career. But none of that matters when there’s a pre-existing narrative of a crazy, angry black man “desperate for attention”.
Consider his tussle with Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder of Facebook. Kanye was ridiculed and hounded for publicly requesting Zuckerberg invest in his creative agency to allow him to make more art. What is so crazy about an artist asking a billionaire for funding to make art? It’s how most art throughout history has been created. Yet Kanye was picked apart and shredded for having the courage to put his ego to the side and publicly discuss his apparent financial misfortune and his desire to create something new.
Media outlets loved writing about these feuds. But when he talked about how big a deal it was for the great-grandson of slaves to make it to the top of the music industry? Not so much. When he calls out the media sphere for being dominated by white people? Barely anything. When you think of Kanye’s controversies you think of Taylor Swift. You don’t think about his critique of racism and power because it just doesn’t get covered in the same way. That’s not an indictment on Kanye, that’s an indictment on the people writing about him and those who lap this commentary up with delight and no scrutiny.
The fact that Kanye’s most popular songs were fun, catchy club bangers like “Gold Digger” doesn’t negate the fact that his whole identity as an artist is about politics, race and critiquing society. That’s what hip-hop has always been about, just like bragging about sexual success and attacking the establishment. Rappers who have said much worse than Kanye are held up as pop-culture icons and have built successful careers in the media. So it just doesn’t make sense for us to collectively lose our minds when he says something jarring.
You can’t breathe the name Kanye without inspiring some kind of reaction in people. Kanye can barely breathe a word himself without inspiring some kind of reaction in people. What is influence if not that? But what he becomes known for and what he represents, has become so warped. The only difference between the old Kanye and the new Kanye is the way he’s portrayed, and the way we allow ourselves to accept that portrayal.
As an artist, he has always explored race, discrimination, politics, love and relationships through the lens of his own self-admitted shortcomings, crippling insecurities and contradictions. In doing so he shows off his strengths but also exposes his vulnerabilities.
‘the art aint always gonna be polite’
When we look back at what he’s done to attract so much vitriol and contempt we discover it’s not because he demanded wealth, fame or power. It’s because he did what artists have always done – tell stories they know. He stood up for black America. He critiqued white America. He condemned the President at the height of the Iraq War. He spoke up for Beyonce and black music. He rejected the status quo model of music publishing, releasing his album exclusively through a platform owned by black musicians. He created new genres of music, paving the way for titans of hip-hop like Drake and Kendrick. He absorbed relentless attention about his relationship, marriage and family and turned it into an album about politics, life and love. He took the memory of his mother and turned it into a creative powerhouse.
When he reached out for help to create art, we laughed at him. When he threatened to, and ultimately succeeds in, disrupting the fashion industry, we laughed at him. When he looked at America, told us what was wrong and said he was running for office to fix it, we laughed at him. But if we look past the media construct, if we stop attacking the very artists who are doing exactly what we say we want from them, talking about the issues that matter, deconstructing society with all its flaws and projecting it back to us, we see the real Kanye.
“We going to teach our kids that they can be something. We can teach our kids that they can stand up for themselves. We going to teach our kids to believe in themselves.
I will die for the art — for what I believe in — and the art ain’t always gonna be polite”.