Here’s something often overlooked in the whole Kanye/Taylor Swift dust-up that remains a cultural talking point some four years after it happened: Kanye was right.
What he did wasn’t right. How he’s discussed it since hasn’t been right. But his opinion—that Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies” deserved the award that Swift won—was on the money. And so, the moment serves as a nice microcosm of West’s career. He’s a blazingly intelligent artist who is unafraid to speak his opinion—but he’s unable to do so without being a complete and utter jerk.And so, your opinion of Kanye often comes down to how much ego you can stomach or how much you can divorce your opinion of Kanye the Man from Kanye the Musician—something Kanye himself goes great lengths to unite. That’s why when, say, he releases an album called Yeezus, you’re almost forced to pick a side. His god complex is married to his art. Maybe even a product of it. And so we find ourselves stuck with an unbearably self-obsessed man who is churning out some legitimately incredible work.
And the music on Yeezus is fairly incredible. Artistically, it sounds like something recorded in the year 2020, which might be about the time the general public is ready for it. Here in 2013, it sounds more impressive than enjoyable. It’s a mish-mash of industrial sounds: fearsome bass and primal screams over which Ye rhymes furiously, sounding far angrier than he’s ever sounded. If you caught his SNL performance, you’ve already heard the blistering “Black Skinheads,” which is the closest thing to rap rock Kanye will ever do. That song works as a good picture of how different Yeezus is from anything else Kanye’s done.
The track that (rightfully) has everyone talking is “Blood on the Leaves” which blends TNGHT over a sample of “Strange Fruit,” Nina Simone’s chilling ode to a Southern lynching. That’s a brave move for a song that’s one scant remix away from a dance anthem, but if you’d hoped—as I did—that such a sample might signify an attempt to delve into issues deeper than Ye’s troubled and troubling romantic life, you’ll be disappointed.
Kanye can write spectacular (and spectacularly profane) lyrics in his sleep, but here, his subject matter rarely transcends Kanye’s favorite subject: Kanye. As on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, there are a few moments of genuine introspection in which Ye grapples with why he can be such a pain (though no song here approaches the revelation that “Runaway” was) but there are not many attempts to say anything of significance about the world into which he’s become such a major player. He takes stabs at talking about the corrupt recording industry (“New Slaves”) but Kanye is mostly finding endlessly inventive and appalling ways to talk sex.
Mean-spirited sex is a subject Mr. West has never been shy about, but he pushes limits here. Almost every track has some sort of reference to sex being used to degrade and demean his partners. The opening song, “On Sight,” is designed to shock, no two ways about it, but it’s tame compared to “I’m In It”—featuring his increasingly frequent collaborator Justin Vernon—which is unforgivably cruel.
American hip-hop is uniquely positioned to say something raw and honest about the national climate. It is to today what folk music was to the ‘60s—an unfiltered, unapologetic look at American life. As a recent example, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d City shed a light on growing up in the projects. In detailing his own struggles between feeling pulled between faith of his family and the violence of the world around him, Lamar said something vital about America. Yeezus, true to its name, only says something vital about Kanye.
Case in point: “I Am a God,” one of the album’s best and worst tracks, part of which finds Kanye “chilling” with Jesus, during which he observes “I know He’s the Most High / but I am a close high.” Following the Yeezus leak, it took scant minutes for the Internet to catch onto that song’s instantly quotable refrain of “I am a god / hurry up with my d-mn massage / hurry up with my d-mn menage / get the Porsche out the d-mn garage” and, of course, “Hurry up with the d-mn croissants.It’s a ludicrous song, so much so that most are speculating it’s meant to be ironic. Kanye’s poking fun at himself, his celebrity and how he uses his divine authority to demand luxurious trivialities. It’s a larger commentary on celebrity culture. Perhaps, and if so, it only means we’re back where we began: Kanye West is saying something important, but it's impossible to hear it over the deafening shriek of his own bravado.
On Saturday, Kanye brought a daughter into the world with Kim Kardashian, and there’s a general sense of unease regarding this child’s well-being. However, one of the few things infants are adept at is humbling their parents. It’s hard to feel like a god while juggling diapers.
Could this girl, reportedly named Kaidence, knock some sense into her father? It’d be far from the first time a family humanized a brilliant-but-troubled artist (Johnny Cash comes to mind). While we won’t be getting any Will Smith-like tributes to the joys of fatherhood, it’s not too late to hope for a more grounded Kanye—a man who is, by any measure, one of his generation’s best and most important artists.
The only thing that’s holding him back is how well he knows it.