By Ben Holcomb
“I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven…when I awoke I spent that on a necklace.”
The President of the United States is a busy person, so when he takes time out of his schedule to make it known he finds you to be a jackass – it’s time to disappear. That’s what Kanye West did in the zenith of 2009 when Barack Obama expressed his general disdain for the person rap’s biggest star had become. He fled to Asia, and Europe in search of enlightenment; more than the public image transfiguration, Kanye needed a fundamental, biological alteration to who he was, and what his life stood for – what he was willing to put his name on.
He interned at Fendi and dove headfirst into the world of fashion. Sometimes it takes a rappel down the ladder for someone to realize the privilege of the heights they’d previously took for granted. A fashion show came out of that experience, and though the reviews shifted mainly towards the negative, West had at least put himself out there. The road to image re-stabilization was on its way. Louis Vuitton released his first shoe line in 2009, and Nike followed with their own release from West’s clustered imagination, appropriately named “The Air Yeezy”.
But West, at his core, is a musician. His exile into fashion was an interesting change of conversation, but after a slew of PR nightmares 1 no one questioned his ability to disappear. What was constantly up for debate within the zeitgeist was whether Kanye West could ever be relevant again.
His comeback, from that point, until today, has been historic.
One thing that immediately affects your chances of becoming a popular rap star is a stable childhood. Kanye West didn’t have a wholly unwavering familial nucleus, but his adolescence wasn’t characterized by the same gang violence and nihilistic ennui that shaped other hip-hop artists around him. West’s mother, who infamously passed away a few years back from a plastic surgery operation gone wrong, was an English Professor at Clark Atlanta University with a terminal degree. His father, though divorced from the family, was on his way to becoming a Christian counselor; not the best origin point to a career in painful slam lyrics. West was as fluently middle-class as they come, the kind of person both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are trying to pull aside and metaphorically put their arm around in an effort to relate to the common man. In essence, he was America, so firmly in the middle that he could personify the country as a whole.
West studied at the American Academy of Arts and went on to university before quitting to focus on his music career; it was a conscious decision to forego higher education, as opportunities were already lining up at his door. Kanye quickly gained a reputation around the Southside for being a gifted musical producer with a sound few had ever heard before. When others were featuring synth beats and computer generated bass, West became addicted to string orchestras and natural instruments.
People took notice.
It wasn’t long before the nerdy prep kid from Chicago was producing beats for notable hip-hop legends like Jay-Z and Talib Kweli, as well as other artists like John Legend and Alicia Keys.
In just a few short years, on nothing but hard work and a gifted understanding of the process, Kanye had elevated himself into a position as one of the most powerful musical producers in the industry. This singular gift became a curse with time, though. West saw himself as a musical auteur, not limited by labels like producer, or beatsmaster. He envisioned his career developing and unraveling to showcase deeper layers. Most couldn’t get past the idea of Kanye as producer.
I’m Socrates, but my skin’s more Chocolate-y.
That’s still the case.
It may seem a little Hollywood that it took a near fatal car crash to propel Kanye into the rap game, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. In October of 2002, West had his jaw fractured in a serious car accident after leaving the Rock-a-Fella recording studio at three in the morning. He was rushed to the same hospital where Biggie Smalls died, where doctors determined that his jaw needed to be wired shut.
Two weeks later Kanye recorded the single for his first album, his jaw still wired shut from the accident. It was aptly titled Through the Wire. About the accident and the circumstances surrounding his first single, Kanye said, “Well, the only thing this accident’s is saying is, I am about to hand you the world, just know at any given time I can take it away from you.”
A legend was born. Roc-a-Fella executive producers took notice, and reluctantly agreed to finance West’s first album, The College Dropout. Released in early 2004, his debut record became a triple-platinum selling work of juvenile artistry. The album demands the juvenile prefix in and that calling it anything else would lessen the importance of West’s later work. Late Registration dropped eighteen months later, again to near unanimous acclaim. Kanye was vindicated, years of badgering people to take him seriously as more than just a producer finally, and poetically, justified. Rolling Stone called the album a “sweepingly generous, absurdly virtuosic hip-hop classic.” West went triple-platinum again, making it two for two.
And yet many fans of hip-hop maintained West as a producer first and musician a distant second. Nevertheless, West’s third album Graduation won album of the year at the Grammy’s and went double-platinum, firmly establishing him as rap’s most marketable and lucrative performer; whether anyone wanted to recognize that fact or not was irrelevant. Common knowledge may suggest that an artist like Kanye West would eventually grow stale, that people would grow weary of the venetian blind shades and bravado and move on to the next big thing. The only problem is when you’re always the next big thing, there’s nowhere to go. West released 808s & Heartbreaks in 2008, enjoying his fourth #1 record and expanding his musical adventuring into the realm of auto tune with songs like “Love Lockdown”. Not everyone was impressed with this new version of Kanye, however.
It was around this time that Kanye the outspoken celebrity started to grow stale as a brand. People couldn’t stop playing his songs, but they did find themselves changing the channel when his faced popped up from time to time. First was the Katrina disaster, where West erratically accused George Bush for hating black people, as b-roll showed white people floating around the streets of New Orleans, and Mike Meyers looked on in horror as if someone had just passed gas and he tried his best to act like he hadn’t noticed. Then came the now infamous Taylor Swift award interruption, in which Kanye came off as an out-of-control egomaniac completely unaware of the world spinning around the sun, and not in fact, him.
He was exiled out of necessity, just so we all could get some air and live without his annoyance for a while. He fled to Hawaii, and somehow within the crumbled ash of his own life, managed to produce one of the greatest rap albums in the last twenty years. In 2010 Kanye released My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album that transcended the music around him and broke into a stratosphere of thoughtful art no one had ever seen before. Reactions were delayed if nothing else, a massively delayed sigh of rapture, as if West had just sucker-punched the entire zeitgeist in the gut.
Before anyone could hardly catch their breath from the magnitude of Twisted Fantasy, rap album of the year at the Grammy’s, the agreed-upon seminal work in an already seminal career, before people could recover from the inexplicable phoenix rise back into superstardom after such a crushing low, before any of us could grab our bearings, West teamed up with one of Hip-Hop’s living Gods in Jay-Z and released Watch the Throne.
A golden embossed cover hardly captured the lavishness and ambition within the album’s track list. Each song plays like a letter to a nation in a recession that simply reads, “Sorry you’re not us.” Bragging cannot possibly encapsulate the arrogance engrained in every beat and choir processional. But somehow, in typical Kanye fashion, it’s impossible to not marvel at the inarguable artistic mastery of the hip-hop game.
Since The Throne’s release, West has been on tour around the world with Jay-Z playing sold out arenas with songs from the album. It’s been a year, but the talk and virility of the album hasn’t died down one bit, playlists on ipods across the country still rocking out to the same now classic songs like N***s in Paris and H*A*M. And now just last week Kanye released a collaborative album entitled Cruel Summer, that’s half full of the same singles we’ve all been listening to since the beginning of the year, and half full of laidback recording sessions with full of some of Kanye’s biggest buds. It’s not the magnum opus we’ve all come to expect, but it has its moments and works as a fantastic barometer into the kind of pull Kanye has on the American consumer. The album sold by the boatload of course, and has risen up the charts without much effort. It’s tangible proof that anything with Kanye’s name on it, as this point, will be a musical juggernaut.
All this is to say- or better yet, to posit – with everything we’ve experienced since the professional birth of Kanye West, the ups along with the downs, the question that begs for an answer deals with the man’s legacy.
Is Kanye West a mad genius, or just out of his gourd mad?
As can be expected with a mortal being, as time passes by, one’s mortality becomes an increasingly heavy weight on their shoulder. In the early years of Kanye’s career, ruminations on partying, money and women seemed like an applicable summation of the man’s gospel. It’s what he stood for, and that was fine, since chances were nothing else was on his mind at the time. When you’re young and rich, there’s not time for lofty thoughts like legacy and career spanning ideologies.
He’s always been obsessed with his career as art, having his hands on all aspects of his image from album covers, to clothing and even music videos. The orbit of Kanye West is a singular thing, and one errant asteroid could disrupt everything. He’s not immune to these asteroid strikes, as we all know. But these unplanned moments of weakness, usually in front of large audiences, have worked to grow West not only as an artist, but also as a person.
If you can do it better than me, then you do it.
Kanye West is a genius, let that be understood. He understands the importance of art and respects the gravity of his work’s totality. There is a level of luxury in everything he touches that is unprecedented in the rap game. The persistent refusal of music connoisseurs to recognize West as anything more than “the best producer in rap” is an ignorant failure to admit what is plainly in front of our eyes. What can be said about West’s body of work that cannot be said about many of his peers is the (so far) lack of dropped balls. Many artists have an album that’s a dud that helps them collect themselves and come back stronger. West doesn’t know how that feels. Every single album he’s released, beginning with The College Dropout, has been a resounding success. And he’s only getting better. What else does he have to do to gain your respect?
Much of the apprehension with Kanye West is the general ease at which it is to hate him. He can be an unlikable soul. He brags about his multiple Benz’s, stacks of money, and envious female rap sheet, which now includes Kim Kardashian. And a good portion of the vitriol is warranted. But it’s also short sighted to view the career of Kanye West in the singular frame of the image he’s projecting. Because that’s what it is, at its core, nothing more than a projection.
It would be a failure as an observer to not recognize that every person on this planet has a gospel to which his every decision works to affirm in one way or another. And the term gospel here is used loosely as a means of describing the “good news” of one’s life, not particularly in relation to one’s connection to Christianity or religion. The good news in someone’s life, when stripped down, can come to mean anything that person wants to build a foundation upon. Bono’s gospel would center on philanthropy and service in third world countries. Charlie Sheen’s, on the other hand, would fixate itself on a core belief of pleasure as the central theme of life, hedonism at its finest. There is no innate judgment built into any one of these gospels, apart from the truth that they represent the person as whole at this point in their whole.
With all that said, The Gospel of Kanye West is one of the most complex and enigmatic gospels in our culture today. What are the moral and religious delimmas that have plagued the career of Kanye, and thus forced within him the necessity to take a stand for something…anything?
If nothing else, Kanye has transformed the genre of hip-hop forevermore with his unique and unapologetic risk taking in the form of beats, orchestral integration and unmatched annunciation. He elevated a genre in music seen by many as an inner city, lesser form of music and into a medium now seen as an art form. He turned rap into a cultural vessel in which tough issues could be tackled, and poetry could grow like a rose out of the crack in a concrete jungle.
Though the journey has been full of egoism at times, West has asserted himself as someone who believes in individualism as a crux of the human experience. From the minute he started in the rap game, he was the only one wearing Polo and Louis Vuitton in a room of people begging him to throw on some hoodies and jerseys like the rest of the industry. He refused to assimilate, and that unfounded confidence became a staple of what Kanye West meant as a man.
And though he’s savvy enough as a businessman to know what kind of language will sell records, Kanye West is dying to be loved. There’s a care for the art form and a sense of importance not necessarily showcased in other artists in Hollywood. While others can pump out some half-assed record with the intentions of paying bills in a fiscal year, West has never settled for okay. He knows he has haters, but it hasn’t stopped him from trying to convert them all into believers. It’s a ridiculous, futile venture that will never be accomplished, but he’s attempting it nonetheless.
He’s sung about God in the well received Jesus Walks, but his music since then would suggest a smooth departure from the chaste life. It would be a tough sell to tell anyone Kanye West was a devout, spiritual person, but it would be just as tough to argue his lyrics amount to nothing more than empty words. West comes off as a lost soul searching for meaning in a world where society has anointed him as a mortal demigod. But he’s searching, and it’s in that lack of complacency that one can develop respect for the man as an artist.
There are plenty of musicians who are fine with being the grand masters of society’s vapid broadcasting network, people like LMFAO and Ke$ha. You don’t get that vibe with Kanye West. At some point the only thing you can ask for, as a listener, is that an artist constantly strive for more, that they learn from their past and use failures to better themselves.
Kanye West doesn’t have a lot of failures. He is still working to make this world a better place, and though many will scoff at that statement as an absurd nod to a man who talks about his money more than anything else, it’s important to understand that someone can strive to better the world and still manage to do so in a misguided fashion. Kanye has stood up for things he’s believed in before. We saw it with Katrina, when Chris Tucker looked at him like he set civil rights back 50 years. But he’s also stood up against homophobia in rap much earlier than anyone else. At a time when Frank Ocean has recently come out and the politic temperature with Gay Marriage is steadily rising, it’s unfair to overlook the importance of someone like West coming out against an issue like that.
Finally, West’s foundation, centered around the Southside of Chicago, focuses on empowering black youth’s to stay in school and strive for higher education. He’s given over half a million dollars to the cause, and will continue to give more as long as he’s alive.
Kanye West is a lot of things; an egomaniac at times, a unique celebrity in a sea of unique celebrities, a well-rounded artist.
Kanye West is also a genius. Many may argue about just how far that genius permeates itself in his life, but under the specific hood of musical greatness, Kanye West is in a different universe than everyone else in the game right now. The things he’s doing not only for rap but music in general should not go unnoticed. Life goes by fast. Soon he will be gone, and someone else will show up to take his place. But nothing will ever diminish the importance of what Kanye West is doing, and will continue to do, in the music industry today.
That’s why, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, Kanye West is the best rapper alive. Maybe you should take notice.
- Including, but not limited to, calling George Bush a racist, stealing Taylor Swift’s spotlight at the MTV Video Awards, and crying on national tv. ↩