Before I begin, a bit of throat-clearing. First, a confession: I haven’t heard Kanye West’s newest OMG GREATEST ALBUM OF ALL TIME, and I doubt I’ll be seeking it out anytime soon. That’s got nothing to do with Kanye West and everything to do with the fact that I almost never listen to rap anymore (and when I do, it’s usually of the mid-90s New York hardcore variety, or else denizens and fellow travelers of the Stone’s Throw stable).
So I don’t listen to rap much now, but there was a time period, somewhere between 2005 and 2007, where I probably listened to rap as much as or more than any other genre of music. And I can say that, even if Kanye West’s ego got so big that he exploded and he rained chunks across half the states of Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana after he released 2005’s Late Registration, or else released Master P-quality platters of crap yearly for the next 20 years, he still would have gone down as one of the best rap producers of the 2000s, and been a well-appreciated, if underrated, lyricist to boot solely based on the dizzying heights his first two records reached. Graduation was a thick, luscious icing on that already pretty perfect cake, and if 808s and Heartbreak was a bit curious, it was, at least, an incredibly audacious move, a noble and well-intentioned and bold attempt.
Second, the timing of my missive might seem somewhat odd. Why this, why now, over a year after West committed his ultimate act of depravity (mentioned below, and yes, that sardonic clanging you hear is the Three-Alarm Sarcasm Alert), and given the admission that I probably won’t listen to the recently released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? The answer is simple: Scrolling though the K’s of my mp3 collection, I saw my neglected copy of The College Dropout and smiled. And then I thought about it. And then I frowned. Yeah, not very poetic, but that’s what happened.
The fact is, despite the critical gushing and soaring album sales, Kanye West is routinely lambasted and ridiculed by those who “know better,” those who don’t “get” the hype, and, perhaps most importantly, those who find West actively odious and repellent. The list of unforgivable strikes against Kanye West’s meteorically arced career is long. They include various acts of extreme vanity, (apparently) unfounded outspokenness, (apparently) misdirected self-confidence, and general assholery. We can all agree on this. We can also all agree that West’s greatest sin to date appears to be his interruption of Taylor Swift’s bland and trite and manufactured acceptance speech during the 2009 MTV VMAs. Sure, interrupting anyone is rude (it’s certainly a pet peeve of mine), and it’s easy to feel bad for Swift, who is excellent at playing the down-home country girl, but forgive me for being a cold-hearted cynic if I’m not even remotely moved.
Let me be clear: I haven’t seen the video that Taylor Swift won a completely empty and worthless VMA for, but I can assure you it sucked the suck of 10,000 Dyson vacuums hooked up to one another Human Centipede-style and retooled to inhale the souls of anyone with a shred of taste. How can I be so confident? Two reasons. First, because Taylor Swift is a farce, a talentless pretty face coasting off the fact that she allegedly writes her own (dreadful) songs.* To trash her seems utterly redundant, an act akin to informing someone of the shittiness of a pile of shit. Second, MTV is emphatically not an accurate arbiter of what is good, art-wise, and really has no business doling out awards anyway, at least not ones that anybody with a modicum of critical awareness should care about. If you honestly feel that a VMA signifies anything other than the current and projected future monetary value of a star, well, you and I likely don’t see eye-to-eye on an impressively wide range of topics.
Now, I have seen the video West announced his preference for when he interrupted “poor” old Taylor Swift (the aw-shucks 21-year-old country girl, incidentally, made $18 million in 2009, the year West was just oh-so-rude to her), and it, too, is a shitstorm of appalling proportions. I can’t back West there. Plus, the case can be made that since West supported, as an alternative to Swift’s video, a video in the same realm of shittiness, he shouldn’t be lauded for it on the grounds of enforcing better taste. Very well. However, the VMAs, as previously mentioned, are a complete joke, and I heartily applaud anyone who manages to crap on it in any way. Here’s to you, Mr. West.
Regardless, humility is hardly a criteria for public perception of greatness, as legendary world-class assholes like Michael Jordan, Roman Polanski, Keith Richards, or, on a more underground scale, Damon Che of Don Caballero or Mark E. Smith of the Fall, can freely attest. (Polanski raped a child and still gets more slack cut for his auteurish ass than Kanye West! Forced sodomy of a 13-year-old? But he makes great movies! Churlishness on Twitter? Lynch the overconfident angry black man!†)
If Kanye seems more outspoken then the aforementioned critical darlings, that’s because everyone’s more outspoken today. West, like any celebrity so inclined, has a staggering array of options to broadcast his opinions that were utterly unavailable just ten years ago. Jordan didn’t have Twitter or the 24-hour news cycle or an attendant blogosphere to oversaturate the market with his image. A parade of Nike ads, as ubiquitous as they seemed at the time, cannot hope to compete with the information overload smorgasbord West’s got at his disposal. Anyway, rap, since its literal inception as a recorded medium in “Rapper’s Delight,” has been preoccupied with boasts and brashness. Pride and confidence and swagger and self-centeredness are ingrained in hip-hop’s very DNA, and West is simply continuing that trend.
Enough with ego. Though I’m almost certain that’s why the majority of West’s detractors despise him so, I believe that topic’s been parsed enough. It may be that you just don’t, you know, like his music. And that’s fine! My question to you is, what contemporary rapper/producer of his stature is better? Who crafts lyrics as incisive (when he’s not being lazy) or clever or humorous and assembles beats as ambitious and daring and dynamic and writes pop hooks engaging enough to entrance millions? I’m curious, because I can’t think of any. I can think of artists who embody the first two (the RZA, Madlib, MF Doom, Pimp C (RIP)), some who embody the last two (Just Blaze, Swizz Beatz, maybe?), one who does the first and last (OutKast), and a handful who do any one of those (except the second) better than West. But nobody fulfills all three. It just doesn’t happen.
Now, if you don’t like rap, that’s okay, too. I can totally see why you’d dislike—even hate!—Kanye West’s music. After all, he makes rap, and you hate rap. I can also see why you would hate Off the Wall if you hated pop, or Sleep’s Holy Mountain if you hated stoner metal, or In the Court of the Crimson King if you hated prog rock. But to have an agenda against any of the artists who made those classic albums specifically because of the genre they inhabit that you dislike generally seems like an unusual misdirection of emotion.
In sum, forgive the man his indiscretions. He’s hardly the worst offender out there, and chances are you’ve forgiven worse. The fact that he happens to make some truly transcendant music (listen to the albums, people, not just whatever singles you happen to come across) is a big fucking cherry on top.
I rest my case by leaving you with these:
“Spaceship,” off of The College Dropout:
“Heard ‘Em Say,” off of Late Registration:
“Amazing,” off of 808s and Heartbreak:
Happy New Year, y’all.
*Please don’t think I’m suggesting Swift doesn’t pen her own material. However, with today’s ubiquitous and hologrammed enterainments, I think we can all agree more elaborate lies have been successfully passed off.
†I’m going to leave this well alone, but I definitely deleted a passage ruminating on this topic a bit, one in which I focused on West’s famous (and laudable, and courageous, and accurate) assertion that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on live TV. When was the last time any other rapper (or pop star) who had the ear of the nation said anything so brave and controversial and meaningful? Ten years? Twenty?