The Problem with Kanye
Kanye, Kanye, Kanye…
Much as I hate to join the growing chorus against ’Ye, the Chicago superstar’s seventh solo album The Life of Pablo so richly merits a “for shame”—and twice over at that!—that it is impossible not to, however mightily we may try to block out the near-deafening roar of the lynch mob to concentrate on what matters most: the music of an extraordinary artist who, if not quite as peerless as he’s constantly telling us (Kubrick, Picasso, the Apostle Paul, and Pablo Escobar combined, and then some!), is undeniably a genius.
Petulant? Egotistical? Tone-deaf? As grating as a five-year-old in the midst of an unrestrained tantrum? You bet, and then some, once again! But a genius nonetheless.
If only he wasn’t such a horse’s ass that we’re at the tipping point where that argument can hardly even be heard anymore.
The first factor for which Mr. West ought to wake up, apologize, and hang his head in shame you all know about, and it’s the lesser concern. He flaunts a monstrous and endlessly annoying villainous persona even as he lashes out at the media for charting his outrages, calculated or spontaneous. In the last few days alone we’ve had the backstage explosion at Saturday Night Live first reported by The New York Post in the link above (and now augmented with audio!); the whining about being $53 million in debt for what Slate called “various music and fashion endeavors”; the entreaty to Mark Zuckerberg for a $1 billion investment bailing him out; the feud with Wiz Khalifa and the nasty slurs on the woman they both dated, model Amber Rose; the defense of Bill Cosby; the confession that he’s gone off his antidepressant Lexapro; the declaration that white critics should “not comment on black music anymore” (that is so not what he said when he begged me to review an early mix tape!); the bizarre album roll-out that some are calling a giant rip-off for his pal Jay-Z’s unimpressive Tidal streaming music service, and no doubt a few more I’ve missed or which occurred between me writing this and posting it.
So what? All of that could and perhaps should be ignored. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” West raps in “Feedback” on the new album, adding, “I’ve been outta my mind a long time.” One could theorize that all of this behavior is an act, a put-on, and some muddled or multi-layered commentary on post-digital solipsism, celebrity obsession, race, media, the enduring myth that creativity springs from mental illness, and Lord knows what else. Take a breath and consider: Is it really much different than other debates about the inscrutable public personas of artists past—say, at the other end of the spectrum, Andy Warhol? (The questions remain: Cipher? Genius? Idiot savant? All of the that and more?) Or John Lennon: He could be a troubled and troubling jerk, too, truth be told.
Certainly there are hints that Ubiquitous Public Kanye could be a scam. Witness the unscored rap “I Love Kanye” smack dab in the middle of these 18 new tracks: “I miss the old Kanye, straight from the go Kanye/Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye/I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye/The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye… [But] see, I invented Kanye, there wasn't any Kanyes/And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes.” (Hey, he’s still got a sense of humor; take that, Drake and the Weeknd!)
The reason it’s the lesser concern is that lengthy indeed is the list of all-too human beings who portrayed or really were unlovable or perhaps even despicable fiends in real life, but whose canvases, films, symphonies, photographs, sculptures, or popular recordings were, are, and forever will be transcendent and timeless art. I do believe we can and should separate the art from the artist—except in those very rare circumstances where the art very clearly reflects the unforgiveable misdeeds of the artist. And Kanye West is certainly not R. Kelly.
Nevertheless, some of the things the Chicago-reared rapper says about women on The Life of Pablo are almost as disturbing as Kelly’s views, and therein lies the greater reason he should be ashamed. But first, the music, the only reason we still care.
Some critics either are so distracted by the gossip-column noise or so disturbed by some of the new album’s lyrics that they’re hearing a haphazard mash instead of the brilliant culmination of all of the earlier the evolutions that this new album actually represents. We hear some of old “chop up the soul,” Dusties-sampling West of his debut The College Dropout (2004) and its follow-up Late Registration (2005). We hear some of the lushness of Graduation (2007), this time even heavier on the gospel music he absorbed in church as a youth, complete with a cameo by gospel king Kirk Franklin (“Ultralight Beam”), on top of church organ, a young boy testifying, and a well-employed choir (“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”). We get some of the revolutionary minimalism of 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak (“Freestyle 4”); more of his unique use of Auto-Tune (nobody is more creative with this overused tool); some of the industrial chaos of Yeezus (2013), and a new batch of the generous and impressive collaborations that have been a staple of all of his work, this time with Chance the Rapper (“Ultralight Beam”), Rihanna (“Famous”), Chris Brown (“Waves”), Kendrick Lamar (“No More Parties in L.A.”), the aforementioned Weeknd (“FML”), and Frank Ocean (“Wolves”), among others.
Kanye is not breaking new musical ground here. But with a few exceptions—the tossed-in phone call from prison from rapper Max B chief among them—his creative and unpredictable productions never have sounded better, more insinuating, or more challenging.
Unfortunately, as on Yeezus, Kanye increasingly has little to say, or at least little that is worth listening to. He ruminates a lot on his own fame and the industry, and sometimes, we can relate. On “Real Friends,” he bemoans having precious few people in his life who don’t want something from him or whom he can trust, though he also admits that he can’t remember the last time he recalled somebody’s birthday or could tell how old their kids were. But on “No More Parties in L.A.” and “Wolves,” he disdains the fatuous celebrity scene even as he arduously courts it, and he seems to be comparing himself and his bride to the Biblical Mary and Joseph. Even more difficult to accept: “Facts,” a bitter rant about former collaborators Nike, and “Highlights,” in which he claims that the Kardashian klan are “the new Jacksons.”
Where Kanye’s lyrics once were a mix of comical boasting, starkly honest introspection, and disarming self-deprecation, he now favors unfunny braggadocio—is there a better candidate for hip-hop’s Donald Trump?—self-obsessive paranoia, and, most disturbing, rampant misogyny. The shot at Taylor Swift in “Famous” already is infamous: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous.” Certainly there’s a joke to be made about his notorious award-show bum-rush, but it only would be funny if he made it at his own expense. This one is merely vulgar, as well as untrue. (Swift was a superstar long before he rudely interrupted her, and thankfully, she is plenty capable of defending herself.)
But ’Ye gives us worse. “FML” find him vowing to remain monogamous and to stay away from “hoes” not because he owes it to his partner but because he might “lose half of what I own” if he doesn’t. “30 Hours” gives us more sexist bile about another former love (“My ex says she gave me the best years of her life/I saw a recent picture of her, I guess she was right”). “Highlights” bizarrely advises black men to “impregnate Bridget”—a.k.a. white girls, because “soon as she have a baby she gon’ make another n---a.” He cackles in “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”: “Now if I f--- this model/And she just bleached her a------/And I get bleach on my T-shirt/I’mma feel like an a------.” Sadly, the list of casual misogyny goes on, and on, and on.
In the past, when Kanye made angry or vile comments about women, the context made clear that he was lashing out because he’d been hurt, like a century of blues, country, and rock musicians before him, and those lines often were paired with even more self-hatred for falling short. That doesn’t make them more forgivable. But here, they’re simply impossible to explain, especially coming from a man who’s constantly telling us he’s found his soul mate—with whom he now has two children—and who has made some of the most courageous declarations of love for women in all of hip-hop, among them “Roses,” which movingly recalled standing beside his grandmother’s death bed, and of course “Hey Mama,” his declaration of undying devotion to his late mother Donda.
We know they raised you better than this, ’Ye. We deserve better than this, and so does your music.
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo (Good Music/Def Jam)
Rating on the 4-star scale: 1.5 stars.