The media’s favourite Kanye narrative is that of a madman propelled by narcissistic delusions of his artistic talent. There doesn’t seem to be much acknowledgement of what demonising Kanye’s so-called arrogance says about our attitudes towards hip-hop artists and the genre as a whole. We let rock artists escape relatively unscathed: when was the last time we grilled Anthony Kiedis or Liam Gallagher for making similarly ‘overconfident’ statements about their work? We demand Kanye’s humility. Time and time again, he refuses to give it to us. When does being proud of yourself cross over into the territory of being too self-obsessed?
There’s a very intentionally defiant power in Kanye’s vocal and unapologetic belief in himself and his art, even more so when you look at the way he tries to pass on that same confidence and positivity onto his fans. “If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself,” he once said in an interview that was subsequently torn apart by the likes of Jimmy Kimmel. “I’m going to use my platform to tell people that they’re not being fair,” he told the New York Times. “Justice doesn’t have to be war. Justice could just be clearing a path for people to dream properly.”
In any case, it’s fair to say that over the past few years, Kanye has become one of the most divisive celebrities around, to the point where he’s often brought up as a pop culture punchline. The weeks leading up to his latest album release were rife with the brand of controversy that often seems to go hand-in-hand with his music in terms of cultural impact. It’s difficult to forget the already infamous Twitter outburst against Wiz Khalifa where he referred to his ex-girlfriend Amber Rose as merely ‘the stripper’. It would also be remiss not to mention his Tweet proclaiming Bill Cosby’s innocence – that he has yet to follow up on.
This isn’t a defense of those things. It’s important to hold people – artists we admire included – accountable for things they’ve said or done that make us angry or uncomfortable. However, in doing so, there’s also a tendency to demonise the more complicated narrative of being able to have a conflicted relationship with aspects of the artist themselves whilst still finding something in their art that resonates with you. It’s a difficult conversation to have, one that extends to every art form. Some of the most revered artists in their fields (F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Elia Kazan) have held intolerable views; in the worst case, have committed terrible acts. At the end of the day, there’s a strong argument to be made for art ultimately belonging to its audience. In other words, it’s fair to say that Kanye’s Twitter rants aren’t really why we’re here.
But unfortunately, in the wake of the release of his seventh studio album The Life of Pablo, Twitter rants are the main topic of conversation. Kanye’s art suffers in the age of social media, in which celebrities find themselves under intense scrutiny in everything they do. Kanye plays up to this, using Twitter to voice his innermost thoughts from the hilarious (“fur pillows are hard to actually sleep on”) to the obscene (“Bill Cosby innocent!!!!!). While it is disappointing to read an artist we revere saying thoughtless or downright incorrect things, it is refreshing that Kanye is not restricted by a PR team, and is brave enough to express himself without fearing the response of a public who are all too quick to reach for the torches and pitchforks. It is difficult to imagine that even his greatest detractors would want to see Kanye follow in the footsteps of Justin Bieber in becoming a sterilized, crowd-pleasing version of himself.
The album, whose entire existence was at risk of becoming nothing more than a meme until it finally began streaming on Tidal on Saturday night, is a disjointed masterpiece. It is a blend of Yeezus’ discordant sounds and the epic perfection of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. As on the MBDTF Kanye often slips back into the role of conductor, bringing together some of the biggest names in contemporary music from the Weeknd, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar to darlings of the hip-hop world Chance the Rapper, Young Thug and Ty Dolla $ign. While its commercial success will be tempered by his obstinate refusal to sell the album while it is being so feverishly sought, it is a dead cert to feature in most respectable publications’ end-of-year lists.
If you weren’t counting, that makes seven fantastic albums over a period of 12 years, further solidifying Kanye’s place as the most prolific artist of a generation. His Twitter could be filled with bile and self-love until the end of time, but this discography will never cease to demand attention and respect, whatever you think of the man and his beliefs.
Words: Ben Allen and Catherine Karellis
Images source: George Condo / Vogue Runway