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“In all honesty, music is not my focus,” Kanye West said in an interview last month with Los Angeles radio station 97.1 AMP. No one is going to figure more extracurriculars into his schedule than that hotshot Franco, but we knew the 36-year-old West isn’t content with being just a rapper, especially when there must still be a few born-yesterdays who don’t know he produces, too. He developed a penchant for fashion in the mid-2000s, and soon he was dedicating much of his time to the sartorial biz, interning for Fendi and designing for Louis Vuitton and Bape. Then, long known as the musical equivalent of a film auteur, he made moviemaking his focus, which culminated in the twisty and Kubrickian 2010 short, Runaway. To consolidate, he formed DONDA, an ambitious creative agency with goals he enumerated on Twitter: to “put creatives in a room together with like minds that are all waaaay doper than me,” to “help simplify and aesthetically improve everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and feel.” Small chores like that.
West is also a father now, and someone’s fiancée. Kim Kardashian gave birth to a daughter, North (“Nori”) West, this past June at a Los Angeles hospital. And, in October, West proposed to Kardashian, and she said yes, and he’s already vowed to have fighter jets at the wedding. These things, all told, seem to have goosed an improvement in West’s temperament. As he’s made the rounds doing a charitable number of interviews in promotion of his tour, he’s been genial enough (though not always — more on that later).
At any rate, as the man said himself when he joined Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club last month: “Rap is just a chamber of my thoughts.”
“Renaissance man” might be a fitting term for West, or at least he wants it to be, but it probably gives him too much credit. The same goes for “revolutionary.” But, while an article as inherently pro-West as this might include and expand on these terms and his alignment with them, it’s exceedingly difficult to look past his flaws. He has a lot of them, and for better and worse, they were just as vital to his year as his music.
“I am a god.” — Kanye West
Cockiness comes in different forms, some more admirable than others. With the lively prime-era Muhammad Ali, it was a real spectacle; he knew that he’d embarrass you both physically and verbally. With Mark Zuckerberg, it’s this weirdly assuring you’re-wrong-I’m-right pensiveness. As for Kanye West, well, he has a face palm-inducing messiah complex. It’s a certain kind of spectacle, too, but for so many, it’s permanently and understandably off-putting.
There wasn’t a single good reason to flinch when West originally announced that his sixth solo album would be called I Am God, later to be renamed Yeezus. And, even after declaring his divinity, he’s compared himself to/claimed to be a psychic descendant of Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare. Remarks like those don’t exactly mesh with some of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity (warnings against false prophecy, ideas about modesty, etc.). West won over the evangelical set in 2004 with “Jesus Walks”, which couldn’t have extolled JC more proudly. But then, in 2006, he controversially posed as Christ himself on the cover of Rolling Stone, designed to bring to mind Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Generally, West has tailored his religion to his own convenience.
No self-appointed god could keep up the act very long without backing it up one way or another. And on Yeezus – aside from “I’m in It” and a few of the egregious pop-culture references — he indeed showed himself to be the closest thing we have to a musical deity, as far as his relative omnipresence and omnipotence go.
There’s one thing that West’s unbelievers have to admit: He makes use of his resources. One might expect West’s collaboration process to be straight-up dictatorial, but Pitchfork’s oral history of Yeezus detailed a surprisingly democratic creative process, in which recruits (for this album, Travi$ Scott, Hudson Mohawke, Justin Vernon, and Mike Dean, to say nothing of the resurgent Rick Rubin) bounced ideas off each other but essentially competed for space on the album.
In addition to Yeezus, West had a big hand in Pusha T’s steely My Name Is My Name, co-producing or getting full credit for a handful of the beats. That’s not the extent of his influence on the music of others this year. He also produced songs by John Legend and Nappy Roots. As far as his influence on other acts goes, consider The Knife, who, with their 96-minute Shaking the Habitual, crafted an otherworldly and expressively percussive masterpiece sharing many traits with West’s 2010 My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Or Sacramento duo Death Grips, who seem to have adopted West’s urgency for the free-form arson-rap of Government Plates. Or the young Houston rapper-producer Travi$ Scott, who, with his mixtape Owl Pharaoh, repackaged the dance hall and galactic sounds he helped realize for Yeezus.
If the paranoia of 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak was West’s self-prognosis of post-breakup tumult, then Yeezus, cohesive but nowhere near seamless, might be an equally neurotic, but far more forthright kind of sequel. Lucky for us, it couldn’t make West’s neurosis clearer.
Interviewing West doesn’t seem like a very pleasant experience, but it wasn’t always this way. There he is on Charlie Rose in early 2005, sitting across from the 63-year-old host, knowing full well a rapper is among the rarest of sights at this particular oak table. He seems so grateful to be there, smiling like it’s the only thing to do, gleefully and spontaneously singing a few bars of “Spaceship”. As time’s gone on, though, West has become a real handful for journalists of all walks. Here are a couple recent highlights, or train wrecks, or whatever they should be called. When he joined The Breakfast Club, one of the show’s hosts, Charlamagne Tha God, came at an increasingly impatient West about the supposedly hypocritical role of commerce in his creative life. Then there was his viral appearance on Sway Calloway’s Sirius XM show. This time, growing heated, West aired his grievances in a manner that evoked one of his all-caps Twitter sprees, shouting at Sway, among other things: “I AM SHAKESPEARE IN THE FLESH!” There’s no need for context there; it was exactly as absurd as it looks typed out.
“My childlike creativity, purity, and honesty,” he told us on 2010’s “POWER”, “is honestly being crowded by these grown thoughts.” It’s a lament that doubles as a boast, but given his infamous tantrums, his conduct evokes an eagerly smart middle schooler who answers questions he isn’t asked. He wants to be understood, and that’s cool. It’s more problematic when he talks in circles, going on tangents about race, commercialism, and feeling marginalized — the last of which he’s brought on himself with certain very public debacles. But, not all of these fuel West the same way or to the same degree.
West’s main thematic launching pad these days is the color of his skin. This is evident from the first verse of “On Sight”, the opening track on Yeezus: “Black dick all in your spouse again/ And I know she like chocolate men/ She got more niggas off than Cochran, hanh?” If the term “black supremacy” didn’t sound so dumb, I’d call this black supremacy. There is no ambiguity in those lines — they’re graphic for the sake of being graphic. More than the sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”, perhaps the most chilling racially charged moment on Yeezus is Chief Keef’s cameo on “Hold My Liquor”: “I can’t control my niggas/ And my niggas, they can’t control me/ You say you know me, my nigga/ But you really just know the old me.”
Keef is from the South Side of Chicago, a scene Vernon sets in his ghoulish intro, where teen-on-teen violence is depressingly common. There’s something very in-your-face about the coldness with which Keef delivers his lines, and West’s placement of them. We’re a long way from “Crack Music”, the Late Registration cut of 2005 that didn’t so much place blame as it functioned as honest social commentary. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he still had a sharp but inviting sense of humor about his race: “The same people who tried to blackball me forgot about two things: my black balls.” That is funny. The humor of Yeezus is much bleaker, not so easily digestible.
As much as anything, West feels perennially oppressed — and thinking about it in light of Nelson Mandela’s death, that’s a bit ridiculous. But, these days, his inner anarchy is coming alive in his music in penetrating and complex ways.
When I wrote the review for Yeezus, I referred to it as an “anti-pop” album, and I stand by that, though Metal Machine Music it isn’t. The album is ruthless in many ways, and it doesn’t have a “Gold Digger”, or even an obvious single. “Send It Up”, featuring King Louie, swings with the standard DJ Mustard teeter-rhythm, but is ultimately a scraping slab of industrial rap. That’s an anti-pop move, a decision to entice the unsuspecting listener with something common and ultimately take him to a more experimental place. The paradox, then, is in the album’s very makeup: It’s a wild record from a guy who, either on the mic, behind the boards, or both, has been behind some of the biggest singles of his time.
In the process of writing this essay, I spent a lot of time listening to West, all of his albums and a slew of his guest appearances in my iTunes, usually with the shuffle button clicked. Eventually, I heard “Black Skinhead” back to back with “Hey Mama”, that na-na-na Late Registration song dedicated to his mother. And, for the first time in a decade of listening to him, I had a negative reaction. That pair exaggerates the spectrum of his lyrical history, but there it is. He’s ditched his humility in favor of rampant assertion.
For the most part, though, I’m OK with that. It’s how he gets things done these days.
Mark Twain, in his 1901 essay “Corn-pone Opinions”, wrote, “[O]ur self-approval has its source in but one place and not elsewhere — the approval of other people.” Kanye West’s sense of the matter is what leads to his multitasking on a large scale, because he knows not everyone appreciates the music. Music is what most of us want from him, of course, and that will probably always be the case. It’s just not all he wants, and the fact that he puts as much work into his main art, the one that’s most accessible to the masses, as he does — that’s something to celebrate. This year more than others, our most visible 21st century schizoid man funneled his array of stances into his music. Given his enormous reach, that might just be revolutionary.