Kanye West May Be Frustrating, Intriguing Or Difficult To Love, But Is Also Impossible To Ignore
The song “I Love Kanye”, off Kanye West’s album The Life Of Pablo, ends with the words “and I love you like Kanye loves Kanye”. For those unfamiliar with memes about the rapper’s supposed narcissism, this meta-narrative is lost in translation. For the faithful, it is satire.
That song works even though it shouldn’t, because it’s often easier to hate Kanye than it is to love him — a thought that springs worryingly often to the minds of his biggest fans for a number of reasons. He refuses to be categorised, for one, which makes it hard to explain if one is a supporter of his rapping, producing, singing or entrepreneurship. Then there’s his insistence on being taken seriously as a fashion designer, which is constantly overshadowed by his personal life, specifically his marriage to reality TV star Kim Kardashian. But then, iconic figures throughout history have always attracted supporters and detractors in equal measure. And no one who loves the arts can deny that Kanye West is an icon.
Consider the facts alone. Kanye Omari West began as an amateur poet and rapper, got his first major break as a record producer, helped make a number of hip-hop artistes successful, switched to rapping on his own albums, became a genre-defying pioneer, designed and released his own line of clothing, created business ventures related to everything from footwear to food and, a few years ago, announced an intention to run for President of the United States in 2020. It’s the kind of biography that ought to account for the lives of a number of individuals. Instead, it’s the short history of a 40-something-year-old African-American man who’s probably just getting started.
It’s easy to diagnose Kanye West as a narcissist, an egomaniac with a God complex or just another loud-mouthed rapper with delusions of grandeur. It’s harder to gauge his worth as a trailblazer by separating it from the attention-seeker caught in a digital era of instant gratification. The work has always spoken for itself though, right from Kanye’s days as an amateur producer when he filtered vocals through soul samples to create a sound we now take for granted. Without his stamp, Jay-Z’s Blueprint wouldn’t be regarded as the classic album it is today. He was always driven too, right from his first successful outing as a rapper, “Through The Wire”, recorded with his jaw wired shut after a car accident that occurred when he fell asleep at the wheel.
Then there’s his formidable solo career, beginning with his debut album The College Dropout. It still sounds relevant a decade-and-a-half after it dropped, because one can’t imagine another track like “Jesus Walks” — “They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, video tape/ But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?” — on the dance floor. It showed his often neglected humorous side too, on “All Falls Down”, for instance, and the rap “Couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis”. Praise for his follow-up album Late Registration was eclipsed by outrage in the aftermath of his promotional video to raise money for Hurricane Katrina, where he deviated from the script to accuse former US President George Bush of not caring about black people. The President himself called it a disgusting moment, but Kanye’s comment still resonates as the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement gains currency.
His third album Graduation revitalised the sound of hip-hop again, ushering in electronica and house after rappers heard him do it with Daft Punk on the hit “Stronger”. Like all influential artistes, he created art through grief too, releasing 808s & Heartbreak after his mother’s sudden death, channelling his feelings into an Auto-Tune audio processor to create something raw that refuses to age.
If there’s one album that forever seals Kanye’s imprint on our consciousness, capping his legacy and worthy of finding mention on his headstone, it is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It yielded hits, of course, but also broke the mould of what was expected from a rapper. Both of and ahead of its time, it was an audio engineer’s wet dream and an amalgamation of sounds born in an obviously gifted mind. His expensive 35-minute video for the track “Runaway” alone showcased not just his wide sonic palette — a solo piano slowly giving way to strings and bass — but his eye for visual aesthetics with the help of ballerinas and a mythical half-woman, half-phoenix figure.
Its critical success could have frightened anyone working on a follow-up, but Kanye only upped the ante with Yeezus and The Life Of Pablo. For the former, he adopted a radical minimalist approach that placed his skills as a writer front and centre with tracks like “New Slaves”, where he made the pertinent observation differentiating “broke nigga racism that’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store’” from “rich nigga racism that’s that ‘come in please buy more’”. As for the latter, it was a work in progress two years after its official release, as he continued to put out updated versions.
There are rumours of new music this year, along with collections of clothes and footwear. To the undisguised shock of many, Kanye’s life in fashion is also a certified success story. Starting with Nike Air Max 180s, he moved on to trainers and eyewear, interned at Gap and Fendi, debuted a catwalk collection at Paris Fashion Week, joined Adidas as a designer and now sells out Yeezy collections of footwear, with some pairs going for an eye-watering $75,000.
Where Kanye West intends to go next is anyone’s guess. He’s probably not sure either. But he left us a clue that was part bravado and part mission statement on “Monster” in 2010: “I’m living in the future so the present is my past, my presence is a present, kiss my ass.”
— First published in GQ India