Music

The Case Against The Case Against Kanye West


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The case against the case against? Let’s slow this roll a little. Do we really need another article defending Kanye West? Because no matter how well it’s written, he’s going to be fine. He’ll wake up tomorrow in sheets with a higher thread count than most of our bank balances, successful, wealthy, famous, and married to a beautiful woman who seems to genuinely like his weird ass. He doesn’t need anyone to take up arms on his behalf. He’s covered.

But like Yeezy himself, I’ll go ahead and ignore all logical advice and just push ahead. Not because the rap star desires (or even deserves) an advocate, but because I think the absolute disdain he catches online says a lot about us. It speaks to where we’ve been and where we’re headed.

More importantly, I think that Kanye is — for real — one of our greatest living artists. A creative genius, just like he always says. And that his artist output is far more important than our vitriol. As we head into The Grammys this weekend, an award show he’s infamously demanded recognize his brilliance, it’s time to take a look at why he’s maybe been right about that all along. So, Imma let you finish, but first here’s the case against the case against the Louis Vuitton Don:

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Complaint #1:

He’s a douche.

Evidenced By: His general public persona, but particularly grabbing the mic from Taylor Swift at the MTV Music Video Awards.

Rebuttal: The Taylor Swift thing is douchey. Boorish, obnoxious, etc. But it wasn’t a crime. It was a thing a drunk dude did at a party. We’ve all done dumb things while drunk at parties. Kanye’s made him look both aloof and mean, but here’s the upside: He made the MTV Video Awards interesting for the first time since Nirvana.

Now compare that total dick move to the behavior of other rappers — like Tupac Shakur who gets full “unimpeachable icon”-status but was convicted of first degree sexual abuse, or Marky Mark who committed multiple racially motivated assaults, or Jay Z who brags about being a drug dealer in 90% of his songs, or… is this sleight of hand?

Absolutely. But come-the-fuck-on, the Kanye and Taylor thing is dumb and if you’re still talking about it, stop. Are we less forgiving of drunken boors than criminals? Is there any chance that it’s at least partially because we, as a culture, have no idea how to talk about sex crimes, misogyny, and race, but we absolutely know how to talk about celebrity drama? Are we holding a grudge about this petty stuff because everyone is in agreement, whereas an article suggesting that “maybe we shouldn’t lionize Tupac” would force people to really think? Why are Hunter S. Thompson’s eccentricities embraced while Kanye’s wacked out behavior has a seven year shelf life?

Also crucial to note: From the ashes of that dumbass moment came the song “Runaway,” the poetic music video for “Runaway,” and the truly stunning performance of “Runaway” at the next MTV music awards. So, there.

Can you do this? Can you? If you could, you might be able to get away with being mean to Taylor Swift.

Complaint #2:

He’s a needy, dramatic loudmouth, who makes everything about him.

Evidenced By: His Tweets in the lead up to The Life of Pablo release, his stage rants on tour, and four billion other examples…roughly.

Rebuttal: Absolutely true. I think Kanye is incredibly self-involved. I also think he’s keenly aware of that fact. We’ve seen it manifested in his music, his fashion line, and in his public persona. But… maybe that’s okay, artistically speaking. Maybe it’s the fuel that helps him burn.

A recent study found that narcissists make more successful artists, while another study highlighted how adept they are at starting movements. That’s Kanye’s career. He’s continually been out on rap’s frontier, slicing conventions with a machete, and watching other people get rich riding shotgun aboard the bandwagons he built — like gospel choruses, auto-tuned/ fuzzed out vocals, and an EDM-influenced diversion from typical verse-chorus-verse song structure.

He’s also stayed relevant as a rapper, producer, and cutting-edge artist longer than just about anyone in the game. We all love Andre 3000, but his prime-production window wasn’t nearly as long as Kanye’s. Neither was Eminem’s. Few rappers can compete with the Louis Vuitton Don on that count. He’s pushing 40 and feels young and fresh in all the best ways.

Here’s my theory on how Kanye has been able to keep the sword sharp: Artists have a lot to say when they’re on the hustle, when they’re struggling, and when they’re angry. When they get rich and their lives are pure bliss, there’s a shortage of material. After all, as happy as I am that Jay Z has everything, I can’t really keep getting excited about songs that reference the boardroom, Beyonce, and his enormous wealth (obviously, there are plenty of external material sources — particularly for a person of color in 2017 America, regardless of how rich they are — but so often art is about facing private demons.)

Point being, inspiration often demands turmoil and Kanye’s inner landscape seems to provide more than enough chaos to fuel his creative process. Is that good for Kanye West the man? Doubtful. We saw the tour meltdown; we knew he wasn’t in a good place. But is it good for Kanye West the artist? Maybe.

A few years ago, I chatted with the writer Zadie Smith about Eminem. I’d been researching the rapper for a book and Smith had written a famous profile of him in 2005. In our conversation, I asked Smith if she’d listened to Recovery and if she felt it signaled a return to form.

“I hope it’s not,” Smith said. “I don’t need him to make art anymore, I just want him to be happy.”

If Kanye West is ready to be peaceful and happy, I wish him that. I really do. His art has been a gift to me, and I don’t ask for anything more. Nor do I think that “dealing with sh*t” is a requisite for good art. But it does seem that Ye’s tumultuous personal life sparks a whole lot of inspiration in him.

Complaint #3:

He canceled his tour!

Evidenced By: It happening, after a series of dramatic rants.

Rebuttal: Literally every musician you can think of has canceled all or part of a tour. Swift, Lorde, The Stones… Morrissey is a habitual tour-canceler. Mental health is as good a reason as any. Perhaps tied for first place as “the best reason.” I don’t see musicians canceling tours with refunds as a big deal. They are humans. They get to cancel things, when needs be. They have the right to set boundaries.

Complaint #4:

Kim Ruined him.

Evidenced By: Something something Kardashian curse.

Rebuttal: From all appearances, Kanye seems to have a healthy, supportive marriage with a ??? sex life. But the real problem with this argument is the simple fact that Kanye hasn’t fallen off. He’s grown and evolved, but he’s still creating some of his absolute best stuff. Plus, Kim has added a new layer of emotional complexity to his life. The man who wants it all has settled down, has shifted gears, but still yearns for literally everything — as evidenced below:

Complaint #5:

Look, even Jay Z won’t call him back!

Evidenced By: This was the subject of one of Kanye’s many rants.

Rebuttal: This is a dumb complaint. Jay Z is a mogul. Kanye is an artist. Ask Picasso, Basquiat, or Virginia Woolf about whether artists and moguls get along. Sometimes, in his rants, Kanye compares himself to moguls. For once, he’s actually undershooting the mark. His real excellence is as an artist, which is far more important to our cultural conversation than another scion making sleek widgets.

Okay, fine. Jay Z probably also doesn’t like Kanye because the “little brother” is eccentric and won’t shut up and needy and… have you even heard “Ultralight Beam”???? WHY ARE WE WORRIED ABOUT THIS PETTY SH*T WHEN KANYE MADE THE BEST SONG OF THE YEAR BASED AROUND A SAMPLE OF A TODDLER TESTIFYING ON INSTAGRAM?

My point is, good art can transcend personality. It can leave personality miles behind. Kanye’s does that.

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Complaint #6:

He’s devolved.

Evidenced By: He used to rap about “when it all falls down” now he’s on some “made that b*tch famous.”

Rebuttal:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

–Walt Whitman

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
I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye
I gotta say, at that time I’d like to meet Kanye
See, I invented Kanye, it wasn’t any Kanyes
And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes
I used to love Kanye, I used to love Kanye
I even had the pink polo, I thought I was Kanye
What if Kanye made a song about Kanye
Called “I Miss The Old Kanye”? Man, that’d be so Kanye
That’s all it was Kanye, we still love Kanye
And I love you like Kanye loves Kanye

–Kanye West

Not since Whitman has someone reminded us, the greedy consumers of culture, that a true artist will not be contained. A true artist is full of contradiction. A true artist is complicated and sometimes wrongheaded, but always changing. In fact, Whitman tinkered with Leaves of Grass for most of his career, while Kanye fiddled with The Life of Pablo for months after its release.

The point is, the avant-garde can’t be neatly packaged. It’s not easily encapsulated into a #brand like Snoop or Wiz. Deal with it. Embrace it. It’s actually pretty cool. It’s not manicured. It’s raw. When was the last time something raw was allowed to thrive?

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Complaint #7:

He met with Donald Trump, a move that implicitly co-signed a Trump presidency.

As Evidenced By:

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Rebuttal: Yes, Kanye West — a man who has the power and cache to meet with presidents — took it upon himself to me with our current president. Of that meeting, he said this:


Afterward, he was accused over and over of being disingenuous, lying about his intentions, or letting his publicist do damage control (not really the patterned behavior of the guy who Tweeted “Bill Cosby Innocent!!!!!“, but whatever).

Kanye said he met with Donald Trump to build bridges, so we might as well trust it. If it was the wrong call by him, fine. No harm in trying — he won’t be the first or last person to try to reason with #45. Also, Kanye seems to have already pulled the rip chord, deleting all those tweets this week.

So really, what we’re seeing — once again — is a human being who is thinking about things, growing, and changing, rather than remaining static. The man is a work in progress and unlike so many glossy celebrities who try to seem perfect, his flaws have been laid bare, over and over.

Remember this very relevant quote from Ultralight Beam:

Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they’re not good enough
This prayer’s for everybody that feels like they’re too messed up
For everyone that feels they’ve said “I’m sorry” too many times
You can never go too far when you can’t come back home again

Which is exactly what Talib Kewli encouraged Kanye to do.

And, it appears, exactly what Kanye did.

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Final Complaint:

But he could be a nicer person. Right?

Evidenced By: The low key, successful, “soulful dude” who we got to know for about twenty minutes between when College Dropout was released and when Kanye started storming stages to complain about his lack of awards.

Rebuttal: Sure, it’s quite possible that within the Kanye West we know, there’s an old Kanye — a charming, sweet, eager dude who knows when to keep his mouth shut, has a reasonable limit to his ambition, tours with friends, does features on records of his once-enemies, and cultivates a pleasant public persona. He raps about that guy and recognizes that we miss him.

But would that same person be engaged in an out and out war to create art, the way 2017 Kanye is? Doesn’t his manic energy, his use of his platform as a sort of idea sounding board, his absolutely uncontainable longing to live like a goddamn roman candle, and his occasional social awkwardness give birth to some of his best art?

2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy felt like a direct response to the 2009 Taylor Swift fallout. It may not have been Kanye’s best record, but it was almost certainly his most complete art project — a movie and concept album that worked on literally every level. At a time when rap seemed almost out of ideas, that MBDTF jam was like planting a flag on Mars. It was a message to every rapper, screaming: WE CAN GO FURTHER — from Nicki Minaj’s Roald Dahl-inspired intro to the very last snare.

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So what’s the case against the case against Kanye West boil down to? This: The man has given us art. He’s opened up a vein on the track. He’s never hidden. He’s cried, and laughed, and acted like a jackass. He is an artist. And one day all of our nitpicks will vanish like the mist burning off the sea. When that happens, we’ll be left with a true renegade, a visionary, a man whose creative spirit absolutely cannot be contained.

We live in an era of “one of the greats” — so we should probably appreciate him now, while he’s still here.

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