An Essay – Kanye West

By Craig-Russell Horne

The greatest artist of our generation. Thats it, I’ve said it now. Now hold on… I hear you shouting about all the Trump stuff and the slavery things right but, just take my word for it okay? No? Fine…

I came very late to the Kanye West craze. Of course I knew and listened to ‘College Dropout’  and everything that came after but I never fully appreciated his work until 2013 with the release of ‘Yeezus’. It truly all stemmed from his BBC Radio 1 interview with Zane Lowe. Yes, it was erratic and downright crazy but, that’s all you would have got if you read the headlines the days and weeks after it aired rather than listening to it in its entirety and reflecting upon it.

Kanye spoke about his desire to now be the one who put “cracks in the pavement”. The one who would break the mould. The one who was going to re-imagine what it meant to be an ‘artist’ as opposed to just a musician or a rapper. He has often spoke of his hatred for that phrase, ‘rapper’. I totally get it. Music such as Kanye’s, in this modern era, has been by a long way the most interesting and complex projects we hear in and outside the charts today. The Kendrick Lamar’s & Frank Ocean’s of this world don’t happen on such a global scale if it wasn’t for Kanye. These kinds of artists have always been put into a box, into a bracket of ‘hip hop’ or ‘rap’. Consider this for a second: would you call Bob Dylan an acoustic act? Would you call Daft Punk simply DJ’s? Of course you wouldn’t. So why is Kendrick Lamar, who released quite frankly one of the greatest pieces of art regarding race relations in the US just a rapper? It is a fairly strong consensus that Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ was the best album of the 2010’s for its visionary sound bending ideas but out with that, he isn’t an artist. They created some made up genre called ‘Alternative R&B’ to slam him into. Kanye always attributes this to racism. I always wince at tackling such a topic. I’m a white male living in a predominately white country. I’ve never experienced what racism truly is. I don’t think I ever can. Yet, I understand his point.

What I can discuss however is genre. I never really had an opinion on what genre was until listening to Kanye speak about it. As far as I was concerned, it just seemed a simple way to categories music the same way a library would with literature. But are books and music the same? I’m not an overly keen reader but from the books I have thoroughly enjoyed, they have never been able to hit the same level of feeling or majesty I feel when listening to music. The only thing I do feel on that same level is art. Now art is categorised differently. It’s done by eras and styles. I understand ‘styles’ sound an awful lot like ‘genres’ and, to a certain degree it is but, put the shoe on the other foot for a second. Does it not sound ridiculous to say that Da Vinci, Picasso and Rembrandt are pop artists simply because they are popular? Does that not seem so wrong? Almost as if you have flattened all the beauty from their work? What if we called Damien Hurst and Banksy alternative artists? “Yeh we couldn’t think of a way to describe them so just thought, considering it’s not sticking to normal conventions, just create this totally meaningless title and slam them both into it. Does that not just seem wrong?

Now, I’m not saying Kanye was the first person in the history of ever to think about this but, he was certainly the biggest artist I had ever heard say it up to that point and more importantly, actioned it. To that point and as a musician myself, it felt extremely profound. I now tremor every time I release a new piece of music and have to file it under ‘Electronic’. Why? Because I use keyboards and sampled drums?

Kanye’s desire was to make music that wasn’t radio friendly. Destroy the production line of constant 16 bars of ‘la la la’ and ‘doop dooby doo,’ make truly intriguing music and they will come to you. Change the dynamics of music and what was to be deemed popular by creating a new popular. How rock and roll is that? Kanye said it himself, ‘we are the new rockstars and I’m the biggest of all of them’. Now regardless if you think Kanye is indeed the biggest of all of them, try and argue with ‘rap’ artists being the new rockstars? Honestly, I’ll wait. Rock died a heavy death during the 2010’s. It lacked aggression, rebelliousness and quite frankly any imagination whatsoever. All the big bands from the 2000’s that I grew up with all got boring and started making songs for the charts, just with slightly overdriven guitars. Or just really weird shit albums. It gave into the system. They are starting to say now that rock is making a comeback… where? when? Oh because they are starting to make punk music from the 70’s again? Alright cool. Now I know you’ve got this far and now starting to think, ‘he likes to moan this lad doesn’t he?’ but, stick with me. I grew up an indie kid. A big ‘You Me At Six’ and ‘Arctic Monkeys’ fan. I go back and listen to the albums of my youth and it hypes me up but, the artists I grew up with I now detest. Everything they released as I became a young adult was just terrible. I mean beyond terrible. I wanted music that didn’t care and had a bit of attitude. Rock dropped the ball and dropped its trousers and said to the music industry ‘do what you want to me, just keep paying me’. Artists like Kanye and Stormzy looked at the same industry straight in the face and axed kicked it and then proceeded to Muay Thai flying knee its mum for birthing it. Tell me which sounds more rock and roll: creating a lounge music album or wearing a stab proof vest with the Union Jack painted across it on the main stage of Glastonbury? One is deemed as legends. The other is just another rapper.

All of these ideas informed ‘Yeezus’. ‘Yeezus” was the turning point in Kanye’s discography and I think in his own mental health also. It was dark, loud and experimental. Nothing like it had ever been heard by such a big (and up to that point, hugely commercial) artist in the modern era of music. It was then followed by ‘The Life of Pablo’. Again, perhaps not as experimental as ‘Yeezus’ but still dragging inspiration from the soul era and the Chicago house scene yet, still looking towards the current day but twisting and turning it. It’s probably my favourite Kanye album.

But then 2016-2018 happened. If 2013 was the turning point for Kanye then this was a full Dua Lipa 180. The Trump endorsements. The MAGA hats. The crying about his lack of respect. The slavery remarks. It was a disaster. Now call me soft or an apologist or whatever you want, I always try to see the best in people. When people fall from such heights, an understanding should be had for why it has happened. Perhaps that Kanye in 2013 was so destroyed by the media and shot down by the public so often as ‘crazy’ or ‘talking too much’, unlike any white rockstar ever has, it drove him to controversy- ‘If you aren’t going to listen to what I say, then I’ll make you listen’. He knew what he wanted to be but was never taken seriously. Like anyone with a voice that needs to be heard, once backed into a corner, they lash out. Is the Kanye we seen over that period the real Kanye? Or is it the one that declares ‘Jesus Is King’ the real one? My heart wants to believe it’s the latter. But, like all the greatest artists, no matter what you think. We are still talking about him.

Or maybe I got it all wrong and again I cant attribute what Kanye really is. That early Kanye never wanted to speak to me or my culture.

And with that, I want to end with a poem written by Jasmine Mans titled ‘Footnotes for Kanye’.

“You look hungry, like that girl don’t make you no fried chicken or macaroni & cheese like she don’t feel you on the inside, like you haven’t had a home-cooked-meal since your momma died. You look like you lost the Psalm in your own song—like you want to talk to God but you’re afraid because ya’ll ain’t spoke in so long . Do you tell you daughter about me, how we were bittersweet, “to never mess with entertainers because they always leave? He’ll get on and he’ll leave your ass for a white girl” and he’ll give her your style, your language, your waist damn near try to give her your face, and somewhere in his Post Traumatic Twisted Fantasy he’ll make it all okay but what’s the worth in loving a man whose lost his smile anyway?

When Kim fucks up the lyrics to the College Dropout like them white folks used to fuck up your name, do you pretend not to notice? Do you regret the Marilyn Monroe in your decision, and wish you could’ve taken Billie Holiday as your bride? Do you ever want to run back to your wedding day and have it all over on the South-side? Do you wake up in the middle of the night and think that she wasn’t the right girl like you should’ve found one of them “i like art type girls.” Can you hear all the black kids calling your name wondering why the boy who rapped about his momma getting arrested for the sit-ins didn’t sit-in—why he traded in his Nat Turner for Ralph Lauren. Do you know how many kids at the protest had your sneakers on?–None of them. Do you know how many of your songs were played at the protest? All of them. Could your hear all of the lights, the flashing lights, the new slaves, the runaways—on their road to redemption waiting for Malcolm West to have the whole world at attention. N*gga they got you quiet!  Like how come only at awards shows–he riots. Maybe Yeezus was all talk. Jesus never needed Adidas to walk. Why is he outlining sneakers when the South-side is outlined in chalk? Can someone go and find the man who could make a diamond with his own b(e)ar(e) hands, we are looking for you. Because these kids still want to be– just like you they want to rap and make soul beats– just like you even though you just not you. Even though you traded in your spaceship to buy back your 40 acres in a mull, purchased the plantation and master’s daughters too. N*gga why you got these white folks claiming you like they built you, like they made you, like they polished you, like the readied them a good n*gga for the picking, ike they got you for sale,–oh how they love Kanye lets put him all in front of the store like you their black boy, you forgot you black boy? They got you lost in this world? You getting black-mailed for that white girl? You don’t see how your lies is effecting me, you don’t see how our lives were supposed to be? And I never let a n*gga get the close to me, and you ain’t cracked up to what you were supposed to be. I guess its bitter sweet poetry.”

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