Written by Guest Writer Rob McWilliams
I don’t like using hyperbole in my writing, so here goes: Kanye West is the greatest artist of our time.
There. I said it.
I have the proof, too: ask around and many fans will point to his stellar debut, The College Dropout, and how from there every album he released has come at a turning point in his life, allowing us a unique picture of the man’s evolution as a human and an artist. Reviewers will heap endless praise on his groundbreaking 808s & Heartbreak, the album that set off a whole subgenre of introspective emo-rap that gave Drake and Kid Cudi their starts, and on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an existentialist prog-rap masterpiece that was recognized as a rap classic within two years of its release. Industry insiders and marketing goons alike will fondly recall the legendary sales battle between West and 50 Cent in 2007, and how Graduation’s sales triumph over Curtis represented a fork in the road for hip-hop music, where the thinking man’s artist won over the gangsta rap that had dominated the airwaves since the days of Ready to Die and Illmatic.
But when it comes to Kanye being the defining voice of a genre, all of these things are true, but none of them are correct. For proof, I encourage you to pull up Google right now and search for “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves.” This time last month – hell, last week – God only knows what sort of racist propaganda the Internet would have pulled up for you. But now, Google those two phrases and you will get an insider’s glimpse of how Kanye Omari West is changing the world of music before our eyes.
Before last week, it was unthinkable that out of the blue, an artist would premiere his face on 66 buildings around the world, delivering his message with all the stoicism of a surgeon in the operating room while Frank Ocean crooned in the background. Before last week, nobody had ever gone on stage at Saturday Night Live and growled their curses like a jungle cat so that the censors couldn’t catch them. Before last week, songs like “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” would have been eschewed, even eviscerated; now they’re almost espoused, even idolized. Before last week, popular artists – Fall Out Boy proving an exception to the rule, depending on who you ask and what you define as popular – don’t record entire projects in secret to prepare for their bombastic return to the music scene.
But on Friday, Kanye West showed his face to the world in the most literal way possible – on three continents and across a dozen cities. He brought his message with him, gift-wrapped in a menacing, nihilistic hiss that was only subtly hinted towards on MBDTF, and the music world watched in a rapt fascination and horror from the moment his visage blinked into life to the moment it faded away. Why?
Because the music world isn’t ready for Kanye West’s mind.
The signs have always been there, when you think back. Remember his epic Twitter rant on the use of the word “bitch” in songs? Remember a little further back, when he announced his sprawling think tank DONDA, the organization that has put together some of the greatest and most artistic album covers of the past year? Remember his budding career as an art house director? How about the seven-screen movie experience that came with the otherwise mediocre Cruel Summer project? Remember when he named his record label G.O.O.D. Music?
But nobody – not his fansites, not music blogs, not even rap contemporaries – read the signs in the stars deeply enough to predict the way he premiered “New Slaves,” or the way he got on stage at “Black Skinhead” and the sinister, Marilyn Manson sampling beat blended with the yelps of police dogs in an angry cacophony that sent the Internet buzzing before the first song was even over. Nobody thought that even the great bohemian Kanye West, with his hot air balloon ego and his flamboyant fashion sense and his spectacle of a personal life, could possibly take the time to record a proper follow-up to his 2010 rap opera, let alone in secret. Saturday night, in front of an audience of millions, Yeezy stormed the stage once again and sent a message to the world, a sort of backhanded response to the doubts and the criticisms: it happened.
Saturday, Kanye growled and hissed and screamed and rapped lyrics that were at times poignant, at times tongue-in-cheek witty, and at times plain undecipherable. What could be understood was powerful and dark. From the scornful high society rant on “New Slaves” (The sinister end note “Y’all ’bout to turn shit up, I’m ’bout to tear shit down! I’m ’bout to air shit out, now what the fuck they gon’ say now?” come to mind) to the nearly tribal-sounding grunts of “Black Skinhead” (“They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor? They gone come to kill King Kong.”), Kanye arrived on stage like a Sidewinder missile, dressed in a scoop t-shirt, leather jeans, and plenty of good old-fashioned fucking rage.
He didn’t censor that rage, just like he refused to censor his message. I watched SNL with my mom live Saturday night, and we kept a slow, silent count of how many curses Kanye could string together in a roar before the censors caught up with him. Both times, the intense, sometimes borderline frantic rapper outwitted NBC’s quality control filter; though sometimes nearly invisible behind the bulldozer-level force of his performances, Kanye was clearly the mastermind behind the production, the phantom of the opera who appeared when it was convenient and disappeared when he was unneeded. It was art, pure art, and it hit everyone who watched like a ton of bricks. For a few seconds after he finished each song, the music world was silence.
Then it exploded.
In the past, even the seemingly raw, primal world of hip-hop has been censored. Album titles have been censored when considered too edgy, covers have been edited and removed (even Kanye was subject to this with the now-mythical cover of Fantasy) and entire verses and songs have been buried in the annals of controversy. But not Kanye, and not anymore. It’s because beneath the fabled ego, beneath the publicity around his relationship with Kim Kardashian and his upcoming child, beneath the onstage rants and the facepalm moments, and beneath all the scattered rough edges that make him up, Kanye’s smart. What’s more, he’s an artist. He’s the first artist of the modern era to realize that the music world can’t really stop him from getting his message out there. What executive in their right mind is really going to put an entire Kanye West album on the shelf, even one called Yeezus which focuses almost entirely on class and race warfare? What other rapper will draw a line in the sand and say that Chicago’s hometown hero has finally gone too far? Who will be “that guy,” the one who looks at Kanye objectively and says “that is not art” like every snarky teacher that you’ve ever had from kindergarten to college?
Nobody will, because when you say that limit exists, then you limit yourself and you limit everyone who comes after you, and in the end that does exponentially more harm than good. Kanye’s smart enough to know that, so he keeps pushing and pushing and pushing, until finally he drops something like “Black Skinhead” or “New Slaves” in front of an unsuspecting world. Changing the game is nothing new for the man who has done it with six albums in ten years, but something about this past week was different. It had an odd sense of finality to it, almost like he was saying with that typical Kanye smirk that this is the time. That this is where his legacy starts. That after this, nothing anyone does will ever be the same, just because it’s not by Kanye.
Saturday night, for the first time in lifetimes, the question wasn’t what an artist’s message can do to help further art. It’s what art can do to keep up with the artist’s message. That’s a high standard to live up to for any man.
It’s a good thing that the man in question happens to be the greatest artist of our time.