Brian Josephs wonders why “that nigga gave us Billie Jean” wasn’t used as a legal defense.
No rapper has a more consistent solo discography than Kanye West. And since West wants to be a “creative genius” instead of merely a “hip-hop artist,” you could probably extend the claim to “no other musician.” Of course, artists like Bob Dylan and Prince have released dozens of albums, and West had the benefit of not making music during the 80s.
Look, you’re not going to win in the argument that The College Dropout is better than Illmatic. But even though West’s peaks are usually imperfect, the ratio is impeccable: six albums, six slaps.
In rap, RZA is the creative force closest to ‘Ye: He produced the four seminal Wu-Tang solo debuts, GZA’s Liquid Swords and the entirety of 36 Chambers. But unlike West’s, those aren’t RZA solo albums. So there’s that, plus his albums reflect 90 degree creative turns. He switched from Late Registration’s orchestral airiness to the neon-lit, stratospheric stadium rap of Graduation—and made it work. He birthed Drake with 808s & Heartbreak before earning the forgiveness of white America via the opulent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s no small deal when an artist makes that many creative switch-ups and stays near the zeitgeist.
But no average stays at 1.000. At some point we’re going to be living in a world where West put out a bad album (assuming he doesn’t retire soon). Although he’s wildly gifted, he’s inherently flawed like everyone else. Plus, he’s a risk taker: The universal law says those who uppercut will miss spectacularly at some point.
So why do I think So Help Me God is going to be the album that flops?
First of all, it’s lead singles aren’t great. I liked “Only One” before the attention surrounding it swung toward music elitism (“These kids don’t know who Paul McCartney is? Ha!”). The year-end song was a palatable dedication that hinted at West’s newfound creative friendship with McCartney, spurring hope that it would yield great things. The humanity was there, too; speaking to North as the late Donda West is genuinely a moving concept. But for some reason, West couldn’t incorporate McCartney into a cohesive, compelling song structure. It was as if he was using the Beatle to prove he was a creative instead of making good songs.
I ended up liking the potential of the leaked version of “All Day” more than the actual studio cut. It was sparser, but the club-obliterating aggression it promised was there. The tacked-on grime, dancehall and drum’n’bass influence somehow domesticated it. This had the whoosh of a missed haymaker, and my honest attempts to get into the song turned into, “Damn, why do I have “All Your Fault” on repeat more than “All Day”?” [Ed. Note:”All Day” is Kanye’s best single in years and if you don’t believe me, ask Taylor Swift].
Yeezus found moments within its torture chamber to connect with the listeners’ id. On “All Day,” the experimental leanings feel arbitrary. West put McCartney on a club anthem just because he can. And West just can’t do adult contemporary. Maybe Rihanna can, since the very mention of her name inspires a chorus of “YASS.” But polarizing ‘Ye? Nah.
That’s all admittedly subjective. “FourFiveSeconds” is still somehow one of the Top 10 songs in the country, but both “All Day” and “Only One” came and went. It’s hard to think of two previous lead-in West singles over his entire career equally ephemeral.
2015 is a weird year for this to happen. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is flawed, but essential partially due to its ambition and topicality. Without the need for daylight, Earl Sweatshirt is writing great snarling misanthropic rap. Big Sean actually came out with as decent of an album as one could hope for from Big Sean, and Big Body Bes still exists. And then there’s West, who’s been a satellite figure these past few weeks, inspiring memes and speculation at a rapid rap, but not dominating the conversation with his music. While the conversation was on To Pimp A Butterfly on the Monday of its release, West decided, hey, let me post nude pictures of my wife Kim Kardashian. Hopefully, he’s in on the joke.
In the meantime, we wait for the next offering from the So Help Me God. Hopefully, it’ll be great. Hopefully, I’ll soon grimace when looking at this article. But one day it’s going to happen. Kanye will make a bad album. Just don’t tell him that.