This website is user-supported. Any donation is immensely appreciated: https://www.patreon.com/passionweiss
Alex Swhear can get much higher.
“I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. See a white family, it says they’re looking for food. And you know that it’s been five days, because most of the people are black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV, because it’s too hard to watch. I’ve even been shopping before even giving a donation.”
The infamous kicker Kanye West was hurtling towards—“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”—would reap the headlines, but its largely forgotten prelude is worth revisiting. Unmoved by the nervous gulps of Mike Myers, he meandered with junior-high cold sweat, never really settling into coherence. But for all the awkwardness of his delivery, West articulated an underlying logic: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he was incensed at the racially tinged media coverage, troubled by the government’s slow response, and uneasy about his own inability to help.
While the world reacted to Kanye’s thesis with apoplectic pearl-clutching, his stance wasn’t out of character. As inartful as he can be, Kanye’s advocacy has generally been in the right place. “Heard ‘Em Say” points to unfair targeting of minorities by law enforcement. “Murder To Excellence” grapples with the cycle of poverty and violence that plagues too many black communities. “We Don’t Care” extends empathy to wheelchair-bound welfare recipients and desperate drug dealers. Songs like “Champion,” “Touch the Sky,” and “The Glory,” while deeply entrenched in Kanye’s celebrity status, resonate because they represent victory for the underdog.
So why is it that, in 2018, Kanye West doesn’t care about marginalized people?
While Kanye’s lyricism has been careening toward unbridled narcissism for years, it was still difficult to swallow the extent of proud, ear-plugging ignorance that defined the rollout for Ye, his eighth solo album. Kanye’s embrace of President Donald Trump, MAGA hat and all, was almost certainly the noisiest political endorsement of this election year. He was unfollowed by peers, targeted by thinkpieces both thoughtful and hysterical, and ultimately shouted out by the man himself. For emphasis, he also embraced Candace Owens, parroted alt-right propaganda about black crime, and proclaimed that “slavery was a choice” in a now-infamous TMZ interview.
But the controversy lacked a discernible purpose. In contrast to the pointed self-probing he did post-Katrina, Kanye appeared flatly disinterested in substantively defending his affection for Donald Trump. On Twitter, he pulled the “I haven’t done enough research” card, like the debate class student intent on raising contrarian hypotheticals but too cowardly to commit to them. Pressed on it in interviews, he was maddeningly evasive, refusing to offer any meaningful rationale. He instead still seems dazzled by the novelty of Trump’s unlikely victory. “The fact that he won, it proves something,” he said in an extensive sit-down with Charlemagne. “It proves anything is possible in America. That Donald Trump can be President of America.”
This, of course, means nothing and tells us everything. Kanye’s admiration, at least in recent years, tends to be entirely surface level, animated by broad-stroke symbolism rather than any deeper underlying substance. Starting in his press run after Yeezus, Kanye talked endlessly about his love of Steve Jobs and Walt Disney not because he’s an iPod Classic devotee or a breathless admirer of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves; he’s in awe of what their names represent. Their legacy is so ubiquitous that increasingly, their ubiquity is their legacy. Steve Jobs and Walt Disney engineered revolutionary leaps forward in their respective fields, but as Kanye points out, their names cannot be ignored. More than anyone in politics in our lifetime, Donald Trump cannot be ignored, either—and to Kanye West, what could be more admirable than that?
Since Kanye’s lack of cogent justification alienated fans even further, the open question was whether Kanye’s new music would offer redemption. Public perception of Kanye has hit numerous ugly nadirs, but the pendulum generally swings back decisively in his favor once he calibrates his focus to new music. In the #MeToo era, though, where the public has become more willing than ever to shun once-beloved figures, Kanye’s climb back into public favor seemed more daunting. Without apology or explanation, Kanye’s latest antics threatened to color his existing oeuvre in very real ways.
Appropriately, then, Kanye’s next move was ambitious. He retreated to the mountains of Wyoming to finalize albums with some of his closest collaborators. Mr. West produced five albums in as many weeks: Pusha T’s endlessly delayed third solo album Daytona; Ye; Kids See Ghosts, the collaborative album from Kanye and Kid Cudi; Nasir, the long-awaited comeback from Nas; and KTSE, Teyana Taylor’s sophomore effort. The net value of the Wyoming albums isn’t easy to pin down. Bolstered by the blistering success of Daytona and burdened by the humdrum Nasir, the project is collectively neither a clear success nor a clear failure.
There are probably two ways to examine what these albums say about Kanye in 2018. The first is that as a producer, Kanye remains nearly peerless, honing in on his subjects’ strengths with remarkable precision. The crisp, taut gleam of Daytona perfectly suits Pusha’s aggressive snarl, with Kanye leveraging soul samples as effortlessly as he has since the mid-2000s. Push doesn’t waste a moment, a near-miracle given the bloat of his other solo albums.
Similarly, Teyana Taylor leapfrogs from forgotten GOOD Music benchwarmer to R&B heavyweight with KTSE. Slinky and sensual, it delivers on Taylor’s promise in ways her debut only gestured at. Kanye delivers the smooth R&B he provided for the likes of Alicia Keys and Brandy years ago. The production on Nasir mostly works, too; the problems there lie mostly with Nas, who sounds crotchety and disengaged. This all suggests that a future where Kanye focuses more on production than his own solo career would likely yield better results than his current trajectory.
The other vantage point to consider is what Kanye delivers when he’s in the spotlight. These results are considerably more mixed. Kids See Ghosts is moody and rich with atmosphere, mining Kid Cudi for talents that have largely fallen dormant since his second album. Ye, on the other hand, is sluggish and noncommittal, a curiously anticlimactic record considering the maelstrom that preceded it. Kanye’s later period albums have skewed sloppier—he was still working on his last one after it came out. But the slapdash kitchen sink charm of The Life of Pablo has curdled into something decidedly less satisfying. Despite Pablo’s occasional misfires, it yielded delirious highs. Ye simply seems to be running out the clock (a truncated one at that), evoking past successes but rarely feeling inventive, never bottling anything truly transcendent.
Ye fancies “Wouldn’t Leave” as its centerpiece, the big emotional payoff to the drama of the album rollout. But it’s poorly written and overbearingly smug. Focusing on the aforementioned TMZ interview, “Wouldn’t Leave” either misunderstands or ignores the fallout to his comments, opting instead to distill it as “my wife got mad for a little bit because we might become slightly less rich.” It’s the only explicit, extended reckoning with his recent controversies (his embrace of the alt-right is dodged entirely), and as such comes off as perfunctory and tone-deaf.
That’s exactly how he wants it, though. Kanye is eager to circle controversy to court headlines, but he recoils at the chance to challenge himself or his fans intellectually. “Everything Ye say cause a new debate/ ‘You see, he been out of touch, he cannot relate/His hallway too long’—bitch, too bad” goes his sneering Daytona cameo. It’s the dismissiveness of a man who not only doesn’t understand where you are coming from, it hasn’t even occurred to him to ask.
But he really should ask. Kanye characterizes the backlash as the product of a seething online mob, concerned only with rigid allegiance to their beliefs. Through that lens, Kanye can only be perceived as heroic—a victim of bullying, valiantly speaking out against the forces seeking to suppress him (it isn’t a coincidence that this illusion of victimhood in the face of tyrannical political correctness is what mobilizes Donald Trump’s base, far more than ideology). Framing everything in a false “love v. hate” binary, Kanye is bravely preaching truth while the world stifles him.
But that’s patently misleading. Candace Owens has branded the entire Black Lives Matter movement as “spoiled.” Trump’s first major presidential initiative was a Muslim travel ban. His administration has spent the summer implementing a new ‘Jail Toddlers’ border policy. The President has effectively strong-armed the NFL into stifling peaceful protests against police brutality, simply because he knows it sows racial division. None of these actions have even the flimsiest connection to Kanye’s newly adopted “love everybody” mantra, but he has embraced the people behind them without equivocation. For someone who was confronting deep systemic racism as recently as “New Slaves,” it’s a tension that’s difficult to square, made all the more difficult because Kanye doesn’t bother to try.
It’s probably too early to see exactly how Ye and Kanye’s alt-right ramblings scramble his legacy (especially since more albums may be forthcoming). It is still conceivable that Kanye can bounce back with something more vital than Ye; with his track record, it’s a bit hard to imagine that he won’t. And, it’s unlikely his “cancellation” is permanent. As Mel Gibson’s recent box office comeback shows us, there is very little that the public sees as truly unforgivable.
But the political landscape will only get starker, with the conclusion of the Mueller investigation, a rocky midterm election, and an explosive Supreme Court appointment all on the horizon. These are battles of immense consequence, with outcomes likely to shape the country for years to come. Many will be on the front lines. Kanye will be in the comments section.