Rappers of the Decade: Kanye West

The Rappers of the Decade series returns with a look at Kanye West's work since 2010.
By    February 12, 2019

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Abe Beame is in his kitchen, counting the churros.

At the dawn of this decade, Kanye West was more than the biggest artist in music. He was openly, brazenly putting together the most consistent career in the history of Hip Hop. With three more or less arguably perfect, mold-breaking pop/rap masterpieces that essentially did for the Rap Album what Seinfeld did for television, followed by one of the most unpredictable and unpredictably influential career left turns in the form of 808s & Heartbreaks, you could be blamed for assuming a letdown was coming. I certainly did.

Instead his next album cycle, what would become My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, destroyed any modern conception we have for what to expect or what is possible in pop music. It solidified Kanye’s exponential career arc in the aughts, an impossible diagonal arrow trending up that will never crest. At the time, we’d quibble about the merits of Late Registration v Graduation, the College Dropout diehards had their corner, and weirdos like me would insist 808s & Heartbreaks was the most important record of the decade.

But My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the conversation ender. It was probably the last moment of true universal consensus we’ll ever see in America until the internet disintegrates along with civilization (aside from this website of course, which didn’t care for the album’s bombastic, relentless perfection. I did). [ed. note: we correctly assessed it as a flawed and overstuffed but nonetheless brilliant record] With the G.O.O.D. Friday roll out, the incredible tour, and the album simply winning the internet, rap music, pop music and the world, Kanye adopted an air of unimpeachable invincibility. Kanye was Michael Jackson, an immaculate pop machine that could do no wrong.

His signature was the ultimate stamp of excellence. He would never suffer through an idiosyncratic period. And almost immediately following this achievement, creating this aura of gravity-defying, invincibility in his music if not his life, Kanye spent the next ten years doing little besides dumping kerosene on his legacy and setting it on fire, over and over again, irrevocably forever.

You can look at the lifestyle choices, the erratic musical output, the increasingly insane outbursts that went from Russell Westbrook heat checks to Mohamed Atta heat checks and of course the radical political swing and say this is a guy suffering from actual clinical mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. And to be sure, beyond the Chappelle theory, “Fame will drive you insane in spite of yourself”/tragic American tale of a man built up and torn down by our celebrity industrial complex, Kanye West has evolved into some dark and previously unseen 8th stage of the Kubler-Ross model.

But for the record, Kanye was always a deeply unhappy person, as discontent is an unfortunate byproduct of greatness, as comfort can lead to complacency and shitty art. So it’s clear the loss of his mother and disillusion of what was supposed to be a lifelong commitment to his long-time partner broke something in his brain and changed him, but I’ve always thought there was something else coupled with his trauma that precipitated his fall.

I think about the last 10 years of West’s music, and really of his life, as his Rumspringa. While he’d been an outsized, larger than life character since the beginning, there was always an apex to strive for, an accolade to achieve, a chip he needed to get off his shoulder. And the guy was a worker. An incredibly dedicated, single-minded workaholic. The prisoner to his art who made five beats a day for three summers. He spent much of the aughts putting in his 10,000 hours, meticulously checking these boxes, outworking the competition and allowing great to be the enemy of good but getting to great every time anyways.

But he slowly ran out of mountains to climb. He won every measure of critical and popular acclaim, got all his Grammys, conquered the fashion world, directed a film that premiered at Cannes, produced for every living artist he grew up worshipping including his hero, the guy who thought he was better off behind the boards who he eventually badgered into making a fucking joint album with him.

A self conscious, funny looking kid from Chicago with a big mouth and a weird name forced his way into the stratosphere of American life, a one name icon who made every last dream he had come true. And then Kanye wept, for there were no worlds left to conquer. There’s a passage in The Great Gatsby when Jimmy finally gets Daisy over to bear witness to the mansion and lifestyle he bought for her, it was a goal he’d dedicated everything to, years in the making come to fruition: “There must have been moments that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams-not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

I think the idea of KANYE WEST was Kanye West’s Daisy Buchanan. And I think as much as the incomparable losses West faced in his personal life broke him, it’s this idea and the emptiness at the core of what was supposed to make him whole that lead to the strange place we find him in wrapping up this decade. The realization of his life’s work was reduced to an ordinary green light at the end of a dock. His count of enchanted objects diminished to none.

MBDTF will most likely be the first paragraph in his obituary. It’s his Fitzcarraldo, his Bohemian Rhapsody, an opera of pure gorgeous nihilism that so brilliantly and fully understands his, and our plight in this dark late stage of empire and laughs into the void. But Yeezus may end up being the more impressive feat, a deep cut for the obsessive nerds in generations to come. There’s really never been anything like the experience of listening to it for the first time. The album is rapped but I have trouble qualifying it as a RAP album. It’s difficult to love, or even like.

But then you listen again, and again, and again. It’s an incantation, a Haftarah, a prayer you recite in a language you don’t speak that slowly makes an indelible impression on your brain, heart and soul. It’s his most complete album because I can’t even isolate and revisit the singles. If I’m going to listen to Yeezus I’ll have 40 minutes and one second cleared out, my phone will be on Airplane Mode and I’ll be listening to Yeezus. In retrospect, it was the point of departure. He worked it to the bone, and with Rick Rubin found the gold in its selfish heart. But it was a rejection of his popular instinct. A conscious uncoupling of the things that made him world renown and iconic and worthy of our love in spite of all the shit.

I rarely revisit The Throne project. It’s frankly a fucking boring album. The two artists are far from the top of their games but they also aren’t nearly at their worst. The production is fine. It just suffers from that lame thing that happens with collab albums where the singular vision is sacrificed in the interest of making something both artists can agree on and the results are thoroughly homogenized. But there is one song, left here for your consideration, I think about a lot. “New Day” is an exercise in wish fulfillment as both Ye and Jay imagine their unborn children as avatars for the lives they didn’t get to live.

As parents, we view the idea of our children as opportunities to correct the mistakes we feel our parents made, and consequently fix the things we are unhappy with in our lives. What we realize later, once they are born and we are physically raising them is our children aren’t ideas but people, with specific limitations and strengths and needs that won’t fit comfortably within the parameters of our neat hypotheticals, and they are opportunities for us to make all new mistakes they will eventually try to correct as the cycle continues. But it’s instructive to see Kanye unmaking himself through his son. He will be kind, polite, above all things likeable and at peace with his experience. He will be the antithesis of Kanye.

It’s a sad, heartbreaking dream of self correction, and a window into how exhausting it must’ve been, even nearly ten years ago, to be Kanye West.

And then it got quiet. Kanye settled into his tabloid relationship and started his family but presented as an ever restless spirit, railing less and less convincingly against the enemies that were no longer there, so perhaps he had to find ways to draw them out. He alienated his friend and mentor and kept searching for mini fires to start. But his greatest provocation was The Life of Pablo. Kanye West, the meticulous, legacy obsessed control freak, announced four different names for his follow up project over the course of two years, finally settling on Pablo days before the album’s “release.”

I employ those quotation marks because I’m not even sure you could call the album finished now. Kanye edited songs several times following the rough draft dropping on iTunes. He added tracks, he introduced the idea that a record is a living thing that never stops evolving along with its artist. But an album isn’t a living thing, it’s an album. A snapshot of time and place, and this was not a great time or place for Kanye West.

It’s an album of peaks and valleys. Some of it is the best, most insane and inspired work he’s ever done, some of it is utter shit and seems to be intentionally shitty. A song that tight ropes that line is “30 Hours”. It’s my favorite song on the album and one of my favorite Kanye songs period. It’s a weird, petty, stupid, lovely song. Andre 3000 is around to kind of half-heartedly harmonize, which is like getting Miles Davis to play kazoo. He willfully, gleefully pisses away his one 3 Stacks cameo. At the end of the song, for no reason at all, he just let’s the ad lib track play as he talks shit, rehearses snippets of verse he never actually spits, just straight fucks around on mic and keeps it all. His phone rings, it’s his publicist, you hear the iPhone default ringtone, he answers it and has a conversation.

To many this probably seemed like a wink, or a joke or just Kanye being a dick, but for me it was punk rock. A prep school kid drawing an anarchy sign on the back of his uniform blazer in chalk during his first mental health day, blowing off after school activities and smoking weed in the forest.

In the Wyoming sessions West continued in his railing against his better angels, with a series of five 20 odd minute albums made in haste. The vision is as spectacular as his most maximalist, far reaching projects. The results, of course, are not great. Maybe you glossed over the first part of this paragraph but depending on whose account you believe he made five albums in the span of a few months, which may be a generous time allotment. His original idea for the cover of his own contribution was the mug shot of the plastic surgeon who performed his mother’s last surgery. He eventually settled on a picture of Wyoming taken with a phone.

But in spite of himself, Kanye displayed incredible range and cast shadows of the prodigal polymath that made him the biggest artist in all of western culture, even when the music didn’t live up to his personality and talent. The projects could not be more diverse: A throwback baby-making soul record, a Boom-Bap record, an indie-pop alt R&B record, a hard classic Coke Rap record that finally solved Pusha T, and whatever the fuck you want to classify ye as, but they all have their merits. They would’ve worked as one-off EPs and they would’ve been quiet but solid contributions to each artist’s catalogue had they not bore the impossible weight of Kanye’s brand (except for Daytona which was on my shortlist for album of the year). And then, of course, in small fleeting moments they are also interesting and singularly brilliant and you can see if he had given any one of these adequate time and attention they all could’ve been great.       

It is at this point a well-trod and hackneyed take to liken Kanye West to the man he forever destroyed his reputation by endorsing, but the parallels are so apt that I’ll leave my own impressions here, because I personally still believe in Kanye West, the badly damaged human being and brilliant artist. Like Kanye, Donald Trump is an American original. A Twain-like megalomaniacal dreamer with a continent sized ego who spoke his impossible self projection into reality in spite of incredible odds. Trump capitalized on an unfortunate legacy of bloat and decay, the stolen fortune, dark greed and inheritance passed down from one fail son to the next. He’s our dark lineage of ugliness and racism, our dishonesty and our willful ignorance.

Kanye represents the other side of that American ideal:  the hunger, the ambition, the realized incredible talent, the refusal to take no for an answer, the belief in yourself above all other things. Their mutual admiration has a sad logic. In Trump, Kanye sees the power and polish of aristocracy, the club he badly wants to belong to. In Kanye, Trump sees the genius and self made accomplishment he’ll never attain.

I would also like to mention, because this has almost completely been glossed over or ignored, that when we look back at the Trump administration and its absolutely brutal four or eight years, the actual piece of policy that wasn’t intended to harm or destroy people of less privilege was the First Step Act, a piece of bipartisan criminal justice reform that will help countless numbers of Americans in the system currently and at risk of becoming victim to our industrial prison complex in the future. It’s something that never could’ve passed under a liberal President due to conservative obstructionism.

There are some that will say that the Bill didn’t go far enough, and that opinion is valid, but it’s an overhaul of minimum sentencing and reducing recidivism, an act of compassion that is nothing short of miraculous considering the death regime we lived through with the Republicans in control of all three houses for two years. In The New York Times in December of 2018, there was another quote about Kanye in a piece about how none other than Jared Kushner pushed the Bill through Congress. I think about it a lot and it goes like this:

“Meetings with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, organized by Mr. Kushner, also helped bring outsized attention to the issue. And above his office door in the West Wing hangs a poster from Mr. West, with the slogan, ‘Bringing dignity back to Forgotten America,’ and signed, ‘To Jared, from your friend Ye.’” I can’t defend his insane slavery comment, or even really get behind the idea that this endorsement and the White House rant even too incoherent for Trump was a fully conscious action of persuasion. But in what was greeted by the internet as a fail and a betrayal, and I can’t know how much of this was premeditated or intentional, Kanye and his coalition activated the bully pulpit and got one real, incredibly unlikely, meaningful piece of reform passed in the darkest of American nights.

In my more optimistic moments, I hope one day this is how Kanye West’s erratic decade will be understood when our passions die down and we’re left with the most remarkable body of work that any artist has produced thus far this century: That his frivolous provocations are interpreted as little more than that. He spent this portion of his career creating hurdles to leap, Jordan on the White Sox chasing splitters.

I hope my children will revisit those first impossible moments as a rapping producer made this string of nuanced, accessible, PERFECT pop songs articulating the African American experience as it pertains to religion and materialism and systemic racism, with an audacity we’d never heard before. And then they’ll come to late Kanye. And it will be strange, messy and yes, idiosyncratic and it will be hard to understand how “Lift Yourself” can possibly be the work of the same person. And maybe after some reflection what they will perceive is an incredible artist who has reached a great height and decided to leap. And maybe they will listen to that falling artist and consider that for a few brief moments, his plunge felt like flight. And they will hope, as I do, that maybe in his reckless abandon he finally found freedom, and a small measure of peace.

ROD: Kanye West- The Descent


Father’s Children- Dirt and Grime (Who’s Gonna Save the World 1973)

Kanye West- Hell of a Life (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy 2010)

Kanye West- 30 Hours (ft. Andre 3000) (The Life of Pablo 2016)

Kanye West- Yikes (ye 2018)

Kanye West- Lift Yourself (2018)

Watch the Throne- New Day (Watch the Throne 2011)

Kanye West- Mama’s Boyfriend (?)

Kanye West- Runaway (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy 2010)

Nas- Everything (Nasir 2018)

Kanye West- I Thought About Killing You (ye 2018)

Gil Scott Heron- Who Will Survive In America? (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy 2010)

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