About a month ago, my music editor suggested we start a weekly music news column for the Observer. I immediately agreed—at the center of this evergreen would be our shared belief that something inevitably happens in the world of music weekly that lends itself to a larger conversation or dialogue about the state of art and culture. When Amber Coffman from The Dirty Projectors took to Twitter and recalled being sexually harassed by a prominent music publicist, for example, a deep and substantive dialogue ensued abut how the music industry treats women.
More than any hard news or metro reportage, we here at the Observer like to believe that good arts journalism taps into some larger questions we ought to ask as a society, questions rarely broached by straight, hard news. As such, this music news column seeks to take what could become a tired weekly trope and go deeper, not only reporting on what happened, but why that matters in the scheme of things.
It’s much nicer, indeed easier, to assume Kanye is consciously involved in some massive, meta artistic trolling session rather than the alternative. But that doesn’t make it true.
Before we get into the music news, though, there’s some gaseous air that needs to be cleared, a pungent methane emitted from the most vapid, shallow, misogynistic and tortured bowels of professional fashion and music troll Kanye West.
Leading up to February 11, when the new album Kanye retitled four times and eventually called The Life of Pablo was eventually unveiled in a massive Madison Square Garden event, 2016 was already all about him. A Twitter rant here, a boast of self-obsessed superego there. You can’t spell idiot without id. The day of this big unveiling, a veritable listening party cum fashion show where models were handed down two stone tablets of instructions telling them what not to do and Kanye sold $40 airbrushed shirts featuring his deceased mother on the front and Robert Kardashian on the back, the record still wasn’t finished.
It wasn’t until two days later, immediately after Kanye’s contentious Saturday Night Live performance that almost didn’t happen after he threw another tantrum backstage, when the album was finally released via Jay Z’s Tidal. The media lapped it up, of course—Vice’s Noisey posted a clusterfuck of 41 T.L.O.P. capsule reviews from all of their young millennial scribes, while The New York Times gave the album a glowing write-up, stating that Kanye “has perfected the art of aesthetic and intellectual bricolage, shape-shifting in real time and counting on listeners to keep up.”
Add to that review the four other pieces the NYT has written on Kanye since (including an annotation of all subsequent lyrical and production changes he’s made to the songs) and Pitchfork’s masturbatory 9.0 review in which they actually wrote, “The message seems clear: He’s through creating new Kanyes, at least for now. He’s content to just stand among them, both those of his own creation and their various devotees.”
That Pitchfork quote references a T.L.O.P. interlude called “I Love Kanye”, in which Kanye rhymes his own name 25 times over the course of 45 seconds. It’s a joke song that he referred to as a “freestyle” in a skit on SNL and encapsulates the litany of 20-something music fans who mistake his incongruities for complexities. These are the same type of kids who define something that is inherently contradictory or illogical as “everything” on Facebook. If something can be described as “everything” it can just as easily be described as “nothing,” too.
In response to Kendrick’s stunning Grammy performance, someone anonymously posted that ‘Kendrick is doing what Kanye thinks he’s doing.’ Truer words were never memed.
It’s enough to cause every pop culture critic to assume Kanye’s trolling us on purpose, enough to cause every review that’s supposed to be purely about the music to instead be more about the lifestyle of the man who purportedly made it. Purportedly because, as Pitchfork pointed out, this is not the defining artistic expression of a single man, but rather rap music made by committee.
Let the idea that Kanye needed to incorporate so many collaborators, writers and producers on his albums yet still boasts “I Am a God” and chocks his success up to a triumph of individual willpower sink in for a moment. Then consider Kanye’s own self-immolation through another series of tweets in which he claimed to be $56 million in debt, asking Mark Zuckerburg for the money before sharing a flow chart with his various philanthropic endeavors to show how much good he could do in the world while lambasting others in his creative community.
One of our Observer music writers likened Kanye’s outsider’s assembly of music into vision to the likes of lysergicly battered spaceman Brian Wilson on SMiLe as an exertion of an individual’s power to triumph over their eccentricity and create. But don’t think for a minute that Brian Wilson had a fucking committee of people whispering shit in his ear, let alone a fashion line. The only voices talking to Brian Wilson were in his head.
The album credits for T.L.O.P. became a story unto itself, too, further reflecting a long and bureaucratic process of writing and recording that likely explains why Kanye might possibly believe running for president in 2020 is a good idea. I reject the assertion so many music journalists have taken that Kanye’s drawn-out clusterfuck of a rollout, his vitriol and his Twitter trolling is good humored, artful and intentional. Since we all have a natural human inclination to create a narrative that makes sense to us as a culture when confronted with something that we don’t understand, it’s certainly much nicer, indeed easier, to assume Kanye is consciously involved in some massive, meta artistic trolling session. Surely “I Love Kanye” would suggest it. But that doesn’t make it true.
Let’s instead look at the things we can quantify for what they are.
The New York Times called Kanye’s constant revision of T.L.O.P. after its release “everything bared — process as art.” It’s Jon Caramanica’s right to call whatever he wants “art,” of course, but by evaluating the public circus around T.L.O.P. as “art” he also implies it was an intentional move of transparency and honesty. Calling it a “process” is misleading because it implies some methodology or trajectory was undertaken by Kanye, consciously or not.
What we know to be true instead is Kanye’s constant backpedaling on boastful tweets, his outright lie at having Taylor Swift’s permission to include that lyric about “making that bitch famous,” and his former writing partner Rhymefest tweeting, “my brother needs help, in the form of counseling. Spiritual & mental. He should step away from the public & yesmen & heal.”
For all of Kanye’s egotism and expression of a god complex, there are plenty of hip-hop artists expressing a similar aphorism of self-worth without becoming the architect of their self-destruction.
This is an opinion from someone who knew Kanye intimately but no longer has any vested interest in appeasing him. Once you look past all the auto-tuned gospel and celebrity trolling one-liners on T.L.O.P., one of the album’s few solid tracks, the Kendrick Lamar-featuring “No More Parties in L.A.,” is a revelation.
“I know some fans who thought I wouldn’t rap like this again/ But the writer’s block is over, emcees cancel your plans,” raps Kanye. “A 38-year-old 8-year-old with rich nigga problems.” While the line reads as a self-deprecating, self-aware nod to the fact that the song’s rapid-fire verse stands in stark contrast to the litany of stream-of consciousness auto-tuned drawling he does on 75 percent of the record, that “writer’s block” line hits closer to home than Kanye might be aware of. Placed at the tail end of T.L.O.P., this image of Kanye having writer’s block suddenly shines a spotlight on the disjointed, faux-spiritual dick-waving that makes up the rest of the album.
He’s motivated in that moment because he’s spitting with K Dot, undoubtedly one of the best rappers in the game right now, and someone who consciously and positively channels the collective anger and fire felt by black America into his art. In response to Kendrick’s stunning Grammy performance, someone anonymously posted that “Kendrick is doing what Kanye thinks he’s doing.” Truer words were never memed.
Kanye again samples Nina Simone on “Famous,” having previously sampled her stark song about lynching, “Strange Fruit,” in his ode to bugging out on molly, Yeezus‘ “Blood on the Leaves.” Nina Simone’s biographer recently relayed to me how one of her greatest contradictions as an artist was that she maintained a fiery, non “non-violent” approach to civil rights while still wanting the commercial, pop-star success that would have come easily with her appeasing a mainstream, pacifist approach to the movement. Kanye finds himself in the opposite situation—now that he’s reached the commercial and material stratosphere of his inwardly focused, selfish aggrandizing, he’s suddenly expressing a desire to help the world at large, expecting us all to actualize and unite around his visions.
Kanye’s right to note in one of his most recent rants that it’s not the place of white publications to comment on black music, although to embrace this aphorism is to accept, by extension, that his gratuitous boasting, his material excess, his misogyny, and even his purported debt are all part in parcel with his art existing as “black music.” Does this not suggest that embracing Kanye’s life and work as “black music” also means embracing negative, fictitious stereotypes surrounding black musicians’ relationship to fame, money, culture and community?
Because for all of Kanye’s egotism and expression of a god complex, there are several hip-hop artists expressing similar sentiments of self-worth without becoming the architects of their self-destruction. Kendrick Lamar again comes to mind as an example of living the values you espouse in your work—when K Dot explains the Ethiopian title of royalty “Negus” in his freestyle at the end of “i”, he’s speaking truth to power without fashioning himself into a commodity.
The late Paul Williams, the editor of Crawdaddy! magazine who is widely credited as the world’s first rock critic, wrote in his 1969 book Outlaw Blues on the subjective power of what constitutes ‘good music.’ “Since I’m the one who’s stuck with whatever definition of that word I care to accept,” he writes, “I’ll feel more comfortable believing it’s ‘good’ if I feel it is rather than it’s ‘good’ if it wins the popularity polls. But we are talking about the relationship between what a performer feels like doing and what a large audience—large enough to pay for that performer’s studio time—feels like listening to. So the extent to which large amounts of people are able to relate to things is pretty important.”
Williams is right to say a critic’s opinion is only as valid as what the zeitgeist is saying, and 500,000 people within the zeitgeist surrounding T.L.O.P. said that they’re happy to download that shit illegally rather than put money into Jay Z’s proprietary, low-fidelity streaming service Tidal.
With Kanye’s latest tweet promising yet another new album this summer, the troll’s seemingly endless Mobius Strip continues on its eternal loop, the snake wearing a crown we call Ouroboros inhales its own fumes, content at feeling validated through dominating music conversations formerly reserved for the new, the exciting and the progressive. I’ve chosen to lend other artists my ears, instead.
When Kanye says his “god dream” is “everything,” the question of just who it’s “everything” to matters, and what that group of listeners considers ‘good’ matters, too. They must be a short-attention span lot, then, for whom this music is only as relevant as the hype, drama and chaos encompassing it. To those whose opinions, lives and beliefs are dictated but not read by our 21st-century deluge of electronic information, T.L.O.P. becomes “everything” encapsulated. But for those of us who prefer our art to last longer than the social media fumes of the individual who created it, T.L.O.P still sounds like nothing at all.
Please direct all your hateful comments and vitriol to @joffaloff on Twitter.