‘Kanye West Is A Genius’ by Christoph Macdowall
It’s becoming increasingly hard to find someone out there who is indifferent to Kanye West. From those who see him as a creative visionary to those who see him as a megalomaniac and a joke, pretty much everyone is affected by the rap superstar who is both blessed and cursed by an inability to know when to stop putting himself out there. The latest of superstars to speak on the subject of West is The Killers lead singer Brandon Flowers, who claims that ‘everyone’s afraid to say anything contrary to him being a genius’. Really, Brandon? Contrary to that, two Presidents of the United States have criticized the guy, and over 100,000 people signed a petition to remove him from one of the headlining slots at Glastonbury festival this year. The man is one of the most controversial figures in the music industry, and in some respects he probably gets more hate than he deserves. But there’s no denying one thing: this man has more of an influence on music and society than any other musician in the 21st century, and there has to be a reason why.
There are artists who are forward-thinking within their respective genre, and then there are forward-thinking artists within the music industry altogether. Kanye West is undoubtedly one of the latter. Each album he has created exists in its own universe, from the joyous, soul-sampling The College Dropout to the industrial, highly affecting Yeezus. Not since David Bowie has any artist within any genre been able to reinvent their sound and aesthetic from album to album as effectively as Kanye West, making him undoubtedly one of the most impressive musical innovators of the century. From vocoder machines and 808 drum machines to guitars and pianos, West seems capable of using literally any musical texture to the best of his abilities in his music.
It’s a demonstration of something he’s become particularly good at in some of his most recent albums: creating music that is truly, genuinely sad
Take ‘Runaway’, from his 2010 masterpiece album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In the same song, West uses a beautiful piano-and-strings melody and a haunting vocoder track of his own emotive singing that has been so heavily distorted, the words are indistinguishable. The result is one of the most moving moments of music in contemporary music, and it’s a demonstration of something he’s become particularly good at in some of his most recent albums: creating music that is truly, genuinely sad. And that’s a pretty impressive feat, considering hip-hop is probably the most masculine, brash genre there’s ever been. Kanye may well have made it into the cultural mainstream, but – making hip-hop music that is beautiful and introspective included – he’s still finding ways to break the rules.
Pretty much every album Kanye has made has changed the direction of hip-hop in some way. With Graduation, his sales competition with 50 Cent’s Curtis – which West won – proved that the gangster rap mould no longer guaranteed commercial success, and that the public was starting to welcome a more artistic approach. With 808s and Heartbreak, Ye contributed to a sound that would change the direction of hip-hop forever, and this is one of his less popular albums we’re talking about here. The introspective lyrical content, coupled with forward thinking electronic R&B sounds, has inspired the likes of Kid Cudi, Childish Gambino, and a rapper/singer who you may have heard of called Drake.
West’s ability to draw influence from almost any source, no matter how unlikely – from a cement Le Corbusier lamp that has influenced his new fashion line to the influence of the Alejandro Jodorowsky film The Holy Mountain (1973) on the Yeezus tour – shows how he has earned his place alongside the 21st century’s greatest postmodern artists. The beauty of this aspect of Kanye’s genius is, of course, that it comes out of his hip-hop roots, it being a genre of music that owes a debt to pretty much every other genre out there, while sounding unlike any other.
After 11 years of releasing solo studio albums, he is still creating music that feels fresh and ground-breaking
Kanye’s aesthetic has grown and developed into something more important than any of his individual albums – he has become the first true star of the Internet era, employing digital downloads, expressing himself directly through Twitter in a way that avoids media interference, and making the most of the ability to access – in his words – “500 images a day” on his laptop to expand his artistic palette. As an artist whose public statements are often misjudged and well-meaning in equal measure, the directness of a platform such as the Internet is perfect for West. If there is any Kanye West album in particular that has been influenced by this aspect of his image, it is Yeezus, an album so musically and emotionally direct that it’s disconcerting.
Is Kanye West a genius? Well, yes. Through the medium of hip-hop, West has actually demonstrated a mastery of every genre of music, and it doesn’t stop there. Fashion, cinema and (genuinely) water bottle design are among the many fields of the creative industries that West has expressed an interest in and made some progress in: he really does have impulses to create that go beyond any of his peers. And that absolutely is in itself a good thing – it’s the reason why, after 11 years of releasing solo studio albums, he is still creating music that feels fresh and ground-breaking.
‘Kanye West Is Not A Genius’ by Ben Phillips
Kanye West is not a genius. He is, however, clearly an exceedingly clever man. Kanye has managed to build a multimedia empire with a cult of personality worthy of Chairman Mao in the space of a decade. He has made an appearance in multiple “Most Influential” lists, as well as Forbes, and, as of April 2015, has an estimated net worth of around $130 million (that’s about the same as Jimmy Page, although Page has had an extra half-century to spend his). His marriage to Kim Kardashian has only increased his potential, allowing him to move into the fashion industry (apparently with some kind of credibility, though I will be the first to admit that I fail to understand fashion), as well as uniting their already huge fanbases. Even if Tidal turns out to be the disaster that it promises to be, he is unlikely to be affected by much of the fallout. Kanye is not a musician, a producer, or a celebrity: he is a mogul. My contention is that Kanye’s ability to write music, which I think ranges from capable to toe-curlingly bad, is nothing to his ability to manipulate public opinion and sell his controversial personality.
His clearly premeditated acts of idiocy in the name of “artistry” (see any music awards ceremony from the last 4 or 5 years) are ways of cultivating his image
It seems only fair to consider Kanye’s musical history, so here goes. His debut album, The College Dropout, an unashamed mishmash of instrumental styles running underneath a collection of fairly standard-issue hip hop lyrical themes, dropped in 2004 and transformed him from budding record producer to critical darling and international superstar. For some reason, this record was an incredible success, despite Kanye’s unremarkable delivery and senseless yo-yoing between jokes about college (that’s university, actually) and the predictable pimping and fat stacks. Its only discernable message is: don’t go to university, because degrees won’t get you anywhere, only crime will. Thanks for that Kanye, I guess I’ll go back to the Midlands then.
His second album, 2005’s Late Registration, barely lasts an entire track without at least one guest appearance, the most embarrassing of which is from Adam Levine of Maroon 5. Again, this album sounds more like a mixtape, with no unity of style or lyrical themes. His third album, 2007’s Graduation, contains a guest spot from Chris Martin of Coldplay, so there’s no need to spend any more time on that. His fourth album, 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, was Kanye’s first major foray into singing, and not for the best. This album does at least have a unity of theme and sound: that of turgid, self-congratulatory tracks characterised by the liberal application of auto tune and gratuitous euphemisms. In places, it even descends into ‘80s cheese worthy of Eurythmics (though with much, much less astute songwriting). 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy returns some of the rapping to the table, while also stripping off the auto tune, revealing the fact that Kanye really cannot sing for toffee. It also brings together Kanye’s most diverse range of musical guests, from Jay Z to Bon Iver and John Legend, samples (ill-advisedly) the great King Crimson, and asks the really important existential questions, such as “have you ever had sex with a Pharaoh?”
His best work by a distance is 2011’s Watch The Throne, largely because of the heavyweight presence of Jay Z throughout, and the array of excellent guests (Beyoncé, Mr Hudson, and Otis Redding, in sample form of course), which together have inspired him to write some of his best lyrics. 2013’s Yeezus (is it just me or is that a stupid name for an album?), while gratifyingly containing almost exclusively rap, experiments with electronic elements which only serve to isolate Kanye’s uninspired vocal efforts, while making the whole record sound like it’s playing on a faulty turntable. Yeezus also unapologetically contains the song “I Am A God,” which unfortunately contains very little in the way of irony in its message, and sees Kanye berating the help for failing to bring him croissants in a timely manner. What a nice guy.
The caveat is that his fans make up a significant portion of people who live on this planet, and naturally they are far more willing to come in force to his defence than anyone else is to bother criticising him
So at least to me, Kanye fails to pass muster as an artist. This makes it all the more obvious that his clearly premeditated acts of idiocy in the name of “artistry” (see any music awards ceremony from the last 4 or 5 years) are ways of cultivating his image. This image is why people are, as Brandon Flowers said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, afraid to admit that Kanye is not a genius. His belligerent behaviour towards any music that doesn’t emanate from his clique of hyper-mainstream friends (that is, except those who guest on his albums, those are fine apparently), and his incredibly short-sighted and conflicted views on race relations, only serve to make him look more profound to his fans, and more stupid to everyone else. The caveat here is that his fans make up a significant portion of people who live on this planet, and naturally they are far more willing to come in force to his defence than anyone else is to bother criticising him.
The best way to characterise Kanye is to look at his most recent ventures, which comprise a Yeezus tie-in deal with Adidas and a subsequent Fall collection for 2015, and a couple of collaboration singles with Paul McCartney and various others (during one of which he actually namedrops Adidas), which contain almost no musical substance whatsoever. “FourFiveSeconds” and “Only One,” in terms of their substance and lyrical content (non-existent, both), are the perfect metaphor for Kanye’s musical career: it is largely subordinate to Kanye as a brand, and it is actually surprising to me that Kanye hasn’t yet had his own name tattooed across his forehead for legal purposes. He is happy to hobnob with Rihanna and Paul McCartney, and maintain his veneer of ‘hard work’ and ‘artistry’ as long as that attitude continues to sell things. The real questions are: will there come a time when Kanye leaves his musical pretentions behind and decides to become an investor, making Tidal the first of many ventures? And, of course, have you ever had sex with a Pharaoh?