It has been more than five years since Kanye West abruptly interrupted Taylor Swift while she was accepting an MTV Video Music Award – to make sure that Swift, and the music world, knew that another artiste, Beyonce, deserved it. Many were appalled by West’s behavior; even President Obama, in an unguarded moment, called him a jacka**.
But as the 37-year-old rapper/producer/songwriter/designer/entrepreneur prepares to drop his seventh studio album, he is hotter and more creatively in demand than ever.
West enlisted Paul McCartney on two of the four new tracks he has released this year, and he’s teaming with other stars, including Madonna and protege Big Sean, on new projects.
“Musically, he’s always pushing himself to the edge,” says Reggie Rouse, vice president of urban development at CBS Radio. “With the people he works with, the people he mentors, Kanye always takes things to the next level. When he releases music, everyone’s listening.”
Even before he launched his own recording career, West was establishing a signature sound – fusing revved-up samples from classic R&B with his own instrumental flourishes and working with stars such as Alicia Keys, Ludacris and Jay Z, whose 2001 album The Blueprint secured West’s status as a producer.
As West progressed from his well-received 2004 debut, The College Dropout to 2010’s classic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2013’s smash Yeezus, his distinctly soulful style evolved, incorporating elements of dance and electronic music as well as lush orchestral textures.
“When it comes to production, there’s no question Kanye is pushing the game forward as many others are allowing it to stagnate,” says Erik Nielson, an assistant professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia who teaches courses in African-American literature and rap music.
Since the Swift episode, though, he has remained a greater provocateur outside the studio.
Part of this can no doubt be attributed to the exponential growth of forums for celebrity gossip, now far greater in number than they were when West observed, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” or posed with a thorn of crowns for a 2006 Rolling Stone cover titled The Passion of Kanye West.
Nowadays, West (who was not available to be interviewed) is just as likely to get attention showing off his new Adidas collection and his 21-month-old daughter, North West, at New York Fashion Week or hanging with McCartney and canoodling with wife Kim Kardashian during Paris’ sartorial celebration.
Outspoken and provocative
West raised eyebrows in February by, well, pulling a Kanye again, this time at the Grammys. When it was announced Beck had won Album Of The Year (Beyonce was a contender) West rushed the stage, then backed off. He seemed to be kidding, though his comments to reporters afterward suggested he wasn’t. That is, until he apologised.
Fellow rapper Common says West “always spoke his mind. He would just say anything out of his mouth, like a child would. That’s just his way.” But he says West “helps people. He will put you on a project, connect you with this person, and he has done that. Honestly, I love and respect that.”
Alan Light, author of Let’s Go Crazy: Prince And The Making Of Purple Rain, says: “Whatever you make of him, there’s an ambition and sincerity to his creative side that we respond to. There’s a segment of his audience that wants to focus on the music without the rest of the noise. But the noise is part of the project. I think (West’s) answer is, ‘You don’t get to choose. I get to choose.’”
For many fans, particularly Millennials, West’s contradictions are part of what makes him compelling, says Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.
He teaches a class called The Arts And Popular Culture at the University of Pennsylvania, “and my students are obsessed with Kanye. ... When you bring up critiques of him, they understand, but they see the overall context of what he does, and that communicates to them. The unpredictability, the impulsiveness, the confusing flip-flops – it all works in a world where you’re constantly checking updates on social media, and never know what you’re going to find.”
Nielson says West’s messages as a rapper, too, can be paradoxical. “His lyrics do draw attention to materialism and consumerism and their impact on the black community, as well as the way white corporate culture profits. In the next breath, though, he’ll celebrate that same materialism and consumerism. But those contradictions and inconsistencies characterise everyday life.”
Many agree race is a factor in perceptions of West, who was raised by educated, accomplished parents (who divorced when he was young). DeCurtis has noted “a lot of coded racism in objections to Kanye. People suggest he’s uppity, or see him as out of control.”
For Light, race is relevant in the clear emphasis West puts on “controlling his messaging, making sure that it’s not mediated, that he has the ability to speak his own piece. That statement alone from a black man is an important statement – that no one’s going to tell him what to do or say.”
Madonna, who defied boundaries as a female pop star in the 1980s, sees West as her successor, in “being outspoken, envelope-pushing, provocative ... walking on that razor’s edge as well.”
If there’s flagrant self-promotion, that’s just part of the hyperbole endemic to hip-hop culture.
“I think Kanye’s like Muhummad Ali – he wants to be the greatest,” Rouse says. “People can hate on Kanye and his wife, but not many people affect pop culture like they do. Does a week go by that you’re not talking about Kanye or Kim?”
Certainly, West uses social media to his advantage. He has 11.6 million followers on Twitter, where he gives shout-outs or waxes philosophical. He used Twitter to tease his upcoming album title So Help Me God.
If he has popped up only occasionally on his wife’s E! TV reality show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, he has been “friendly and polite, and nice, a gentleman,” says executive producer Jeff Jenkins. “He completely supports his wife and lifts her up.”
With the new album “coming soon” (that’s as specific as West’s camp has been), there is more speculation about the medium that made West famous.
Rouse notes that his latest single, the groove-driven All Day, is “totally different” from previous efforts with McCartney: “Kanye’s always challenging himself, ever-evolving.”
Light agrees. “The thing that made hip hop most exciting in the beginning, and gave it the greatest potential musically, is that every week brought infinite possibilities, a sense that you could do anything. And (West) still has that, where he’s not predictable from song to song or album to album.
“In a world where people consume stuff so differently,” Light says, “maybe consistency is not the name of the game.” – USA Today/Tribune News Service