But is he also, beyond the hype, a twisted musical genius?
Kanye West wants a billion dollars. (So do I.) “Mark Zuckerberg,” he tweeted a few days ago, “I know it’s your bday but can you please call me by 2mrw…” That’s mind-blowing stuff. It’s really because he’s a ‘rockstar’ in the traditional sense of the word — “the greatest living rockstar on the planet,” like he himself humbly proclaimed at his contentious headlining performances at Glastonbury last year — and he can get away with far worse than calling out rich white males on their hypocrisy.
Being a ‘rockstar’ is pretty much an antiquated notion (which, for what it’s worth, is not a bad thing at all); the showboating excesses of rock ‘n’ roll (as much a cultural thing as it is a genre) seem to have dissipated. The heydays of the ’70s and ’80s, which spawned many wastebaskets’ worth of rockstars, have become caricatured ever since alternative music took the mainstream by storm in the early ’90s. Following the shift in consumption of music and dropping revenues, the rockstar has become a parody. You know, dressing in clothes too flamboyant for an experimental ramp show; indiscriminate promiscuity and a lifelong search for the A-Z of STDs; smoking/eating/drinking/injecting/inhaling anything that looks even remotely illegal; being a sexist, racist, misogynistic bigot with a proud lack of self-awareness; chucking televisions from hotel room windows; biting off bats’ heads. Think Led Zzzzeppelin, think Guns N’ Roses, the Rolling Stones.
So West becomes a modern incarnation of that same school of thought — beyond the actions themselves, his public persona is lapped up greedily by the press, and, in turn, the audience. Most of all, it requires an unrealistic kind of sincerity. He can self-mythologise shamelessly, say outrageous things, make bizarre accusations, go on loony rants one level short of full-blown paranoia and persecution, and it’s all forgiven and forgotten.
“This is not album of the year. This is album of the life,” he wrote, talking about the then-forthcoming release of his album, eventually titled The Life of Pablo (although who knows; it might change again). It isn’t quite “the Beatles are more popular than Jesus” levels of delusion, but it’s not far off either.
Even though the album has only been out for a handful of days, and still only on the streaming service Tidal, The Life of Pablo is, it seems, a masterclass in promoting and releasing an album in a world where no one really bothers with the format as much as in the past.
It began over a year or so ago, when he announced he’d been working on a new album; there was a song with Rihanna that came out, I think. The record was supposed to be called Swish. Then it became Waves. Then something else. Then something else. The last couple of months were basically a long-drawn, manic breakdown on Twitter, including a now-infamous feud with Wiz Khalifa, which escalated over a misunderstanding about a slang for a certain kind of weed, called KK, that Kanye, simple-minded idiot that he is, mistook as a diss against his wife, Kim Kardashian, or KK. That’s when West truly flew off the handle, insulting Khalifa, his clothes, his height, his music, his stripper ex-wife, his manhood, his child, followed by a half-assed apology and deleting the outburst. (A rockstar is contractually obligated to have Beef — the kind you have, not the kind you [cannot] eat — with other musicians, otherwise their membership is revoked. Legendary duels between Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain, Lennon and McCartney, Gilmour vs. Roger Waters, Oasis vs. Oasis, Oasis vs. the world at large all come to mind.)
Finally, the album was launched with an appropriately decadent event at Madison Square Garden, a do that was live-tweeted and live-streamed by the entire music press, reaching unprecedented levels of hype. The event itself spawned further controversy, over some derogatory lyrics about Taylor Swift, and how he made her famous after the “I’ma let you finish” debacle, which, depending on who you believe, she was completely OK with or completely put off by. Followed, naturally, by another torrent of barely-legible tweets. (She did, however, take the high ground during her Grammy acceptance speech, talking about people undercutting your success and taking credit for it.) So just about every single element leading up to the release of The Life of Pablo has only yanked up the hype-metre.
But then, it’s not just about (bad) behaviour. The rockstar, for all his flaws, also possesses enough talent for people to forgive or look past the statutory rape allegations, the homophobia, the assault of wives and girlfriends, the heroin addictions, the delusions of grandeur.
He may claim that Bill Cosby is innocent, he may ask Mark Zuckerberg for a billion dollars, consider himself a fashion genius and a musical god, live in a world entirely of his own making, but Kanye West is also a phenomenally gifted musician. He’s unhinged, but his creative output is both prolific and exceptional. That’s what makes it all OK (somewhat). You realise that the art itself can offset the odiousness or the comic farce of his personality. I won’t claim to be a hip-hop connoisseur, but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an incredible album. West always brings a healthy list of collaborators into all his works. He’s forever helping out or promoting other artists and putting himself out there. He rarely rests on his laurels (musically), regularly releasing new material that’s almost always very well received. Even The Life of Pablo, an album that rightfully should not live up to its unreal publicity, has been receiving unequivocally positive reviews (Disclosure: I haven’t read them at length, because of spoilers, but headlines, ratings, and introductions all seem to point unanimously to a great album).
It simply reinstates his rockstar credentials. And, dated as the concept may be, the novelty aspect West brings to the revered profession makes it a timely antidote to the glum modern-day realists. Kanye West is a pantomime villain — not harmless, but not malevolent either. And talented (and arrogant) enough to carry it off. He’s fascinating if nothing else.
See, the world has changed; there aren’t many old-school rockstars left. There’s the change in perception: people realising that their musical heroes need not be larger-than-life clowns; that they can just as easily look, talk, and act like normal people, and at the same time write great music. There’s also the dynamic shift in how the music industry works now, with not as much money and a far greater supply of music meaning that it’s next to impossible to manage that life, where a significant number of artists are simply busy trying to make ends meet and grateful for the chance to.
The only ones still left are either reluctant to embrace the virtues of it, or in their late hundreds. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards may well outlive us all, but the rest are still mortal. The celebration of David Bowie’s life and works after his tragic death came as a reminder, welcome or otherwise, of a bygone era. And bygone it largely is. The scarcity of these cartoon heroes means that West is slotting into a very special role. And for that, we must cherish him. Or at least continue talking about him, because his ego will eventually explode, and just imagine the kind of stuff he’ll say then.
By Akhil Sood
Illustration by: Eshna Goenka