"Keeping it real" is a concept that's helped tether Kanye West to his audience for over a decade. His moves subverted the double-consciousness: He wore his black Chicagoan roots on his sleeve regardless of the white gaze, while he refused to let any monolithic concept of blackness stifle his ambition.
But it's only recently that the same strength, which helped make him a centripetal cultural force, has become truly pernicious. The lead-up to T.L.O.P. has been chaotic: G.O.O.D. Fridays only lasted two Fridays. A petty Twitter rant against Wiz Khalifa exposed West as an obsessive neurotic; he had to go out of his way to defend his anus against Amber Rose. The title of his next album changed from an onomatopoeia ( SWISH) to a game show. Yesterday, he proclaimed Bill Cosby was innocent—in all caps—possibly setting the Freedom Tower on fire.
This might be the first time Kanye West being Kanye West—that is, speaking before thinking—has dragged his album rollout. He started to regain whatever goodwill he lost with last year's "Facts" when he dropped "Real Friends" and "No More Parties in L.A.," the two 2016 G.O.O.D. Friday releases. The acclaim was near unanimous, and placed together, they have a populist appeal: "Real Friends" was a dour rehash of College Dropout's "Family Business," great for the classicists, and "No More Parties in LA" is a current-state-of-Kanye thriller. Unfortunately, those songs couldn't compete with his PR blunders. Usually, the buzz around a great West track lasts for weeks. But this time around, his lead singles have faded from memory, while his alleged penchant for anal-play is still trending and inspiring memes.
West is imploding as the zeitgeist presses forward. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly is a black cultural milestone racking up Grammy nominations. Drake is owning the transparency lane that Kanye West built with chart-topping singles. Beyoncé continues to be more subversive as her fame grows. It isn't just that West is losing his cultural cache; frankly, it's easier for fans like me to redirect the energy we usually waste defending him and use that to focus on other artists.
But I simply can't quit West. This was an artist who, in 2004, taught myself and hundreds of thousands of other prepubescents and teenagers (today's creatives) that their concept of blackness was valid—that it wasn't an alternative, but stood equal within black America's multitudes. So we stood with him when he went from a pink polo-wearing outsider to becoming one of hip-hop's most famous ambassadors. Yeezus might be, at its best, a vanity project driven by his fashion industry frustrations, but there was a shared vindication in him carving out his own avant-garde space to rant. His declaration that he was running for the presidency in 2020 might've been kicked off by a barely coherent speech, but the effect was vicarious. West was dancing atop the glass ceiling that's blocked so many of us.
Unfortunately, West's past few months have been caked with misogyny, implicit homophobia, and self-aggrandizement. What was at the center of those first two albums was how they captured the un-sanitized black soul and its dimensions—pride, insecurities, flawed humanity, and potential. When he reached his commercial peak with Graduation he became living proof of the maxim "do you and they will follow." People don't get that famous based simply off artistry. West has garnered a cult of personality driven by the way his humanness is intertwined with his celebrity.
And I think that's why I just can't escape Kanye West. His art is always pushing the game forward. Before others can catch up, he's off exploring new forms of expression. Who else has been able to be this loud and this famous for this long within a white space? So I bristle when his detractors tell him to be meek, to neuter his pride because it makes them uncomfortable.
I'll definitely be following on Thursday as he finally unveils his new album at Madison Square Garden, but this time it will be with more curiosity than glee. Because the truth is, "keeping it real" and "being yourself" can't absolve Yeezus of all his sins. When West publicly discounts the rape accusations of more than 50 women who have nothing to gain, even I, a longtime fan, have to question whether there is something wrong with the picture he's painting. To love something is to ask for the best in that thing. I love Kanye West, but right now he isn't at his best.
Follow Brian on Twitter.