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Earlier today, Kanye West said some mean things to Wiz Khalifa on Twitter. Some of those things were funny, some of the things were cruel, and some were downright gross and sexist. It was a big thing. It's the reason you probably clicked on this article. I'm going to get to that, I promise, but first I want to tell you about David Bowie.
In the early 1980s, David Bowie was in a weird place. He wasn't the commercial juggernaut he'd been in his Ziggy Stardust days, and he could no longer sustain himself simply on his Thin White Duke-era diet of cocaine, peppers, and hysterical public controversy. He'd gone to Germany to dry out, pushing music forward with his so-called "Berlin Trilogy," in which he successfully shed the excess and artifice of his earlier career and successfully reinvented himself as an experimentalist of the highest order.
The only problem is, once you've mastered nearly every style of rock and avant-garde, where do you go from there? Well, you look backwards, and sideways too, and maybe if you're lucky that somehow that pushes you forward. That was the idea, at least, when Bowie enlisted disco whizz kid Nile Rodgers to produce Let's Dance, melding up his poppy, synth-drenched style with the Texas blues guitar of Stevie Ray Vaughn, whose soloing over Rodgers's slick dance backdrops made the tracks feel both alien and perfectly of its time. Released in 1983, the record ended up selling over ten million copies and launched Bowie into an even higher echelon of fame. They cut the thing in less than three weeks.
It feels like Kanye West—a guy similarly known for his chameleon-like ability to inhabit any style and make it his own, a penchant for outrageous public behavior, and an omnivorous aesthetic sensibility influenced by fashion and design—is working on his own version of Let's Dance. With his 2013 album Yeezus, West successfully merged the sounds of IDM and the avant-garde electronic underground with the jagged aggression that characterized much of the rap scene of his hometown Chicago, filtering the results through his slick pop sensibilities and Rick Rubin's minimalism. The ensuing tour found him rapping while wearing diamond-encrusted masks atop a mountain—simultaneously killing the artist and drawing attention to himself in the most flagrant way possible. Following the tour, he focused mostly on fashion, releasing a grime song here, a Paul McCartney collaboration there, an errant freestyle elsewhere, to varying degrees of renown and interest.
That all changed a couple weeks ago when he released "Real Friends," a plaintive ballad featuring Ty Dolla $ign, followed up by "No More Parties in LA," a six-minute track in which Kanye and Kendrick Lamar rapped uninterrupted over a beat from Madlib, who specializes in the sort of dusty, boom-bap psychedelia that lands just left of hip-hop's center. Both tracks carried with them an undercurrent of confessional urgency, something West's recent music, while great, lacked (many of Yeezus's lyrics were scraps from decade-old unreleased Kanye songs). His last two releases, however, feel "modern and timeless," which is how Nile Rodgers once described the sound Bowie was going for with Let's Dance.
And so, West has essentially been barricaded in the studio for the past two or so weeks, evidently creating tracks out of eight hours worth of beats sent to him by Madlib. He's got Swizz Beatz in the studio too, as well as Travis $cott and The-Dream, all of whom share Kanye's knack for crafting pure pop. If, as Kanye has suggested, his new album uses those Madlib beats as their sonic backbone, the result might be something akin to Let's Dance. Not a retreat into the safety of commerciality per se, but instead an attempt at fusing styles in a way that welcomes the listener to the party instead of jarring them from the jump, which is Yeezus did.
Perhaps as a way to let off steam while under intense, self-imposed pressure (it seems as if Kanye started work on his album in earnest only a month before its February 11 release date), West has been tweeting at a pace we haven't seen from him since he released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
At this point, Twitter is to hip-hop what those ringside interviews are to pro wrestlers—a chance to promote yourself, mouth off publicly, act goofy, or further a grudge you might have against somebody. After Yeezy tweeted that he'd changed the album's title from Swish to Waves for reasons we'll never know, Wiz Khalifa of all people decided to take West to task for... something? Not respecting Max B, the guy who popularized the term "wavy" in hip-hop, enough? Some sort of deep-seeded grudge Khalifa has against West because they both dated Amber Rose?
It doesn't really matter at this point, because Khalifa tweeted, "Hit this KK and become yourself," which it seems West took as a reference to his wife Kim Kardashian, which caused him to tweet, "Oh n—gas must think I'm petty cause I'm the best that ever made music... Like oh, that's Ye and I can put his wife's initials on my Twitter @wizkhalifa." He then proceeded to, true to his word, dismantle Khalifa's entire existence in an extremely petty manner, making fun of his pants and claiming Khalifa regrets having a kid with Rose because the child was a symbol that "you let a stripper trap you." It was a level of pettiness that ascended (or descended, perhaps) to the level of the intro of Cam'ron's Jay Z diss "You Gotta Love It," which accused Jay of, among other crimes against humanity, "rockin' sandals with jeans."
Shortly thereafter, West deleted the tweets, citing that "it's all about positive energy" and that he now understood that Khalifa was referring to weed and not Kim when he used the term "KK." The entire affair, which I guess caused enough of a shitstorm to warrant me writing this article about it, took up an afternoon of everyone's time, which feels like an appropriate amount of time to think about two famous people arguing on Twitter.
Kanye West is one of those rare public figures who fully understands the impact of his every move. That's not to say he's an egomaniac, or some sort of self-reflexive cultural provocateur—though there are certainly elements of both of those cultural archetypes to his persona. I just mean that he knows that people pay attention to everything he says and does, scrutinizing and analyzing it to death, trying to place it on a continuum of his behavior throughout history.
When interviewed shortly after the release of Let's Dance, Bowie told a reporter from Time, "It's hard to make people believe you don't have to be a tooth-gnashing, vampiric drug creature of the night to say something important." And it feels like West is facing that same quandary: How, after convincing the world he wasn't anything like them, can he still command the same gravitas without people treating him as if he's some creature from another planet?
It's almost like after shooting himself into space with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and threatening to burn the world down with Yeezus, he's shotgunned around the sun and is trying to crash-land back on planet earth. He's locking himself in the studio, he's rapping about his cousin stealing his laptop, he's showing his ass social media because he doesn't know about weed slang. It's all part of his public comedown, a return to normalcy from a guy who made a point of rarely being normal in the first place.
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