I. New Medici
Ever since Jesse Eisenberg put on Adidas slides and pretended to invent Facebook, tech entrepreneurs have liked to imagine themselves as renegade outsiders fighting against orthodoxies that are stiff and stale, designed to stifle innovation and turn us into drones (but not in the fun, monetizable way). I don’t think they’re lying; I think that the young, affected men who capture the hearts and minds of the old, affected men at VC firms genuinely believe their pet projects are going to vault humanity forward into a brave, new world, even if they’re oblivious to centuries of labor law or just keep reinventing the city bus again and again. They feign a global vision, but really live inside a closed loop, self-justifying, and self-perpetuating.
That America has so readily bought into the myth of Silicon Valley as this weird Robin Hood/Walt Disney hybrid is an indictment of a lot of things, chief among them the way our politics have spawned an increasingly toothless public sector, which is in turn used to justify apps and laws and worldviews that consider unions to be archaic and cab drivers to be rubes. We live in a period where there’s so much information available to us that we can become paralyzed by it. The most admirable and industrious among us have responded by organizing on local levels and fighting for measurable change. Most of us, though, have adapted by tuning all the way out or all the way in–—in microcosm, by becoming either exhaustingly cynical or painfully earnest on Twitter, which at the time of this writing is trading at USD $28.01.
All of this, like all of everything, is about Kanye West. Music aside, the current phase of Kanye West’s public life began with a press tour in the fall of 2013, which was meant to coincide with his Yeezus tour, which was delightfully overwrought and featured a fake mountain and a vibrating stage and was extremely good. That press tour was the one where he would sit down with radio hosts, often looking glassy-eyed, and rail against the fashion industry that wouldn’t accept him. You know how, in every magazine profile, Obama was described as speaking in paragraphs? (Remember when he called Kanye a “jackass”?) Kanye in 2013 was speaking in long, jagged, difficult-to-follow jerks. It wasn’t stream-of-consciousness, because few if any people have inner monologues that sound like that. It was more like predictive text if your iPhone had spent years discussing prohibitively expensive clothing labels and, like, Semi-Pro.
These interviews were mocked and derided by some and parsed for scriptural meaning by others, the way everything Kanye does and says is alternately mocked and bronzed. He said some nonsensical things and kept comparing himself to Walt Disney despite showing little to no Nazi sympathy and/or adeptness at humanizing rodents. Fans largely lost their patience with his fixation on fashion. But all that apparent mania was at least one very cogent point. His famous, snapped “How, Sway?!” was in response to the notion, posited for the dozenth time by the dozenth interviewer, that if Kanye couldn’t get the institutional and infrastructural support he craved––to make affordable shoes, to design hotels––that he should simply “do it himself.” How? Kanye went into debt to make shoes, clothes, Late Registration. The idea that, if he’s punked by Nike, he should go to Nebraska or Malaysia and build his own factory (with his hands, Sway?) was and is absurd.
This version of Kanye West was, at least in tone, disruptive. The degree to which infiltrating Adidas or New York Fashion Week (or Paris Fashion Week, or London Fashion Week) is subversive or serves a meaningful end can be debated, but Kanye’s very presence (and often his sensibilities) seemed to rattle the cages of institutional power. That’s what Yeezus was about, when it wasn’t a midlife crisis fever dream. He was rapping, coarsely, about fucking white wives and about the private prison industry. The style of the music mirrored the arguments it was making. As he said in an interview, about putting the comparatively sunny “Bound 2” at the album’s end: “It lets you know that it’s all good. But it isn’t all good!”
In 2013 Kanye knew that, for the sort of cartoonishly lofty ideas he had about redesigning the world, he needed to harness the literal, physical power of brands and multinational institutions that already existed and, at least on a tonal level, were largely skeptical of him. In interviews, he explained that the only way he could get into rooms with the people who controlled shoe factories or construction conglomerates was to be a gleaming, unimpeachably massive figure in music. If nothing else, the albums were means to a larger end, the fulcrum on which all of this turned.
In that conversation with Sway, before the bitter “How?!”, Kanye made the case that his reinvention of the world could only take place in a rapidly shrinking window. He understood––and this is actually some of the most lucid critique you can make about corporate power––that all these multibillion-dollar companies had to do to get rid of him was to wait him out. “I’m telling you,” he said to Sway, “I am Warhol. I am the number-one most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare, in the flesh!” Sway nods deferentially. “Now who’s gonna be the Medici family and stand up and let me create more? Or do you wanna marginalize me ‘til I’m out of my moment?”
It’s not 2013 anymore. Kanye isn’t talking about making Yeezys affordable; he’s talking about flying cars. He’s buddying up to the guys who founded Twitter and posting screenshots of smiley face-punctuated iMessage conversations with the guy who invented Snapchat about how likes and follower counts are “vanity metrics.” Every conversation is about “positivity.” He’s still posting links to articles about prison slavery, but they’re scattered in between adoring messages about Candace Owens and Elon Musk. He’s turned toothless and pollyannaish when everyone else is gripping their armrests in fear; the information that paralyzes us flows off his back into some infinity pool in Hidden Hills.
The power he seems to be interested in is not power he can leverage to build factories in Nebraska or Malaysia. It’s the sort of abstract, “pre-revenue” Monopoly money that you and I can never see or touch but that the adults in the room insist is there. There are no more Yeezuses, no more outbursts at telethons. He is, undoubtedly, out of his moment. Kanye’s remained central to pop culture simply because we all seem to agree he’s central to pop culture––not because he’s making anything vital or particularly interesting, but because he’s created a self-sustaining loop of meet-and-greets and power lunches. It’s like Waiting for Godot but he’s just waiting for Jack Dorsey to finish his squash game. He can show up to TMZ whenever he wants and hope against hope that he’ll still command a half-hour of our time. But the real leverage is gone, and it doesn’t seem to be coming back.
II. This Was Really Well-Written But The Review Seems To Lose Focus On The Content Of The Album And Instead Hones In On Kanye’s Persona And Behavior, And How It Has Affected Your Ability To Review The Album Objectively
A few months ago, a newspaper editor I follow on Twitter posted that the middling reactions to the most recent albums from Taylor Swift and Kanye West had to be colored largely by our collective souring on the artists’ public personas, since––the editor argued––prior albums had been guilty of similar aesthetic sins. Of course, he’s generally right that popular criticism has drifted too far into a kind of speculative, moralist autobiography. But in the case of Taylor Swift specifically, I found him to be wrong––the stylistic clarity that once made her music undeniable had been muddied by hackneyed genre mashups into a type of shitty, overcalculated machine pop that felt deeply cynical and deeply anonymous.
For ye, though, the question gets a bit thornier. First of all, the editor I follow is wrong: The Life of Pablo was sloppy and slapped together, and its reputation is certainly bolstered by a small handful of very good songs. But before this June, Kanye had never put out something half as bad as ye. It is confusingly, frustratingly awful, and not in the half-engaging way trainwreck albums by massive rap stars sometimes are (see: Encore). It’s seven songs long but feels interminable; it opens with a droning, repetitive monologue before breaking into a take on clipped, Soundcloud-native flows that’s so sedated as to feel like parody. It mentions bipolarity but has nothing remotely interesting to say about it; it frames public backlash to his shrugging at slavery as a financial problem; it hears him clumsy on the microphone, and not in that endearing, ca. College Dropout way. Every emotion but smugness feels pantomimed. This isn’t me trying to parse the moral worth (or whatever) of ye––it’s hollow as performance. It’s hard to imagine even one of these seven songs making the cut for Pablo, which, again, is a muddled album far below the standards of even its most rushed and impulsive predecessors.
The longer I sat with the album––this is weeks, months after it had disappeared from the radio or from passing car speakers; Kanye’s inertia is not what it once was––the more I came to think ye actually benefited from the uproar that preceded it. Every time someone pitched me on a reexamination of the album, or defended it, or even floated the idea that it wasn’t quite as bad as we all initially thought, they talked about it as a document of an artist in turmoil, or a celebrity meltdown happening in real time, or a troubled, wearied man searching for answers.
The problem is that those are all projections from observers. The music on ye, for the most part, does not reflect that. There are warm, room-filling Charlie Wilson hooks and there’s finally another true Kid Cudi showcase on a Kanye album, but the headliner is usually caught flat-footed. Closer “Violent Crimes,” for example, drew ire in June for having regressive ideas about gender, but the creative problem is that Kanye’s verse is staid, plodding. On “No Mistakes”—the one with the great Charlie Wilson hook—Kanye goes for a big, exultant celebration, but comes in two notches too low. Like the verse after the beat change on “I Thought About Killing You,” it sounds as if it’s a reference vocal that will later be replaced by a vocal take with real emotion. These are just gestures. Most frustratingly, while the album stakes itself on being raw and confessional, there’s maddeningly little in the way of Kanye grappling with, or even cataloging his demons. As a chronological section on his Wikipedia page, this era––the hat, the bonfire in Jackson Hole, the sad mania of it all––is an important breaking point for Kanye. The music itself is a footnote.
Of course, this idea––that the backlash to Kanye’s loud, low-information Trump support helped more than hurt––flies in the face of everything argued by the people who are most forgiving of (or excited about) said Trump support. There are legions of Kanye and/or Trump fans online and in the real world who bemoan the supposed “biases” of any critic or listener who likes the album less than they do. These appeals to an imagined objectivity, where “objectivity” really means “more reflective of my worldview,” have existed as long as criticism has existed. To be clear, a number of ye reviews grappled with Kanye’s public performance more than they did with the music itself. This is reflective of some trends in modern criticism, sure, but it’s also the most (and maybe only) interesting angle––the music, again, pales in contrast to everything that came before it.
For all their shrill complaints about lukewarm ye reviews, I did not read or hear a single argument from one of these objectivity fetishists about the music itself. Their defense was itself a political stance: who are you to dock Kanye points for [supporting the President/criticizing Obama/etc.]? Why can’t you be a free thinker, too?
III. Smack DVD
In May of 2005, while the third season of Chappelle’s Show was already deep into production, Dave Chappelle walked away. He left $50 million on the table and torched a friendship with his longtime collaborator. In interviews later, he would explain that he started to get the sense that some viewers were laughing at, rather than with the sketches on his show, which often took provocative stances on race. The catalyst was a white crew member guffawing at a piece where a pixie figure pushes to reinforce anti-black stereotypes; the joke, as Dave had written it, was supposed to be on the stereotypes, but the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, and he felt that there was nothing he could do to stop this weird Faustian machine that had made him wildly rich but allowed white guys holding boom mics or whatever to laugh the way their grandfathers might have laughed at minstrel shows. Dave had had enough. So he went to Africa.
When he came back to North America at the end of the year, he probably had to get to work repairing some personal relationships that had ruptured, and had to worry about salvaging what had only a few months earlier seemed like an unstoppable career trajectory. But on top of all that, he was confronted by rumors: that he was smoking crack, that he was crazy. So he did would anyone would do and went on Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.
The whole episode is enrapturing. Dave’s funny and staggeringly smart; he covers plenty of ground, but the most compelling stuff has to do with the blunt weight of Hollywood and how it slowly, painstakingly crushes those inside it. Dave talks about the famous black comedians who snapped, cracked, or had strokes under absurd pressure who were called “crazy” by the same tabloids that drove them over the edge; he tells the story of his 24th birthday, when he found out his dad had suffered a stroke, but left his bedside to fly from Ohio to Los Angeles just so he could take a meeting with network executives who had insisted on seeing him in person just so they could insist he recast a role in his pilot with a white woman in place of a black one. At one point, he lights a cigarette and says to James Lipton: “You can’t get unfamous. You can get infamous. But you can’t get unfamous.”
I’m not going to ask you to empathize with 2018 Kanye West, because I have no idea how to do that and because I, like every other sensible person, am fed up with him giving a platform and legitimacy to those 19-year-olds with suits in their avis and flags in their Twitter names who call Trump “Mr. President” and use “Chicago” as racist codespeak. But I do want you to imagine for a second what it would be like if, for the rest of your life, every misstep you made was followed by thousands of strangers wondering aloud what your dead mom might think of you now.
There is no off switch for any of this. Fame is not really fleeting the way it used to be; no one really goes away. There aren’t one-hit wonders like there once were––ones whose names you only vaguely remembered and who might be working as car salesmen when a reporter from Time finds them on a 25th anniversary or something. People just linger in a purgatory of heavily-feed club appearances and slots on Kimmel and deals with Atlantic. It’s not difficult to see how a lightning-rod figure like Kanye West would start to come apart at the seams. This is to say nothing of Kanye’s host of apparent and admitted mental health issues––it’s useless for any of us to play pop psychiatrist, and that’s that’s kind of how we got in this situation in the first place.
"Maybe I should stop being real / maybe I should get on Twitter"
But while Kanye seems, to us, to be fraying, he would insist he’s as good as ever. In the past handful of years, Kanye’s public performance has seemed confined to a few bouts of mania, nominally pegged to new music but increasingly overshadowing said music. He’s reached a strata of fame where fame itself is his primary reason for being famous. Everyone remembers how good the music was, but some time recently––maybe it was the rambling speech at the VMAs where he said he was running for president in 2020 and we naively thought he would do it as a Democrat––he crossed the threshold into floating, amorphous celebrity, where scandal is lifeblood and everything comes secondary to attention. This is like Britney Spears shaving her head if it took her two years to do it and she kept calling Ty Dolla $ign to buzz the really difficult parts.
One thing that’s jarring about this transformation is that he hasn’t been very good at it. Kanye’s clumsiness in controlling the press and social media is in stark contrast to the way his wife navigates the same channels. Kim, whatever you think of her, has become supernaturally good at creating and maintaining a public self that is massive and lucrative and always comes back to heel when she calls it. Keeping Up With the Kardashians stopped being a reality show a few seasons ago; it’s now controlled completely by Kim and her mother and functions the way propaganda does, putting out the family line about public events which viewers witnessed through Instagram or TMZ in real time a few months prior. Kanye, on the other hand, will give impulsive, intermittently lucid interviews, then two more follow-up interviews to clarify and walk back the first one. He’s always had that streak: it was endearing and everymanish. But when he was doing it in 2007, he wasn’t telling black voters to “leave the Democratic plantation.” There’s not much charm to go around.
Currently, Kanye seems to think his highest calling (floating cars aside) is to provoke. Whether he sincerely supports Donald Trump is beside the point––he’s said over and over this summer that his stated support is radical simply because people don’t want him to voice it. Is there value in a celebrity shrugging off stiff orthodoxies? In theory, absolutely. But instead of provoking any sort of new or unorthodox thinking, Kanye simply gave voice to some of the dumbest, most bad-faith arguments that conservatives have been making for years. He tweeted about the Republicans freeing the slaves! A few weeks ago, when he announced a new album called Yandhi (slated for last month and delayed until the week of Thanksgiving), Kanye began tweeting and talking about “cancel culture.” He tweeted that he was ashamed of not standing up for his friend, A$AP Bari, who had been accused of and arrested for sexual assault. (The case was dismissed in August by the Los Angeles County District Attorney.)
Maybe there’s something interesting to be explored: what it’s like for a person to reconcile their love for a friend with heinous accusations. But Kanye was not interested in probing any of that, at least publicly. He described himself as a “Jedi” and said “cancel culture” couldn’t stop him. Then, when he popped up at the offices of a music magazine, he professed his love for XXXTentacion and 6ix9ine––charged with grisly domestic abuse and use of a child in a sexual performance, respectively––both of whom he had recorded with.
The frustrating thing about all of this is that this public performance, this fixation on provoking, has no underlying message, no meaningful end. I Can Do This And You Can’t Stop Me is not a revolutionary idea. It was reinforced during the 2016 election: there are fewer hard regulations on our behavior than we imagine, and without shame you can get away with basically anything. There are no adults in the room and there actually never have been. Of course no one’s going to arrest Kanye for doing a song with 6ix9ine––it’s just a bad idea, musically and (at least in the opinion of many) morally.
In many ways, commercial art has moved into a sort of barren, hyper-capitalist wasteland. Clicks are agnostic and the machine keeps moving. What makes it confusing for us, and probably emboldening for Kanye, is that he’s so often been pilloried for being right. I’m thinking of things as charged as “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” and as seemingly innocuous as him insisting, years before she was given serious attention by critics, that Rihanna was one of the central artists in music. He’s been vindicated over and over. Which is why, when people observe that Kanye has “always been like this,” they’re being glib and not exactly correct. Yes, he’s always been outlandish and self-aggrandizing and not particularly in touch with the granular details on any issue. But his public performances used to be driven by ideas, or at least songs, that were daring and inspiring. Right now there’s a cold, Trumpian vacuum at the center of everything.
IV. We’ve Got A Great Show For You Tonight
Right before Weekend Update, Kanye West slipped into a water bottle costume, grabbed his 18-year-old collaborator, and rapped on national TV about getting his dick sucked.
“I Love It” is an unavoidable, bona fide hit. The beat is incredible. (It’s…strange that it’s co-produced by the guy who did “Brooklyn’s Finest.”) During Kanye’s verse, it reads as desperate, because it is: the guy shouting on the TMZ set about how he’s breaking us out of the matrix is pivoting to simply being extremely horny alongside a rapper about half his age. But the song stuck at radio in a way nothing from ye did, because it’s kinetic and alive and actually feels finished. It’s carried almost entirely by Pump, the Soundcloud scene’s great surviving mainstream hope, who proves that his once-thin voice can work over radically different kinds of production. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which Kanye stayed in our good graces and “I Love It” pushed Pump into the high-art critical stratosphere; that said, it’s hard to imagine a world in which Kanye stayed in our good graces and still felt compelled to make “I Love It.”
After his third song (“Ghost Town”), during thank yous, Kanye took center stage and told the SNL audience that he had been “bullied” backstage by people who didn’t want him to perform in a Make America Great Again hat. NBC cut the footage from the West Coast show and from the on-demand and Hulu versions of the episode, but it survived on Chris Rock’s Instagram story. On Sunday morning, there were theories kicked around about why it had been axed from some broadcasts: was NBC stifling freedom of speech? Did Lorne Michaels fly off the handle? Or does the show just always end at 1 AM sharp?
In the Rock footage––which was transcribed in part by the Times and HipHopDX and etc., but also by Breitbart––Kanye says “90 percent of news are liberal. 90 percent of TV, L.A., New York, writers, rappers, musicians…so it’s easy to make it seem like it’s so, so, so one-sided.” Then he breaks briefly into song: “I thought this country said that I could be me.” There are more scattered clips, recorded by Mike Dean and others. At one point, Kanye says: “You know it’s like the plan they did: to take the fathers out the home and promote welfare. Does anybody know about that? That’s a Democratic plan.”
While all of this is happening, the band is wading water uneasily, and cast members are standing stoically behind him. “Thank y’all for giving me this platform,” Kanye says. “I know some of y’all don’t agree.” Two days later, Kenan Thompson, who has been on SNL since 1955, went on Late Night With Seth Meyers and likened the experience to being held hostage.
There would have been something funny, in 2013 or in 2007, about Kanye making grandiose statements about changing society for the better only to dance around the SNL stage, dressed like Perrier, his arms dangling and his face frozen in a grin. There still is, if you can turn off your brain for a second. I keep thinking about Kanye and prisons: the way the issue stretches back to the days when the dead prez guys were teaching him how to structure songs; to “New Slaves”; even now, when he’s taking selfies with Charlie Kirk. I wish I could be one of those people who cling to hope that this is all a long con that ends with him drugging Trump and signing and executive order that frees all drug convicts or something. But it probably just ends at The Breakfast Club. And then we start all over.
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.