Five years ago, Kanye West had had it up to here with people thinking they knew shit about Polaroids. He was a reborn Shakespeare traveling through time, asking for loans from the Medici family and props from Walt Disney. His epic-length talks with Zane Lowe and Sway weren’t interviews, nor were they the ravings of a lunatic. They were fire-and-brimstone sermons to the faithful, hour-long “I told you so”s to those who were uninitiated.
The thing is, his claims at greatness were justified. The critical success of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne had transformed Kanye from a pop star to a vengeful revenant enacting judgement on his doubters, commanding pop culture with prog-rock rap and passionate onstage speeches. His standom was willing to follow him into whatever abyss of self-motivational pleasures he led them into, and they now had a uniform to match their devotion. Kanye’s influence had never been more pervasive, and his next album would usher in his imperial phase in shades of dun brown and green. The saga of Air Yeezy of Paris, Lord of Hypebeasts, begins with one work: Yeezus. It’s still the strangest possible album he could have released to that ravenous fanbase, but it began a path of provocateurism that’s now led to a creative stagnation.
Now, the element of surprise had surrounded every prior Kanye album, from The College Dropout’s snarking symphonic soul to 808s & Heartbreak’s Auto-Tune fixation, but for Yeezus it arguably formed the entirety of its background context. In any case, Kanye succeeded in his mission to agitate. “On Sight” fizzes to life as an alarum, its mutant TB-303 riff bathed in the digital distortion that invited so many comparisons to Death Grips. Imagine if “Blood on the Leaves” had started things off instead, as Kanye originally intended. It would have been too slow a build when outright antagonism was required. The hard cut from a meticulous sample reconstruction to fissures of noise is giddy with the excitement of someone given the musical equivalent of a Grand Theft Auto map to screw around with.
This is what Yeezus does best: it sucks you inside Kanye’s head to feel a master composer’s joy at taking every left turn he possibly can and coming up with unknowns. “Black Skinhead” and “Hold My Liquor” aren’t rap, they’re rock anthems from the 25th century; the former soundtracking a mosh pit of cyborgs, the latter serving as the album’s emotional peak. With its sullenly angelic Chief Keef/Justin Vernon duet and that superlaser of a Mike Dean guitar solo, “Hold My Liquor” is a lighter-waver, “Comfortably Numb” for the brain-addled denizens of some future megalopolis. Though the much-vaunted grunginess of Yeezus had been patented on the G.O.O.D. Music compilation Cruel Summer from the year prior, (see: “Sin City”) a particular raging energy coursed through the later album that gave it an extra kick. That energy was contrarianism, an urge to go against the flow no matter what it happened to be. The appeal of Yeezus’ ideology is explained by Kanye’s mentor and maybe former friend Jay-Z in a Breakfast Club interview:
It's polarizing, some people love it. It forces you to have an opinion, you know? At least you're not like wishy washy about it, it force you to have an opinion, which is good, I think it's needed. Because what tends to happen is someone has to experiment and do it first.
Hip-hop production had been about weird noise before, but producers like the Bomb Squad and Prodigy and El-P not only made unprecedented music, they used it to back up radical content, thereby achieving the postmodernist ideal of meaningful juxtaposition. Kanye applied radical sounds to radical ideas on the explicitly political “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” (few had broken down the US prison-industrial complex on a mainstream rap single before, even if it was inspired by a long-running spat with the fashion industry), but Yeezus as a whole was far lighter on revolutionary rhetoric than its confrontational sonics suggested. The album’s infamously rushed recording is no excuse; the entire artistic statement of Yeezus is contained in its gulf between slap-dash yet innovative production and off-the-cuff, crude lyrical content. It pioneered ignorant avant-rap. Though packaged as a loose modern art experiment, it was unilaterally acclaimed as a daring masterpiece on release for its “unfiltered expression,” though this praise was more likely the result of no one wanting to make the same mistake as those who panned the now-influential 808s. The profuse critical love for Yeezus possibly emboldened Kanye to keep honing in on that new, eventually damaging formula of transgressive over thoughtful.
The Life of Pablo touched down three years later amidst similar circumstances as its predecessor: fashion shows tuned into by thousands in the hopes of new Kanye music (the cult had only expanded over time) and increasingly unhinged Twitter missives that slut-shamed ex Amber Rose and proclaimed the innocence of the now-convicted Bill Cosby. As Jay said about divisiveness: it forces the public to to have an opinion, at least. The sometimes ill-advised rants that began as part of the Yeezus Tour and the exhilarating Madison Square Garden aux cord party wrapped up an album that doubled down on Yeezus’s shock tactics of messy fragmentation while tempering it with touches of inspirational gospel. Kanye’s firebrand nature, fueled by the plaudits the Yeezus approach received, was now directed at everyone around him rather than solely at the oppressors above, and soon it would rain down on his marginalized fans.
Eventually came the Saint Pablo Tour and the reported mental breakdown, culminating in “I would have voted for Trump” followed by a meeting with the man himself attended by every prominent media outlet. It’s irrelevant if this or his subsequent support for right-leaning libertarian hucksters like Scott Adams and Jordan Peterson were genuine or performance art. Kanye knew that the sight of him doing so would shock the same way the distortion of “On Sight” did, the same way the sacrilegious placing of a trap-EDM drop over “Strange Fruit” on “Blood on the Leaves” did. In the middle of rap’s molly-popping era, Kanye ran counter and recruited unknown, electronic producers like Arca to help make something uncomfortable rather than gratifying. The masses said “fuck Donald Trump,” and Kanye, following the longtime contrarian instincts that had curdled into reactionary impishness from the Yeezus process, responded with “I love Donald Trump.” In his pursuit of the most controversial action he could commit himself to, though, his solo music has unfortunately begun to suffer in the present.
Instead of something alarming and thrilling like “On Sight,” ye begins with Kanye dourly monologuing about wanting to kill an unknown person and then himself. While he’s no doubt confessing real feelings he’s had at one point, addressing the necessary themes of mental health that run throughout the album, the frankness is clumsy. If the content is grim and gritty and shocking, it must automatically have artistic value, right? Even on "Bound 2," Yeezus' least button-pushing and most inviting track, the personal lyrical content possesses Kanye's old mischievous charm. It's no surprise the song's video became a meme-d moment, its corny aesthetic a humorous riff by Kanye on "white trash T-shirts." He doesn't seem to have that self-awareness or levity anymore on ye, while covering much of the same confessional themes as he did on Yeezus.
Kanye again followed Yeezus’ mode, quick and dirty and vulgar but presented as art the world will never truly never understand. ye, like much of West’s post-Yeezus output, ultimately ended up a set of hastily slapped-together artworks made from the most expensive materials, then American Vandal-ed with a spray painted cock-and-balls just because it’s provocative and “gets the people going.” The worst part is that this messiness isn’t laziness, it’s absolutely intentional and it might be partially our fault. As The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his piece “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye,” “an ethos of ‘light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands,’ of ‘mutts’ and ‘thirty white bitches,’ deserved more scrutiny ... the embrace of a slaveholder’s flag warranted more inquiry … a blustering illiteracy should have given pause” and led to the realization that West suffers from “a paucity of wisdom.” Us critics, many of us fans, were so caught up in the rush of cheerleading the Kanye Party that we didn’t call him out sooner for peddling mindless contrarianism. Many still aren’t holding him accountable enough.
Kanye very recently expressed his love of Rick & Morty and his desire to make music for the next Deadpool movie. While these very popular properties have lots of fans who aren’t rancid pseudo-intellectual bros, the characters’ reputation as edgelord favourites isn’t easily shaken off, leaving his association an unfortunate coincidence given his current alignment. His past accomplishments are still valid, but in this new era of his career, Kanye is now no longer a provocateur, no longer a revolutionary, no longer someone pushing culture to the next level. He’s immature, but worse, he’s become the same thing as the right-wing yahoos he hangs around: he’s become a boring troll obsessed with getting a rise out of people. The confounding, invigorating music of Yeezus looked forward but its embrace of misguided rebellion began Kanye West’s slide backwards.
Phil is on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey CA.