Op-Eds

An Answer to One of Life's Greatest Questions: Is Kanye West a Genius or an Asshole?

Since the 90s, the 'advanced genius theory' has been used to analyse Lou Reed, David Bowie, Kiss and more. What does it say about Kanye West?

by Ryan Bassil
16 March 2016, 11:45am

This life is cruel, but there are a few certainties. Each winter, the leaves will decay and fall from the trees into a dusty, brown pool on the street. When summer returns, the vegetation re-emerges in pastoral pinks and deep green hues. And each time Kanye West is mentioned, there's some sort of discussion to be had about the world we live in.

As an artist who's had the glaring lens of international media shining on him at every possible moment throughout his decade plus career, everyone with internet access has, at some point in their life, discussed the merits and misfortunes of Kanye West. Whether that discussion is lengthy and detailed or short and dismissive is irrelevant; it's hard to deny that West's bold and brazen character is one that invites debate.

His canon is so wide-ranging that we can look to him as a portal to discuss topics from ass-play and reality TV, to race, depression, and personal debt. So often throughout his career, West has been like a mirror we use to look back on ourselves. These discussions are interesting, and they can subconsciously inform our world-view. Yet between them, there's been one consistent and just as debatable undercurrent: Is Kanye West a genius, an asshole, or is he both?

At this point it's important to state that I'm not talking about a garden-variety genius. Any sentient, levelheaded person with an indiscriminative view will tell you that West's portfolio bleeds serious talent. No: I'm talking about these mythical figures who seemingly materialise from some form of rare matter and into our consciousness once in a lifetime. A Bowie type figure. That's the way West describes himself, and it's the metric people use to decide whether to bow at his feet or to shrug him off as someone who is good, but not that good.

This idea of Kanye West as an advanced genius underlies every perception we have of him. It has the ability to excuse him from his shortcomings. It has informed the way we view the messy roll-out for his latest album, The Life of Pablo. It can cause a lot of heated arguments between otherwise close friends, with one party falling at the feet of their hip-hop messiah, and the other denouncing his every move. But what if I told you we didn't need to have those arguments anymore? That we could figure it out once and for all? The answer will come later.

For now, prepare yourself: for you are about to advance.

The Advanced Genius Theory was created in the grand hallway of forward-thinking individuals (AKA – a Pizza Hut in South Carolina) in the 1990s. At the time, the two founders of the theory, Jason Hartley and Britt Bergman, were two students who couldn't understand how Lou Reed came to be so terrible in the late 1980s. One day, while eating some calorific pizza, they figured it out: if Lou Reed was ahead of his time when he was in the Velvet Underground, then he must have still been ahead of his time in the 80s, and they were just like all the people who didn't understand Velvet Underground. As time went on, the pair used Reed's career advancement to develop the Advanced Genius Theory.

As a progressive form of thinking, the theory can be used to ascertain whether well-established musicians like Reed, who are perceived to be terrible or have "lost it", are, in fact, advanced beyond our level of understanding. Immortalised in Hartley's 2010 book The Advanced Genius Theory: Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Time?, the five basic tenets of the theory are:

- You must have done great work for more than 15 years.
- You must have alienated your original fans.
- You must be completely unironic.
- You must be unpredictable.
- You must "lose it". Spectacularly.

(*Advanced Geniuses are also expected to have "at least a self-portrait on one of their album covers, displaying their sunglasses or hairstyle", but as the theory has been taken on by a second generation and moved beyond the 1980s, this tenet has become less true and essential)

As well as ticking the boxes for these five principles, an advanced individual – i.e. a true genius – does not do what is expected of them, but also does not do the opposite of what is expected of them. Lou Reed is one of these to the max. He released Metal Machine Music in 1975, an album that was so ahead of its time in beckoning industrial rock and abstract noise that it flew straight over the heads of most critics, including his own label execs at RCA – one of whom described it as "torture music". So is David Bowie, as only an advanced individual could release "Dancing in the Street", his collaboration with Mick Jagger.

"[The theory] opened up a whole world of music we had rejected before without truly listening to it," said Hartley in an interview. "Who were we not to give Bob Dylan [and his Christian rock phase] the benefit of the doubt? If David Bowie wants to do a duet with Mick Jagger, isn't it possible that he knows a bit more about what is good than we do?"

Yet while different from the albums that birthed them into stardom, the future work from Reed and Bowie doesn't stray too far from the sort of bold creativity one expects from both artists, which is an important factor in the Advancement theory. Yet if Lou Reed did the opposite of what was expected of him, then he wouldn't be advanced: he would be overt. Overt artists appear to be advanced, but they are not. Sound confusing? In his book, A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, the prolific music journalist Chuck Klosterman described the two opposing sides of Advancement Theory in three succinct sentences:

"If Radiohead released an album of wordless, mechanized droning, that would be predictable. If Radiohead made a glam-rock record, that would be overt. But if Radiohead recorded an album of blues standards, they would advance."

Throughout history, there have been countless artists who have advanced or been overt. Often, it's possible to do both. As Klosterman also writes in his book, "The most advanced hard-rock album ever was Music from "The Elder" by Kiss, the soundtrack for a movie that does not exist". On the other side of the coin, The Flaming Lips and PC Music are overt: they give off the impression of being advanced, but the madness is too direct to mean anything. Sometimes, an artist can switch between being advanced and overt: Lil B has flirted with advancement throughout his career, predicting trends and sounds ahead of their time, but tracks like the sunshine-fuelled pop-punk of "California Boy" suggest otherwise. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the most prominently advanced releases of last year.

As someone who has released music for the past fifteen years and alienated his original fan base with albums like Yeezus and 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye West fulfills the criteria for the advanced genius theory. He is unpredictable, rarely ironic, and has frequently been perceived as someone who has "lost it". Yet fitting the basic tenets for advancement doesn't make an artist advanced; it just makes them eligible for consideration. So as West is one of this generation's most consistently fascinating musicians, the idea that he could advance (or has already) is one that should merit serious consideration.

Hartley, one of the founders of the advanced genius theory, tells me down the phone that the potential for West to advance is there. "He's done the work, he's done it for long enough, he's done it in an interesting way that really gets your attention". But he hasn't advanced, yet. "If I had someone to compare Kanye to, in my mind, he's a less refined Prince at this stage," Hartley says. "Prince has turned all this stuff into more of an effortless thing."

Throughout his career, the sense that West has already advanced has been palpable. 808s and Heartbreak is the work of an advanced artist, not moving too far away from the hip-hop sound we associate with West, nor recreating the work he'd been involved with previously, but still pioneering something fresh. The video game he premiered in Madison Square Garden a few weeks back? That's probably the most advanced thing West has done in a while. Rapping "Gold Digger" through the intercom on a commercial flight? That's hella advanced. Appearing in an episode of American Idol? That also fits the bill. Yet Hartley believes there's one thing that's been stopping West from reaching a pure level of advancement.

Hartley says the one road-block to Kanye's advancement is the thing he's become most famous for outside of his music: his mouth. "Kanye takes the time to explain it when he thinks he's misunderstood, and that's not something advanced people do", he says, referencing the way West backtracked after the backlash to his "Bound 2" video.

"[Advanced artists] just won't ever [explain things]. They let you think what you want to think. [With Kanye] there's the tension – I've gone too far there, so I'll pull back here and make people happy. He has to reach the point where he says, 'I no longer care what the listening public thinks'."

Hartley continues, "[West] is very much like Bono in that way. Bono will do stuff and walk it back. No advanced artist would ever apologise for putting their album on people's iPhones; they would say it was the greatest thing in the world and that would be it."

On the one hand, Hartley's comments can be misconstrued, because when West speaks out, he's primarily addressing concerns on race or politics, rather than his music. Yet if we take these comments to center specifically on West's creative output, there has been a sense that he cares deeply about what people think, reigning it in at key points to keep himself in a favourable light. With the release of his new album though, there's a distinct sense that his mindset has changed. The Life of Pablo feels like the album West has cared about the least in terms of how it will be perceived by the public.

A little over a month has passed since West hosted that grandiose listening party for The Life Of Pablo, which he beamed out from Madison Square Garden and into cinemas across the world. The unveiling felt like a moment; a rare snapshot in time where music fans were able to simultaneously experience a first listen through an album together. With the backdrop of West's fashion line and barely a moment to explain the surreal scene he was setting, it felt like West had moved on from the precipice of very talented artist. As he has many times throughout his decade-long career, it felt like he'd advanced.

Since its unveiling, however, the discourse surrounding The Life of Pablo has expanded far beyond the weird excellence of that early release party. As Def Jam executives presumably weep into the bottles of expensive champagne they pre-ordered back when West announced the album earlier this year, we've learned that TLOP isn't likely to appear on a streaming service and may not be getting a physical CD release. It has also been pirated over 500,000 times – enough for a Gold record.

During that time we've also heard original and leaked versions of tracks from the record, West has "fixed" the track "Wolves", and announced a new album to come "this Summer" – and another one to come after that too. Prior to its release, the album also went through three last minute name changes and track-lists. Even by West's giddy (and usually attentive) standards, watching these snippets of information unfold has been like riding on a rollercoaster with two slurpee cups in hand, spilling juice all down your front. At times, the seemingly perpetual rollout for TLOP has felt like the most uncertain of West's career so far. That's not to say there hasn't been some self-awareness about it though. West has called the album, "a living breathing changing creative expression."

The contrasting absence and abundance of information surrounding TLOP has lead once again to the same two roads that have consistently laid beneath West's iconic presence. On the one hand, he's confused and doesn't know what he's doing, fumbling his way blindly towards some inevitable praise. Who publically changes the name of their album three times in the three weeks before its release? On the other, the roll-out for TLOP is all part of his grand creative master-plan and the work of an advanced genius. So which is it?

The case for both sides lays within the album's content. As Paste Magazine wrote in their The Life of Pablo review, the album has the potential be West's White Album – "Just like that sprawling set found The Beatles disconnected from each other, often operating separate studios at once, Pablo finds multiple Kanyes fighting for space within the same songs." It is an album of contradictions, symbolised by the words that are scrawled across its cover: "Which one?".

It's a mixture of styles; there are lyrics centered around family and faith, opposed with tales of hedonism. It feels like a first of its time, in that it doesn't even sound finished, (despite a new version being patched to TIDAL over the weekend), and he has repeatedly refused to explain himself. It certainly seems like the sort of ballsy move Prince would make, as though TLOP is this generation's equivalent of the Purple One giving his album away for free with a newspaper.

Then again, it's this narrative of West as the advanced artist of our time that's exactly what's pervaded the discussion surrounding TLOP. As a sonic experiment, it's intriguing and exciting. There are some genuinely brilliant moments on the record. Yet it's also the most fragile and shaken album of his career so far. Several of the lyrics on there are unforgiveable; songs stop and start and never seem to sound finished; all the best moments on the album come from artists that are not West. In fact, given the amount of producers, it's impossible to find a contribution that's come solely from West beyond the lyrics about bleached assholes. But by breaking up TLOP with these grandiose, celestial soundscapes - which themselves have been cribbed from other songs, like the consummate narrative on "Lowlights" that comes from a track by Kings of Tomorrow - we're certainly encouraged to feel there's a sense of importantance here. So is TLOP as great of an album as everyone thinks it is, or has our perception of West informed our glorified response to this mish-mashed collection of songs?

West is brilliant; West falls off; West is a genius; West is an asshole. It's these contradictions that play out in the heads of his fans and divide friendship groups each time he re-enters our conscience with a new piece of work or opinion. It changes what we think we know about him each time. Like Lou Reed, Kanye's relationship with the advanced genius theory needs time to develop, and it's easier to look back on artists as time passes to assess the true value of their work. That's why retrospective pieces on 808s and Heartbreak album were fairer and more just than the reviews that were published at the time of its release eight years ago.

The advanced genius theory invites listeners to approach music with an open mind, to experience and soak in music they may otherwise be adverse to. Through using it, albums that've been previously discarded can be heard with new ears, as new pockets of sound and meaning open themselves up. In doing so, these albums can become something more, as you return to them time and time again in search of meaning, yet never quite landing on one singular opinion. Advanced genius or not, The Life of Pablo is that album for Kanye West. I don't think it will ever stop asking us questions. Whether he moves into fashion or otherwise, I don't think West will refrain from asking us these questions in the future, too. Does that make him advanced? As Hartley says: "I think he's looking for new challenges, and that's what spurs all these advanced geniuses on. What's a new challenge?"

Find Ryan Bassil on Twitter.