I've been rambling about Kanye a lot this past week, first noting his early career, launching on to the scene in very atypical rap fashion, then proceeding to prove himself to be the most egotistical prick celebrity of the past decade. To answer our Ultimate Question here, whether or not Kanye actually deserves Humility, I'm arguing here that no, he doesn't. Kanye really has been one of the greatest artists of our time and he deserves constant praise, adoration and 24-hour penis sucking. To say this is to ignore his personal life entirely and judge him solely on his works. This is of course a double-edged sword. Celebrities these days simply cannot be judged only from their oeuvre, but when we do so we can more clearly determine the quality of their art.
Graduation and Bigger Sound, 2007
Kanye really set a new standard with his third album, Graduation (2007). First, I loved how 50 Cent released his album Curtis (2007) the same day and attempted to challenge him for sales. Kanye just buried Curt, clearly the mainstream public had accepted Kanye's more moderate rapper image over the hardcore Gangster, which really hasn't recovered since. Kanye sets the trends.
There are so many incredible tracks off this record. You can check out more information than you would ever want here, but I'll sum up some of the singles. I talked about "Can't Tell Me Nothing" a bit in my Zach Galifianakis post. This is a good example of the album, killer beats over chill hooks with lyrics by Kanye that slice between pain, sardonic jokes, righteous anger and an unruly confidence. I'll quickly admit to hating "Stronger," but "Good Life" more than makes up for it, which won Best Rap Song at the 50th Grammy Awards. Kanye really had a streak of incredible videos off this album, from Galifianakis to the cute and clever animations on "Good Life" (and that chick is real hot) and one of the best of the decade in "Flashing Lights" (again, real hot chick):
This is undoubtedly the best track off the album and the video is perfect. It's wrapped in mystery, darkness, contemplation and sexiness. Is the chick killing Kanye with a shovel out of anger? Revenge? Sadism? It's about a broken relationship turned to its most extreme. Crossing the edge. There were a shitload of vids for this track, not all of which were purposely released by Kanye, but that hasn't stopped others from making some interesting connections between the reluctance of celebrity and a possible journey to the afterlife. Kanye's the only mainstream Hip-Hop artist who is attempting ideas this big. Other incredible non-singles include the smooth "Good Morning," "Drunk and Hot Girls,"and "I Wonder."
The Record Skips - 808 & Heartbreak, 2008
This goes against most of what I'm trying to argue here, but I actually think 808 & Heartbreak (2008) sucks fucking donkey nuts. I mean, "Love Lockdown" sucks, "Heartless" sucks, "Amazing" sucks. Auto-Tune is like the 3-D of the music industry. Popular among artists as a quick fix to bad production, initially popular but since has made audiences weary. 808 is full of this shit and it just sounds awful when overblown. I might put "See You in my Nightmares" as the album's best track, but even that is way below the worst track off Graduation. I'll give the vid for "Coldest Winter" a slight prop for continuing the death theme from "Flashing Lights." Ugh that Auto-Tune is awful, I need to stop listening to this Album now.
So this pretty shitty album combined with some really low PR moves had placed Kanye significantly in the wrong side of the public eye. He would need to do something pretty spectacular, he couldn't just declare himself to be the best anymore, he had to prove it.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010): He Proves It
Kanye's latest album drops in nine days (with YouTube among other Internet help, does that even matter anymore?) and it's tough to find a poor song on the whole damn thing. He's done something really special with these tracks and little 35-minute music video accompanying the whole album. The first thing to mention is the quality - if these songs were shit this would be very forgettable, narcissistic and excessive. Instead it's awesome, narcissistic and excessive.
The "Power" video I mentioned a few months ago as a great video and I believe it still is. Jumping from this point, he's used an enormous video for "Runaway" to showcase much of the rest of the album while connecting the songs to a full narrative. Songs in the full video, some just snippets, include "Dark Fantasy," "Gorgeous" a remix of "Power," "All of the Lights," "Devil in a New Dress," "Runaway," "Hell of a Life," "Blame Game" and "Lost in the World." It was exceedingly difficult to find those links. The songs follow the same order on the Album, although a handful are left out of the video. Here's the whole lovely ordeal:
Notice the unique colouration, consistent tonal changes that align with visual and song changes, an organically flowing yet mysterious narrative that lets loose nuggets of occasional wisdom and long meditating moments of expression, dignity and substance. There is a definitive arc, literal star-crossed lovers with a storyline that is never hit over the viewer's head but instead allowed to breathe. It's not a perfect effort but it showcases a whole lot more genuine drama and tragedy than most comparable films or television shows dealing with similar subject matter. Coming from a musician, this should be revolutionary. Anyone with a better PR than Kanye would have received higher praise rather than scoffs and eye rolls.
A few things stand out about the tracks- you can tell that Kanye has learned to use Auto-Tune a bit more judiciously, it works well tempered in "Lost in the World" compared to 808. He's also reached the point where he can grow and flex a track brilliantly. "Monster," absent from the "Runaway" video is probably the best track on the album which is almost solely due to Nicki Minaj's efforts. We should also praise him at this point for his SNL performances, which probably rank immediately in the "All-Time Greatest" category (With Radiohead, Sinead O'Connor and um...Queens of the Stone Age?). Watch that video. Yeah, that was on SNL. He just owns it. If his efforts, removed from any implication of ego, turn out success like this, can we judge him on hubris? Is that the price we pay for greatness - I mean, is self-aware greatness still greatness?
Does Kanye Deserve Humility? Should we join Steven Colbert and South Park in illuminating his hubris? Or can we praise the only living rapper that could possibly give us incredible songs like these? Is he not deserving of praise because of his personal arrogance, do his character defects also delegitimize his struggle (conscious or not) for Positive Black Cultural Independence?
I'm a positive bloke. I believe we can be level-headed enough to pick through the good and bad. We can appreciate what Kanye has done for the Black Community, what he has done for the modern music video while not ignoring his personal hubris but rather tempering it. We can acknowledge his unique position among stereotypical Rap Artists while checking his hyperbole and admiring his art. It's a tough line to tread but it's not impossible. If we can better, we must be better.