Yeezus walks away: now he cares more about making shoes than politically-motivated music.
On 10th February 2008, at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, aka Nas, lost out to Kanye Omari West in the battle for Best Rap Album at the 50th Grammy Awards. It was a historic occasion. Not only because it marked the golden anniversary of the Grammys, or because Amy Winehouse was refused a visa, but because Nas’s eighth studio album had lost out to Graduation, a record that represented West’s disavowal of real social engagement in favour of commercial over-production. A year later, West would advance his ‘business ventures’ in a deal with sweatshop favourites Nike, releasing the Air Yeezy’s. The title of Nas’s album? Hip Hop is Dead.
Yeezy’s antics have been greatly publicised, and his offstage persona has come to infuse his music, much in the same way that Damien Hirst’s work has become about money itself. Having described his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as a “long, backhanded apology” to Taylor Swift (that is, taking back his formal apology), whom he famously terrorised at the VMA awards, his music has moved from the externalisation of an introverted and righteous rage at the machine, to merely the rage of an extrovert.
Kanye West’s ‘professional’ arrogance, it would seem, knows no bounds, and his ego has increased in direct proportion with both his commercialisation and his loss of self-reflection. Compare his debut album to his latest for a snapshot of this change – once asking God to “show [him] the way because the devil’s trying to break [him] down,” before discussing institutional racism, we find him on track 3 of Yeezus (walks?) asserting simply to “get the Porsche out the damn garage. I am a God.”
Asked in a recent New York Times article whether the “instinct” that led him to snatch the microphone from Taylor Swift – what Kanye calls his fight for “fairness” – has led him “astray”, the Char-town rapper responded that it has “only led me to complete awesomeness at all times. It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness”. Awesome truth like designing a $6000 pair of sandals with footwear designer Giuseppe Zanotti.
It is important to note that it hasn’t always been this way. West’s debut album, The College Dropout, was a goldmine of socially provocative and politically engaged tracks, from We Don’t Care (“We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25, jokes on you, we still alive”), to Jesus Walks (“they [detectives] be asking us questions, harass and arrest us, saying we eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast”) and the visceral Two Words (“Two words, United States, no love, no breaks, low brow, high stakes”).
More on hip hop: Why aren’t there any British hip hop stars?
Nowadays what Kanye, and apparently The Telegraph considers “visceral“ is just plain wack, yo. Even on Dropout this was evident: as Kanye himself explains on Two Words, “I live by two words: fuck you, pay me.” Back then this was an afterthought, driven by the desire to socially climb in an America professed on the tracks as a land of economic inequality. Now Kanye has been paid, “justice” is represented for the Louis Vuitton Don by him coming out on top at the MTV Awards. What began as idiosyncrasy has become a fully fledged narcissistic absurdity, and in his latest album Kanye preaches that the “new slaves” spend “everything on Alexander Wang”, a designer West himself wears, before sampling Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit on a track in which he compares a mix-up in the VIP area of a basketball game to apartheid.
Much of the mainstream media, of course, has been taken in by Yeezus’s ‘minimalist’ aesthetic, their terms of reference compromised by years of production-centric beats. They do, however, seem to have one thing in common – they all agree that Kanye’s “message also gets confusing”. And in the same New York Times article in which Kanye assures us that he “will be the leader of a company that ends up being worth billions of dollars, because I got the answers. I understand culture. I am the nucleus”, he admits that his “message isn’t perfectly defined,” and that he has consistently had to “compromise” when it comes to his creative process. Hip hop is not about dogma, but it is now more than 30 years since Grandmaster Flash released The Message, and hip hop, until very recently, has struggled to maintain its politically engaged roots, its cultural identity.
Kanye has forgotten his message, and his decline, more than many others (Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson, for example) is tragic. I have listened to Kanye West for more than 10 years and, perhaps because I grew up listening to him, I have continued to listen to his music despite its waywardness, despite his own paradoxical masochistic-narcissist behaviour, and I have awaited each album release in hope that he may re-engage with the state of his nation. He even apologised to Bush.
As Dr Boyce Watkins insisted following this self-negation, West is “now part of the establishment, where waffling on your principles is fully expected. Bush deserved no apology, for you don’t apologise to a criminal after repudiating him for an egregious crime.” West’s overt “flossing”, and his effective disavowal of political reality in America have not gone unnoticed.
The hyper-commercialisation of hip hop has, ironically, become a principle feature against which the emerging generation of rappers are defining themselves. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Black Hippy, a collective made up of Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul. For Lamar and Soul especially, it seems that hip hop is due a return to, for want of a better word, its roots. As Lamar says in Hii Power, “Visions of Martin Luther staring at me, Malcolm X put a hex on my future someone catch me…who said a black man in the Illuminati? Last time I checked that was the biggest racist party, last time I checked, we was racing with Marcus Garvey, on the freeway to Africa ‘til I wrecked my Audi.”
The combination of wit, introspection and political engagement sounds familiar – a little, you might say, like a more complex College Dropout. Ten years on, and despite protestations, I am sad to say that Kanye West is yet to truly graduate into the world of politically engaged rhymes, a realm that Lamar and the rest of Black Hippy take as their natural habitat. West’s latest album sounds to me like something of a swansong, a final, bass-fuelled resignation from society as it really is. “What’s 50 grand to a motherfucker like you?” Schoolboy Q asks of the Watch the Throne stooges – “You still need a reminder?”
The morality of music: Why you shouldn’t be so offended by the Thicke and Timberlake videos