If you were to try to summarize Kanye West, Chicago born rapper and self-professed ‘greatest Living Rockstar’, in a single, simple word, it would surely be provocative. Following soon thereafter would be a slew of terms from misogynist, to lunatic, to narcissist. West is nothing if not a provocateur, a stirrer of popular culture, a staple of inflammatory, clickbait-y articles. Yet in spite of this, or maybe because of it, West has amassed a remarkable following, and for good reason.
Kanye West pushes boundaries. Starting his career as a producer, starry eyed with dreams of fame and celebrity, West has consistently created stirring, technically and thematically revolutionary works. To the uninitiated, it would be easy to dismissive West for his crude lyrics and divisive style, with lyrics such as “Soon as I pull up and park the Benz / We get this bitch shaking like Parkinson’s” – ‘On Sight’, ‘Yeezus’; not to mention his very public and often egotistical antics. It would be easy to screw up your nose, dismissing West as nothing more than a misogynist. The more difficult task is to look past the admittedly occasionally unnecessary crudeness, and realise the deeply personal quality West embus in his music.
First and foremost, Ye (Kanye West – Yeezy – Ye) is a creator. His music has always pushed boundaries technically. Albums such as ‘My Dark Twisted Fantasy’ and ‘Yeezus’ used autotune and a slew of modern digital music tools in ways previous unseen, creating sounds and styles that complimented the music, the themes and feelings Ye was trying to elicit, rather than detracting from them, or as a supplement for a lack of talent, such as was the case with Rebecca Black. Songs like ‘Blood on the Leaves’ from ‘Yeezus’, elicit strong emotions, in ways many artists fail to do, using digital effects to create an aura of grand sorrow in tandem with Ye’s lyrics, in a song lamenting the downfall of a relationship.
“You could’ve been somethin’ / We could’ve, we could’ve been somebody – Before they call lawyers / Before you tried to destroy us”
As Ye raps, with a relentlessly pounding beat underlying his lyricism, it is clear Ye commits himself to his music wholeheartedly. Every failing, every want, every dark crevice of his psyche, is poured out into his songs without censorship. In the recent ‘Saint Pablo’, Ye raps about the image the media creates, its inaccuracy and demonizing. He raps about his debt, his wife, Kim Kardashian, and his love for his children, to create a better world for them. “So go and grab the reporters / So I can smash their recorders” – ‘New Slaves’ – ‘Yeezus’, Ye confronts his controversies and public perception, too, in this case a controversial incident in which he assaulted a member of the paparazzi.
Ye lives by his music, and his music lives by him. They reflect upon one another; Ye raps about his family, his love and lifestyle, and in a way his egotistical lyrics reflect back upon him, or at the least our perception of him. West would certainly have us believe he is the artist of our generation, and maybe he has a point. The line where Ye ends and his music begins has become increasingly blurred. The two operate symbiotically, reflecting upon, and feeding off of, one another.
And here we find ourselves, with Ye again in the news, and the argument for West’s genius invading many a Facebook thread yet again. A couple days ago, at the packed Forum theatre in Los Angeles, Ye unveiled the ‘visual’ as he described it, for his track ‘Famous’ from ‘The Life of Pablo’. Squarely pined to my seat, eye’s glued to the livestream on Tidal, the music service curated by Ye and his fleet of famous friends, I was hotly anticipating what provocative, experimental work West had in store. I was not disappointed.
What Ye delivered was straight out of a lucid dream, with the aesthetic of a snuff film. Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, a menagerie of famous figures, none of which you’d expected to find stark naked in a bed together, surrounded by a dozen more celebrities. The screams of the crowd heard over the live stream were rather appropriate. It was shocking, bizarre, unnerving at times, and undoubtedly provocative.
It wasn’t so much a music video. Sure, the electric beat of ‘Famous’ played over a portion of the ‘visual’, but it certainly wasn’t in any way coordinated with it. Instead the visuals were more of a comment on the music, a reaction to its lyrics and themes and a statement in of itself. Like ‘Runaway’ and other visual narratives West has created for his music in the past, ‘Famous’ is a technical, thematic marvel.
At first, and for some time after the clip had finished and I was left stunned, speechless and stupefied, I was sure the celebrities were real. The wax dummies, or whatever it was that West used, were remarkably realistic, with heaving chests behind audio of twelve breathing bodies. Ye had convinced me that George W Bush and Rhianna had shared a bed with West, that Taylor Swift had agreed to shed her porcelain, good-girl perception and gone completely naked.
Of course, I was wrong. They were not the real, breathing article. So, the second question arose. Why such a crazed cast of celebrities? Well, it’s simple. Fame.
Each of the celebrities had in some way been publically involved with Ye. Taylor Swift had her VMA acceptance speech interrupted by West, Bush had been publically criticised by the rapper. Amber Rose is Ye’s ex, and Ray J her new partner and recipient of one of West’s crazed Twitter feuds. In some way, each celebrity has had Ye bring them more ‘fame’, or controversy. As Ye raps in ‘Famous’, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous”.
At the end of the clip, as the camera pans back giving us an exhaustive view of the bed’s occupants, there was one particular image that came to mind. With Ye there in the middle, naked bodies to either side, it looked remarkably reminiscent of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. It wouldn’t be the first time West has addressed concepts of religion, with ‘Jesus Walks’ – ‘The College Dropout’, being one of his first hits, distinguished by its willingness to explore a rather taboo subject. Just as the biblical figure amassed his following of disciples, most of which would not have found any ‘fame’ or significance had it not been for him, West is making a comment on the nature of fame. Ye opens his eyes at the end of the clip, staring directly at the camera, surrounded by people he believes he, in some way, made famous. And maybe he’s right.
It’s easy to call someone a genius, and as easy to refute it. ‘Famous’ can be viewed as a voyeuristic, egotistical self-indulgence. That Ye is merely relishing in his belief that he is so responsible for the ‘fame’ of his fellow celebrities. And maybe he is? Maybe that’s what make his music so fascinating, that relationship between West and his music has become so intertwined that the two are no longer distinguishable – that if you play one of West’s song, your delving straight into the conflicted, depraved, yet often misunderstood, mind of one of music’s foremost artists.