It’s difficult to think of a recording artist who is as divisive, as debated, and most importantly, as entertaining as Chicago rapper and producer Kanye West. He told the American people that George Bush didn’t care about black people, interrupted dear sweet Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, has gone on numerous rants about his genius, and has appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone as Jesus Christ, later naming his album as, yes, Yeezus. He inspires ire and awe, contempt and respect, parody and plaudits, and he clearly isn’t going away anytime soon.
Kanye West’s recent appearance in Time’s 100 Most Influential People probably raised derision and annoyance from many. After all, it has been (and will continue to be) argued that the world needs role models, not rappers with god complexes. Therefore I submit the following not as a defence of Mr West’s character. After all, in an age as cynical as this one, who’s to say what is stage theatrics or the real deal. Instead I will argue, not against his dickishness (I’m not that gifted at polemic), but rather against why his influence should not be overlooked, and why his place in the top 100 is deserved.
It’s an obvious (and somewhat patronising) maxim that states that success requires self-belief. Still, it’s entirely reasonable to say that if you don’t believe in yourself, in your own ideas, and in your own ambition, why should anyone else? This is naturally a hard lesson to learn, particularly if you’ve grown up with the idea that you need the blessings of someone greater to validate you. It’s still worth learning. The world doesn’t care about your dreams and your hopes and your goals. You will live and die on this rock and time will keep on, indifferent as ever. In this environment you have to make the world care, and the first step to doing that is having some faith in yourself, and in your own ability to carry things through.
Yes, I can appreciate that that last paragraph is riddled with the kind of motivational claptrap that fills trashy self-help guides and clogs up Facebook feeds. But this spirit, this determination, is entirely why I think Kanye West is so influential. Certainly there is a thin line between self-belief and arrogance (one which the artist routinely straddles and, much of the time, crosses over completely), but I highly doubt that he would’ve got to his level of renown if he didn’t have drive.
It doesn’t matter whether or not Kanye West is the best of all time (an impossible thing to qualify for any musician, living or dead). What matters is that he thinks he could be. This kind of ruthless self-willing is what drives the successful and makes their contemporaries pay attention. Of course, when Kanye West espouses this philosophy he lacks any kind of tact or humility, and winds up pissing everyone off. This could well be the work of a master troll. But while I suspect that West may well take a certain pride in courting controversy, I think he is (for the most part) sincere. Painfully so.
For some this is captivating, and for others it’s an understandable drag. His rightly lauded early work demonstrated a real gift for storytelling and forward-thinking production, but over time this seems to have given way to tackiness, derivative beats, and the same themes of excess and self-loathing that, at least for this listener, can often feel tiresome, overwrought, and boring. The difference between Kanye’s past two efforts is demonstrative of this shift. In this sense, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye’s masterwork. Yeezus is its inevitable nadir. I might be in the minority here but I never felt that Yeezus was the work of raw, uncompromising honesty that so many other critics made it out to be. It seemed more like the work of someone who had just discovered Death Grips and industrial music. Sure, there were some great moments on it. But taken overall I felt it disappointing, crude, and uninspired. And that’s not even getting into the lyrical content, which boasted lines so cringeworthy they made Lil Wayne sound like Kierkegaard. For me, this album was not a high point in the artist’s career. But in a way, it doesn’t matter.
Mumford and Sons recently called Kanye West ‘the last rockstar left’ and while it must be said that the closest those boys get to rock gets sold on Brighton pier, they do have a point. There simply is not another artist in mainstream music with the ego, the power, and the influence that comes with being a ‘rockstar’. Although West doesn’t make rock music, he has all of these qualities down to a tee. People often bemoan popular music for being ‘too safe’ or ‘too predictable.’ Kanye West is anything but.
What makes West influential is not so much the music he creates but the personality he embodies. Because when he comes out with laughably ridiculous statements about being Shakespeare or, bizarrely, Walt Disney it’s almost as if he’s convincing himself that he can be counted among those greats. Most of the time I think he’s actually having a dialogue with himself – not his audience. Why else would he dedicate so much of his discography to dramatizing this inner conflict in song? He’s very much aware that he’s not the polymath genius he wants to be, and it bothers him. A lot. Yet he continues to push, he continues to try, and whether he succeeds or fails, he never seems satisfied. That’s what makes him an artist, and that’s precisely why he’s so talismanic and why he’s so needed.