Editor’s Note: This March marks the two-year anniversary of the Kanye West Oeuvre. And, while I’m proud overall of what I’ve accomplished in that time, one thing I will not miss is the pacing. Beholden as I am to a strict chronological sequence–and trying as I am not to kill myself with any more 13,000-word posts like this one–it’s inevitable that every once in a while, I’ll get stuck with a post occupied almost entirely by stuff I don’t care about. This is one of those posts. Not unlike the period between 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the period between Yeezus and The Life of Pablo was pretty uninspiring as a whole. I realize that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the post to come; but if we want to see the end–and holy shit, am I ready to see the end of this project–we have to soldier through the boring parts. So let’s get to it. Here’s the story so far: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12. – Z.H.
Hard as it may be to believe, we’re actually nearing the end of this little vanity project within a vanity project: next month, on or around the first anniversary of The Life of Pablo, the Kanye West Oeuvre will be retired for the foreseeable future. It’s weird, after almost two years of digging into the past, to be writing now about more recent events–events, in fact, that transpired while I was already working on this series. I remember the long, dramatic, sometimes exasperating build up to Kanye’s seventh solo album almost too well: the initial announcement, the spurt of single releases followed by months of radio silence, the title changes, that goddamn track list. Maybe that’s why I’m honestly not all that eager to write about it: I want to do it justice, I want to bring this series to a strong end, but I also don’t want to dig through the mind-numbing, extratextual minutiae that, frankly, overburdened the album when it finally dropped.
Fortunately, we’re not quite there yet–that’s for me to worry about next month. This month, it’s the calm before the storm: we begin with the smattering of guest features and productions released in the wake of 2013’s Yeezus, and end with the trio of early 2015 songs that (we thought) gave us our first look at Ye’s new album. Think of it as a journey back to a simpler, more innocent time: a time before Kanye decided to torment us with threats of a 2020 presidential bid, before we had to contend with his weird man-crush on Donald Trump; a time when we all thought his next record would be released as a Beyoncé-style surprise, not as a Rihanna-style catastrophe. If you miss those days as much as I do, come along with me. I can’t bring President Obama back, but I can at least bring back So Help Me God.
Editor’s Note: It’s been a crazier-than-normal couple of months for Kanye West. Back in the beginning of October, mid-set at the Meadows Music and Arts Festival in New York, he received word that his wife Kim Kardashian had been robbed at gunpoint in her Paris hotel room and made the (completely understandable) decision to abandon the show. A little over a month later, he ended another concert early: bringing his six-night run at the Inglewood, CA Forum to a preemptive halt due to vocal strain. Then, at a performance in San Jose just 10 days after the catastrophic general election, he made one of his customary breaches of decorum by admitting that he didn’t vote, but if he did, he would have voted for Donald Trump. After doubling down on his comments–and taking a few stray shots at Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and even his rumored collaborator Drake–he cut short yet another concert in Sacramento; later the same night, word came that he had cancelled the final leg of his (incredible) Saint Pablo Tour. Finally, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving brought the most troubling news of all: Kanye had been hospitalized for exhaustion at the UCLA Medical Center. As of this writing, he is out of the hospital and back to recording–and (heavy sigh) he recently paid a visit to Trump Tower to meet with the President-elect.
I’ve written and re-written this introduction so many times, it’s practically become a post unto itself. I’m exhausted. I want Q-Tip to come get Kanye and talk some sense into him like he promised. But for better or worse, I also can’t stop fucking with him, even when he does stupid shit like openly court the favor of the closest thing to an out-and-out fascist ever elected President of the United States. And in any case, Kanye’s hospitalization–still very recent, if only a blink of the eye in Yeezy Time–has already done a much better job than I ever could of reminding us that he’s a vulnerable, complicated human being, not (just) a walking aggregate of controversial statements and actions. At the very least, I think his current personal turmoil offers an interesting framework through which to reexamine his blistering 2013 solo effort, Yeezus: a record born of rage as inarticulate, and yet obstinately prescient, as his onstage comments. So let’s dive in. If you’re just joining us, here’s the story so far: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11. Here’s where to pick up after you’re done: 13. And Yeezy, if you’re out there, take care of yourself. – Z.H.
As we noted last time, Kanye West ended 2012 in a remarkably stable place. His post-Dark Twisted Fantasy victory lap was finally complete, his reputation with the public was as positive as it had been in years, and he was in a serious relationship with socialite-turned-reality-TV-star Kim Kardashian; their first child, North, would be born the following June, just a few days before the release of his sixth solo album. At the time, I remember wondering what a new Kanye West album could even sound like. Here was an artist who had spent four years and three albums wallowing in the pain of his mother’s death and the alienation engendered by his own excessive wealth, fame, and crumbling mental health; what kind of a record could he possibly make now that he was apparently a happy, fulfilled family man?
Whatever record I imagined Kanye making in late 2012 and early 2013, it was a far cry from the one we actually got. Yeezus was his most emotionally unsparing and aesthetically challenging album since 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak: a defiant middle finger aimed at the very idea of artistic maturity and respectability. Every Kanye West album since Graduation has pissed off at least a few purists, of course, but for many one-time fans, Yeezus seems to have been the ultimate bridge too far; when people say they “miss the old Kanye” in 2016–and enough people have said it for Kanye to write a song about it–what they usually mean is that they wish Yeezus had never happened.
It probably won’t surprise anyone who’s been reading this series that I don’t feel that way about Yeezus. I love this fucking album–every raw, ugly, unavoidably problematic bit of it. I think it’s right up there with Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and Neil Young’s Time Fades Away in the annals of great “fuck-you” albums: records by artists seemingly determined to piss away their mainstream success, that have somehow passed through the fire and become ornery classics in their own rights. Yeezus is the kind of album I find myself defending more often than praising; and that’s fine by me, because I think it’s worth a few thousand words of defense.
Editor’s Note: Well, I can’t say I don’t deserve it: with every passing month, the already-massive project I took on a year and a half ago just seems to get bigger. Earlier this month, Kanye West confirmed that he was working on a new joint project with Drake; meanwhile, his frequent collaborator Travis Scott intimated that we could see the second G.O.O.D. Music album, Cruel Winter, as early as the beginning of 2017. That means that the Kanye West Oeuvre just grew by as many as two chapters (probably just one, though…I don’t think I can bring myself to devote a whole post to Drake, even if Kanye is involved). Again, it’s my own fault: if I had just finished six months ago as originally planned, I’d have had an excuse to stop with The Life of Pablo; instead, I’m seemingly doomed to keep writing about Kanye West albums until one of us dies.
But let’s focus on the present, shall we? Last week marked the four-year anniversary of the original G.O.O.D. Music album, Cruel Summer: which, like its predecessor Watch the Throne, I see as a Kanye West album in all but name. So what better time than now, with the promotional machine already revving up for its sequel, to take a closer look at the record and its place in Kanye’s career? For those just joining the party, you’ve probably gathered that this post is part of an ongoing series discussing Kanye West’s musical body of work, album by album; you should read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 before you read this one. Then, after you read this one, read parts 12 and 13. And for the three or four other people who have made it this far: here we go. – Z.H.
Whenever I write a new chapter of this series, I have to find a featured image to run at the top of the post. I’ll usually start with a Google Image Search for “kanye west” and whatever year the article is covering; this works better sometimes than others, but in general, what I end up with is a mix of publicity photos, paparazzi shots, album art, music video stills, and live concert photography from the relevant era. This time around, though, when I searched “kanye west 2012,” a strange thing happened. Suddenly, the paparazzi shots far outnumbered the publicity photos and concert photography; indeed, half the images that came up were for Kanye’s ill-fated spring 2012 womenswear line. The majority of the other half were of Yeezy with his then-girlfriend and now-wife, socialite-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-mobile-app-mogul Kim Kardashian. Very few were related in any way to his music.
This is obviously anecdotal evidence, but it confirms for me something that I’ve been suspecting for a while now: that 2012 was in many ways the decisive year in turning Kanye from a “mere” hip-hop star to…whatever he is today. It would be silly, of course, to suggest that there was ever a time when Kanye West, as a public persona, was all about the music; if anything, he’s always been better-known to mainstream audiences for his P.R. snafus than for his beats and rhymes. But from his appearance on the scene in the late 1990s to the 2011 release of Watch the Throne, music was undeniably his all-consuming raison d’être. Looking back at the following year, it’s striking to see just how rapidly that changed. In short, Ye Diddied: he went from being a very successful producer and rapper to a jack of all trades who happens to produce and rap.
To be clear, I’m not bringing this up to mourn the loss of the “Old Kanye”–a sentiment so hoary and clichéd that Kanye made a wonderfully self-reflexive song about it earlier this year. Frustrating as he can sometimes be, I like the “new,” post-Diddy Ye–and in any case, I still stand by my earlier argument that the Kanye of today is only superficially different from the one we (thought we) got to know on The College Dropout. But I think it’s important to draw attention to his apparent transformation, if only because it’s impossible to truly reckon with his post-Watch the Throne output otherwise. Whether or not Kanye himself was fundamentally different in 2012 than he was in 2004, the music we’re about to discuss was; and the reason why was because, for the first time to date, it was just one element in the artist’s ever-diversifying portfolio.
Editor’s Note: Man, I love it when procrastination works out in my favor. I’ve had this post in my drafts folder for months–all with the gnawing knowledge that the Kanye West Oeuvre is well over a year old, and I’m still a few chapters away from being finished. But then, a few things happened in the interim. First, Kanye’s seventh solo album,
So Help Me God SWISH WAVES The Life of Pablo, turned into some kind of constantly-shifting, streaming-only “living art project” thing, which means it’s just as well that I give it some extra time to marinate before I formally write it up. Second, in one of his now-habitual sprees of stream-of-consciousness tweets, Kanye announced that he’ll be releasing yet another record as early as this summer, provisionally (but hopefully permanently) named after the semi-obscure 16-bit video game console Turbo-Grafx 16; so basically, I got an extension of deadline, whether I wanted it or not. Third, and finally, last month Kanye announced yet another project, a second G.O.O.D. Music album called Cruel Winter; so, suddenly, talking about his early-2010s collaborative albums in mid-2016 starts to feel less like a meaningless exercise and more like something that actually approaches relevancy.
But I still need to get this shit over with, so allow me to announce yet another rejiggering of chapters: Watch the Throne and Cruel Summer, originally planned for a single massive post, will now be presented separately, as if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my Prince blog, it’s that this kind of thing is a lot easier to accomplish when you break it up into smaller pieces. Hopefully giving myself a more manageable space in which to discuss these albums will help ensure that it doesn’t take, oh I don’t know, five goddamn months to finish the next entry. But in any case, here’s the series so far: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9. Later posts pick up here: 11 12 13. And if you’re chomping at the bit to know what Callie and I thought of The Life of Pablo, we recorded a podcast about it in February. – Z.H.
As we noted at the conclusion of our last installment, Kanye West ended his 2010 vindicated–at least, to a point. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy had returned him to the good graces of the listening public and the critical establishment; hell, he even performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that year, arguably as mainstream a venue as a pop artist can get. He was still gracing his fair share of “Most Hated Celebrity” polls, of course, but he was no longer topping the rankings–if only because the American public had already moved on to fresh villains, like Spencer Pratt of MTV’s The Hills. In 2011, Kanye wouldn’t even make the Top 10 of E-Poll’s authoritative “Most Hated” list, which included Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson–proof that, while an undeniably severe transgression, ruining Taylor Swift’s Video Music Awards moment still wasn’t as socially unacceptable as actually murdering someone.
But for Kanye, this level of rehabilitation still wasn’t enough. Not as many people might have actively hated him at the end of 2010, but they still didn’t really get him–which, in his view, seems to be just as bad. You can see the frustration written all over his face in his November 2010 interview with Matt Lauer of the Today Show (see Video 1 in the playlist below). Kanye was there to speak on the topic of his infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” speech from the 2005 Concert for Hurricane Relief: an early Kan-troversy that had recently reemerged in the public consciousness due to its inclusion in Bush’s memoir Decision Points, where the former president described it as an “all-time low” of his two terms in office. West had prepared an apology, but Lauer pressed him on the subject, playing an interview clip of Bush responding to the remarks and asking Kanye to look at the emotion in his face. Later in the interview, the show rolled video of the VMAs incident during one of Kanye’s responses, causing him to bring the interview to a halt altogether: “Yo, how’m I supposed to talk if you’re gonna run this thing in the middle while I’m talking?”
In the aftermath of the disastrous Today Show appearance, Kanye fired off a series of emotional tweets: “I feel very alone very used very tortured very forced very misunderstood very hollow very very misused,” he wrote. “I don’t trust anyone but myself! Everyone has an agenda. I don’t do press anymore. I can’t be everything to everybody anymore.” “I can’t be everybody’s hero and villain savior and sinner Christian and anti Christ!” By the end of the rant, he was just howling cathartically into the Twitter-abyss: “Everything sounds like noise!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! EVERYTHING SOUNDS LIKE NOISE!!!!!!! I don’t trust anyone!” Within 14 hours, Buzzfeed had posted a flippant listicle entitled “The 8 Craziest Tweets From Kanye West’s Meltdown Over His Interview With Matt Lauer.” Susie Arons, the professional “media advisor” he’d hired in preparation for the interview, quit just three days later.
In retrospect, Kanye’s new level of outrage over his treatment by the media feels like another turning point for his body of work: one that would obviously reach its fullest expression with his bilious official follow-up to Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2013’s Yeezus. First, however, he would release two full-length collaborative albums, both of which took a slightly different tack in grappling with his ever-besieged public image: spiteful, ostentatious, deliberately gauche boasting. The self-described “luxury rap” of 2011’s Watch the Throne in particular served as an ornately gilded shield for Kanye against the public’s slings and arrows; it was his most explicit example yet of the strategy he’d outlined back on 2004’s “Last Call,” using his “arrogance as the steam to power [his] dreams.” It should come as little surprise, then, that the album is also among his most underrated and misunderstood.
Editor’s Note: Yeezus, it’s been forever since my last post. I’m not even going to try to touch what’s been going on with Kanye in the last few months, aside from the tiny bit of summing-up I do in the following paragraphs. Instead, let’s just dive in. If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, though, here’s where you can catch up on the series so far: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. And here are the posts made since this one: 10 11 12 13. – Z.H.
Tomorrow, Kanye West will release his first new album since 2013’s Yeezus. He’s been teasing this record since late 2014; releasing a trickle of singles (if only to drop them from the final track list), and announcing a seemingly endless array of working titles: from So Help Me God to SWISH to WAVES to, as of just this week, T.L.O.P., an acronym for something he’s keeping “secret” until release day. I’m excited for this album. I’ve been following its progress from the beginning; it’s the reason why I decided to invest what is rapidly becoming a full year’s worth of my writing to chronicle the ins and outs of Kanye’s catalogue to date. And yet, in the month immediately preceding the release of
So Help Me God SWISH WAVES T.L.O.P., a curious thing happened: people, myself included, started looking backward when you’d expect them to be looking forward–all the way back to Kanye’s 2010 album (and, for many, his masterpiece), My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
This was no coincidence. At the beginning of the year, along with the announcement of a release date for the album then known as SWISH, we received word (from the admittedly very 2016 source of Kim Kardashian West’s Twitter account) of the return of Kanye’s legendary promotional runup to Dark Twisted Fantasy, the “G.O.O.D. Fridays” campaign of free weekly online music drops. As it turned out, the rebranded “#EveryFriday” series suffered from distinctly diminished returns, offering only two new tracks before petering out, presumably to give Ye more time to work on his actual album (/get in Twitter fights with Wiz Khalifa). But the second and best of those tracks, the Kendrick Lamar collaboration “No More Parties in L.A.,” called back to Kanye’s 2010 in yet another way: it used a Madlib beat dating back to–you guessed it–the sessions for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Does all this mean that T.L.O.P. will be another M.B.D.T.F.? Probably not–though it apparently has almost as many words in its title, so that’s something. And it makes the idea of revisiting that album on the eve of Kanye’s next musical statement seem that much more relevant.