Nobody in the history of rap music has had a run like the one Kanye West has had. Kanye’s had seven solo albums in 12 years, and the worst of them is still pretty great. He’s ventured all over the aesthetic map, and found new directions to push his sound and his persona at every turn. And yet we still don’t really think of Kanye West as a great rapper. It makes sense. He’s not, at least not consistently. He keeps saying stupid shit. His self-aggrandizement is goofy as often as it is badass, his cultural references sometimes make me want to slap my forehead, and he routinely lets other guys show him up on songs. His best album might be 808s & Heartbreak, the one where he doesn’t even really rap. Kanye is one of my two or three favorite rappers of all time, and yet I still don’t really think of him as a great rapper, at least not on a bar-to-bar level. Sometimes, though, Kanye puts it all together.
I tend to divide Kanye’s career into two eras: pre- and post-“Put On.” West appeared on Young Jeezy’s thunderous single in 2008, a few months before he made 808s. He’d released three albums before that, and they all presented him as a warm, likable, approachable figure. Even on something like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” where Kanye tried to snarl about his own dominance, he was still fun on some deep level. “Put On” was something else. That track is already an all-timer even before West shows up on the final verse. And when he does, he sounds like he’s falling apart. He’s wailing through Auto-Tune, all wounded pride and bad faith. He’s still reeling from the death of his mother: “I lost the only girl in the world that knew me best.” He’s sneering at girls who once put him down in the nastiest terms imaginable: “I feel like it’s still bitches that owe me sex.” He has nothing but hate for the world. And it sounds so beautiful.
West is only really half-rapping on “Put On.” He’s halfway to singing, just as he would be on 808s. It’s like his goofy, genial, halting flow can’t properly convey his seething state of mind, so he needs to do it in that inhuman robotic singsong. There’s real venom in his voice as he rejects the same things he so often brags about: “I got the money and the fame, man, that don’t mean shit / I got the Jesus on the chain, man, that don’t mean shit.” Even in this state, he can’t stop himself from making corny jokes — “I need just at least, unh, one of Russell’s nieces” — but he does it mirthlessly, never enjoying his own cleverness the way he so often does. And by the time the verse ends, he’s almost post-verbal, howling, “I’m so lonely,” stretching out the “I” so it’s less a word and more a sound. It’s one of the most affecting rap verses I’ve ever heard, and it’s barely even rapped.
I get some of that same “Put On” Kanye from his verse on “Pop Style,” Drake’s new single. It’s not on the same level, but it’s got that same effect. West can’t hold anything back from the world; he can’t present a face. And every once in a while, he comes up with a verse that perfectly sums up where he is mentally, where he sees himself in relation to the rest of the world. It’s his best verse in years, way more powerful and revealing than anything on The Life Of Pablo. And he did a beautiful job picking his spot.
“Pop Style” arrives, of course, at a turbulent time in West’s life and career. TLOP did make it to #1, after all, but only after perhaps the messiest and most temperamental blockbuster-album rollout in history. After all that, West has to know that he’s not the man in rap anymore, that he’s finally and irrevocably ceded that top spot to Drake. So he knows what he has to do on a song like “Pop Style.” He has to show Drake the fuck up on his own song. And that’s exactly what he does. He does it beautifully.
It’s not that it’s hard. Drake, like West, isn’t a classically great rapper. He has memorable lines, but the best thing about his rapping is the way he uses his voice. On paper, Drake’s “Pop Style” verse is fucking atrocious, an inexcusably shitty way to build anticipation for this huge new album he’s been promising for more than a year now. “Got so many chains they call me Chaining Tatum” — that’s a terrible line. Drake has all of Toronto ready and willing to ghostwrite for him, and that’s the best he can do? What saves it is Drake’s intonation: “You don’t knoooow what you just staaaarted.” He sounds cool, and most of the time, that’s enough.
On “Pop Style,” it’s not enough, at least not when you’re looking at it through the lens of who won the song. The structure of the track is so weird. Jay Z shows up for a grand total of two bars, which turns out to be plenty, since it means he never ends up saying anything indefensibly stupid, always a danger with recent-vintage Jay. Drake clearly had both him and West on this song to function as human status symbols, which is how Drake often uses his collaborators. Jay gets to sound cool and be Jay for about two seconds, and that’s enough. But Jay’s quick appearance serves as a throat-clearing for West.
West’s verse has its share of dumb moments — “Chop it chop it chop it sippin’ sake / Put a thick bitch on a Kawasaki.” But Kanye has conditioned us to expect those dumb moments, almost to the point where we don’t hold them against him. And through most of the verse, West is finding artful ways to tell us why he is the way he is. “‘Why can’t you just shut your mouth and take the high road?’ / Fuck if I know.” There’s such absolute resignation in that line, such fatalism. He blames it on his upbringing: “That’s that Chicago.” And he leaves it right there for you: This is how I am, and I’m not going to change. He references his own public outbursts: “Jay about his business / And I’ma let you finish.” He talks about his own largesse like it’s a compulsion: “Cop a crib and spend 10 million on remodel / Take the devils out my life and preach the gospel.” He puts all that psychosis down on the page, and then he comes up with something like “take you to the garage and do some karate.” It’s the most Kanye West verse we’ve heard from Kanye in a minute. West probably knew more people would hear “Pop Style” than would hear any song on TLOP. He might not get too many chances to reach the world the same way. He took full advantage of the moment.
I was planning on using this week’s column to write about Desiigner’s “Panda,” the stupidly gripping megahit that now exists way beyond the Future-ripoff accusations and the “Father Stretch My Hands” introduction. “Panda” will probably be one of the year’s defining songs. It’s already bigger than any of Future’s hits. It could, for all we know, be the #1 song in the country next week. Maybe I’ll still write about it. But I heard that “Pop Style” verse in the car this morning and it just hit something inside me. I felt like I had to talk about it. Kanye West verses can still sometimes do that to me.
1. Action Bronson – “Mr. 2 Face” (Feat. Meyhem Lauren & Jah Tiger)
That’s the beat from Super Cat’s immortal “Dolly My Baby,” and it hits like a ray of sunshine. Bronson recorded this one in Jamaica, where he was filming Fuck, That’s Delicious. I hope he keeps doing this. I hope he keeps recording songs, with locals, wherever he goes for his goofy food show. I hope he did a song with Joker The Bailbondsman while he was in Alaska.
2. Schoolboy Q – “Groovy Tony”
Q is a gifted and well-rounded rapper, but he never sounds better than he does when he’s in knife-edged demonic fuck-you-up mode. I almost wish he’d only make songs like this, just to protect the integrity of the character, to make sure you got that flesh-crawling feeling every time he showed up on a track.
3. Meek Mill – “Trap Vibes”
Poor Meek — reeling from a humiliating loss, stuck on house arrest, and (from all appearances) freshly dumped. And his “Summer Sixteen” freestyle is still better than “Summer Sixteen.” Looking for revenge.
4. Dej Loaf – “Make Money”
Dej’s new All Jokes Aside mixtape is flatter than I wanted it to be. But in single-song doses, her thousand-yard stare remains evanescent.
5. Black Thought – “Making A Murderer” (Feat. Styles P)
Listen to these guys go!
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Made this collage of Meek Mill looking off terrified like he can see dead people. His life is a J Horror movie. pic.twitter.com/D5S9rOl55Y
— The Sample Life (@The_Sample_Life) April 7, 2016