Confession time: Until this past weekend, I was still excited about new Kanye West music. Still. After everything. This was — and is — directly in the middle of one of the most confusing and dispiriting spectacles I’ve seen in the decade-plus that writing about music has been my job. Kanye West had embraced Donald Trump when he was first elected, and that was bad. But maybe West at the time could’ve convinced himself that Trump, someone who moved in some of the same gala-openings as West himself, could be an open-minded chief executive, one who had some idea of how he wanted to govern. Now that Trump has spent more than a year proving himself to be an uglier, more paranoid, more overtly racist version of a standard Republican politician, West doesn’t have that excuse anymore.
There’s only one available conclusion, and that’s that Kanye West is a megalomaniac so obsessed with seizing attention and adulation that he’s willing to utterly ignore all the terrible things happening under Trump so that he can flatter his own idea of himself as a paradigm shatterer.
And it’s not just that West has embraced Trump. It’s that he’s embraced the whole incoherent, just-as-self-obsessed right-wing thinkosphere currently twisting itself into pretzels to prove themselves and their leader as intellectual superiors. West has fallen under the spell of dipshits like Scott Adams and possibly Jordan Peterson, pseudo-intellectual YouTube-lecture blowhards who don’t claim right-wing status but whose fake science always seems to lead them down right-wing paths.
It’s not just that West is jabbing his figurative thumb into our collective eye; it’s that he’s doing it in such a boring and lame and incoherent fashion. He can’t even own his own shittiness, the way a good pro-wrestling heel does. He has to build it around a halfassed germ of an idea about universal love, as if feelings were the only things that separated the political sides in this country. There is no rigor whatsoever in this line of thought; it’s the type of shit that would get you laughed out of the room in a ninth-grade debate-team practice session. West is so insulated and out-of-touch and self-impressed that he thinks he’s doing something radical when he’s really just playing into the hands of the terrible people who want to keep this country’s resources in the hands of the obscenely wealthy. That’s it.
And I was still excited.
Nobody’s ever had a rap career like Kanye West. Nobody’s managed to shift with the times as adeptly while still standing out from them. Nobody’s managed to remain relevant over a decade-plus without overtly chasing trends or hits. Nobody’s managed to challenge himself from album to album, as if he was in conversation with his own back catalog, with his genre, and with the world at large. Nobody’s managed to maintain A-list status while releasing seven very good albums in a row — or, if we’re counting Watch The Throne, eight. (We can argue about whether The Life Of Pablo is up to West’s standards all day, but that thing had bangers.) Kanye West is the most important musical artist that this century has produced. He doesn’t even have any serious competition. He’s also a blithering dumbass.
As someone who’s been a fan of Kanye West since the I’m Good mixtape, I’ve had to make excuses, again and again, for whatever deluded bullshit he spouts whenever there’s a microphone pointed in his direction. It’s just a part of the package. You don’t get “Famous,” with those endorphin-rush Nina Simone and Sister Nancy sample-chops, without “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex.” (That line’s been written about enough, especially after Swift got caught on tape giving that line her blessing, but it’s still a gross line.) The Trump stuff is way, way worse than anything he’s pulled in the past, but it’s still of a piece with the half-cocked egomania that’s always been a central part of West’s persona.
The idea of a full month of new West music — five West-produced albums in five weeks — was still exciting enough that, while the Twitter bullshit and the Trump talk certainly dulled my excitement, that excitement stayed alive. This guy produced a whole Pusha T album! And a whole Nas album! And two whole Kanye West albums! That’s exciting! Or it was. And then “Lift Yourself” and “Ye Vs. The People” happened. It’s not exciting anymore.
“Lift Yourself” came first. It was clearly a goof. And maybe, in a week when Kanye West didn’t show public love to some of the people currently ruining our country and causing so many of us constant existential angst, it would’ve been fun. “Scoopity poop!” It’s sort of catchy! Maybe, in another week, it would represent West showing a self-deprecating sense of humor — hyping up something supposedly revolutionary that turned out to be a bunch of baby-talk gibberish. The sped-up sample doesn’t have the same adrenaline-burst immediacy of West’s best work back when he was routinely speeding up soul samples, but it shows that he’s been digging back through his old bag of tricks, thinking about what worked and what didn’t. The echoing, cavernous, almost dancehall-esque drums are cool.
But coming after the week he just had, it’s like someone hitting you with a car and then sliding a whoopee cushion onto the stretcher before you’re wheeled off to the hospital. It’s not funny, and it’s not enough. The events of the week that preceded it demanded something serious, something that actually commented on all the bullshit, maybe put it in some kind of context. But then, not long after “Lift Yourself,” West gave us something like that. And it was worse.
“Ye Vs. The People” is slapdash, thrown-together: an attempt to comment on the past week as rushed and ill-thought-out as a bad SNL cold open. The beat, as with “Lift Yourself,” is pretty good, but it’s not good enough. The mastering is terrible. A behind-the-scenes video has already shown us that the song is an immediate reflection of a strained, awkward conversation between West and T.I., with both of them reusing some of the same lines that they’d already used in conversation. T.I., clearly working hard to keep his temper, kept trying to remind West that Trump and his policies had affected people, that it was bigger than West and his own stated desire to go against the grain. West didn’t hear him. He said some bullshit about how wearing the Make America Great Again hat would make him equal in the eyes of some people. Maybe it will. But he hasn’t even thought about the cost.
Now: T.I. is not some oracle. He is not a wise elder. He has done some dumb shit. At the peak of his fame, T.I. almost went to prison for years because he tried to buy some guns in a parking lot. That was a personal thing from a long time ago, but T.I. has said plenty of stupid things, too. In a 2015 interview, he said that he couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton for a particularly egregious reason: “Not to be sexist but, I can’t vote for the leader of the free world to be a woman … I just know that women make rash decisions emotionally.” (He later apologized.) There are good reasons to withhold your support of Clinton, but this is not one of them. It’s not like West was having this on-record conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates.
But on “Ye Vs. The People,” and in the accompanying making-of video, you couldn’t hope for a better representative for the rest of us. Rapping on a West song with West, T.I. pulls no punches, using straight-faced logic to roast the shit out of him: “You wore a dusty-ass hat to represent the same views / as white supremacists / We expect better of you.” For his part, all West can do is splutter the same inane, meaningless bullshit he’s been saying on Twitter for the past week and a half: “Make America Great Again had a negative perception / I wore it rocked it, gave it a new direction / Added empathy, care, love, and affection.” He never says how he added that empathy or even demonstrates that he knows what empathy looks like. He just uses the word empathy — a word I’m guessing he picked up on because it was in that John Legend text — and expects that word to do the work for him. It’s malformed, thoughtless, unfinished — a contrarian stance to take at the worst time to be taking a contrarian stance. And on top of everything, T.I. just raps better than Kanye — more fluid, more self-assured, more urgent. West is just rapping in circles.
As I’m writing this, West just posted an absurdly long conversation between himself and Charlamagne Tha God on YouTube. I haven’t gone through the whole thing yet, and I probably never will. (This in itself is sad. Kanye West interviews used to be fascinating appointment viewing; now it’s just depressing to think about what this guy is saying to justify himself.) But the political parts of the interview show just how little West has thought this whole thing out. He says it himself on “Ye Vs. The People”: “Ever since Trump won, it proved I could be president.”
That’s clearly all he ever cared about. A tossed-off comment from a VMA acceptance speech a few years ago has become West’s new white whale. West is watching Trump like a teenager who saw Green Day on MTV and then rushed out and bought a guitar: I could do that. Substance doesn’t matter to him. Policy doesn’t matter to him. Talking to Charlamagne, he described his ideal as “the Trump campaign with Bernie Sanders’ principles,” which is the sort of phrase that makes me want to put my head through a wall. (He also talked about his lingering resentment over perceived slights from Obama, which might also be what convinced Trump to get into politics in the first place.) He hasn’t thought this through. And if these two songs are any indication, he hasn’t thought the music through, either. If attention-demanding Twitter bullshit is all West has to offer anymore, then he really is done.
Even if, against all possible odds, the music from this new Kanye West onslaught turns out to be amazing, it won’t be the silver lining to this whole grueling story. The silver lining will be that it’s now blindingly, gallingly obvious that it was always foolish to place any faith whatsoever in celebrities like Kanye West. We can’t trust this guy. We never could.
1. 03 Greedo – “Wake Me Up In Traffic” (Feat. Drakeo The Ruler & Fenix)
03 Greedo is one of the most inventive and exciting rappers currently working, and he’s also the maker of one of the best rap albums of this year so far. He was just sentenced to 20 years in prison for possession of methamphetamine and a gun. This is infinitely shittier news than the stuff about a rich, aging, declining rapper messily embracing Trumpism, and yet I haven’t had the mental bandwidth to even begin processing it. Greedo is on a rare, dizzy creative run, and now he will spend his entire prime locked up. And now the chirpy, woozy blues of his music has even more pathos working for it.
2. Fmb Dz – “Yesterday” (Feat. Sada Baby)
Sada Baby, the Detroit livewire with the big beard and the potbelly and the evil-gremlin voice, is one of the most exciting new rappers to come along in a long time, and this burst of freewheeling Bay-style energy is something I need in my life right now.
3. Philthy Rich – “Right Now (Remix)” (Feat. E-40, Too Short, & Ziggy)
Outside of maybe country and jazz, no genre of music respects its elders the way Bay Area rap does. E-40 justifies this, every time. It’s always dazzling.
4. Young Thug – “Ooou”
You’d think that Young Thug’s miasmic gurgles would be old by now. You’d be wrong.
5. Tee Grizzley – “2 Vaults” (Feat. Lil Yachty)
You wouldn’t necessarily expect these two to have much on-record chemistry, but then you hear “From The D To The A,” and they you hear this, and then you have to admit that you just don’t know shit about shit.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
IS IT OKAY TO START WITH COLORING BOOK OR SHOULD I LISTEN TO ACID RAP FIRST pic.twitter.com/fVyIKFGEmc
— Al Shipley (@alshipley) April 28, 2018