Following many, many delays, and the scrapped 'Yandhi', Kanye’s new album is here and I truly hate it. I hate it, because it is, in fact, good. I came to this conclusion after listening to it this walking around Shoreditch, which, much like Kanye himself, is awkwardly posited between the indignities of modern urban life and the sickly excesses of the city that lean over it. Each veggie Pret is like a flag in the ground for the encroach of the gloss of capitalism. So that’s where I chose to listen to the new Kanye album, not because of the thematic symmetry, but because I’ve listened to so much Kanye West that I, too, am, although I try not to be, a consumerist sellout and sometimes I want to have brunch.
Kanye West by Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella
It’s perhaps the worst album Kanye has released, but even at his worst Kanye is—still—better than most other artists. If this album was worse, the album I wanted it to be, one that finally exposed the hollowness at the heart of what Kanye has come to represent, then maybe I could be done with the cycle of disappointment that draws in everyone who throughout the early 2010’s turned to Kanye West for the very antithesis of what he now is. As hard as it is to imagine now, when the primary image of Kanye is of the smug smile in his MAGA hat, sweatpants and Yeezys, for over a decade, Kanye was perhaps the most outspokenly liberal voice in pop music. The issues that he tackled and the angles from which he approached them were always at the center of what Kanye represented as an artist.
Internalised racism, economic disenfranchisement and the resentment and self-loathing it bred among the American lower classes, particularly the black American lower classes was the central theme on his first two albums. But Kanye’s music has taken on the carceral state as late as 'Yeezus'. For a long time, Kanye represented not reactionary right-wing conservatism, but radical anti-authoritarianism. If there were a central theme in Kanye’s music then it’s the constant struggle for freedom against confinement of voice. Whether he is struggling against the pressures of a conventionally successful life through higher education as opposed to artistic fulfilment on his first two projects, against his own bad habits and a media that profits off of and promotes controversy and yet shames it on 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' or against the racist institutions of modern day America on 'Yeezus'. Kanye is always in opposition to the forces that seek to limit him. This, of course, working as a black American artist in the 2000’s and 2010’s inevitably makes his music political.
Kanye's Sunday Service by Kent Nishimura for Los Angeles Times
The debate of whether or not an artist can be separated from their politics has emerged as a particularly urgent question in recent years. However, Kanye’s politics have always been front and center to his music. To put them aside now, in 2019, and say that you can enjoy Kanye separately from his political opinions means that you were never really listening in the first place. Therefore listening to Kanye in 2019, especially if you disagree with his politics, is an aggravating experience. But listening to his music without paying attention to politics is a pointless pursuit.
Just as damning as his turn to conservative politics is his turn away from musical innovation. The Kanye album is always a documentation of the process of Kanye trying to break things. To break down these systems through lyrical criticism while simultaneously breaking down the musical structures in which he operates. This is one of the reasons why Kanye has been so critically beloved. His musical innovation has always been in service of his thematic content. And his musical innovations can’t be overstated.
In 2018 Drake stated on record that he has "More slaps than the Beatles", and to quote Jay Z, "Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t." Drake is Drake because Kanye opened up the lane that has proven most creatively viable for him. The post-structuralism of Yeezus, is a clear antecedent to the noisy and lo-fi sounds which are the fuel of Soundcloud rap. Even pop music has been reshaped by Kanye and albums like Billie Eilish’s recent debut album are clearly influenced by the abrasive sound of Yeezus. On early Kanye projects, his willingness to be different from the hip-hop firmament was one of his main themes and through his sheer success, he paved the way for other rappers who differed from the established idea of a rapper. A common statement by hip-hop critics is that every rapper out is in, some way a clone of Lil Wayne, but equally true is that that without Kanye, there wasn’t room for a thousand Waynes.
Kanye's Sunday Service from CNN
So like I said, I hate the new Kanye album, because the new Kanye is good, it really is. The beats are good and the raps are good. But Kanye has never been popular because he was good, being good is not enough to brave the controversies that have surrounded him since the beginning of his career. Kanye albums have always, on top of being tight and well-made compositions, had something to say, and said it with enough complexity to warrant an entire album. That’s the other thing about Kanye; his thoughts are never simple and are filled with contradictions. More than almost any other artist in hip-hop, Kanye is an albums artist. He uses the tracklist to his advantage, to posit arguments and counterarguments, to bring up themes in different contexts, to pit different voices against one another and at the end of the project have come somewhere close to an answer. But on his newest project there is one message, and the question is answered before the first track plays.
The reason for Kanye’s turn to conservative politics isn’t something I want to discuss because frankly, who knows. Perhaps Kanye’s music was groundbreaking because of the empathy and sensitivity to politics he once had. Perhaps Kanye is no longer sensitive because he doesn’t need to be. With his corporate partnerships with Adidas and now IMAX he is certainly doing well for himself. However, like I said, I won’t pretend to know why Kanye has chosen to turn to conservative politics, and it doesn’t really matter.
As I finished listening to the album, I walked around Shoreditch and stopped when I noticed writing on the street. In rushed stencil art it was an ad for Kanye’s new film, released by IMAX, as the ad said, to accompany the album. To be completely honest I doubt if, without the pressures from a major corporate entity this album would’ve come out on time, or at all. But the fading writing on the pavement sums up Kanye in 2019 fairly well. A dull piece of guerrilla marketing emblazoned with corporate sponsorship in the heart of gentrification.
Edited by Charlee Kieser, Deputy Digital Editor