The Problem of Kanye

The thing you have to know about me is that I am among the most tortured Kanye fans in the Western Hemisphere. I love Kanye’s music.

I adore 808s & Heartbreaks — I still remember — back in the bad old days of teenage piracy — getting the regular version, then the deluxe version, then finding the correct deluxe cover art with the Mickey Mouse hands, and getting the titles and features right, then syncing them with my iPod Classic just right, and then inevitably missing something and having to fix it in post production, and just putting the album on loop, for weeks.

I love My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I like College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation. I enjoy Yeezus, somewhat enjoy The Life of Pablo, have middling feelings about ye and haven’t really listened to Kids See Ghosts. But that’s five albums of gold! Throw on the voluminous production and guest verses, and you’ve got a level of consistent artistic brilliance in hip hop, and arguably pop music period, that few manage to match. Jay-Z and Nas, among others, are nowhere near that consistency, for all their greatness at their craft.

Even as a Kanye fan and apologist, I recognize that he is philosophic struggle taken human form. A sample:

Even when I knew better, I felt pretty comfortable evading accountability here:

  • I don’t listen to him for his politics, I just want to knock or cry.
  • It’s not just Kanye — Hip hop is full of terrible isms, but I love it anyway.
  • If I exacted this toll from Kanye, I’d have to do so with X rapper, who you actually like.
  • Hip hop’s unfairly singled out, the same things can be said about X genre.

I’ve done this with video games, I’ve done this with rap music, I’m pretty well versed at this level of deflection over the years. But then, he gored my ox and I don’t know what to think or do:

It’s pretty common these days to be an aesthetic moralist, to believe that art is tied up in morality and that a flawed moral character taints the art. To some degree, I’m riding the wave here. But I don’t know where you draw the line. Name any five commercially successful rappers in the last decade and I can virtually guarantee that at least one has at some point exhibited, at minimum, misogynist behavior. Some have gone to court contesting accusations of far worse actions. And how far back do you go — it’s not as if musicians 50 years ago were less misogynistic than those of today.

What’s a consistent and moral way to adjudicate these cases, and on the flip side, what constitutes complicity? Now that nearly every commercial release of music is on your favorite streaming service, you can feasibly listen to whatever you want without monetary support. But of course, someone’s getting paid for your streams. The problem’s magnified, at least in degree, if you have a streaming music subscription, or you buy their album or their merchandise, or you attend their concert. And what impact does consuming morally compromised art have on your soul?

To return to a previous point, I haven’t really been listening to Kanye very much lately. Not his back catalog, and definitely not his stuff released late this year. But in writing this, I don’t know that I should be purposefully avoiding his music, particularly as opposed to X artist.

What I do know is this: POWER’s a great song! It’s not even his greatest song! But Kanye doesn’t make me feel great any more. Maybe he never should have.

Some links…

  • The immediate inspiration for this piece: Chris DeVille, “808s & Heartbreak Turns 10,” Stereogum.
  • Another piece I’ve been grappling with: Sylvia Obell, “Will Time Ever Be Up For Abusive Men In Hip-Hop?,” BuzzFeed News.

…and a lyric:

“No one man should have all that power / The clock’s ticking, I just count the hours / Stop tripping, I’m tripping off the power / (21st-Century schizoid man)” Kanye West, POWER, via Genius.