Another week, another anti-Kanye petition goes viral.
On July 15, the same day that the Pan American Games announced Kanye West would headline their closing ceremony for 2015's competition in Toronto, a petition calling to remove West from the bill launched on Change.org. It collected over 50,000 signatures, bringing an army of Kanye haters out of the woodwork, who gave a variety of rationales for their signatures: He's arrogant, obnoxious and, most of all, untalented. It's a similar sentiment to the petition to remove him from Glastonbury's headlining spot, which called West "an insult to music fans all over the world." But at both performances, West defied the haters. He slayed at Glastonbury. And this past weekend at the Pan American games, he shone again, despite a technical error that cut his set short. He dropped the mic in the most epic way possible and left audiences with the rousing chorus of "Good Life" still ringing in their ears.
How someone could claim that an artist who's won 21 Grammy Awards (the highest in his age bracket) and cut multiple chart-topping albums that have changed hip-hop from the ground up is untalented is somewhat absurd beyond belief. But in a way, all the hate he gets only adds to West's swagger. Kanye West and his music will never be loved, but that's part of the point.
Kanye West is not your friend. Every statement that West makes, musically or otherwise, is intended to challenge a standard. "Every time I crash the Internet, it's like this little drop of truth," he told Time in an interview celebrating his place on Time's list of the 100 Most Influential people. "Every time I say something that's extremely truthful out loud, it literally breaks the Internet. So what are we getting all of the rest of the time?"
It's a good way to make enemies. But it's also a good way to create momentum and start conversations we're not comfortable having, which is what we truly need our celebrities to do. When his Yeezus was snubbed by the Grammys in 2013, he called out the organization, saying, "Out of all those 21 Grammys, I've never won a Grammy against a white artist."
He got called a whiner, and some pointed out that he's beaten the Beastie Boys, Fergie and Eminem, but it also drew attention to an uncomfortable truth: The Grammys have a terrible track record when it comes to black music. When West called out Bush for not "caring about Black people" in the wake of a Hurricane Katrina, he highlighted a similar fact that has come into full relief in recent months: Racism is still alive in this country at all levels of our sociopolitical system.
True geniuses do not stay quiet. The number of genius musicians, artists and inventors who have also been assholes is pretty staggering. And yet compared to Miles Davis, who beat women, or Albert Einstein, a horribly misogynistic husband and absent father, or Pablo Picasso, who was a terrible human being, West's crimes against humanity are pretty light. It seems the only thing he's guilty of is being a strong, confident black man, who refuses to pander to audiences and censor his thoughts and feelings.
"He believes himself to be the best and won't rest until everyone agrees," the Guardian's Ben Westhoff wrote recently. "Another artist might have toned things down. But West not only needs to be cherished, he needs to be cherished on his own terms."
We have enough polite pop musicians. So much so that it's having a detrimental effect on the genre. From Ed Sheeran to Sam Smith, pop music suffers from nice guy syndrome. Smith has actively discouraged his audiences from looking at his music as making significant sociopolitical statements about equality or LGBT rights so that it can appeal to a broader audience. "I've made my music so that it could be about anything and everybody — whether it's a guy, a female or a goat — and everybody can relate to that," Smith told the Fader last May.
That's all well and good, but who the fuck cares about goats? So much of today's pop doesn't demand listeners to step outside of their comfort zones, or look at the world in a different way, which is what truly impactful art does. Musically as well, pop has been getting increasingly homogenized and inoffensive. If we didn't have people like West pushing boundaries, making enemies and shaking up the system, the Hot 100 would probably sound like a hundred different versions of Katy Perry's "Roar" and Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" (which is close to what it is already).
Kanye West is the ultimate anti-pop. Most of West's big "asshole" moments came out of pushing back against the pop machine. "I'ma try to make something that jumps on and affects you, in a good or bad way," he once told Zane Lowe in an interview for BBC Radio One. "I'm not here to make easy listening, programmable music."
This same urge is what drove him to take the mic from Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, which so many of West's critics still cite as one the biggest examples of his arrogance. The thing about that moment is, he was right. Swift's "You Belong With Me" is a horribly bland song and video that nobody talks about anymore, while Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" was empowering, beautiful and incredibly badass. It really is one of the greatest music videos of all time.
The truth can be uncomfortable. Yes, life might be easier for West if he always stayed sitting and just made the music that the majority of pop-loving Americans wanted to hear. But then he wouldn't be a genius.
He's still made his fair share of blunders. He tried to call out Beck for "disrespecting artistry," but after he found out Beck played more than 12 instruments, he apologized. He is working on toning down his ego. But if Kanye West ever stops trying to bust open the pop world and pissing people off, then our culture is going to be in trouble.