Kanye West is the Nucleus For Good and Bad

In Kanye West’s recent New York Times interview, he compared himself to the most influential people in world culture, people like “Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, Nicolas Ghesquière, Anna Wintour, David Stern.”

This is an impressive pedigree, but perhaps not an unreasonable claim from one of music’s biggest hit-makers. But Kanye has something else in common with these luminaries: they are all, every single one of them, crazy people. This is of course the interview that ends with Kanye claiming to be “the nucleus” of contemporary culture. He doesn’t really explain what this could mean, and the interpretation determines whether it’s true or not.

If it means that his music is central to the contemporary pop landscape, it’s not true. By my count, this week’s Top 40 singles contains only five real hip-hop songs. The genre’s influence can be felt all over the vaguely dancey pop that fills the rest of the roster, but it is no longer the hit parade it was in the nineties or even earlier in the oughts (still haven’t settled on a name for that, have we?). If he means that he contains the DNA of pop and hip-hop to come, and that any mutation in his genes will quickly metastasize throughout the population, he is correct, for good and bad.

West’s new album Yeezus drops this week, and it’s a mess. A glorious, intense, heady, fever dream to be sure, but also a total mess. The album was apparently not even finished when Rick Rubin stepped in to save it mere weeks before it was supposed to be released.  Rick Rubin is the Gandalf of hip-hop, a bearded magician who steps in to enable lesser souls to save the day. He basically invented rap-rock in the eighties, retired from rap to resurrect the career of one-time has-been Johnny Cash, and only returned to hip-hop in order to produce Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” which might be the best song on the best rap album ever. He is the man you call to make problems go away. According to interviews, Rubin listened to over three hours of material, much of it without vocal tracks or even lyrics, and agreed to help Kanye finish the album. How did he do? In the words of Jay-Z, “You’re crazy for this one, Rick.”

The result was an album that sounds like it was recorded by Kraftwerk in a sex dungeon. The beats are fuzzed out and percussive, with previous Kanye touchstones such as soul samples and, like, a sense of humor serving only to accentuate how far he has come. Nothing on the album makes sense out of the context of the whole, which is probably why there wasn’t a single released before the album. Instead, Kanye promoted it by projecting images referring to the album on buildings around the world. It’s less a promotional technique and more of a war tactic, and that fits. This isn’t pop music. It’s warfare.

You probably already made up your mind about whether you will listen to the album. Nothing anybody writes is going to sway anybody, because we’ve all taken sides long ago. So I’m not going to try to convince you either way, but I would like to suggest some ways the album might infect the other organelles of the music landscape.

First, the fact that this album can really only be listened to as a whole continues a trend in hip-hop that Kanye himself began in 2010 with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That album turned hip-hop in on itself, making champagne, parties, and “bitches” the central characters in a Faustian descent into madness and depravity, with the listener left to sort out whether the hopeful falsetto of Justin Vernon or the paranoid proto-rap of Gil Scott-Heron pointed towards the future for Kanye and, it felt, for us.

This idea of album-oriented hip-hop makes sense in a world where the single is less important than ever, and it caught on. The biggest albums of last year, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.D. city, both included jams that stretched far past single length, a menagerie of styles, and a dramatic arc more common to opera than hip-hop. I saw Lamar a few months ago, and he performed every song on good kid in order, because apparently that’s how hip-hop works now. This aspect of Kanye’s influence is probably mostly a good thing (we’ll see what happens when Pharrell discovers Rick Wakeman) and at least for now has generated some phenomenal music. But another aspect of West’s recent music is more troubling.

As part of using the imagery of hip-hop to explore themes of almost theological scope, West has become more violently sexist than ever. In a song like “Stronger” from Graduation, his characteristic bravado was tempered by a false-modesty that could even be charming; he would tell you he was God’s gift to women, but if you backed off he would blame it on his drink. The women on Yeezus aren’t even women anymore, they’re more like dismembered body parts. On a number of songs, West uses violent sexual imagery as a metaphor for racial and economic oppression. On “New Slaves,” West envisions himself taking revenge on the moguls behind the prison industrial complex by rapping “I'll f*ck your Hampton spouse came on her Hampton blouse and in her Hampton mouth.”

The switch between the future and the past tense makes the metaphor hazy: is this a plan or a confession? Either way, West’s reliance on the shame and degradation of fellatio in order to make sex a convincing tool for revenge is troubling. It’s literally true that Kanye follows up the line “One good girl is worth a thousand bitches” with the line “I wanna fuck you hard on the sink,” but this shouldn’t surprise anyone. The same people perpetuate both parts of the Madonna-whore dichotomy. They are men who set up unrealistic expectations for the purity and goodness of women and then degrade them when they fail to live up to their image of what a woman should be. Kanye’s ecstatic hagiographies for his mother coexist with his most shocking sexism, because both impulses come from the same place: the inability to see women as fully human. 

In that sense, West’s increasing reliance on women not even as objects but as symbols does kind of make sense. We, we being feminist or even just non-asshole fans of hip-hop, can only hope this aspect of Kanye West’s music enjoys less of an influence than his formal inventiveness.