Yesterday, it was discovered that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have named their child North. That’s right. North West. And maybe it’s because they actually decided to name their child a stupid pun a precocious seventh grader might come up with when pressed to come up with a name for a baby with the surname “West,” or maybe it’s because Kimye didn’t go with the infinitely better Easton as they’d hinted at earlier in Kim’s pregnancy, but that’s it. I give up. There have been many things leading up to this moment, but this is the absolute final straw.
I am so fucking done caring about Kanye West.
After reading all the shit that’s flying around Yeezus right now, a record that’s as close to an embodiment of the Shakespeare quote, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as I’ve ever heard, the thought popped into my head: why? Why do we care about Kanye West? Yes, he’s a celebrity, a monstrous cultural figure that’s totally unavoidable. To ignore him is to bury one’s head in the sand, to pretend to live in a world that isn’t real, to choose to be culturally out of touch, yadda yadda. But does that really mean we have to shit ourselves pondering the politics of Kanye West? He certainly wants us to, which is why Yeezus is purposefully drenched in all that EQ-busting, industrial abrasiveness, and we’re taking the bait like donkeys with carrots strapped to our heads. It’s as though everyone everywhere has gotten swept up in the platitude that Kanye West is just so unquestionably important (I’ve even read “nexus of the zeitgeist” and doesn’t that just make you want to barf) that they’ve taken to talking about Yeezus like it’s a vital cultural artifact just because it’s angry and peppered with some racial signifiers and sounds shitty.
So let’s establish why we care about Kanye West in the first place. First and foremost, obviously, is his music. Without that, there’s none of the bullshit that really makes up the mythos of Kanye West. And without doubt, the music has generally been good: hip, forward thinking, oftentimes compelling and all of it sounds fantastic in a car. The second, more prevalent reason we care about Kanye West to the extent that we do is that he comes off like an idiot savant who says and does outrageous things that, at their best, have a ring of truth to them that most of a white-bread celebrity populace is too chickenshit to admit. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” “Beyoncé had the best video of all time,” all of his greatest/worst PR moments became cultural memes because they were right, while at the same time came from a funny man who people didn’t have to take seriously because the guy thinks he’s Jesus and just named his kid North (Fucking) West. He’s nearly as impossible to love sincerely as he is to ignore, which make him a perfect media star. He’s repulsive, yet we’re compelled; he’s a moron, but is closer to the truth than arguably anyone else with his level of fame, all with a musical catalog that White America can bump comfortably while keeping the guy at a safe, ironic distance. It’s all contradictions baby; we love to hate.
It’s only fitting, then, that Yeezus is simultaneously terrible and totally Kanye. What we apparently love about Kanye West—his bombastic personality, his forward-thinking music, his ego, his stupidity, his political earnestness and naivety—is all blasted on it with a burning rage. A Kanye West album where the brilliant musical mind and the massive ego work in tandem to go hard sounds awesome, in theory, but, as becomes quickly apparent, Yeezus doesn’t present like most Kanye West albums where the contradictions work towards creating a beautiful mess (see: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with its nearly-cartoonish grandiosity and tendency towards the self-effacing). It actually sounds terrible. The burning rage is expressed mostly in the clipping frequency of the beats, a trend which more often tends to be obnoxious rather than arrestingly bizarre.
But what of it? Perhaps this is in service of a larger point, training our ear for a newer, rawer Kanye? Well, sort of: the Kanye West of Yeezus spits with an intensity that certainly suggests he’s out to make an explicit statement. There are nods towards blackness scattered throughout the album, track titles like “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves,” “Blood on the Leaves” (“I Am A God” unfortunately having nothing to do with Five Percent Black-American Islam; Kanye’s just saying that), but except for “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves,” the album’s racial politics are nearly all subtextual; Kanye actually says little about race explicitly, and when he appears to, it’s weirdly appropriated. Much has been made about the use of Martin Luther King’s “Free at Last” quote in regards to Kim’s boobies, and the sample of Nina Simone’s striking song about lynching, “Strange Fruit,” at least raises interesting questions about how racial history can be used in a postmodern context and who can use it. Other than that, the sample itself blends into the background of a molly-popping breakup banger and you can make of that what you will. Mostly, Yeezus is par-for-the-course Kanye, his ego endearingly silly (“hurry up with my damn croissants!”), clever one-liners occasionally peppered in, some racially insensitive come-ons that are already getting brushed over by everyone, and some overblown pathos that wouldn’t sound out of place on 808s and Heartbreaks; in other words, Yeezus is nothing new or particularly interesting despite all the dressings of being capital-I important (a phrase Tiny Mix Tapes used that I’ll revisit later).
Yeezus is sonically and politically entirely about contradictions, which is what’s sparked the intense critical debate surrounding it, but also what makes it aggravatingly empty. Its refusal to comment upon its contradictions, whether that’s intentional or, more likely, Kanye not having a definitive grasp of what he’s really going for, makes it needlessly maddening, an album’s worth of “no one knows what it means, but it’s provocative.” Song breaks apropos of nothing pop up and go by, baiting our ears for a statement that never comes. Guest spots sound weirdly inorganic, particularly Great-White-Bro Justin Vernon’s, whose lush voice clashes so harshly with the record’s aggressively “anti” ethos that it comes off as an obvious shoehorn rather than a meaningful juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness. This is the central problem of Yeezus: it’s trickery and bombast without a payoff, “challenging” music whose rewards are entirely predicated on the indulgence the listener is willing to afford Kanye West instead of being embedded in the music itself.
And lordy lord, has he been indulged. Because he has to be, whether or not he deserves it. Here are two quotes from an exhaustive Tiny Mix Tapes piece on Yeezus by Alex Griffin:
“West is not a savior, a spokesperson, or an activist. This album is about and for one person only, yet being indifferent to Kanye is like not voting.”
“What (Kanye) gives us are questions. He’s been ahead of the game since he stepped foot in it, and this is going to be capital-i Important for the next six months at least, so listening to Yeezus is basically like Pascal’s wager: whether he’s right or wrong, incredible or tasteless, it’s a safer bet to pay attention to him. But that’s still a matter of faith.”
For me, this sums up Yeezus: it’s important because it’s Kanye West, which is like saying it’s important just because it is. Not because it demands it, or because it’s necessarily good, but because it’s interesting, which is a way more loaded adjective than “good.” And it has no pretense towards being good. Yeezus sounds as if Kanye dropped any notion of being an entertainer and full-on indulged himself, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but through this self-indulgence he comes up with a series of nothings masquerading as somethings. There’s an argument that Kanye makes his personal universal, but this doesn’t apply to Yeezus. This album is Kanye West for Kanye West, the man standing at a microphone with all eyes on him, spouting whatever comes to his head. And like we’ve been trained to do the past ten years, we flock to it ready to find the brilliance in his bravado that reveals something about us, a truth that’s ahead of the curve. But this time, it’s not there; there are only the questions and talking points, blustering, raging rhetoric with nothing underneath it, none of the zeitgeist-nabbing je ne sais quoi that keeps us waiting on baited breath for the words of the prophet Yeezus. So I’m throwing my hands up and saying No, Kanye West. I don’t have to care about you because this time, you have not earned it.