Oh, Kanye West – one of my favorite characters on the popular music scene. I am always so intrigued by him, because I sense a vulnerability behind his pomposity. I also think that he might be a genius – not a genius at rapping, of course (there are far better rappers out there, and there have been far better rappers in the past), but he is an excellent producer, and he might be a genius when it comes to creating a public persona. That doesn’t seem like a skill that should be touted, but in this day and age, I think it deserves to be. I mean, he pissed off TWO PRESIDENTS. His rant on stage at the MTV Movie Awards will go down in pop culture history. And I don’t mean to insult Taylor Swift too much, but I’m pretty sure that one day, her name will be the answer to a trivia question: “Which celebrity won Video of the Year at the MTV Movie Awards when Kanye stormed the stage to say that Beyonce had the best video of all time?” (extra points if you know what song Taylor’s video was for). He “cannot be controlled” (his words; they come up on his new album, naturally).
Of course, Kanye’s recent NY Times interview was yet another showcase of his brand of ridiculousness (I recommend the article). Here is an interesting quote from Kanye:
“I think what Kanye West is going to mean is something similar to what Steve Jobs means. I am undoubtedly, you know, Steve of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture. Period.”
The comparison to Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, is quite apt. Like Kanye, Jobs was also an asshole whose inventions were trendy and infectious. Steve Jobs will go down in history, because Apple will. I can see why Kanye admired him, because Kanye’s status isn’t as clear. It’s hard to predict what art is going to stick in the long run. Kanye thinks of himself as a “black New Wave” artist, probably because New Wave artists (think Joy Division, Talking Heads) were appreciated more later than they were during their peak time. Kanye IS appreciated now, but he insists that it’s not on his own terms. His last album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” was fantastic – it was huge in scope and sound, had lots of singles and dance music, and the critics loved it. But Kanye talks in the interview about how he made a lot of compromises on the album.
“Yeezus,” Kanye’s newest (out yesterday), is meant to be the opposite of “Fantasy.” It’s raw, weird, more egotistical. The beats are strange but remarkably engaging (he collaborates with Daft Punk on a few of the songs). The central track is “I Am a God.” (Talk about egotistical!). This track is dotted with a lot of silences, and then straight-up screaming. This is like…Nine Inch Nails or something (Sasha Frere Jones makes this comparison in his New Yorker review).
So far, I love the album. This is partly because some of the songs (for e.g., “New Slaves”) are just deeply affecting. And this is partly because I admire Kanye’s ambition and his vision. This album will not do well with people who buy music. This album does not have a single on it (and Kanye may not release one). Kanye trusts that this album will leave a mark in the long-run, just as he insists that his album, “808s and Heartbreaks” (a record-sales flop) “redefined radio.”
So here are my questions:
Is Kanye crazy or is he prophetic? Is he being controversial on purpose?
Are the songs that stand the test of time necessarily not popular now? (Or aren’t the BEST songs popular across many time periods?)
Why are we so obsessed with finding music that stands the test of time? Why does it matter when we’re listening to music NOW? If we won’t be around to appreciate it, why do we care whether or not the music we like has staying power?
Is there any way to predict what will be popular in the future? Are there elements that dominate the best musical pieces of all time that we can uncover?