Not to go full Giuliani here, but I too must admit something I feel horrible for saying. I've possibly been judging Kanye West's recent art by one of the worst criteria of all, namely the company he keeps.
Specifically, Kim and the Kardashian fold. As hard as West has worked to float to the top, I've somehow deemed his in-laws a dense weight that threatens to pull him down to not-very-deep depths.
This is a terrible confession to have to make, primarily because any artist deserves better but also because if one is able to regularly share thoughts about music, it's best to focus on the music. This task becomes trickier if the musicians we follow are also celebrities whose exploits are documented and can be polarizing; see Kanye as Jesus on a magazine cover or his "Bush doesn't care about black people" comments.
Not that I had a problem with those Kanye moments. I felt they added some gravitas to his career. The first person I recalled when I saw that Rolling Stone cover was John Lennon and the "Beatles are more popular than Jesus" comments. And now, like John's star was tarnished for some by his marriage to Yoko Ono, so is Kanye's less shiny because of all things Kardashian. No wonder Paul McCartney has been hanging with West so much lately. Kanye and Lennon are practically the same guy.
Okay, that line was a bit of trolling, but this blog entry on the whole is not. It's a realization, a mea culpa and something that I, and maybe a few of you, need to get past. Because 2015 is going to be the Year of Kanye, or the "Kanyear." He's already worked with Sir McCartney, Rihanna and Sia. Is he really going to collaborate with Drake in the same year we finally get the Mayweather-Pacquiao showdown? He is probably planning his collaboration with Taylor Swift over brunch right now.
Step one: admit your problem. Step two: seek help. I reached out to two musicians for support. Dallas-based Casper Allen is a friend and a talented, genre-swapping musician who is an avid West supporter. He's also a fantastic songwriter in his own right whose folky blues songs served as an introduction and has led me to follow his newest work, which includes (fvke) :jvzz, an instrumental hip-hop album and some production work for Dallas rapper That Kid Cam.
DJ AudiTory is a Houstonian who's been at work locally since 2010 and, like Kanye, has been very busy this year. In January, he released his seventh volume of Houston mixtape goodness, LuvItMane 7 and Field Trips Forever 4, for Hive Society. When Drake's unexpected If You're Reading This It's Too Late released, DJ AudiTory gave Drizzy one more reason to love H-town by releasing If You're Chopping This It's Too Late mere hours later.
It was Allen's posts about Kanye's new work that got me thinking I might have a problem.
"It's like this recurring argument that I keep finding myself in where I defend Kanye, who is, to me, one of the most dedicated and boundary-pushing artists alive and working today," said Allen. "Inevitably, I call him a genius and almost always someone discounts his intelligence because of his wife.
"Kim is a badass," he adds. "I think she's a sufficiently intelligent woman with mad business smarts. People don't even know this woman and, because of a TV show built around an exaggerated portrayal of her family's life, they instinctively judge her."
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If Allen was the snappish disciplinarian of this intervention, DJ AudiTory was the pat-on-your-back, sympathetic supporter.
"Well, I agree with your perspective," he begins. "This is actually a day-to-day battle I have with being a Kanye West fan and understanding him as an artist and his actions as of late. Kanye West is the one artist I truly admire and look up to just as a musical innovator and trendsetter. I get that he's on a never-ending quest to become this evolved individual in all aspects and never remaining the same."
"I can respect that mentality, but that also alters the direction of his sound and diverts from what you originally grew in love with," AudiTory adds.
Maybe that's what's bothering me, according to DJ AudiTory. I loved Kanye's earliest work, but have failed to acknowledge he's not a machine emitting output from an inanimate place. He's a growing human, with complicated feelings that are being expressed in his work. And shame on anyone who is missing that art because of some bias against his celebrity and the celebrity of those around him.
"It wasn't until after Donda West died that his music immediately shifted into another realm that we as fans couldn't really comprehend anymore," offers AudiTory. "It's almost like after she died, the connection we had as fans to Kanye died in the process and here came this new-aged Kanye that is influenced only by his hierarchy class of living compared to his Chicago upbringing and family values and love he retained through his mother."
"I'm saying that to say that with a new lifestyle comes a new connect," he continues. "A different environment causes for a different being which causes for a different creation of music. So the songs that us commoners can relate to like the 'Spaceship,' 'Addiction' and 'Jesus Walks' tracks can't naturally exist as they did at one time because he's simply not that being anymore.
"The music you make will always be inspired by the environment you're within," expounds AudiTory. "You cater to the audience you want at the end of the day and I think he wants the world's attention in more than one way. So why not have this limelight that comes with being a Kardashian? That's what you long for."
I try to derail the intervention by asking them a rotten question. As an act that's still working for broader audiences, would you accept a slot opening for "DJ" Paris Hilton on tour? You will forever be associated with her music career, I suggested.
"I hear Paris Hilton is pretty smart," Allen counters. "She wrote her thesis paper on Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon or some shit. If DJ Paris Hilton asked me to go on tour, I would ask her if she really did write her thesis paper on Gravity's Rainbow and, like... what the fuck that book is even talking about? And even if she answered no, I would probably still go on tour with her. Gotta make that Gualla, you know. I wanna take my Mom around the world someday and shit and like buy my little brother mad guitars."
"I would do it for the chance to have a new experience and to move in a direction that could potentially benefit me," notes DJ AudiTory. "I personally feel like regardless of who may give me an opportunity, I would capitalize on anything progressive because it's in my nature to do so. Especially with the fact that being a Houstonian, opportunities to progress aren't really provided out here.
"There's no one way to define a legacy," he offeres. "Kim Kardashian started off underneath Paris Hilton, and her legacy won't be remembered from her beginnings. It would be corny as shit to start off as an underling of hers but you can always re-create your brand to become appealing to the audience you want to capture."
All that said, we finally could focus on the music again.
"Spiritually, his new music hasn't really resonated in me," DJ AudiTory admits. "I loved Yeezus for the musicality but I couldn't relate to what was going on in the music. There are some deep feelings in that tape and it kinda sucks to see him going through such an emotional toll, but I get it. Hopefully his new album won't be as melancholy as the last three have been. The 'Only One' track is beautiful, though. I wouldn't jam it on the regular but I respect it for what it means to him."
"I love the single ('Only One') a lot and I think it's a really cool, emotional step towards pretty soundscapes after the relentless industrialism of Yeezus," Allen says. "Plus, every rock star has to write a song about their child. It's just how it goes. And Kanye is a fucking rock star.
"I could write essays about my love for Kanye," he continues, reiterating where no reminder was required. "Whether you like his music or not, there's no denying that 'Ye is a powerful presence in the musical landscape of the 21st century. He knows how to make music."
I left my support group with a re-found respect for the music, I thought. This was confirmed on a rainy bus ride on evening with "Only One" streaming through the headphones. Thinking about my own deceased parents and flown-the-nest kids, my eyes started to sting a bit, right there on Metro Route 6.
Art. It gives you feels. And in the end, that's all Kanye's really trying to do.
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