How Kanye Lost His Way

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I didn’t always despise Kanye West.

Rather, there was a time when I counted him among the most innovative minds in all of music, not just hip-hop. The College Dropout was an instant classic. Late Registration was a rarity -– a follow-up to a breakout debut that not only matched the original, but outpaced it. Even Graduation, while bloated and a bit self-serving (yep, the signs were already there), was a well-intentioned, half-great album.

Kanye was never going to be Ice Cube or Eminem – an MC who could carry a record based purely on mike skills – but his talents as a producer were unmatched. Not only did he showcase those skills on his first three albums, but he did so before any of those albums even came out via tracks like Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” Jigga’s “03 Bonnie and Clyde” collaboration with Beyoncé, and Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name.”

In short, peak Kanye — the current incarnation of whom plays Toyota Center next Tuesday -– ranks among the most prolific musicians pop culture has ever seen. Unfortunately, non-peak Kanye is a petulant, insufferable ass who hasn’t produced a single of consequence in years (no, “FourFiveSeconds” doesn’t count; that song is terrible).

Not that someone has to be a pleasant person to be a game-changing musician. Folks like Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Axl Rose have certainly proven as much. But here’s where Kanye diverts from those genius, misanthropic types.

Whereas Dylan, Lennon and Rose – and numerous other cantankerous types – pretty much always were who they were, Kanye the rapper arrived on the scene as sort of a humble, underdog story personified by raps like “Through the Wire,” “Family Business,” “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks.” He spoke of hard times and perseverance. Hell, the guy wrote a whole track about how he couldn’t get radio play due to his religious convictions.

Present-day Kanye, meanwhile, titled an album Yeezus.

Therein lies the issue with Kanye, a man who can safely be described as insecure and thin-skinned. Whereas his early output was of such quality, one couldn’t help but be secure in it, his output over the past decade can safely be described as hit-or-miss. Graduation, in which Kanye won a first-week sales battle with 50 Cent (who was still a big rap name in 2007), featured classic material like “Stronger” and “Flashing Lights.” It also featured unlistenable drivel like “Barry Bonds” and “Homecoming” (it’s the one with Coldplay’s Chris Martin singing the chorus).

Follow-ups like 808s & Heartbreak (good album, but a novelty), My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (overrated, simply because critics were afraid to blast anything Kanye at this point) and Yeezus (his most self-indulgent album to date) continued Kanye’s downward musical trend. And the worse the music got, the more publicly insufferable he became.

The man who once rapped of making his mother proud, of supporting family, of affecting actual change in the world, has since blessed us with golden sound bites like the following:

“'I am God's vessel. But my greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live.”

“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. By a long jump. I honestly feel that because Steve has passed, you know, it’s like when Biggie passed and Jay Z was allowed to become Jay Z.”

“I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things.”

“I feel like I’m too busy writing history to read it.”

“I will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade, I will be the loudest voice.”

With regard to that last statement, Kanye may well be onto something. He likely is the voice of this generation, mostly because he was too busy talking to let anyone else speak.

Kanye the celebrity put Kanye the talented musician in the ground a long time ago. He did so via his petty feud with Taylor Swift, by marrying a Kardashian and adopting a similar famous-for-being-famous mentality, by talking more than anyone but saying far less just the same. And he did so by releasing The Life of Pablo, a record so fat and messy that its most notable distinction is producing the trash-art video “Famous” (the one with all the naked people – so provocative!).

Early reviews for Kanye’s Saint Pablo Tour are phenomenal, which is none too surprising; the man knows how to captivate an audience. But here’s hoping that, at some point, he can rediscover what it was that made him so damn captivating in the first place.

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