The Curious Case of Kanye West
Society has progressed past the need for Kanye West.
The 21-time Grammy winner has sold over 21 million albums and 100 hundred million digital downloads worldwide, yet it is his controversial political opinions that have taken center stage in recent years. Recently, West notoriously donned a bright red M*GA hat and defended President Tr*mp’s actions on multiple occasions before launching his own presidential campaign. Interestingly enough, Kanye West wasn’t always the Bible-thumping conservative pundit that we now know him to be.
Regardless of his questionable antics, West’s discography is unmatched. He’s consistently pushed musical boundaries, reinvented himself as an artist, and influenced generations of musicians over the course of his nearly 20-year career. As a Kanye fan, I found myself often disregarding his political views, rationalizing them by saying “I’m in it for the music, I’m not here for his politics” – but can you really separate an artist’s music from what they preach?
Especially when it’s much more likely that a random person will hear the artist’s message outside of music before hearing their album. The music only reaches people who are willing to listen to it, whereas how an artist uses their platform is seen by the masses.
This got me thinking – when exactly did we reach this point with Kanye West? When did tolerating the ignorant, harmful statements no longer behoove the average fan?
The push and pull of music versus opinions isn’t something exclusive to Kanye West. In recent weeks, 50 Cent has selfishly endorsed Tr*mp because he doesn’t want to pay more in taxes, and Lil Wayne took the bait by vouching for Tr*mp’s “Platinum Plan” that was conveniently revealed weeks before the election. With that being said, let’s take a look at Kanye’s musical and political history to see when exactly society progressed past the need for Kanye West.
Kanye West burst onto the scene in the early 2000s with his intricate method of sampling vintage soul songs and uncanny ability to make beats that were uniquely his own. On the mic, West veered away from the “gangster persona” that dominated hip-hop at the time, rapping about more diverse topics including higher education, self-consciousness, institutional prejudice, and class struggle. Most notably, West challenged traditional standards of masculinity in hip-hop by choosing to don a bright pink polo during The College Dropout era.
His first three albums The College Dropout (2004), Late-Registration (2005), and Graduation (2007) each took home the Best Rap Album award at the Grammys in their respective years. West flexed his ability to combine vintage soul, live orchestral instrumentation, chamber pop, and many other genres and elements to produce the most complex yet subtle beats. With three critically-acclaimed “classics” under his belt, West looked like he was on a fast track to achieving legend-status.
It was during this era that Hurricane Katrina devastated southeastern Louisiana, prompting many celebrities to host a Katrina relief fundraising program on live television. During this event, West notoriously said “George Bush doesn’t like black people,” a shocking revelation for white America.
This cemented West as an artist who was going to speak his mind without fear of consequence. Kanye quickly became music’s most uncompromising artist.
Following the death of his mother in 2007, as well as his broken engagement with designer Alexis Phifer, West dove deep into his emotional psyche and abandoned rapping in favor of more emotive, melodic singing.
The result was 2008’s 808’s & Heartbreaks, an auto-tuned, synth-driven, electropop masterpiece that shows Kanye at his most vulnerable. While his music showed a very personal and emotional side of him, his public outbursts showed something completely different.
One of his most controversial moments occurred during the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009. When Taylor Swift was announced as the winner for Best Female Video, West stormed the stage and hijacked the microphone to proclaim that Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” should have won the award.
West’s actions were wildly inappropriate and downright humiliating, showing a blatant immaturity as he stole the limelight from Swift. It’s without question that the when and how parts of this incident were wrong, but consider for a moment the context of the message.
We’re talking about Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” – a video that eventually took home the Video of the Year award later that night, as well as awards for Best Choreography and Best Editing – versus Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me.” If you’ve seen both videos, you’d be foolish to think that Kanye didn’t make a valid point. “Single Ladies” should have won.
If it’s the consensus Video of the Year, isn’t it also inherently the Best Female Video? Had Kanye saved these comments until after the award show – or literally for any other time than during Swift’s acceptance speech – it’s likely he would have had a number of people actually agreeing with him. This was not an isolated incident, however, as West also hijacked the stage at the 2006 MTV Europe Music Awards and nearly did so again at the 2015 Grammys.
West called in many legendary artists to collaborate on his maximalist magnum opus Dark Fantasy, an album that is riddled with themes of vanity, excess, and luxury. Because of how gaudy and grandiose the project is, calling Dark Fantasy an album doesn’t do it justice – it’s a musical extravaganza where even the slightest notion of poor taste is expelled.
Yeezus found West reinventing his image yet again, this time with a more abrasive, industrial sound that West personally described as “a protest to music.” Influenced by Chicago drill music, acid house, and avant-rap, Yeezus is West’s most sonically experimental work to date. Both albums were listed regularly atop Best Albums of the 2010’s lists from publications including Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Billboard, among others.
Between these two monumental solo albums, West also collaborated with Jay-Z on Watch the Throne, another critically-acclaimed project. The project finds West and Jay-Z at the top of their game, trading braggadocio bars about opulence, fame, materialism, and the burdens of success.
The high-profile production incorporates unconventional sampling, dramatic melodies, as well as orchestral and rock influences. As improbable as it might have seemed at one point in time, this three-album stretch from Kanye West might be even better than his Higher Education Trilogy.
We’re now in mid-2015 and up to this point, Kanye West’s musical output has allowed society to put up with his antics. However, we’re about to enter a 16 month stretch that is just… confusing.
In August of 2015, West made a substantial donation to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign after making an even bigger donation to the Democratic National Committee in the year prior. By September of 2015, West announced that he would run for president in 2020. He would later walk back that statement, saying that he wouldn’t run until 2024 because of Tr*mp’s victory over Clinton.
On February 14th, 2016, Kanye released The Life of Pablo, yet another critically-acclaimed, Grammy-nominated project. It wasn’t necessarily the music that made TLOP noteworthy, but rather it was the turbulent gestation of the project.
West updated and altered compositions, as well as added and removed tracks for several weeks after the album released, citing his desire to make it a living, breathing body of work. The fragmented and unfinished nature of the project drew a bulk of the attention from multiple publications.
At the same time, West was stirring up controversy on Twitter, getting into a feud with Wiz Khalifa, calling out Taylor Swift with the notorious “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that b*tch famous” line on the track “Famous,” and even claiming innocence for Bill Cosby amid over 50 sexual assault allegations.
West’s outbursts started to have broader implications – we’re not talking about who should have won what award anymore, we’re talking about a serial predator who raped women for decades.
During Thanksgiving weekend in 2016, West was admitted to the psychiatric ward of UCLA Medical Center due to temporary psychosis and was eventually diagnosed with Bipolar disorder. He took an 11-month break from Twitter, though his antics would only get more idiotic and dangerous from there.
On December 13th, 2016, West met with then President-elect Tr*mp to discuss multicultural issues and violence in the Black community, though many saw it as a transparent gesture by Tr*mp and were angry at West for participating. What happened next would cement Kanye’s position in the Sunken Place.
You Know the One.
West visited the Oval Office on numerous occasions in 2018, proclaiming his love for Donald Trump in text messages to radio personality Ebro Darden, on Twitter, and during numerous other public appearances. Throughout all of this, West proudly donned the bright red M*GA hat, at one point even saying that the hat made him feel like a superhero. This was not the same human who wore the pink polo. This was MAGA-Ye.
In April of 2018, Kanye praised the thoughts of Candace Owens, a controversial Black conservative who has criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and belittled the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. West and Owens both encouraged Black Americans to “abandon the Democratic plantation” in favor of joining the Republican party.
Surprisingly, it gets worse. In a TMZ interview in May of 2018, West stated “When you hear about slavery for 400 years… for 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” West would later attempt to explain this quote, but the damage was already done. He continued to have regular outbursts on Twitter and kept the infamous red hat on until mid-2020.
Kanye West had one more great musical endeavor in him in the form of a challenge that nobody really expected he’d live up to. He sought to produce new, seven-song projects for himself, Pusha T, Teyana Taylor, and Nas, as well as a collaborative effort with Kid Cudi – all in just 5 weeks. He holed up in Wyoming and, just like the MBDTF and TLOP sessions, invited numerous producers and artists to collaborate.
On May 25th, 2018, the first project out of Wyoming was delivered – Pusha T’s DAYTONA. The album received widespread acclaim as the Album of the Year and one of the best albums of the decade. A week later, West released his eighth studio album, ye, after scrapping the original recordings of the album and re-recording it in a month. The next week, West and Kid Cudi released KIDS SEE GHOSTS, which also received widespread critical acclaim from multiple publications. West would then successfully produce and release Nas’ Nasir and Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E. in June.
DAYTONA and KIDS SEE GHOSTS were both monumental projects, but were they worth the tradeoff of having to deal with MAGA-Ye? This is arguably the latest point where Kanye West’s musical output could even be considered as worthwhile given his political outbursts. In this same year, West released multiple meme-worthy singles with “Lift Yourself,” “XTCY,” and “I Love It,” with Lil Pump.
And just for reference of how bad this really was…
In 2019, Kanye West took a different musical route as a now born-again Christian. West had always grasped an aura of spirituality dating back to his “Jesus Walks” track on The College Dropout, though after years of “sinning,” he had now reaffirmed his Christian faith.
On January 6th of 2019, West began “Sunday Service,” a weekly orchestration and church service. In October, he released Jesus is King, a Christian hip-hop album, as well as two operas in collaboration with performance artist Vanessa Beecroft.
At this same time, West also reaffirmed his support for President Tr*mp, as well as expressed his opposition to abortion, and condemned individuals who wanted to remove religion from the public square.
West announced his run for President on July 4th, 2020 as an independent under the “Birthday Party,” though it was far too late to get on the ballot in many states. He held his first campaign rally in South Carolina on July 19th and it was quite a spectacle.
In California, Kanye’s name appears on the ballot as the VP candidate of Roque De La Fuente for the American Independent Party. West did manage to get his name on the ballot for President in some states, though it was reported in September that he received assistance from Republican operatives to secure a position on the ballot. Kanye has not denied any intention to be a spoiler candidate in the 2020 election to help Tr*mp, instead just actively vying for everyone to write in his name on their ballot. To make it simple, don’t do this.
Kanye’s best musical days are likely behind him and it appears as though all that’s in front of him now is more controversy. You can debate when this scale tipped for weeks on end, but at this point there’s no denying that the tip occurred. As a former Kanye fanboy myself, I’ll never stop listening to Graduation or Yeezus or Dark Fantasy or any of his classic albums, but I can’t support or condone who he is outside of the music. Society has progressed past the need for Kanye West. Now if only the College Dropout would become the Presidential Dropout.
Dom Maiorca is a writer and filmmaker from Los Angeles, CA. He graduated from UCLA where he studied Psychology and Film & TV while contributing frequently to The Paper Mixtape, an independent student-run magazine. He loves talking about music and movies and is always looking for new recommendations for both. Some of his favorite artists include Childish Gambino, Toro y Moi, Tyler, the Creator, KAYTRANADA, Gorillaz, and many more.