Don’t look now, but Kanye West stands at a crossroads. He may be waiting for a certain lord of the underworld in order to sell his soul to this überdämon, if indeed that transaction has not already been completed. But there he stands, and he really doesn’t have anybody but himself to blame.
Platinum certification and critical raves aside, 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak represented at least a slight stumble from the dizzying commercial and aesthetic heights of his collegiately-titled album trilogy, and even slight stumbles can prove debilitating to pop figures as outsized as Kanye West. An astute student of American mass culture, he perhaps should have foreseen such an alteration in circumstances. Times change, styles shift, audiences are fickle; they are especially fickle when you down a bottle of Hennessy at an awards show and proceed to humiliate America’s newest country sweetheart in the midst of her televised coronation.
The dubious foofarah over West’s act of oratio interruptus fit snugly into a pattern of absurd mass freak-outs that defined the American cultural landscape of last year, and it isn’t yet clear that the brief froth of Twitter-amplified outrage it kicked up will have any demonstrable effect on his future popularity. But it did provide a clear exemplification of the terms of West’s appeal for all to see.
A rapper more invested in the genre’s dominant narrative of ghetto authenticity might well have benefited from an act of defiance aimed so squarely at the self-congratulatory preening of white-bread corporate culture (see Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s interruption of Shawn Colvin at the 1998 Grammy Awards, which only served to burnish his bona fides as a troubled hip-hop eccentric). But West was widely criticized and put through a very public humbling process, culminating in a neutered apology before Jay Leno, that chortling gatekeeper of the middle-brow. It laid bare the truth that West was more of a mainstream pop star than he was a hip-hop outsider, and with that came certain expectations of polite behavior. Transgress them, and some bowing and scraping should be anticipated.
For his first release since this forcible image realignment, West reassures his fanbase with a CD/DVD documentation of his set for VH1 Storytellers from February of 2009. Tilted heavily towards the then-fresh 808s and its predecessor Graduation, the set begins with West cladding himself in the shimmering robes of a power-ballad-purveying singer/songwriter. This would seem an appropriate tack for his entrance into a popular venue generally frequented by classic rock legends. But West, with his cutting-edge arrangements, inordinate fondness for Auto-Tune, and ego-tastic victimization rants, is no road-weary rock dinosaur. Though these live versions add little to his dragon-slaying recordings, the live album serves as a reminder of the irritating truth that gets obscured by all of the grandstanding boorishness: Kanye West is one hell of a pop music artist.
Beyond the often-exciting performances of already-exciting tracks (“See You in My Nightmares”, “Touch the Sky”, “Stronger”), the main appeal of this episode of VH1 Storytellers lies in West’s idiosyncratic take on the vaunted “storytelling” portion of the show. Instead of grinding the sonic proceedings to a halt to pontificate on the mysteries of the Muse, West’s “stories” take the form of rhymed freestyle tangents on his favored subjects: music, American society, the media, and, obviously, himself. He testifies about the vagaries of fame, discusses being a divine vessel with mock-humility, praises the interracial ideal represented by Barack Obama, talks about “fight(ing) the war on traditional thinking”, and expresses his pride at approximating a Tenacious D lyric. An outpouring during “Amazing” even includes an ambiguous apology for his jerky awards show behavior that looks backward but also, as we now know, forward.
Taken as a whole, this set reasserts West’s most vital quality: his self-awareness. It’s this quality that is so often lost on those who quibble over his public self-aggrandizing, just as it is inflated by the post-millenial hipster culture that embraces him as the vanguard of their arch, self-commenting discourse. There’s a degree of accuracy assumed by all that doesn’t jive with reality. West is not precise in his rhetoric about himself, but then he never has been; from the perspective of Kanye-philes, what was most surprising about the VMA incident was that, for once, he was snatching up the spotlight in order to point it at someone else. West is not invested in precision, but then neither is the culture that he adapts into his art. He may be the lead in the story he’s telling, but he’s always in the story; his VH1 Storytellers album powerfully reminds us that that is where he’s at his best.