[29 May 2013]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Without question, the most ignored release in Kanye West’s catalog is the DVD/CD combo of his VH1 Storytellers performance, which, in turn, came on the heels of what is probably his most ignored studio record, 808s & Heartbreak. It’s a shame, too, because the set is mesmerizing in its own “Wow, I can’t believe Kanye West did Storytellers” kind of way. The most notable moments come from the performances of songs he’ll most likely never offer up live again. Tracks such as “Say You Will” and “See You in My Nightmare” are not preeminent West songs, and because they represent a very specific moment in the rapper’s contentious personal timeline, it’s hard to think of reasons why he might ever revisit those tunes in front of an actual audience for however long he decides to tour.
Still, the show served as a platform for the artist to vamp in a way that previously had been reserved for only those who bought a ticket to see him live. This, of course, resulted in him calling O.J. Simpson “amazing” which, to be fair, generated a tiny bit of headlines during the time of its release. Outside of that mini controversy, however, nobody seems to ever reference the interpretations of the nine songs that paint the record. Critics and fans often seem to turn away from the epic, 11-minute take on “Heartless” when reflecting on some of his best work. The College Dropout, everyone says. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or even his Jay-Z collaboration, Watch the Throne, are more relevant releases than this throwaway live set.
Me? I think it’s a crime of ignorance. The snippets of dialogue between and within the songs are themselves some of the most intriguing things Mr. West has ever put on record. “I know I do not always state popular opinion,” he proclaims during the final half of a rousing rendition of “Amazing”, “I think I saw on a movie—I get my quotes from movies because I don’t read. Or, from, like, go figure—real life or something… It was something about, you either die a superhero or you live to become a villain… So many times, they try to make me out to be the villain. I don’t understand what I did.
“I apologize for acting like a bitch at awards shows,” he then continues after a tiny pause. “It’s an awards show. I didn’t kill anyone. But yet and still I apologize for my ungraciousness. I was a spoiled, little Chicago boy, who got all these awards as he came in the door and people clapped and sang his praises. And he soaked it all up and believed his own hype. To the point where he could not lose, and if anyone didn’t pick him, they could not choose.”
These are the moments that make West the most fascinating musical artist in contemporary popular music. Through all his outbursts and grandiose proclamations, he’s consistently followed them up with moments of shockingly accurate statements of self-awareness. Saturday Night Live skits. Funny or Die cameos. A rumored role in the upcoming Anchorman sequel. For as confrontational and angry as he so often appears, West has never shown evidence that suggests he doesn’t know the score, that he doesn’t realize how obnoxious his words or actions can be perceived. Yes, he’s embarrassed himself (cough, Taylor Swift, cough), and alienated supposed close friends (see his recent opinion on Jay-Z’s involvement with Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie”), but not once has he ever claimed ignorance. He knows why he does something. He just struggles with the execution.
And that’s not to say he’s entirely absolved from all blame. There’s a clear lack of maturity that lies behind some of his antics, and despite what may sometimes be good intentions (sticking up for Beyonce’s “Single Lades” video), the rapper does lose his grasp on class (interrupting the aforementioned Swift while doing so) every now and then. You can have strong opinions and utilize hostility all you want, but you need to have a moral compass to separate yourself from stepping too far over the edge and causing yourself and others personal or professional harm. West obviously doesn’t care about that unwritten rule, no matter how many boos he might receive or record sales he might lose.
But—and this is an important but—it’s hard to imagine Kanye West The Artist being as genius as he is without Kanye West The Instigator being as villainous as he can be. We are asked to take the good with the bad when it comes to pop stars and regardless of how uncomfortable that might make people when considering West’s discography, there is no denying how influential and relevant he has been to the hip hop landscape, both as a producer and a songwriter. “A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom,” Bob Dylan, a man who can be fairly polemical himself, once said. West understands his responsibility, it seems, though as the title of his recent single, “New Slaves”, suggests, freedom is a bit more tricky.
Actually, the Dylan/West comparison isn’t particularly far-fetched nor unwarranted when considering its core. West is, indeed, a modern day folk hero, after all. He chooses to have no grasp on—or comprehension of—authority. The problems he creates for himself are based on the pretense of belief. To think he doesn’t truly subscribe to the things he says would be absurd at this point, after all the people he has offended, or all the people, famous or not, he has forced into hating him. It’s easy to make the case that he’s the single brattiest rapper to ever put on a gold chain, sure, but how often are his thoughts or ideas dissected beyond that initial taste of tantrum?
Hate him all you want, but you can’t deny the power he holds in the rap industry and the accomplishments he has achieved since 2001, when he was listed as the man behind the bulk of Jay-Z’s classic The Blueprint, led by the single, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”. From there, it’s like a murderer’s row of success: “‘03 Bonnie and Clyde”. Ludacris’ “Stand Up”. Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name”. John Legend’s “Used To Love U”. The Game’s “Dreams”. Twista’s “Overnight Celebrity”. Common’s “Go”. And these are just his producing credits. The hits he kept for himself run nearly as long. “Through the Wire”. “All Falls Down”. “Jesus Walks”. “Gold Digger”. “Stronger”. “Heartless”. “All of the Lights”. “Runaway”. “Heard ‘Em Say”. “Touch the Sky”. The list goes on and on and on and on and on.
Through his entire career to date, West has consistently made it easier for people to grow a distaste for him, all the while producing work that popular opinion can’t deny. Such is a true sign of rarified brilliance. It’s much easier to discount an artist if his art isn’t worth pondering, yet the dichotomy West has created between his personal life and his professional output makes him all the more interesting, all the more relevant, and all the more legendary. Think about it—there aren’t a lot of people who can name their upcoming album after Jesus and incite as much laughter as it does scorn. He’s earned that pass by backing it up with an artistic output that is unparalleled in originality.
“So many people get caught up and try to make, remake their first album, and it’s impossible for me to make another College Dropout, but I could make the best Graduation and best 808s that I can make,” the rapper says during the first handful of seconds that VH1 Storytellers performance provides. “And that’s how I think you keep on advancing as an artist. So few, you know, hip-hop artists have ever advanced. Their songs, you know, on their seventh, eighth album sound exactly like the songs on their first album. More than an artist, I’m a real person. And real people grow. And I wanted to sing my growth.”
On the heels of the release of his sixth solo studio album, West is ready, yet again, to relay what he’s learned and how he’s learned it. For nearly a decade now, he has been one big open book for all to read, sometimes offering chapters in a nonlinear fashion, disregarding punctuation through its text, and providing some of the most disturbing and enlightening plot twists a single narrative could offer. The missteps lead to revelations. The tragedy leads triumph. The surprises lead to questions. Those questions lead to missteps. And those missteps lead to revelations. And so on and so forth. Yet even as we become better acquainted with how the cycle works, we never cease to be amazed at whatever messages lie behind the words we just read.
Through his music, his career and his personal life, West has become the very kind of flawed superhero that a villain-obsessed culture can enjoy. Or, depending on how you look at it, the very kind of villain for which flawed superheroes can root. He’s the contradiction between pretty and ugly, an amalgam of intelligence and passion. Hate to love him or love to hate him, you have to pick one, but you can’t pick neither. He doesn’t always state popular opinion, that’s true. Then again, popular never seemed to matter to West and his life trajectory in the first place.
Opinion, on the other hand …