Kanye West: Can you separate an artist from the persona?

Illustration by Darian Mathews | The Signal
Illustration by Darian Mathews | The Signal
Illustration by Darian Mathews | The Signal

Kanye West is a controversial man. Any interview from him is an instant soundbite that circulates for weeks. With the recent reportings of his VMA’s speech, the hate and love relationship for Kanye West is at a head.

With many artists, the music speaks for itself. With Kanye West, the person and the music battle for the spotlight. Can you enjoy an artist’s music when their persona is so strong? You decide.

For Kanye West

By: Sydney Cunningham

Kanye West isn’t America’s sweetheart. He is not Miss America, he is running no popularity contests. Read any popular media outlets and Kanye West easily takes the title for biggest jackass in popular music. However, I think Kanye West would not be the artist he is today without the media’s reaction to him, and I think he’s better for it.

West’s trilogy of “The College Dropout”, “Late Registration” and “Graduation” are some of the most successful modern hip-hop projects. His later works were features of themselves. “808s & Heartbreak”, inspired by the death of his mother and the ending of his engagement, marks his turn from traditional rap to his own alternative style of heavy production and bold sampling. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is, in my opinion, one of the best rap albums. His most recent work, “Yeezus” was a more intense reinvention and possibly his most abrasive project yet.

Kanye West reinvents himself all the time, but his abrasiveness is what costs him his reputation. And if it’s not apparent by his demeanor, he doesn’t care.

The rough beauty to Kanye West is his nerve, which fits wonderfully with his career as an artist. One of the main facets and identifiers to rap music is the swaggering boldness, the confidence. In “Dark Fantasy”, West raps “Me drown sorrow in that Diablo / Me found bravery in my bravado,” That line sums up the modus operandi of West’s work. Finding confidence by demanding it, liberating yourself by boosting your own ego, aggressively believing in everything you do is an act of empowered gall not many of us could do.

In no way shape or form am I condoning some of the rather laughable things Kanye West has said. There is a hilarity to saying, “I am a proud non reader of books,”, a ludicrousy to saying, “I’m like a vessel, and God has chosen me to be the voice and the connector.” These are ridiculous things to say and have no actual merit. Comparing yourself to God is something you very rarely see people upholding. If you listen to him, however, throughout the sound bites of insanity, Kanye West is very clearly explaining himself to the still perplexed media.

During his long VMA’s speech, Kanye said, “I’m confident. I believe in myself… We’re not gonna control our kids with brands. We not gonna teach low self-esteem and hate to our kids. We gonna teach our kids that they can be something. We gonna teach our kids that they can stand up for theyself! We gonna teach our kids to believe in themselves.”

We as the audience seem to be so charmed by the starving artist routine. So the more successful an artist is, it’s always good PR for them to come off as grounded as possible. So we like them more. Kanye West is not a starving artist. He is not a rapper on the corner pushing his mixtape. In my opinion, it only helps his work.

He is not rapping about being lovely and polite things. When you hear Yeezy spit, you know exactly who is talking. You can laugh and roll your eyes at his pompous soundbites and still hear when he is saying something of note. You can be a smart artist and talk too much. You can have a giant ego and still make great art.
Against Kanye West

By: Alex Kugaczewski

Kanye West is the Donald Trump of hip-hop. If his mouth is moving, you can bet good money something ridiculous will come out. If he’s rapping, you can be sure his braggadocio will go to infinity and beyond. West, more than any other rapper in the mainstream, seems to understand the art of dialing it up to 11.

Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue for me, but hip-hop is so thoroughly defined by its personalities. It’s impossible to miss out on the latest salty gossip and the latest nonsensical twitter war. If a mainstream rapper does something – anything – you’ll hear about it. This has made it increasingly difficult to divorce artist’s public personas from their music. In the case of Kanye West, his persona strikes the nerves like a motorized cheese-grater.

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m aware that music, hip-hop especially, is partly defined by the personality of the artist. That’s fine, but when that personality is abrasive to the core, it’s hard to get invested in the music.

“I Am a God” may have been easier to take if images of West refusing to start his show because a handicapped fan wouldn’t stand up weren’t burned into my brain. I might have even tolerated the personal anecdotes of “Hold My Liquor” were it not for the memory of West’s disastrous Grammy interruption. In short, I just can’t fall in love with a guy who’s fallen in love with his own act. There’s nothing wrong with self-confidence, but with West, the lines between reality and fiction have been blurred into a drunken, hazy stupor of malignant narcissism.

Moreover, West’s talent as an actual rapper has been vastly overstated for years. Flow is the hallmark of countless great rappers, and West’s flow isn’t exactly impressive. Compare West’s technical skills to any of the following: Nas, El-P, Freddie Gibbs and Raekwon. That list could on, but really it’s most instructive when comparing the two rappers on “Watch the Throne.” I’m not sure why Jay-Z wasted his time with that one, but there it is: an all-time-great carrying the weight of a mediocre talent straight to the top of the charts. There is no universe in which West’s technical skills as a rapper come close to Jay-Z’s. Hearing the two go back and forth remains a bizarre experience to this day.

West isn’t all bad, though. He’s proven he’s a wizard at production, laying down some of mainstream hip-hop’s best sounding albums. Whether it’s the powerful aesthetic of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” or the lush, vibrant sounds of “Late Orchestration,” West’s soundboard work is always interesting and usually of remarkable quality. Even 2014’s “Yeezus,” perhaps West’s most ambitious recording from a production standpoint, was just a flattering imitation of the sound that Death Grips had been making years earlier on records like “The Money Store.”

West’s earlier albums, while not at all in my frequent rotation, do show glimmering, fleeting moments of the artist that could have been – maybe even the artist that might be. Records like “Late Registration” and “The College Dropout” are nostalgic albums from an artist who once walked the same ground as you and me. Tracks like “We Don’t Care” and “Gold Digger” are standards – far and above better tracks than disastrous cuts like “Bound 2” and “Power.” These albums show an artist who was pushing boundaries, not an artist who had proclaimed himself a god.

I’m not alone in wanting this version of West to come back – check any message board on the internet. But for that fantasy to ever come true, West needs to come back down to planet earth. I’ll be waiting.