This is not album of the year. This is album of the life.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) January 26, 2016
On Kanye West’s seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, there’s a skit halfway through entitled ‘I Love Kanye’, where the man himself reels off the list of popular perceptions and fan complaints that have spawned a million memes and a million haters with a mocking yet always self-aware mimicry that makes you think (if you didn’t already) he knows exactly what he’s doing.
The furore that surrounded the album drop – with its three changes of title, sevenfold increase in Twitter activity and boast that “this is the album of the life” – is nothing unusual in the hip-hop world, where ride or die fanbases have lauded their rapper of choice since the days of Tupac and Biggie. So why, in the case of Kanye, has the ascension from producer to worldwide superstar seemed to include so many people who would never usually have an opinion?
The twin pillars of racism and misogyny seem to be able to make a play for explanation here. To begin with the issue of racism, it’s been argued time and time before and I’m going to argue again that Kanye’s unapologetic blackness, especially in the eyes of a newly ‘woke’ America, creates the kind of controversy that Eminem could never dream of courting.
Over ten years after Kanye infamously told the world that ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’, people seem to be waking up. For those who have never had to live with the rampant race politics marginalising whole towns in the US, movements such as #BlackLivesMatter have finally pushed the issue to the foreground. The dichotomy of Kanye’s position as a black artist your white friend’s parents know and his anti-racism, anti-establishment politics is bound 2 create a culturally relevant behemoth – you can’t not have an opinion on someone as outspoken and widely known as him.
Then there’s the issue of sexism. His repeated attacks on ex-girlfriend Amber Rose, both on Twitter and in his songs, have rightfully attracted anger from a variety of demographics and made his existence as a celebrity into not just a cultural issue but a feminist one. However, it’s hard to look at the extended criticism without wondering if there’s a racially-oriented double standard.
No, I couldn’t condone his comment that it took ’30 showers’ to wash Amber off him, or the noticeably derogatory connotations when he mentions her past as a stripper. But why didn’t white feminists crawl out the woodwork with equal amounts of publicity and vitriol when Eminem wrote entire songs about committing acts of hideous violence towards women and murdering the mother of his child? Hmmm…
As a symbolic icon of the 21st century, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather choose than Kanye. For all his excesses (fur? really?) and admitted women issues, he has remained so relevant and talented for over ten years in a society that would rather see him silenced and marginalised. There is no better success story.