You would?ve loved him.
y a magnificent chef-d??uvre of an album. Once again, Kanye?s back-to-back performance on the charts was unheard-of for any recording artist; Late Registration debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and sold nearly a million copies. Only a year out from his freshman album, Kanye outdid himself both musically and commercially ? already shattering all possible expectations, Kanye was only getting started.
As he did in The College Dropout, Kanye once again wrote lyrics which were conscious for their time. On the song ?Heard ?Em Say? featuring Adam Levine, he dropped bars like ?Before you ask me to go get a job today/ Can I at least get a raise of the minimum wage?? and ?But they can?t cop cars without seeing cop cars/ I guess they want us all behind bars ? I know it.? Another song, titled ?Crack Music,? even referenced the Mulford Act of 1967 which prevented black militants in California from publicly displaying their firearms: ?How we stop the Black Panthers?/ Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer.? If The College Dropout allowed listeners to catch a brief glimpse of what Kanye?s political beliefs were, then Late Registration was the manifesto which laid out his Ten-Point Program across twenty-one songs where he tackled the AIDS crisis as a failure of government, exposed the war on drugs as a sham operation to get black kids addicted to crack, and even slammed his peers for using unethically sourced gemstones in their jewelry. Back then, barely anyone had reservations about what Kanye preached: he was a recording artist who, like N.W.A and Tupac from the prior generation, carried on the black radical tradition which gave rise to hip-hop in the first place. Oh, how the tables would turn just a decade later.
How we stop the Black Panthers?Ronald Reagan cooked up an answerYou hear that? What Gil Scott was hearin?When our heroes or heroines got hooked on heroinCrack raised the murder rate in D.C. and MarylandWe invested in that, it?s like we got Merrill lynchedAnd we been hangin? from the same tree ever since
Not only was Kanye outspoken about issues like mass incarceration and police brutality, but he was also incredibly open about his loving mother, Donda West. That?s right: Kanye had a soft spot for his mom. He first rapped about his mother?s involvement in the civil rights movement in the song ?Never Let Me Down? from The College Dropout: ?I get down for my grandfather who took my mama/ Made her sit in that seat where white folks ain?t want us to eat/ At the tender age of 6, she was arrested for the sit-ins/ And with that in my blood I was born to be different.? But in his sophomore album, Kanye would really tell the world how he felt about his mother. In the track ?Hey Mama? from the next album Late Registration, Kanye delivered heartfelt lines introducing the most important woman in his life. ?I wanna tell the whole world about a friend of mine/ This little light of mine and I?m finna let it shine/ I?m finna take y?all back to them better times/ I?m finna talk about my mama if y?all don?t mind,? he rapped in the first verse of the song. ?Hey Mama? first debuted in 2005 with a live performance from Kanye on The Oprah Winfrey Show while Donda sat in the front seat, smiling from ear to ear as she heard the song that would later become her ringtone:
I said mommy I?ma love you ?til you don?t hurt no moreAnd when I?m older, you ain?t gotta work no moreAnd I?ma get you that mansion that we couldn?t afford
But two years later, Donda passed away after complications from a plastic surgery operation. Just months before her death, Kanye had released his third album Graduation with much praise; the album not only debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 but also sold nearly a million copies in its first week. Though he dominated the radio with singles like ?Stronger? and ?Good Life,? the sudden loss of his mother showed Kanye just how little all that actually meant to him in the grand scheme of things. He had everything he could have ever wanted: three consecutive chart-topping records, several Grammys under his belt, a name which no one would ever forget again ? but he still didn?t have his mother. Soon after Donda?s death, Kanye spiraled in a manner that nearly threatened all that had left to his name: he broke up with his fiance Alexis Phifer whom he dated for five years, his plans for a fourth album were scrapped, and he became embroiled in public controversies that would become the earliest depictions of the Kanye we know so well today. If the ?old Kanye? was that ambitious kid at Roc-A-Fella Records who managed to put a black gospel song on the radio, then a part of him must?ve died when Donda did. But what survived was a Kanye who was more resilient and unflinching than ever ? once again, Kanye had just begun.
When Kanye released 808s & Heartbreak in 2008, many people expected to hear an album much like the previous three: boom bap percussion overlaid on sped-up soul samples, witty bars strewn across charming verses, and ? most importantly ? the stubbornly determined Kanye which hip-hop heads came to love. But they got none of what they asked for. Instead, they tuned into a record which was driven by synthesizers and a scant use of 808 drums; consisted primarily of auto-tuned singing rather than rapping; and presented a Kanye who bared his soul across twelve songs filled with incalculable despair and genuine hopelessness. The lyrics of 808s & Heartbreak saw the departure of Kanye?s lyrical prowess that many of his fans knew so well, but there were little words that could fairly shoulder the weight of what he was going through. With the loss of his mother, the veneer of Kanye?s egotistic character gave way to a broken son who was still undoubtedly human ? that same narcissist who popped champagne at the Grammys was, at the end of the day, just a kid from Chicago who wanted his mom back. Of course, that was not the Kanye that millions of people would soon be aghast at when they saw him on their television sets the next year.
In 2009, Taylor Swift won an award for Best Female Video at the MTV Video Music Awards show for her song ?You Belong With Me,? prompting a drunken Kanye to take the stage during her speech, wrest the microphone from her, and argue that Beyonc should?ve won instead. Needless to say, the Kanye who shocked everyone all over the world that night (including Beyonc herself) is the Kanye who many people revile to this day: celebrities like Katy Perry and Pink referred to him with all sorts of expletives, Lady Gaga cancelled her joint tour with him initially scheduled for the same year, and the newly elected Barack Obama even called him a ?jackass? in a leaked video that went viral. Even over a decade later, the mainstream perceptions of Kanye still seem to find residence in that career-defining moment. Though he had many antecedent controversies leading up to his inappropriate outburst in Radio City Music Hall ? such as his off-the-cuff remark that ?George Bush doesn?t care about black people? on live television or his countless other tantrums thrown at award shows ? Kanye?s public embarrassment thereafter forced him out of the limelight and into a secluded studio in Hawaii where, as he remained the subject of global ridicule, he would make what many consider to be the greatest hip-hop record of our generation.
In November of 2010, Kanye released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a magnum opus which not only absolved him of his prior humiliation as a recording artist but also seemed to put his shameful outbursts into a human context. From a production standpoint, the album was a masterfully arranged amalgamation of everything that Kanye had hitherto learned: obscure samples were ingeniously flipped on songs like ?Power? and ?Lost In The World,? full orchestras filled every nook and cranny of ?All Of The Lights,? and avant-garde tracks such as the nine-minute-long ?Runaway? seemed to defy every established norm about how to produce a song. Laid over My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a deeply introspective narrative about the costs of fame, a patchwork reflection from Kanye after a decade of cruising to the top off the high of Late Registration and then watching it all crash down before his eyes with the loss of his mother and, later on, his inebriated showing at the Video Music Awards in the year prior. Across thirteen songs, Kanye journeyed through his troubled psyche to examine the depths of his suffering, and what he found was ? indeed ? beautiful, dark, and twisted. Little did anyone know that he would just be scratching the surface when Kanye reached what many considered to be his breaking point six years later.
Much like his previous works The College Dropout and Late Registration, Kanye was vociferous about race on his latest album. For example, in the song ?Gorgeous,? Kanye spoke on the prevalence of racial profiling by law enforcement: ?Based off the way we was branded/ Face it; Jerome get more time than Brandon/ And at the airport they check all through my bag/ And tell me that it?s random.? Later in the song, he compared himself to a certain Muslim preacher from the 1960s: ?Is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion?/ The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing/ But this is more than just my road to redemption/ Malcolm West had the whole nation standing at attention.? At the conclusion of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye even overlaid a speech excerpt from Gil Scott-Heron to close off an album that would forever change hip-hop. ?Us living as we do upside-down/ And the new word to have is revolution,? the great poet-musician thundered over abrasive drums and hypnotic snares. Though the new Kanye was a much different musician (and surely a much different troublemaker in the public eye), the old Kanye was still there ? he was always there.
Just a few years later in 2013, Kanye released an album titled Yeezus which was the complete polar opposite of what My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was: harsh percussion and overdone synthesizers against an audio canvas of emptiness, songs stripped bare of every detail, Kanye?s trademark meticulousness substituted by the intentional creation of an album that was rough at the edges, defined by lack, and otherwise a perfect crack at utter imperfection. But from a lyrical perspective, Kanye was ruthless ? he rapped about for-profit prisons on ?New Slaves,? and he managed to fit cogent critiques about white nationalism between expletives on the metal-sounding ?Black Skinhead.? On tour, he delivered a polemic about the ways in which black men in clothing stores were, on the one hand, monitored on racist suspicions that they were up to no good, while, on the other hand, confronted by a consumer culture that encouraged them to spend exorbitant amounts of money on designer brands like Alexander Wang and Givenchy. As he dropped bar after bar comprising polemical verses about racial capitalism, no one could have guessed Kanye?s ideological pivot just three years following the polarizing release of Yeezus. Kanye wasn?t done ? the gloves were finally off.
Yet, the music industry seemed to be done with Kanye. Other than the relatively tame launch of Yeezus (which was upstaged in the charts by J. Cole?s sophomore album Born Sinner), the six years between the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and his awkward show of affection for Donald Trump were fairly quiet in comparison to those previous few years in which all eyes were on Kanye. He released The Life of Pablo in 2016 which briefly renewed the preexisting squabble with Taylor Swift over the song ?Famous? which described her in profane terms ? to say the least ? but even those headlines blew over as the tabloids seemed to retire their conflict as old news. Though many fans like myself actually warmed up to the album after several listens, The Life of Pablo debuted with mixed receptions from the get-go as a rough amalgamation of black gospel here, trap beats there, some funny skits, yadda yadda yadda. Somewhere in the wibbly-wobbly continuum of Kanye?s wane, he even announced that he would run for president, though no one took him seriously at the time. (Not much has changed.) But nothing could?ve prepared the world for what happened on November 11, 2016 when Kanye told a filled stadium of concertgoers that he would?ve voted for Donald Trump had he voted in the presidential election ? the rest is history.
The last four years hardly need any introduction. In the December of 2016, Kanye joined the president at Trump Tower without disclosing any specific details as to what they were meeting about: ?We discussed life,? Trump told reporters. Following their first publicized encounter, Kanye continued to tweet ever so often about his ambiguous political beliefs: ?You don?t have to agree with trump but the mob can?t make me not love him,? he tweeted in April of 2018, leading our commander-in-chief to reply with the iconic phrase ?Thank you Kanye, very cool!? By the end of that year, Kanye held a press conference in the Oval Office in which he delivered a ten-minute monologue ? about aliens, parallel universes, and welfare reform ? that Trump referred to as ?quite something.? Just a few months later, Kanye told GQ that he would be voting in the next presidential election, and little guesswork was required for reporters to figure out who he?d cast his ballot for. Finally, on Independence Day, we come to the present: Kanye announced his intentions to run for the presidency as a third-party candidate, fulfilling the prognostications burrowed within scattered song lyrics and misread interviews that were too dumb to take seriously until the madman actually kept his word. Here we are.
Thus begs the question of today: what do we make of Kanye? As Twitter resumes mocking Kanye for just being Kanye, I believe his recent antics deserve a more considerate assessment ? one which truly grasps the enormity of Kanye?s personality across two decades chock-full with unprecedented success, unfathomable loss, and ? let?s not forget ? unpredictable diatribe. Though the new Kanye before us today seems to be guided by no clear rationale other than his own spur-of-the-moment impulses, there is still a hint of the old Kanye behind the MAGA hat: he is still adamantly concerned about the ways in which the criminal justice system discriminates against black people, the startling prevalence of police brutality in recent years, the failure of America to invest in urban neighborhoods that are predominantly black and low-income, and many other issues raised before in his music. In other words, there may be an actual method behind Kanye?s madness, though one which is awfully constrained by his failure to distinguish between right and wrong as so painfully illustrated by his fruitless collaboration with Trump. But nonetheless, there is still a human being for whom we should find a reluctant compassion, albeit one who is beautiful, dark, and twisted within.
In many ways, Kanye really does see truly himself in the man whom he so astonishingly reveres. Like the outsider who exceeded all expectations in the Republican primary, Kanye has always railed against the establishment in calling for the abolition of the prison-industrial complex on tour, introspecting on the grandiose excesses of capitalism on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and criticizing the war on drugs perfected by the Reagan administration in songs like ?Heard ?Em Say? and ?Crack Music.? Much like the president at his chaotic press briefings, Kanye tends to interact with his paparazzi without much decorum, hardly any manners, and oftentimes a fight ? none of which he regrets, even when the spotlight is cast on him after violent scuffles with cameramen and deprecating remarks toward his tamest critics. And in striking resemblance, both Kanye and the real-estate-mogul-turned-politician have been the perennial subject of ridicule by those who doubted that they could ever release another chart-topping album after The College Dropout or defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election; yet, somehow, they have always beaten the odds, proved their haters wrong, and had the last laugh. No wonder Kanye considered Trump to be a father figure for him ? or so he thought.
Although we will never know what he actually would?ve thought, the old Kanye wouldn?t have supported Trump ? he was smarter than that. Just like how he saw past the Ronald Reagans and Bill Clintons, the old Kanye would?ve seen right past him for what Trump actually has been: a faux populist who has further concentrated wealth for those multimillionaires in the Hamptons like himself, who clamors for the kind of law and order tinged with racism that put more blue boots on the ground in cities like Kanye?s hometown of Chicago, who represents all that which the old Kanye so despised on ill joints like The College Dropout and Late Registration. Not to mention that Trump as a businessman denied apartment leases to black tenants, demanded the death penalty for the Central Park Five, took advantage of New York City?s debt crisis (disproportionately shouldered by black people) to magnify his fortune, and otherwise parasitically grew his father?s wealth from what Kanye called ?new slaves.? If Kanye was right that ?George Bush doesn?t care about black people? in his dereliction of duty following Hurricane Katrina, then he couldn?t be more wrong in praising a man whose spent his entire life pilfering from the pockets of black people. As Kanye ironically rapped in the song ?So Appalled? a decade ago: ?Balding Donald Trump taking dollars from y?all.?
Hearing Jay-Z, Pusha T, and CyHi the Prynce deliver hot verses on that track from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy still gives me chills, and I often chuckle when I hear Kanye drop that line about Trump. Even then, I still don?t know what to think as I rewind his discography over and over again, contemplating whether or not I should continue to listen knowing all that?s changed. I?ve cried to 808s & Heartbreak breakup after breakup, and I?ve been able to rap every word of ?Gold Digger? (minus a certain word I?m not allowed to say) without fault; I?ve analyzed songs from The College Dropout for class assignments, and I?ve found comforting escapes from all worldly responsibilities in laid-back songs like ?Family Business? and ?Bound 2.? But listening to Kanye today just doesn?t really hit the same anymore: none of his politically inflected lyrics on Late Registration make any sense now that he?s contradicted their eloquent praxis; zoning out to the vacuous soundscapes of Yeezus no longer seems possible when all I can think about is Kanye?s latest incoherent tweet; the man who started out as one of the most promising recording artists of the new millennium is now at the butt of every millennial joke as the world seems to have passed him by. As Kanye tops himself once again ? as he does so well ? in gearing up for the general election, I only have one remaining reflection: I miss the old Kanye.