Kanye’s still got it!…at least musically-speaking.
In recent weeks, it’s seemed to some that a new conservative Kanye has wrestled the reins of his psyche away from liberal — and thus friendly, in the eyes of the left-leaning music industry — Kanye. I’d argue he’s always toed this line, aggressively. Both musically and personally, he’s long loved to zag when the world expects and wants him to zig. Every one of his albums has drastically modified the sound that previously made him famous, each of which made him even more famous. It’s an objective achievement to juggle creative diversity with widespread success.
A part of his popularity is of course due to his personality. He, more than most stars of today — which is REALLY saying something in this age of #Branding — blurs the line between art and reality. The brilliant and brilliantly-controversial cover photo to Pusha T’s DAYTONA, Kanye’s latest producing masterstroke, balances the interplay between these two ideas: the photo, a piece of art, artistically captures one of the darkest moments in the real life of Whitney Houston, an artist. And now, Kanye, an artist, artistically tinkered with this artistic image for the sake of selling to the real world another package of art. Where’s the line between art and reality again?
Back in the day, liberals celebrated artists who reveled in such grey areas, to the dismay of conservatives who believed in such concrete notions as the clear difference between objectivity and subjectivity. Yet now that ALL SELF-RESPECTING ARTISTS are supposed to fight the objective evil of Trump (apparently objectivity does exist now), artistic revelries must conform to whatever will “benefit” society. At least, how these cultural critics objectively define “benefit.”
Kanye definitely has some Trump in him, in that both recklessly manipulate the hazy middle ground between truth and illusion; it’s dangerous to suggest how intrinsically connected those two entities can be. The crucial difference between Kanye and Trump: one’s a rapper, and the other is the fucking President of the United States. I understand the fear that another celebrity could easily transition into the White House one day, which seems to inspire people to want to morally sanitize their messages. But until Kanye announces his candidacy — which I would, in theory, reject, though a final decision couldn’t be made until his political competition is announced — everything he does as an artist should be considered art.
Let’s all remember Andy Kaufman, perhaps the artist that pushed Kanye’s fact-vs-fiction envelope farther than anyone. What if Kanye’s the 21st century Andy Kaufman? Even if he doesn’t realize it, wouldn’t that be next level Andy Kaufman? The best way to capture the truth of illusions is to become an illusion yourself.
Kaufman also performatively dabbled in regressive ideals, such as in his staged spectacles wrestling women all while proclaiming their inferior strength. Kaufman could be considered just as big of an asshole as Kanye…in character. I personally believe that he, as a comedian and artist, was embodying the worst of humanity to show how laughable such behavior can be (Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks achieved the same with their absurdly heightened takes on Hitler in, respectively, The Great Dictator and The Producers’ “Springtime for Hitler”). But we’ll never know for sure, because Andy Kaufman seemed to understand that never revealing the line between his authentic self and his performative self was the best way to hammer home the notion that it’s impossible to recognize the difference between truth and performance.
Is Kanye trying to do the same? I never like to guess an artist’s unknowable intentions, that’s how his words — both in and outside of his songs, including on Twitter — speak to me. Much like Andy Kaufman tried, Kanye’s turned his entire persona into a living work of art. He’s undeniably aware that everything he does is art, largely thanks to his messianic complex; the dude claims to walk on artistic waters, no matter what he’s doing. He even married the queen of transforming her life into fodder for obsessive pop culture consumption. In these ways, he’s a performance artist who’s always performing, because aren’t we all? Is there such a thing as a true self?
Kanye’s antics might make us more uncomfortable nowadays because he has so many more means at his disposal to do so. Andy Kaufman feels safer now, relegated to the pages of history. But he made people deeply uncomfortable back in the day. Imagine if Andy Kaufman could’ve messed with us personally through social media ALL DAY EVERY DAY. It’d get grating…but wouldn’t that be the point? Wouldn’t he be mocking us for so idolizing the personal lives of individuals whose job it is to manufacture reality? Why should they matter more than anyone else? World-renowned artists can of course make a difference, but should they? Or should they just be one voice amongst many?
Yes, a lot of people take his words as gospel…but that’s their fault. Instead of treating Kanye like a force for change worth reprimanding, maybe we should be focusing more on teaching the masses not to hang on a celebrity’s every word. They’re only people, just as flawed as us. Other people hear what they say more than most, but it would behoove the world to view artists as artists, and focus more on their art than the person behind the artist behind the art.
Anyways, this is all a long-winded way to introduce what I think about his work on Pusha T’s DAYTONA. Since Kanye’s life is so intrinsic to his art, it’s impossible to discuss one without prefacing with thoughts on how you approach the other.
Which is why I started this piece by noting how his personality seems to have fractured into two recently, between who he once was and who he is now. The producing on DAYTONA reflects this schism.
Wisely keeping the album to a tight seven tracks that run just over 20-minutes, each is radically different from the next, yet they all boast Kanye’s signature. They teeter on the edge of the overproducing that plagued The Life of Pablo and Yeezus, channeling their invigorating grit while lightening the excessive bass he tends to revel in. Its softened courtesy of his old-school samplings of soul tracks into a perfect balance, touching a little of every phase in his illustrious and dynamically differentiated career.
It’s his best work since Watch the Throne. Is he the best producer in the history of hip-hop not named Dr. Dre?
As to not blow too much smoke up his ass, I just want to note that I still maintain he’s a better producer than rapper, as his only feature here attests to. I’m not sure his palpable personality adds more than his — hot take alert! — inferior flow and corny lyrics take away.
As for the collection’s technical headliner, Pusha’s rapping is…fine. Ye’s beats are doing the heavy lifting here; they’re tailor made to Pusha’s vocal sound, elevating his natural game to a championship level (sorry, I’m in NBA Finals mode right now). DAYTONA is basically a Kanye album: the predominant voice heard in a literal sense belongs to Pusha, but the album’s artistic voice is all Kanye. That’s a rarity for producers, but it just goes to show the validity of my theory that sole producers who make such a mark should be credited equally to the one rapping.
One final thought: note how Drake’s response to his call-out here focuses on the lyrics. You can claim diss tracks always focus on the words, but let’s remember “Ether”. It feels like a calculated move on The 6-God’s part; he wants none of the beat-god in his own element.
Next up: Ye!