Well, thanks for getting Kim Kardashian knocked up, Kanye?
Ever since the rapper announced from the stage that the world’s most famous (and least talented) Armenian is now carrying his seed, everyone’s on Kimye baby alert. To tell the truth, I’m starting to think that all the attention being paid to this new development seems like a calculated distraction, something cute and shiny to flash in our faces so we don’t talk about the big problem with Kanye: his half-assed rapping these days.
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That’s right–West has lost his edge as an MC. He seems to be becoming less of the brilliant asshole we all know and respect, and is just becoming a regular, run-of-the-mill asshole. This certainly became an issue last year when West released Kanye West Presents G.O.O.D. Music: Cruel Summer. An all-star mixtape posing as an album full of goodies from West’s G.O.O.D. Music label, Summer basically consisted of West spitting bars with his various peers and underlings. But a lot of West’s verses rang hollow; they were egomaniacal, self-aggrandizing riffs. This may be redundant to bring up since West is, of course, an egomaniacal, self-aggrandizing character. But he can also be witty, self-reflexive and socially conscious. It’s the thing that still keeps us intrigued with the dude: here is a smart rapper and producer who rose to international superstardom by being, well, smart.
Now, I’m not going to say that Summer doesn’t have its moments. (I’m sure “Clique” has become the anthem for guys who always wanted to walk into a nightclub in slow motion.) But, on the album, which has him rapping alongside such inexplicably popular new-ish MCs as Chief Keef and 2 Chainz, West presents himself as a man getting off on his own vaingloriousness. On “To the World,” he raps about needing a home to hold his plaques (“Rick Ross’d told me that”) and how he’s “the only nigga in Beverly Hills, where the hell is Axel Foley at?” In “Cold” (originally known as “Theraflu”), he talks about having dinner with Anna Wintour and his $6000 pair of shoes. On “Clique,” he declares, rather than buying a business or saving his money like responsible people do, he’d “rather buy 80 gold chains and go ign’ant.” On more than one occasion on the album, West would get blown out of the water by his fellow orators. Both Pusha T and Ghostface Killah rap circles around him on “New God Flow.”
Despite it being an obvious success since its release, some folk instantly recognized it wasn’t Kanye at his best. (The Onion A/V Club’s Nathan Rabin wrote that West “often seems disconnected from anything beyond his ego.”) The same problem people had with Summer is the same problem people had when West joined forces with Jay-Z on Watch the Throne in 2011. More of a sonic spectacle than an epic meeting of the minds, as much as the album was filled with immediately downloadable hits, it was really just a couple of rich muhfuckas rapping about being rich muhfuckas. And no matter how many times those two did “Niggas in Paris” over and over again to sold-out crowds all over the world, in this age of fiscal cliffs and 99 percenters occupying Wall Street, the unappealing, I-got-more-money-than-you extravagance always reigned supreme.
We can’t say we didn’t see this shallower version of West coming. As a man who came into the game full of himself, I always feared the day would come when the hype would take over the talent. But you may remember, it was the talent that blew us all away at first. It’s been nearly 10 years, and The College Dropout still kills, a masterwork of still-relevant hip-hop, filled with his trademark, sped-up samples and clever wordplay.
What was also remarkable about him was that, as an artist who works in hip-hop, where experimentation is as frowned upon as flat asses and savings accounts, West wasn’t afraid to take chances creatively. His even-better 2005 follow-up Late Registration had him closely collaborating with Fiona Apple producer and film composer Jon Brion, of all people, coming up with wondrous hip-hop that went into so many different directions. He basically went electro for his next album, Graduation, an uneven albeit still daring production. 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, which is quite good despite its over-reliance on Autotune, was basically his I’m-lonely-and-miserable album, revealing a naked humanity that practically set off the emo-rap/r&b boom that everyone from Drake to Frank Ocean to The Weeknd now traffic in.
To be honest, I started to worry a bit after the release of 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Despite being another critically-acclaimed smash, it did show West at his most prickly–and prickish. An album-long response to Taylorgate, Fantasy saw West all too aware of what a dick he’d become–and how’s he very OK with it. If his first three albums showed West as a cocky-but-confident lad proving himself and Heartbreak had him revealing his raw vulnerability, Fantasy was West making a defiant, grandiose salute to his very own ballsiness.
Now, I still hold the man in high regard, especially since he and his music were there for me during a painful time in my life. In the fall of ’05, Late Registration was one of the handful of CDs I listened to constantly, trying to put things in order after my mother died of cancer. However, these days, that man who got me through the worst times seems to have vanished.
That same nerd who used to rock backpacks and goofy sweaters is now showing up onstage wearing leather Givenchy kilts/skirts and crystal-encrusted masks. (Don’t even get me started on that ghetto Game of Thrones shit he was wearing in that “Mercy” video!) That same guy who famously said, “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it” is now making rambling rants during his concerts about how powerful and unstoppable he is.
Maybe being a baby daddy will make Kanye West more grounded. There’s nothing like bringing a child into this world to remind you what is and isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps being a parent will get him to lay off the artificial bullshit and back to being the real hip-hopper we all admired. If not, well, there’s always Kendrick Lamar to start admiring.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 14, 2013