Nobody loves Kanye West more than Kanye West. And Kanye West makes no bones about this; Kanye West doesn’t believe in false modesty. He has compared himself to Picasso, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Jesus Christ. He is a hypebeast’s wet dream. He rants against the machine and crashes acceptance speeches. “I am God’s vessel,” he has proclaimed. “But my greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live.” To say that he has a messiah complex is a vast understatement.
In 2016, Kanye’s star is at its zenith — he is, arguably, more famous now than ever before — even as the chinks in his relevance begin to show. Still bedeviled by 2013’s polarizing Yeezus, the 38-year-old has spent the past couple of years insinuating himself into everything but music: taking up an increasing interest in fashion; getting his (rather secretive) “design company,” DONDA, off the ground; stumping for Kim Kardashian. Now that it’s time to put out a new record, though, the question has to be asked: Can the work, which West has already called “one of the greatest albums,” deliver on his own mammoth promises? Or is Kanye West just talking more megalomaniacal shit?
Once upon a time, West carved out a niche as hip-hop’s most interesting and iconoclastic creative mind. His 2004 debut, The College Dropout, remains a seminal, soulful thesis on the malaise of millennial life. As a producer-turned-rapper, he entered the arena the plucky underdog. Instead of playing it safe, he took risks — and won. From confronting racism (“Racism’s still alive, they just be concealing it”) to grappling with male insecurity and how it might manifest via conspicuous consumption (“Man, I promise, I’m so self-conscious/That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches”) to hating his retail job at the Gap (“If my manager insults me again/I will be assaulting him/After I fuck the manager up/Then I’m gonna shorten the register up”), West spurned the rap zeitgeist. In the same year that Ludacris was bragging about ‘hos — the same year Lloyd Banks and Young Buck were championing gangsta rap — Kanye’s forthright vulnerability cut through the noise like a Ginsu.
His albums sounded different, too. Leveraging his experience as a producer, West dug into the crates; what resulted was somehow more varied and more theatrical and, well, straight-up crazier than anything in the artist’s orbit. “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” from Late Registration (2005), turned Shirley Bassey’s James Bond theme toward a commentary on the blood diamond industry in Africa. “Stronger” (2007) sampled Daft Punk before EDM was such a hot commodity — in turn introducing a generation of hip-hop fans to the French robots. 808s & Heartbreak (2008) pushed boundaries further still, with Kanye setting an entire album about romantic loss to the mechanized whir of Auto-Tune: technology that should have been passé, now legitimated. Before “tastemaker” was a vocation, Kanye West was making tastes.
With Yeezus, Kanye was in full Kanye mode — which is to say, giving precisely zero in the way of fucks and being willing to experiment, in songs like “Black Skinhead” and “Blood on the Leaves,” with forms that were sometimes strange and scary. He interpolated Billie Holiday’s racially charged “Strange Fruit” and sampled the Bollywood song “Are Zindagi Hai Khel.” “Send It Up,” a commentary on club culture featuring drill darling King Louie freestyling, butted up against modern love song “Bound 2.” Yeezus resurrected the great Charlie Wilson and featured a dialogue with God — yes, God. The record was a critical darling, but its heavy, abrasive gestalt alienated some listeners.
The album also marked Kanye’s commercial low point. Yeezus has sold approximately 630,000 copies to date. Each of its predecessors has sold over a million. Still, the man’s notoriety continues to swell. Since his coupling with media juggernaut Kardashian, there’s nary a week that goes by in which Kanye’s not being talked about. He’s scored the cover of Vogue and released a coveted sneaker collection; now he’s set to premiere the third season of his athleisurewear collaboration with Adidas. He’s constantly the target of paparazzi, and when he welcomed children North and Saint, it was a spectacle befitting the opening scene from The Lion King. He won MTV’s Video Vanguard Award in 2015 — and used the platform to announce that he’ll be running for president in 2020. His interviews and concerts have become pulpits for esoteric rants (or, if you’d like, sermons). When he performed at Madison Square Garden in 2013 to promote Yeezus, he stopped the show for some twenty minutes to bark about Nike and the fashion industry and then tried to cajole a rich guy in the audience into investing in DONDA. “Every time I crash the internet, it’s like this little drop of truth,” Kanye told Time when he made the magazine’s annual list of the hundred most influential people (his profile was written by inventor Elon Musk). “Every time I say something extremely truthful out loud, it literally breaks the internet.”
So far, the new album has barely made a dent. A series of lackluster lead-ins, including the bloated “FourFiveSeconds” (featuring Rihanna and Paul McCartney) and the bouncy but forgettable “All Day,” didn’t register much impact. Neither song is on the final tracklist. “No More Parties in L.A.,” featuring 2015’s indisputable rap champ, Kendrick Lamar, had promise but doesn’t turn out the grand slam you’d expect from rappers of their caliber. West’s idea for “G.O.O.D. Fridays” — blitzing the Web with free music every week as a means to drum up excitement for the album — seems all but dead. And when the tracklist was leaked, the loudest buzz was reserved for the “Kylie [Jenner] Was Here” scrawled at the bottom of the sheet of paper announcing the song titles. (Much to fans’ chagrin, Khloe Kardashian confirmed to Cosmopolitan that her family was involved in the album: “[W]e’re not artists, obviously, but he respects what we say so much. He is so passionate.”)
Apart from the participation of his in-laws, the bulk of what controversy there’s been surrounding West’s upcoming release has centered on what he’s going to call it. An initial change in appellation, from Swish to Waves, rubbed hip-hop heads the wrong way: The new name, they cried, was a blatant and unacknowledged crib from New York City cult hero Max B, who coined the term “wavy” to denote something good or cool and whose discography includes several titles that make use of the term. And when rapper Wiz Khalifa weighed in — and following a misunderstanding on West’s part that touched off a veritable Twitter war — things got even further off topic, descending into an embarrassing display of misogyny and pettiness. Kanye has since backpedaled, issuing an online mea culpa, tamping down on earlier boasts (the forthcoming LP isn’t “the best album of all time” but merely “one of the greatest,” he now says), and even reconsidering his nomenclature (as of this writing, the Record Formerly Known as Waves is officially untitled).
All of which is, of course, utterly beside the point. Kanye West may always have been a grandiloquent egoist, or maybe he’s only grown into one over time — but he always, until now, boasted the output to back it up. He stands now at a crossroads: innovation or stagnation? Invective on Twitter or inspiration on loose-leaf? Mogul or artist? That’s the choice. And meanwhile rappers like Drake and Future take it upon themselves to move the needle, to push hip-hop forward; and meanwhile young ascendants like Lamar and J. Cole talk real shit, important issues — police brutality, presidential elections, the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago and elsewhere. Even Beyoncé, who’s long played it neutral as far as sociopolitical discourse is concerned, proudly embraces her black identity and Black Lives Matter with “Formation.” Anything Beyoncé does has the power to shift the paradigm. She’s set the precedent that pop stars can — should — speak out in 2016. This expectation falls hardest, perhaps, on Kanye, whose album arrives just days after “Formation” was released. With that LP, whatever it ends up being called, the superstar has the opportunity to reassume his rightful place on the throne. Amid all the noise, we’re ready to hear something of substance.
Kanye West will celebrate the release of his latest album and Yeezy Season 3 at Madison Square Garden on February 11.