Go show your slaves how choleric you are
And make your bondmen tremble. Must I budge?
Must I observe you? Must I stand and crouch
Under your testy humor? By the gods,
You shall digest the venom of your spleen,
Though it do split you. For from this day forth,
I’ll use you for my mirth, yea, for my laughter,
When you are waspish.
– Brutus, Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3.
I need to make clear what is not happening here: I am not here to kick Kanye West in the nuts for twenty pages. I’m not here to tell you that West is not an artist or that you shouldn’t buy his records or listen or his music or buy his shoes. How people culturally navigate Kanye West doesn’t affect a single facet of my life. This is not a hit piece, though admittedly such pieces wouldn’t admit it if they were. Understanding how this essay might be perceived, all I can do is tell you what I did or did not set out to do. So no, I am not here to labor over the many ways in which I despise Kanye West. There will be instances during the course of this bushwhacking where this will not seem to be the case, not by a long shot. I assure you that the intention of such moments is not gross flippancy or injected merely for effect. I maintain that such moments have but one true ambition: to illustrate and support the main thesis. I do not like most of West’s art – almost nothing after the first half of Graduation – nor do I think I would like him as a person. But these are merely infusions, bits of vegetables simmering in the roux of my larger case. They’re flavoring, but nothing that makes the meal any less what you ordered.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Back in 2011 notable R&B producer, record label exec and ripper-offer of TLC L.A. Reid stated that, in his esteemed opinion, Kanye West was “one of the greatest if not the greatest performers, entertainers, musicians of all time.” By itself, this statement hardly bears noting. It’s one of countless examples of insider back-patting one commits despite any relationship to reality in an attempt to remain relevant to whatever demographic still spends actual money on records instead of bootlegging it like the rest of the world. I get it. Stay cool, L.A. Reid.
But when he went on to say:
“People may not recognize it today, but I promise you a few years from today we’re going to look back and say, ‘Oh my God, what an amazing, amazing talent.’ People love Kanye for sure, but he’s great, great. I mean on the level of Prince. But modern day, he’s hip-hop. He’s not the same thing. He doesn’t play guitar, he doesn’t play piano. He’s not that kind of performer, but for hip-hop he is a king.”
…I could countenance no more.
As a die-hard life-long Prince fan, this slap in the face would be ridiculous if it were happening in my barbershop, let alone on a national media platform like BET. Like, flip-a-table-full-of-newborn-babies ridiculous. But when it comes from someone who runs a record label, whose job it is to act as a gatekeeper to what music millions of people might possibly encounter? Well, that’s practically an actionable offense. The problem in that moment was that this act concerns parties I find so artistically reprehensible that I fear my hands may combust into flame while writing about them, which is how I navigate these glitches in the cultural matrix: I write them into the ground.
But it’s L. A. Reid. What person living in 2015 cares what L.A. Reid thinks about anything? The only part of his interview BET saw fit to highlight was the part about someone else’s career that he had nothing to do with.
Still, people are lazy, and lazy people can still change history. We read headlines and then write responses to them longer than the articles. We take these kinds of bon mots and we run with them. And sometimes in our running we create enough friction to make an icon out of something that had no business making its way off of YouTube. Enough communal will can make something become newsworthy, which arguably makes it important, which places it in a position to make it iconic…which, when left unchecked, can accidentally be labeled “influential” and “great”, paying little mind to what that influence has wrought, what qualifiers might suit it, or if that greatness is legitimate. If people want to believe that Kanye West is great, I can more or less live with that. It’s their poster and they can put it on whatever bedroom wall they want so long as it isn’t mine. What I cannot abide is attempting to fashion someone’s greatness by comparing them to Prince and that person be Kanye West. Kanye West may very well be talented and engaging his art form at a better than average or even skillful level. But there are a lot of artists you can compare him to that don’t make you sound like a tool before you get to Prince levels of greatness. And I simply won’t have it.
This investigation isn’t so much about listing the differences between the two artists – you don’t have the bandwidth and I don’t have the long-term finger strength for that exercise – as it is about combating attempts to re-define greatness in a negative direction. Because let’s be honest: Kanye West and Prince couldn’t be more dissimilar, and those differences are largely apparent to even the most musically illiterate among us. So there is a caprice at work here. That said, greatness as a concept is subjective, but is less subjective than, say, if I like a particular song or not. There are qualitative and quantitative elements to greatness that go beyond whether or not something is good. Lots of things that are great aren’t actually good or healthy or wise. Under that logic, one can argue that West remains great no matter what comparison someone might arbitrarily make on their behalf.
At the same time it’s important to bear in mind that there is very little empirical evidence that can be applied to discussions like this, and that for all of the centuries of art criticism that exists, none of it has ever yielded a dissection that wasn’t, at its base, subjective. Democratic, perhaps, but not objective. At the end of 50 years of Rolling Stone, 80 years of Down Beat, 27 years of The Source, 60 years of the Village Voice, and 90 years of The New Yorker, no such method has ever been devised. And yet, great art exists. Great artists persist. We erect monuments and install holidays in light of their greatness. Greatness exists. It has a cause and an effect, and it forms as a residual function of cultural and social capital bestowed by the people. Greatness, while contestable, is real.
Sway might not have had the answers, but I do.
Arguably the only people who think Kanye West is the greatest artist of this or any other generation are either dense fanatics, hyperbolic media writers, Kanye West himself, or are people who were shaken at a very young age by an extremely powerful nanny. So why bother? It’s a rude if valid question to which I have three answers: two equally rude-but-still-true ones, and a congenial-but-longer one.
2) Because knowing something is true doesn’t mean it isn’t worth investigating further. We know other planets exist. Should we not benefit from all of the things investigating those planets might yield in science, medicine, education, culture, and philosophy?
3) Because Stephanie Mills can’t be the only real motherfucker in the greatness game.
Before MTV finally broke down and started playing videos by black artists, BET ran a video/interview show called Video Soul, hosted for years by the eternally affable Donnie Simpson, who seemingly never interviewed an artist he didn’t like. He was the Walter Cronkite of black music journalism, as Video Soul was the CNN of black music. Simpson was a champion of black mainstream music, and the 80s was a great time to be such a champion: rap was starting to break out of the streets and into the American consciousness, Michael Jackson was still a Michael Jackson you could respect, BET hadn’t gone full ratchet yet, and you still had to be able to sing to get a record deal. For nearly the length of a generation Video Soul broke emerging and returning black acts to new and larger audiences, and some artists never had a better interview than one they got from Donnie Simpson.
Basically, Video Soul was the shit.
One afternoon, around 1989, R&B legend Stephanie Mills sat on the couch across from Simpson, pleasant and beautiful as you please. Simpson asked her about the comparison that many people had been making between the iconic Luther Vandross (who was still at the height of his powers at the time) and notably gifted newcomer David Peaston, who was riding pretty high on the charts with the single “Two Wrongs (Don’t Make It Right)”. Mills chuckled and said something like, “Oh, no. He’s no Luther. I can see why some people might say that, because of his weight or something, but that’s about where the similarities end. But no, not Luther.” I don’t know who did what after that – who called who, who sent whom a copy of the interview, or how Peaston felt about the comparison or Mills’s course correction. I imagine the comparisons were flattering and the public correction was gut-wrenching. I can tell you this much for sure: you never heard anyone comparing Peaston to Vandross again.
There are just some things you don’t compare, certain things you just don’t say.
So look: don’t blame me for writing this. Blame L.A. Reid for saying it. Blame BET for highlighting it. Blame the internet for allowing this suggestion to tattoo itself across its underbelly of free-wheeling ignorance. I was perfectly content to write my poems and books and be fair-to-middling awesome. If you were getting along just fine in your life without dealing with this question, you’ll likely survive not reading this essay as well. My world, however, could not brook such tragedy. Any comparisons to Prince in this arena are worth at least a cursory mental exercise where I’m from. Trying to compare someone like Kanye West to Prince on the matter of greatness literally sets off a red-belled alarm in my house that can only be quelled by repeat listens of Sign O’ The Times until the voices stop or a full-bore investigation. Obviously, my copy of Sign O’ The Times is on loan.
10 WAYS KANYE WEST IS NOT PRINCE
1) Prince is more talented.
People have been attempting to quantify talent since a caveman’s buddy was underwhelmed by his hand painting of the big hunt that day. People have always felt the need to crown someone over another in every era of every culture. How we arrive at these decisions used to be simple: this gladiator survived the pit. This musician played harpsichord with incredible intricacy. This jet pilot made it out of the danger zone. Even in situations in which ignorance of all the possible candidates for reward in a particular field (think of all the awesome musicians sans record deal) allows us to bypass whole swathes of contributors to enthrone a select few, cream has a way of rising to the top in most situations. We might argue about who deserves the top spot in a field, but generally speaking the person who holds the top spot in a field is still an extremely talented individual. Yet, with the intersection of slavish machine-wrought hype and calculating management, culture imbalances in quality/reward occur. At some point one could bully their way into honor.
Fortunately we’re not faced with such a dilemma here: Prince can sing, dance, compose, play, produce, engineer, act, envision, and execute said vision better than Kanye West. Within each of those line item talents Prince outstrips West by a Minneapolis winter mile.
In the first two categories, there is no debate. Kanye can’t sing, period, ever. Even with the aid (or masquerade) of auto-tune, 808s and Heartbreaks still sounds more earnest than artistic, and “earnest” is a strong word to use about a record on which the artist hides his inability to convey melodic content with intentionally incorrect electronic masking. If we are brutally honest, many people cut this record a lot of slack because they know that he was hurting as a person after the death of his mother than because of any genuinely compelling art contained therein. What was largely being heralded as a new direction for music was mostly just a new direction for Kanye, and for his fans they are largely one in the same. Just know that somewhere, Roger Troutman is dropping a digital tear every time someone uses auto-tune, not because he would not approve, but because you can still hear “More Bounce to the Ounce” in any black club or skating rink if you stay long enough and people keep calling 808s a “game changer.”
As regards dancing, I don’t care about dancing in general, but I’m trying to be thorough here. Just know that this is also a wash for West. Kanye can bounce, but he cannot dance. No one in the history of music reviews has ever remarked at how much more captivating West’s art became once he put one foot in front of the other. By contrast, Prince is an amazing dancer, despite no one knowing what he was doing to those speakers in Purple Rain for the length of “Darling Nikki”. The splits, the twirls, the heels, the half nudity…all in service to entertaining you with his body while his mouth was taking a break.
Songwriting could go either way depending on what you like until you consider that Prince has written songs that will remain in the lexicon of American music for a hundred years after he’s gone, composed largely on instruments that anyone can learn to play, which perpetuates the resonance of his compositional skill. 90% of Kanye’s music is largely fashioned as an electronic construct that requires a record player set to 45 rpm. For similar reasons, Prince’s ability to play multiple instruments at an expert level – which he has been doing professionally since he was eighteen – destroys anything resembling musicianship from Kanye, which as near as anyone can tell largely consists of filing through a record crate and speeding up Chaka Khan vocals (“Through the Fire”). Even L.A. Reid notes in his grand pronouncement that Kanye doesn’t play any instruments, which should have made him retract his entire statement before I ever saw it, but whatever.
(If you’re a musician, I think you see what I’m driving at here. For the rest of you, one of these things is not like the other.)
Prince developed new ways to manipulate production values and, on occasion, instruments themselves. Prince frequently manipulated drum machines and synthesizers to suit his ideas, introducing signature sounds, branding his music as unique and modern. Kanye, eh, less so, and certainly nothing groundbreaking. He’s not even the best person to utilize chipmunk breaks, let alone from-metronome-scratch musical production values. West produced hits, but West didn’t do so in a vacuum or alone.
While we can find much to laugh about in Prince’s acting resume (Purple Rain was serviceable but everything after that is, admittedly, comic fodder for the most part), his attempts to engage audiences cinematically outstrip Kanye’s many attempts to resell himself to us as himself in little more than long music videos, with the rare instance of stepping outside of himself to cameo as an MTV veejay in Anchorman 2. Despite the argument that Prince, too, largely plays versions of himself in films (and exactly himself in an episode of New Girl), I think we can all agree that Prince as a persona is far more interesting than Kanye as a persona, and not just because Prince is fiercely private. It’s because Prince isn’t an instantly grating personality or prone to tantrums around other grown folks.
I’ll speak more to vision below, but know that it’s coming. Rest assured, Prince has that on lock. For now, I’ll leave you with this nugget of Kanye wisdom:
“Taylor Swift beat Beyoncé at the Grammys? Beyoncé be dancing in heels and shit.”
Yeah. Hey, you know who else be dancing in heels and shit? Prince. Sometimes while he’s playing a guitar one-handed or jumping off of a piano.
2) Prince is more prolific.
For most people, Prince would win this fight by virtue of having a record contract since he was eighteen…when West was a year old. Volume metrics go a long way in the music business. By the time West debuted College Dropout in 2004 Prince had already released 26 albums, scored 6 movies, and been on 20 tours. In the year that College Dropout dropped, Prince released three albums (Musicology, The Chocolate Invasion, and The Slaughterhouse) and was mounting what was arguably his fifth comeback. As of this writing Prince has released 32 studio albums, and at least 6 of them were multiple discs. Since 2004 West has released 7 albums in 9 years. In the same amount of time Prince has also released 7 albums, 2 of them at the same time in 2014. And none of Prince’s albums were co-chaired by Jay-Z.
I will be the first to admit that a straight disc count is not a solid gauge of greatness. This is at least true because it’s unfair in a time/space fashion, but also because a discography of Prince releases is only a fractional indication of how prolific Prince is. Prince has so much music he can’t release it all (one of the sticking points he had with Warner Brothers for years: they wanted to keep him to a manageable one album per year and he wanted to be the internet twenty years before it was real). Prince has so much music that it is in danger of decaying before it can ever be heard. Prince has songs that have never seen the light of day that are more famous – and better – than albums he has released. By contrast, Kanye less than ten albums, and a handful of mixtapes that largely don’t advance his stock. Kanye doesn’t have a ton of unreleased material that people are clamoring for. Kanye simply doesn’t have enough songs to win this fight any way you fight it.
But let’s say you’re really adamant about not comparing pound-for-pound output because it’s too skewed against Kanye on the basis of when he was born. Fine: here are two ways to level the field and (spoiler alert) Prince still wins both arguments:
Method 1) Top number of albums vs. top number of albums.
As of this writing West has six solo studio albums to his name. Let us pretend that they are all good records. If we kept Prince down to his best six albums, Kanye loses that all day, every day. For the record, here are the best six Prince albums (in no order):
Sign O’ the Times
Again, no contest. Any one of these records is better than every album Kanye West has produced. Setting all of them together next to Kanye‘s entire oeuvre is tantamount to a hate crime.
Method 2) Comparative career window output.
We could try to compare relative career windows based on time, holding Prince down to any ten year period compared to Kanye’s entire ten year career (2004 – 2013). Here’s what that looks like:
If we go from 1978 (Prince’s debut, For You) through 1987 (Sign O’ the Times), not only does Kanye have to contend with Times, but he still has to measure up against 1999, Controversy and Purple Rain…basically Prince in his prime. No contest.
If we go 1985 (just after Purple Rain, to show mercy) through 1994 (Come and The Black Album) we’re still talking about Sign O’ the Times, Parade and the Batman soundtrack. No contest.
If we go from 2004 (when Kanye came out) through 2015 you really only have to contend with Musicology and Prince about 13 years past his prime, but understand that we have to discount 25 previous years of work and already in-stone greatness to even give Kanye a fighting chance.
So for this to even resemble a contest I have to wreck Prince’s entire career just to get Kanye to the table so he can attempt to beat Prince’s scraps (3121, Planet Earth, etc.).
“Congratulations,” I guess?
3) Prince is more influential.
When you speak about Prince’s influence on other artists, the range is wide, the road long, and the vein runs deep. There are artists who have committed their entire careers to sounding like some version of Prince (D’Angelo, Ready for the World, Ginuwine, etc.), and Prince has whole eras that one can choose as a lane: Purple Prince, French Prince, Garage Prince, Nasty Prince, Religious Prince, Jazz Prince, Techno Prince, Black Prince, White Prince, Guitar Prince. Some artists just borrow parts (Janelle Monae, Miguel, Marsha Ambrosius, everybody who released an R&B record between 1985 and 1995), some just steal (Alecia Keys). His music has inspired acts in almost every genre of music. When we speak of him we say his name in the same breath as other uncontestable greats: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Donny Hathaway, Michael Jackson, James Brown…all game-changing artists, that game being putting out incredible song after incredible song over a long period of time. Prince is one of the reasons why we have parental advisory stickers on albums. Prince spawned numerous side acts, some of whom went on to become icons in their own right. Prince was single-handedly responsible for trifling R&B as we know it, opening the door to the Champagne Room for acts like R. Kelly, Jodeci and their ilk. Prince has been name checked as an influence by artists like D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Terence Trent D’Arby, and countless others. His professional nemesis was Michael Jackson, who remains arguably the greatest live musical entertainer of all time.
Kanye West has influenced acts like Drake, Plies, Chance, and a half-generation of rappers that even the industry wouldn’t debate is a degraded field at best. When Prince was at his peak, he was arguably one of the world’s best singers performing the best popular songs played with the best technique. Even a basic Kanye discussion comes with so many qualifiers – “He’s a rap genius” or “He’s going to make (obscure genre) mainstream” or “He’s just an average rapper but he’s a great producer” – I’m not sure why people waste their time attempting to convince anyone of his so-called greatness.
4) Prince had to do more with less against more.
I understand why people think Kanye is great. Seriously, I get it: if you came up on Kanye’s music – meaning you were born after, say, 1992 and were twelve when College Dropout was released and can actually stomach mainstream music today for longer than five minutes – he’s your version of Michael Jackson and Prince. Trust me when I say I understand your fanaticism. We used to go nuts over MJ and Prince. They were our black Beatles back in 1984, yo. People were sewing zippers onto leather jackets trying to look like MJ, and Purple Rain gave birth to more jheri curls than Ebony magazine. I know what it’s like to live under an icon several times over, especially one with the ability to suck up media bandwidth with the kind of gravity West is capable of generating.
But let’s be clear: Prince used to do that with a song you didn’t want your parents to hear (“Head”), or by writing a whole album of songs you didn’t want your parents to hear (Dirty Mind, 1999), and he had to do it when you actually had to exhibit some degree of musical talent to participate in the industry. Prince was trying to sell records alongside Lionel Ritchie (who still sold more albums in 2012 than every rapper you can name 29 years after “Hello”) and DeBarge (which was like a whole family of Princes) and Stevie Wonder (80s Wonder, but still able to knock a hit out the park when he needed to). And, oh yeah, Thriller, which every corner of the industry was still reeling from a year after the fact. And these were just the acts he was vying for attention over in 1984. And those were just a handful of hit-makers; he still had to contend with definitive (and in some cases, legendary) albums from Cameo (She’s Strange), Tina Turner (Private Dancer), Sade (Diamond Life), Billy Ocean (Suddenly), Jermaine Jackson (Jermaine Jackson) and his whole damned family (Victory), New Edition (New Edition), and more. And those were just the black acts, which has rarely been Prince’s only wheelhouse. And if that weren’t enough, Prince was in heavy competition with himself that year: he wrote most of the music for both The Time’s Ice Cream Castle and Sheila E.’s The Glamorous Life, not to mention going up against Chaka Khan’s biggest hit ever, a cover of his “I Feel For You”.
I don’t care how you feel about Kanye West: you have to admit that’s a hell of a field.
Of course, it’s a different world, by which I mean it has different social and cultural rhythms. Everything is faster now, and media expectations are different. Music is, for all intents and purposes, free, owned largely by choice, not necessity. Album release dates are a joke, and have been long before Beyonce cold-cocked everyone’s annual “Best of the Year” charts in 2013. And all of this swirls underneath the one observation that we’re all too scared to say out loud: music just sucks some years.
Which brings us squarely to the rap question.
Hip-hop as a commercial art is worse now than it was ten years ago, and ten years ago it was struggling. While such statements are traditionally pigeon-holed as being generational arguments of taste, I don’t know anyone who would suggest with a straight face that even half of the rappers on a Billboard chart would stack up artistically against even a middle of the field rapper from 1995. Three of the top ten songs on Billboard’s rap chart for August 8, 2015 are from Fetty Wap.
A Meek Mill versus Drake pillow fight is what’s passing for rap beef in 2015. That’s a long drop from Jay-Z vs. Nas or Lil Kim vs. Foxy Brown. That’s arguably a long drop from Ice T vs. Soulja Boy, which was a battle between two highly suspect rappers, but was symbolic of so much more about hip-hop than who was a garbage rapper. And it’s not just a matter of taste: find anyone willing to go on record that mainstream hip-hop isn’t simpler, dumber, and less diverse in tone and scope than it was just ten years ago. And while it is easy to say “Mainstream rap always sucked”, that’s not true: Biggie and 2Pac were the mainstream. NWA and Public Enemy occupied the mainstream. Wu-Tang Clan lorded over the mainstream as a series of franchise units. And while it is easy to point out that good rappers still exist, that’s not largely true of the art in the mainstream now, and even the examples of genuinely talented artists tend to age poorly once the check is cashed and the shine has worn off. Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne should have been the best rap record of 2011. It wasn’t. It was just the most hyped. It probably had the most producers of any rap album in history but it wasn’t better musically or lyrically than Phonte’s Charity Starts At Home or Pharoahe Monch’s W.A.R. or a handful of others. That shouldn’t have been true in any world, but such is the state of hip-hop: when you get to the top now you throw money and hype and names at your art where you used to throw your hunger. We used to be able to see qualitative diversity in the mainstream as well as the underground. What passes for a good rapper now didn’t used to even make a b-side fifteen years ago. Instead, the radio feels like a flea market of bad ideas and broken sex toys that keeps telling my woman to take off her clothes and the internet is a vast and swelling tide of distractions that have nothing to do with music, for which West’s career seems a perfect avatar.
West owes no small part of his success to the fact that he is participating in the music genre with the easiest on-ramp ever created by musicians. Regardless of how well West executes his art, rap wasn’t that hard to do at the point during which he entered the game. If West were trying to break into 1999 rap he would have looked like a clown sitting on the shelves next to A Prince Among Thieves or Things Fall Apart or I Am… or Black on Both Sides. Now? The average rapper with a record deal is largely forgettable and the game has been that way for a long time.
5) Prince is more respected.
You get a sense of this truism in Reid’s original statement, wherein he seeks to quantify West’s greatness by comparing it to an inarguable greatness: Prince. At this point I hardly need to make a case for the amount of respect Prince has amassed in 40 years of grinding a high heeled boot in popular music’s face.
What we can do is be honest about why Kanye fails on this count, and here’s why: Kanye can’t get respect for his art or his vision because his art is never allowed to stand on its own before he undermines it by saying something ridiculous. His vision never gets a chance to pan out.
Kanye tries to convince people that his art is great, not by rolling out progressive music with mind-blowing visual art to accompany it. He tries to convince people of the merits of his talents by talking about how great he is for having an idea or selling a lot of records to college kids. There is almost nothing West will not say or do to convince an audience of his art’s power, except leave behind powerful art to speak for itself. How such vision is executed is part of what makes someone great and his music almost never gets a chance to prove itself because he can’t stop telling us how he’s Shakespeare and God wrapped up in a garbage bag tunic and shitty moon boots. Ultimately, of course, the music needs that kind of hype bump to get it to perform at the financial and cultural levels West needs to maintain his tastemaker façade, but on its own it is middle of the field arena rap at best.
Not to mention that it’s a lot to ask of people to hand over respect to someone who maintains so little of it for audiences and other artists. He has nearly interrupted more award show acceptance speeches than Prince has given, and these will be the frames of choice in the highlight reel of his career; not his music, not his concerts, not his fashion. Being an uncontestable “jackass”, to use the words of the President of the United States of America.
And by the way: when a sitting president calls you – on video – a “jackass” in the middle of waging two ground wars, massaging big banks’ backs during a failed economy, launching tons of secret drone strikes, and maintaining an intensely unpopular invasion of citizens’ privacies, you are so a jackass. Technically, Kanye could have responded with “Barack Obama doesn’t care about black people” and we, as a people of the republic, would have had to stop and think about that one for a second. As it turns out, West is just a jackass.
…who, contrary to his own statements, doesn’t respect artistry. The irony of West, who can’t compose a song with fewer than three guest writers now, interrupting an awards speech by Beck, who believes so strongly in the music coming out of himself that he released a book of sheet music for songs he never recorded or released. Beck, who was smashing rap and rock on Odelay ten years before College Dropout. Kanye West wanted to school the world on the value of true artistry at Beck’s expense. BECK. Remixing Philip Glass Beck. One-day album cover project Beck. Visionary Beck. If it’s any consolation, at the rate West is going his legacy won’t be the music he leaves behind at all. It will be how many times he held our attention with a ridiculous statement or behavior (which, for the record, is hitting at an incident/album ratio of about 20:1 in favor of “I am the number one human being in music.”)
What Prince must have been thinking, standing there, watching the not-so-new hotness try to make a point against pure musicianship by playing a petulant child at Beck’s expense instead of making great music. Because when Prince wants to make a statement, that’s how he does it: he releases a song about an issue or he sets up a community concert in Baltimore. He decides people could use an education on funk so he writes Musicology, then pimps the industry that spent years pimping him until they have to change the rules to stop him. He doesn’t step into someone else’s moment on stage while the world is watching. It would never occur to him to do so. When you’re great, you don’t have to dump on someone’s moment to make a point. When you are capable of generating real, long-lasting content to engage people’s taste, you don’t have to play your own tastemaker to drive the point home.
When you have to tell people to respect you, they never will.
6) When Prince deigns to cover a song, it’s covered.
“My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live.”
– Kanye West, 2009.
My greatest pain in life was watching Kanye West “perform” “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is one of the greatest rock songs ever. I only say “one of” so as not to derail proof of my thesis in the future. Anyone who cannot concede this conveniently qualified point is not a person worth knowing. I will not belabor its greatness here because there are only two types of people in the world (to crib a little Yeats): people who love “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and people who have yet to hear “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
I can understand the appeal of a song like that to a person in Kanye West’s position. He makes his nut by playing arenas and produces music designed to be experienced in those venues (which is why his later albums are so simple and vapid). When you play arenas, there’s an expectation of spectacle, and West usually delivers the ridiculous goods here.
(I use “goods” in the supply and demand sense, not the qualitative sense.)
His relentlessly shit rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which largely consists of him bobbing to the original track and getting the audience to take over the actual singing, is so bad that it crosses into actual offense. I leave you to ponder this in real time, since words fail me now.
…just kidding, I have the words:
The concert at which this desecration took place should have been stopped, the DJ murdered at his turntable rig, choked until his eyes popped out of his skull by his headphone cord, clenched in the twirling fists of slavering roadies while the audience descended in a frenzied rage upon the stage to rend Kanye West limb from misbegotten limb, carrying his various body parts out of the arena and into the streets, where people chucked them against billboards and shoe store displays in an attempt to scrub the defilement from their collective memory until all that is left is a quivering, pulp-covered earpiece microphone, through which hums the white, teeming silence of knowing electricity and justice dispatched.
Prince doesn’t really do covers on his albums, ever. He slides other people’s songs into his live shows like anybody else, but when he does it you know it’s because he’s making a point – educating the audience, some jamming fun with the band, etc. – not because his setlist needs the help. He’s got enough problems trying to release hundreds of his own songs before they rot away that he doesn’t have to borrow anyone else’s. He is not a fan of the cover, and he doesn’t like it when people cover his music. He prefers artists to go their own way.
All that said, when he does cover a song, it’s good and damned covered. Case in point: “Betcha by Golly, Wow”. This classic tune originally recorded by The Stylistics back in 1972 appeared as a bit of a shock on Prince’s 3-LP album, Emancipation. Prince just didn’t do covers. Nearly every Prince record before it was stamped with the assurance that he had written, produced, played, arranged, performed and engineered almost everything on a given album, and here we were, confronted with an album with three covers (the others being the equally renowned “La La La Means I Love U” (sic) by The Delfonics, and “One of Use” originally recorded by Joan Osborne). And he smashed “Betcha by Golly, Wow”, so much so it was an official release from the album with a (so-so) video and everything. He sang all the parts, which basically means he turned into The Stylistics. You know, because he can actually sing almost every note on a piano.
7) Kanye wants to break into fashion. Prince embodied fashion.
Kanye once said God told him to wear a kilt because his leather pants were too tight. This is a dude who put on a runway show full of clothing that looked like his baby cut them by hand. We’re talking about someone – a black someone – who tried to make a Confederate flag an accessory (and merchandise). You know, to re-purpose it. You know, because “nigga” worked out so well. He blew up on Sway’s radio show after being asked why he wasn’t succeeding in the fashion game. His response? Race card (from the guy who thinks racism is “silly”, mind you). Oh, and throwing yet another famous tantrum for the books. Like, top 5 tantrums of all time.
And then there’s Prince, who, for much of the 80s, was an actual fashion style. He didn’t make statements; he put on clothing and then thousands of people raided thrift stores in attempts to copy him before they went to their respective nightclubs in mascara and jheri curl pompadours.
Prince’s ultimate fashion test? At the end of the day, no one should be able to survive performing at an awards show in a pair of pants with the ass buns cut out. It’s the kind of thing only Prince could do. It may not seem very racy now, in the full blush ignorant bliss that is 2015, but think about it: how many people have done it since then? A handful, tops. Only Prince could do it and it not a) seem desperate (which anybody attempting the stunt after him probably can’t say), and b) ruin his career. The man’s fashion is completely alien and nonsensical, and yet completely unassailable.
8) Sign O’ The Times vs. College Dropout
Here’s the TL;DR version of this section:
Really, once you see it come down to that bit of math, it’s hard to keep going. But, for the curious (or at this point, invested), I’ll show my work.
It’s a pretty straight-forward equation: greatest offering versus greatest offering; winner is the greatest. This wouldn’t be a question worth answering, but L.A. Reid is making me, so we press on.
College Dropout is arguably Kanye’s best record. I’m not as enamored of Dropout as most, but I see its merits, particularly in the context of its time. Kanye had been producing tracks for other artists (many of which he should have kept for himself) and his debut was more of an extension of what he was already known for instead of being representative of an out-of-the-blue new artist. Rap being what it was in early 2004, who can blame audiences for the hype it received? There hadn’t been a lot of mainstream rap albums released around the time West’s debut dropped (February), and 2004 turned out to be a weak year in general. 2004 only turned out about 1 good rap record per month, maybe, and rap by that point was so underwhelming we were treated to the fifth posthumous 2Pac record just in time for Christmas (you know, in case anyone wanted to give half-baked, unfinished remix demos to someone they loved).
Comparing West’s best record to Prince’s best record – and again, context – I can tell you right now this part will go quick.
First, we have to decide which of Prince’s records is “best”, defined here as the album that a) is most representative of the abilities of the artist at a peak, b) has the most songs showcasing as much, and c) is generally recognized as being at least a good, if not great record.
It’s hard to determine that for Prince because you have to narrow down from a handful of classic albums to one. You have to decide between 1999, Purple Rain or Sign O’ the Times. I’ve thought about this a lot and based on some metrics, I’ve determined the following:
– 1999 is the most Prince album ever.
– Purple Rain is his greatest album.
– Sign O’ the Times is his best album.
If someone who had never heard of Prince wanted to know what all the fuss was about, you could put on any of these records, but if you put on 1999 the neophyte will wait until the needle bounces into the final groove of the second LP, look at you with tears in their eyes and ask you to play it all over again, such will be their devotion to Prince. 1999 will make you fan; a dancing, singing in the shower, let me light this candle my dear fan. 1999 is what the color purple sounds like when it’s having sex.
Purple Rain is the album that cemented Prince in history. 1999 was amazing, but Purple Rain showed he could do the magic more than once, and in different ways. 1999 made him famous, while Purple Rain made him a god amongst stars.
Sign O’ the Times is the record all the critics love and just makes these conversations easier to have with white people. The quality of its genre spread is amazing, and by that point it was clear that Prince could do anything. It is the album that has his best efforts spread across the most genres of music. It is the album that shows you what kind of art he is capable of. So Sign O’ the Times it is.
This is the part where I normally insert a spreadsheet breaking down the tracks and what-not, but in light of the fact that I had to narrow down Prince’s numerous legendary albums to figure out which one I would use to make a case against West’s easily-picked solitary offering, I’m going to give my fingers a break and let the question speak for itself.
9) Prince pimps the music industry hard. Kanye largely remains an industry tool.
Remember Musicology? Prince hadn’t had a real hit record in a long time, so he made a pimpin’ decision and came up with a way to turn the industry’s hype machine against itself: he “sold” copies of his new album, Musicology, with tickets at his live shows, which were counted as sales of the album. The trick gave Prince his first platinum record in years, and was so cunning that Billboard and Soundscan changed the rules for sales determination moving forward. The icing on the cake, of course, was that the album was actually good, netting Prince two Grammys wins that year, with three more nominations as a side dish. The Grammys are largely a critical wash, but can still generate a lot of buzz for sales, and Prince happened to crack that formula coming and going.
Kanye? Kanye is a firm product of the industry. His idea of working the hype machine is to be as grotesquely narcissistic as possible, which most of the people who don’t buy his records will tell you is half the reason they don’t buy his records: no matter how they feel about his music, they simply can’t stomach handing over good money to someone so ridiculously sophomoric. And while he does great business despite such finger-wagging, he could be doing so much more. He hasn’t crossed the line of no return yet – the point at which the mere sight of him in a headline will generate more revulsion that interest – but he’s due. For someone who’s only been in the game a little over a decade, that’s a pretty fast burn-out.
10) Is Kanye even great?
When the movie The Equalizer came out last year I was skeptical of its merits. My main issue (of which there were a few) was with the casting of Denzel Washington in the lead. Let’s be clear: Denzel is a fine actor. One can quibble with the stock in which he chooses to invest the use his talents, but one cannot watch fare like Power, Malcolm X and Training Day and not marvel at the intensity he is capable of generating when the material rises to the occasion of his abilities.
All that said, Denzel is an actor who is too aware of how he is perceived by the public and frequently caters to the impression of himself as an upstanding classy black woman catnip, a sort of high end self-imposed typecasting. It is an impression that graduated long ago to brand, and it flavors the projects that he chooses to do and what those projects become capable of once he is attached: the pulled punches, the scenes he will not do, the words he will never say. Eventually all those pulled punches add up. Eventually, you draw a line in the sand so wide no one is willing to jump it to get to you for fear of discovering you’re not going to give them what they want.
In short, you can hit your brand too hard.
Kanye West is a brand, a product in the starkest sense and most base definition of the word. That we at times may find him entertaining is a byproduct of what he does, not his goal. But West’s problem isn’t that his brand is stuck in a musical groove; it’s that it’s stuck in a behavior groove.
West has a sincere and clear desperation to be great. Not, mind you, to be a better musician or to be a better producer or to have the best albums or videos in a given year. He’s not dedicated to actually doing any of those things. He has, however, doubled down on his attempts to convince us that these are happening. You can hear it in his whining, his meltdowns, his rants, his mumbling. They won’t let me in. They won’t give me what they give other designers. My clearly untalented wife will be the next Beyonce. All desperation.
For all the talk about the daring of his artistic risks and the scope of his vision, half of his proclamations aren’t original, and the other half are eventually exposed for the half-baked ideas they are. On this front his albums 808 and Heartbreaks and Yeezus stand as the most damning evidence.
Regarding the first, for which only the public can be blamed, much was made of his attempt to capture the zeitgeist of electronic emo soul with 808s & Heartbreaks, as if no rapper before had ever attempted to brave such vast wastelands, as if no one had ever heard of Lauryn Hill or Bone Thugs-N-Harmony; as if Andre 3000 hadn’t drawn the paint-by-numbers outline for Kanye’s entire catalogue for him five years before with The Love Below; as if Mos Def’s The New Danger – an album West was at least in the orbit of – hadn’t shown an earnest way of incorporating singing into your rap career four years before; as if The Foreign Exchange hadn’t just released Leave It All Behind the month before 808s came out.
Understand, these are not charges against Kanye directly. Anyone can put out bad or unoriginal music and claim it to be the best record of the year. An artist doesn’t generate their own greatness. Greatness is awarded. No, these are charges against those who claim his greatness on his behalf, who proclaim him king of a mountain already tread by – and in some cases, still sat upon by – pre-existing royalty. I forgive that portion of his audience that is young, that cannot largely be expected to look beyond what is in front of them because that is what it means to be young. But I cannot as easily forgive the same from people who know better, who have seen these examples and more, yet still proclaim West to be an adequate torchbearer of such vision.
Here is something about West even I cannot dispute: he is one of bestselling artists in music, like, ever. He is clearly capable of making music that people are willing to spend money on. He is great at hype. He is great at moments. But he is not patently, inarguably, eternally, artistically great.
As I write this, the internet is a-boil with discussions about whether or not Drake used a ghostwriter on some songs, courtesy of an accusation by Meek Mill, who needs a ghostwriter on most songs. The interesting part of this kerfuffle (because a rap beef between Drake and anyone is automatically degraded from beef to vegetarian by-product on principle) is how willfully ignorant audiences remain about the productivity of superstar rappers.
West’s average number of producers is two (including himself) and after his third release his albums begin to explode with co-writers (and not just the typical sample credit he has to give for the plethora of songs he borrows from). His last few albums have yielded a handful of producers per track…a far cry from the lone credits he assumed for his first record. The albums are so farmed out that no one really bothers arguing if he is the best producer in rap, not for some years now. No one bothers arguing if he is the best rapper in the genre, not sincerely. Not even close. We all know the answer: there are too many other rappers that are clearly better at doing it, and that’s before you start pulling hungry rappers without record deals off the street. There are better mainstream rappers than Kanye West. There are more dexterous and clever rappers; rappers with more compelling subject matter and stronger vocabularies and a hundred times more earnest.
The disparity between Kanye piece by piece begs the question why we ask the question that way at all. If he isn’t the best at anything, what is it that makes him so great?
West is the emblematic of the type of accidental celebrity that can consume the public mind these days, and for largely the same reasons. The fairer question would be, how is he different at this point in his life from Flavor Flav at the height of his VH1 madness? Why, when his music is at its laziest and least compelling, are we still comparing him to great musicians at all?
And now we arrive at the fatal logic of the Kendrick Lamar Hurdle.
If, for some reason, after all these many words, Prince isn’t getting the job done for you – because he’s not rap, because he’s old, because he hasn’t put out a great record in a long time, whatever – we still must wrestle with the Kendrick Lamar Hurdle. We’re not comparing random no-deal rappers to West now. Now we are comparing him to someone who is firmly in the game and uncontestably at the top of it. Every artistic thing that can be said about Kanye West by his acolytes applies double for Kendrick Lamar just off the content of To Pimp a Butterfly alone. Kendrick is a better rapper than West in every way by leagues – vocabulary, flow, engaging subject matter, production value, musicality, originality. To Pimp a Butterfly is better than at least 80% of West’s output, if not all of his output. As influential as some of West’s work might be – even to Lamar – it cannot withstand a track-by-track weighing of their merits when faced with the personally uncompromising and political juggernaut that is Butterfly. It is an album – not a song; an entire record – you will be playing five years from now, and talking about for ten. Can the same be said just four years after Watch the Throne? I firmly believe that Kanye’s long-hinted SWISH album is constantly being delayed because better music keeps coming out before it, and Butterfly probably set West back a year. If SWISH comes out in 2015 at all it will be too soon, and not just because I won’t like it.
So to be clear:
Everyone knows he’s not the best rapper.
Everyone knows he’s not the best producer.
Everyone knows he can’t play an instrument.
Everyone knows he doesn’t sell the most records.
Everyone knows he doesn’t produce the best videos.
Everyone knows his attempts at fashion are laughable.
Even taken collectively, he hits most of these fields at a below average level. All of these observations are practically empirical.
So what is it exactly that’s supposed to be so great about Kanye West?
Kanye West is not any of the coddling euphemisms that journalists and fans like to use to mask their lack of objectivity. He is also not a “lightning rod”; he paints targets on himself intentionally. He is not misunderstood; he is juvenile. He is not an unheralded genius; he is an overrated narcissist. He is not great; he is popular. He is not standing up for artists’ rights; he is a complete tool of the market. He is not bravely outspoken; he is a spoiled anti-intellectual. He is not the best at anything he does; he is merely hip to the maxim of all press is good press, and knowing how audiences operate. In light of the evidence I would argue that, as an artist, he isn’t great at all.
And on no day of the week in any year is he, nor will he ever be, as great as Prince.
In this endeavor I must thank the following people, without whose cold hard cash this treatise would not be possible. I like to think of them collectively as the WTF Group – Woods Trust Fund Group – though that’s mostly just a slick handle for a Kickstarter cabal: Mike Alcock, Anil Dash, Amy David, Chanda Green, Gabriel Israel Green, Glen Kizer, Sam Mercer, Mike (last name unknown), Bob Nelson, Amanda Page, Ed Plunkett, Oulanje Regan, Louise Robertson, Kelly Stumbaugh, and Rob Sturma. I also want to thank the various people who saw early versions of this and offered suggestions. Thank you all.
It’s all their fault.