I originally wrote this in July, and my friends told me not to post it. They said I was out to lunch for imagining that Kanye West will matter in fifty years. Well, that was July, when Kanye was holed up in Hawaii recovering from the Taylor Swift fiasco.
Let's take stock of how he's spent the last few months: the G.O.O.D. Fridays initiative, in which he releases a new song every week, has provided the highest-quality-song-you've-heard-since-last-Friday with brutal efficiency, and it has ignited interest in the debut of music. He's taken the best of his maximal, symphonic style from his first three albums and funneled it into a leaner, grimier brand of hip-hop. There's also the film: "Runaway Love" won't make the AFI 100, but it captures a visual style unique to our time, and you will remember Selita Ebanks in that costume. His new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, largely drawn from music from G.O.O.D. Fridays and the film, just earned a 10/10 on Pitchfork. That's a good omen for what follows, my slightly nutty prediction.
Ask old people about their year college years. You'll hear about the ravishing girl at the other end of the dance floor (surprise, it's your grandma), the G.I. bill (when going to college was free), and an emotionally charged political event (on the level of the Civil Rights Movement, not the Rally for Sanity).
You'll also hear about people they never met, pop icons like The Beatles or Jackie Robinson.
Prediction: when your grandkids ask you about what it was like to be twenty years old in 2010, Kanye West will be on a shortlist of about three people you can't help but bring up.
For those so doubtful that you'd rather re-watch the Lebron Decision Spectacular, here's a series of concessions: He's not the biggest name (Barack) or the hottest chick in the game (Beyonce). In fact, he's not even at the top of his occupation: he's certainly not the best rapper (Jay-Z), the most dynamic rapper (Lil' Wayne), or the most promising rapper (Nikki Minaj). He's not the most striking (Gaga). And he's hardly the most attractive (Angelina, Don Draper).
But Kanye has been four things: a reflection of our culture's defining narcissism, a strong yet relatable black man who paved the way for the president, a pop music innovator with the potential for timeless, and a titan in fashion.
Narcissist in the Mirror, Mirror of the Culture:
You've already heard everyone and their stepsister tell you that TMZ and Twitter represent major changes in American culture. I'd just like to add that Kanye has adapted beautifully to the new reality.
Here's what I mean by narcissistic culture: there's an underlying connection between celebrities updating the public on their "statuses," Americans, even reasonable ones like us, portraying their lives online as if they are celebrities managing their brands, sex tapes, and the staggering rise in diagnoses of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Kanye is in the eye of that storm. He isn't alone there, but unlike Spencer Pratt, he's more than a punch line.
Since the beginning of his career, Kanye has been convinced that he should be famous just for being him. Rather than creating a perfected image, he broadcasted his vulnerabilities and contradictions on his first album. Like us, he was a jumble, but a way more compelling one: "first n**** with a Benz and a backpack."
Kanye is also so entertaining that, unlike, say, Taylor Swift, he merits constant coverage. Let's be real: "Single Ladies" is one of the best videos of all time, and Kanye reminded us of the beauty of live TV.
Strong Black Man, Darling of White America:
Before he was a mega star, Kanye was Kanye West, an aspiring producer and bona fide racial oddity: a black kid with a black name from a professional class family in a pink Polo. He was the strong, intelligent, charming black man who won over white America before Barack did. He used more than enough references that would resonate with a professional class white mother -- the skits on his first two albums are best placed in the genre of literary campus satire. More than any other figure in American race relations, Kanye was a black man who was not, excuse the jargon, an "other" (ok fine: Colin Powell).
But Kanye has hardly been a white-washed corporate product. When he said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people" after Katrina, there was scant outcry that he was radical. It was uttered in a desperately sad moment, and it was a reasonable deduction given the Federal government's pathetic response to Katrina. He warmed up white teenagers to support an assertive black candidate for president en masse.
Further, his music reflects his strong emotional connection to his heritage. The technique Kanye brought back to mainstream hip hop production -- the sampling of decades-old soul vocals that come off as cries from the past -- communicates a deep respect for a tradition of African-American music. In combining soul samples with his childhood recollections, Kanye has poignantly demonstrated a kindred connection between black history and modern black life. He has thus taken up a politically vital theme of Baldwin and Morrison (and a host of other artists across in different media) and showed it to a wider audience. That means his music is substantive. It also means it's going to be very easy for music critics in the academy to canonize him as part of a larger movement, making him a topic of class discussion for the class of 2060.
Even apart from any over-analyzed political stuff, Kanye's music is pretty special. The feel-good, sing-along quality of his soulful songs begs to be nostalgically listened to in groups. I don't know about you, but I want to hear "Good Life" at my son's Bar Mitzvah.
Let's do away with the qualifiers: College Dropout and Late Registration are classics. Enough said. After those, there was Graduation. Freshman year, my hall bonded over its release. The kid next to me had the Murakami design from the cover on his wall. It's a testament to Kanye that we talked about the album, not a few individual tracks. In fact, I can't think of another artist whose albums can be compared by almost everyone I know. We knew it wasn't an intimate miracle like The College Dropout, but we were rapt by it nonetheless.
You can't help but feel really good when you hear "American Boy." Two years later, it's still in heavy rotation. And that's not because of the producer no one can stand, will.i.am. Kanye's slick, adorable verse is in the millennial culture pantheon: "And you thought he was cute be-fore/look at this pea-coat -- tell me he broke." At the risk of pedantry, that's the ethos of late capitalism in one line.
Then there's the galactic disaster: 808s and Heartbreak. I'm not an apologist for this space-age crap. It's a stain on his career. It's emotionally out-of-touch and totally delusional. But we're all pumped for the new album anyway. And who knows -- maybe it'll, uh, seem visionary in retrospect. I'm forgiving one mistake for 2.5 classic albums (Graduation needs some time) in the same decade.
Titan of Fashion:
Enough digital ink has been spilled on this point, but that doesn't make it any less true: Kanye sets fashion trends more than any other man. Rappers have been wearing Tommy Hilfiger since the early 90s. It's not as if Kanye brought preppy style to black America. But he certainly retrofitted the look and inspired guys across the color barrier. My high school uniform: orange Polo with a blue horse and orange and blue low top Nike dunks. Kanye made white kids take their Polo shirts from the back of closet and wear them to school. That's the kind of influence that makes a celebrity truly memorable.
Though he was way behind my campus, Kanye was ahead of most of America in that thing called hipster. It was still a (pseudo) elite/effete look before Kanye. Now, it's perfectly normal in New York for a straight guy to wear a deep v-neck and truly tight jeans. In fact, I've seen more black guys dressed that way than white ones. And when Kanye put stunna shades on the cover of the single "Stronger," unnecessary-glasses-history was made. When you find those in your college trunks in fifty years, you'll remember who wore them first.