Mr. West Has Left the Building

Who are we still waiting around to see?
Publish date:

Following the release of Yeezus, veteran producer Rick Rubin claimed that Kanye West wrote many of the album's lyrics in only two hours. In this way, Yeezus—which turned five this year—was the defining album of the Twitter era. Clocking in at 40 minutes, consider for a moment that the album is no longer than the time West seemingly spends sending a string of tweets on a number of topics, with its lyrics—like his tweets—ranging from the unintentionally profound to the painfully haphazard. Amidst the grating noise that is part and parcel of Twitter in 2018, where blue checks adorn neo-Nazis and everyone from anonymous trolls to D-list celebrities lash out at journalists, Kanye’s voice—right or wrong—has always stood out.

If Yeezus is the defining album of the Twitter era, then, ye, released earlier this year as one of five seven-track projects from his Wyoming sessions, is the defining and representative album of the Instagram era, with its core vision containing fewer words and more images. Its iPhone-captured cover, reportedly taken by West on the car ride over to his listening party, speaks both to the album and the Instagram generation, seeking profundity from a mountainous landscape as his car whizzes past, our screens interrupting its fleeting view. The mountains are certainly grand, but there is the suggestion of a reverence that may have been absent when the phone camera clicked.

In his conversation about the album with Ann Powers for NPR, Rodney Carmichael noted that ye could be considered Kanye’s first self-titled record (unless, that is, we count Yeezus). The title speaks to the fragmented nature of the brief album that doesn’t seek to reach as high as any previous release from West and inevitably falls short. After the album’s release, Kanye admitted to scrapping most of the lyrics when his TMZ “slavery was a choice” comments were understandably not well-received. Thus, Kanye broke his own rule, filtering himself in a year he spent pontificating on how wrong he finds it to filter ourselves, not unlike any inspirational Instagram account you happen to stumble upon. The illusion of vulnerability and naked honesty belie the careful selection of photos and captions before a person clicks “share.” If this makes Kanye hypocritical, pick literally any year of the once-provocateur's career.

Hypocrisy, however, is not—and really has never been—the issue with Kanye West. If anything, Kanye’s contradictions have historically been what make him relatable. The Kanye of yesteryears would bounce between the vulgar and the vulnerable in the same song, and sometimes in the same breath. Here was a man who exuded self-confidence and admitted to insecurities as if they went hand-in-hand. He believed in his vision so firmly that he cast it into the heavens as his critics damned him to hell. He was problematic in every way but was at one time admirable in his attempts to verbally work through understanding his homophobia, encountering racism and classism (even while conflating the two), and editing his thoughts in real time. In essence, Kanye was once the person hip-hop turned to in order to learn how to own our human faults and love our many flaws.

These qualities, frankly, are nowhere to be found in the Kanye West of 2018. The year has found the artist walking back statements only to attempt to clarify them and further confuse and infuriate his disappointed but still-hopeful fanbase. The outfit he wore to the offices of The FADER—a Colin Kaepernick sweatshirt with a red MAGA hat—read like someone parodying what they think Kanye would do rather than what Kanye would actually do. This is no longer the man figuring things out in real time or being purposefully contradictory; this is a man who now thinks he has all of the answers, and anyone who contradicts him is stifling free-thought and “dialogue.” This is a faux philosopher who thinks the problems with our society are solved by empty slogans and wishful thinking. This is a man who is confusing his monologues with having actual conversations.

In the midst of this spectacle, West announced the release another album, Yandhi, which was originally slated for release following his performance on this past weekend's Saturday Night Live season premiere. West's relationship to SNL is a curious one, as he has frequently been the butt of jokes he did not find funny, once immortalizing his feelings about the show and its cast in the lyrics of “POWER.” Yet, despite the occasional bad blood, West has also taken the stage to debut new songs through innovative performances, and was even invited to the 40th anniversary show, where he did an extended medley of songs old and new and found himself in the midst of a Wayne’s World sketch he actually played along with.

But the riveting Kanye of old was missing on Saturday’s show. As cliché and fruitless as reminiscing on “the old Kanye” has become if Kanye was the same person, imagine the once-perfectionist seeing the sloppy performer who took the stage on Saturday. Kanye has himself admitted to not seeking perfection anymore, but there is a wide margin between perfection and outright pitiful. There was the Lil Pump-assisted “I Love It,” Kanye’s most popular song in years, which felt more like a half-baked sketch that the actors forgot to rehearse than a musical performance. There was “We Got Love,” which ceded much of the stage to Teyana Taylor and a recording of Lauryn Hill, with Kanye awkwardly forgetting the few lyrics he sang. Then, in an unprecedented move, SNL greenlit a third Kanye performance during the end credits, where Kid Cudi and 070 Shake joined him for “Ghost Town" before the broadcast cut out.

Post-show, most media coverage was focused on Kanye’s unaired speech after the final performance—which touched on his admiration for Trump, conspiracy theories about Democrat recruitment strategies, and the “bullying” he receives for wearing the red MAGA hat—but the broadcast actually ended in the middle of 070 Shake building up to the liberating and cathartic bridge of “Ghost Town.” Everything learned of Kanye’s ramblings actually came from phone recordings by Chris Rock, Mike Dean, and others, a jigsaw of bizarre statements that piece together an ugly picture.

In the recordings, we learn that Kanye invited SNL cast members back to the stage with him. As he talks, the looks on their faces says it all—they should have politely declined, and stayed out of view. But here they were, on a show that in 2016 invited then-presidential candidate Donald Trump to host, only to bank on making fun of his presidency when he took office. Here they were, on a show that satirized Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in multiple sketches but invited a loud-and-proud Trump supporter the same week that women learned (once again) that men do not face consequences for sexual assault, not when they’re white and have access to the highest offices. This is not to say that the actors are responsible for extending invitations to hosts and musical guests, only that they found themselves in the middle of it all, implicated by their mere physical presence on stage. Here I was, after all, still watching.

We should perhaps stop speculating on Kanye’s mental health and reckless ideas. It hasn’t gotten us, or Kanye, anywhere, and it probably won’t. I’ve taken my own time to eulogize the divide between what he meant to me and how far from that ideal he currently sits, but nostalgia is a sticky web, keeping people stuck in what once was and not what must be.

Instead, we should start looking to those who keep giving Kanye space to continue his dangerous habit of normalizing Trump and all he stands for. Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live, knows all too well the ratings that both Trump and Kanye bring in, whether they’re on his stage one week or made fun of the next. Those of us who continue to tune in should ask ourselves what we’re waiting to hear and whether that answer can’t be found elsewhere, from someone else. Those of us who keep reluctantly walking back to the stage he has invited us to should perhaps turn around and walk the other direction. I’m not interested in cancel culture, but I am interested in moving forward in life without the artists and cultural figures who can no longer offer me anything they haven’t themselves figured out.

If Yeezus represents the Twitter era, and ye the Instagram era, then Yandhi—which has reportedly been pushed to Black Friday—may very well represent that single moment from this past Saturday evening, when the SNL broadcast ended but everyone was still tuned in to the persona of Kanye West and not the person before them. It was a moment when the audience should have asked what else we could have been doing, and why we weren’t.

On Saturday morning, Kanye tweeted that he is now just “YE,” or “the artist formally known as Kanye West.” And he’s right: the artist formerly known as Kanye West has left the building. 

Who are we still waiting around to see?

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