Kanye West may be gunning for publicity, but his music is still worth listening to

OPINION: West has made so much great music in the past that Black America should at least hear him out before turning our back

Kanye West (above) brought out several surprise guests at his “DONDA” listening party, including fellow rapper DaBaby, who spent the past several weeks facing some earned criticism. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

I met Dr. Donda West a few times and interviewed her once. She was brilliant and warm, an academic who carried herself with the grace and calm wisdom of your favorite professor. She was also filled with pride in her son, Kanye West. But she was filled with pride in him long before he became successful—it’s her pride in him that lifted him to become a success.

She’s the one who told him he could do anything. Donda and Kanye were a single parent-single child household for a long time ,and she told me she worshipped the ground he walked on. She let him do anything and told him everything he did and thought was great. The massive ego that powers Kanye began with her.

That’s not in any way a criticism—it’s beautiful that she imbued her son with the confidence to pursue his gigantic dreams. But now that he’s come to his 10th solo album, Donda, after a career of mind-boggling highs and baffling lows, we can see that he’s taken her message someplace wild.

When Dr. West was alive Kanye’s sound was bright and poppy and hopeful. Since her passing it’s often been dark and world-weary and egotistical. On many of Donda songs, he’s giving us a grinding, techno-electro-rock sound. He’s preceded this album with a series of events that may reveal something about who he thinks he is.

Kanye West and Donda West thegrio.com
Author Donda West (R) and her son, hip-hop performer Kanye West atend a book signing for her book “Raising Kanye: Life Lessons from the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar” on May 9, 2007 at Borders in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images}

Kanye is quick to liken himself to Walt Disney and Steve Jobs as someone who’s already had a massive impact on American culture. But one key difference between those people and the rapper is that Disney and Jobs built institutions that have outlasted them and have changed lives. I could see Ye one day building some sort of Kanye World as a sort of postmodern, immersive art hip hop experience in Wyoming, or a series of innovative Kanye Hotels that change the game.

So far, however, Kanye’s contribution to culture has been much more ephemeral than Disney’s or Jobs’. Instead of creating with the future in mind, he erects attention grabs—a series of events that add up to “look at me!” As if he’s still a kid trying to get his mother’s attention.

In an era where artists are likely to drop an album with little to no hype, I appreciate Kanye trying to make his album release an event and trying to hijack the culture. But for someone who sees himself as more than just an artist, his attention grabs—“remarrying” Kim, beefing with Drake, lighting himself on fire—are just reality show-esque stunts.

Does any of this theater add up to anything? Does it reveal anything about the album? How does having Kim in a wedding dress relate to his sad song about losing her or where he’s at as an artist right now? He’s not telling us something about the album, he’s trolling us for attention. This is what he did with Donald Trump.

Kanye West is seen at ‘DONDA by Kanye West’ listening event at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on July 22, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Universal Music Group)

It’s unclear to me whether he ever supported or even understood any of Trump’s policies, it’s just that he knew that standing beside him in a MAGA hat would trigger his fans. It seems like the whole point was triggering us and getting attention. Kanye’s support of Trump is an unforgivable sin—he gave comfort and cover to a white supremacist, which equals committing treason against Black America—but it also reveals something about Ye.

Recently he performed beside Marilyn Manson and DaBaby, two people who have become villains, (he also invited Chris Brown to be on his album) and suddenly we notice Kanye is repeatedly aligning himself with villains. Perhaps because he sees himself as a villain? Maybe he wants to be a heel—a pro wrestling term for a villain. Maybe he loves trolling and his guilt around the death of his mother makes him feel like a bad guy.

The only part of the Donda rollout that strikes me as more than a reality show attention grab is the Donda stem player that he’s selling for $200 a device—it allows you to remix and remake the album in almost any way you want. This radically changes the recording artist-fan relationship. This is where he takes a step toward Steve Jobs territory and risks truly changing the game.

Recording artists typically see their albums as sacred, something to be listened to, period. But some visual artists engage in participatory art, presenting something and giving viewers the chance to add to it, or subtract from it, or change it in some small way, thus giving the audience a chance to interact with the piece rather than simply viewing it.

In this vein Kanye is giving us the chance to not just play his album, but to play with his album. As far as I know, major musicians have never done this before. This is genius because even if you don’t like a song, you can still have fun remaking it.

Kanye West thegrio.com
Vanguard Award winner Kanye West speaks onstage during the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on August 30, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Should Black America engage with Kanye’s album? I think that’s a personal decision but I notice that we tend to be loyal to celebrities we love, especially musicians. If you go to a Black party you’ll still hear records by Michael Jackson and R. Kelly—if you think we should cancel Kanye but not them, I do not understand you.

I will forever be mad at Kanye for supporting Trump and I do not appreciate his childish attention grabs because they devalue his art, like giving me a new Prada suit in a trashy bedazzled bag. But Kanye still has the potential to make amazing and compelling music—he’s pushed the boundaries of hip hop so far that “Kanye” could be it’s own genre.

Even if you find his attention grabs to be childish, even if you find his support of Trump to be offensive—and I agree on both—I think that if you love hip hop and you’re curious about where it’s most thoughtful creators are pushing the culture, then you ought to at least check out Kanye’s albums just to see where his head is at.

Maybe you’ll hate Donda and only listen once, maybe you’ll like one or two of its 27 songs, but seriously I think that Kanye’s such a unique musical thinker. He’s made so much great music in the past that we should at least hear him out before turning our back. I listened to Donda once through. I won’t do that again but I gave the man a chance because after a long, incredible career, I think he deserves that.

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