I feel like I need a certain disclaimer before I say anything else. Disclaimer: I am a Kanye West fan. That seems sufficient.
When I saw that there was an interview on NY Times with Kanye West, knowing that his album Yeezus is coming out this week, I had to take a look. Because, with Kanye, that is precisely how fans, critics, and haters must approach. We have come to learn the practice of ignoring most of what Kanye does and says, until around album time because we know that is when Mr. West is in his element. Many tune out all the filler to his storied musical career that has spanned about 9 years, 6 albums, 21 grammys, 11 BET Hip-Hop Awards, and blah blah blah.
“Fans used to idolize a whole star—they would take one star and love everything about that star. Today there are different fan levels. Now fans only idolize parts of the stars. Today people can idolize a star in one area and forget about him in another.” – Andy Warhol, Philosophy of Andy Warhol, p. 84
If I may, I will take this opportunity to introduce the background for my look at Kanye’s career. His name is Andy Warhol. Having read Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, I must say that in many ways Kanye West, who habitually eludes the media for the way they misconstrue his message, echoes much of the sentiment expressed in Warhol’s attempt at “philosophy,” especially with regard to “business art.” Warhol’s book is a comical one, correlating with his exuberant personality and prolific artistry often accredited as the catalyst for what is now referred to as “Pop Art.”
And Mr. West follows this lineage: utilizing the prolific, braggadocio verses of tracks like “I am A God” and “New Slaves” to at once delight and ridicule the industry that has dubbed him “Yeezus.” He has become a sort of pop culture deity. It is not, however, without downside—the parts many fans wish to forget about. His high-profile relationship with megastar Kim Kardashian is tabloid gold, even more so now with the birth of their first daughter. His induction into the Kardashian clan, who has singlehandedly set the precedent for the intrusiveness of reality television, brought him so much grief from tabloids: “the amount of backlash I got from it is when I decided to not be on the show anymore.”
Yeezus & Business Art
Yeezus pleads for those drug-induced moments of beauty, “ratchet” instances of sublimity, as they can be his only escape from a life of global acclaim. He admits, however, that with any project there is a percentage of the effort that is solely dedicated to “fulfilling a perception.”
Of fame, beauty, and art, Warhol has much to say in his Philosophy, admitting that it is important to remember the business aspect that must come after art. While recovering from an assassination attempt, in the hospital, he recalls, “I realized I really did have a kinetic business, because it was going on without me. I liked realizing that, because I had by that time decided that ‘business’ was the best art. Business art is the step that comes after art…Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art” (Warhol, 92).
Kanye’s name and reputation in the business precedes him, his name bringing to mind images of a microphone being snatched from a teenage star at the Video Music Awards in 2009. In the Times piece by Jon Caramanica, ‘Ye speaks of a life without regret: “If anyone’s reading this waiting for some type of full-on, flat apology for anything, they should just stop reading right now.” But to what extent can we say the scene at the VMA’s was part of what Warhol explains as “Business Art”?
‘Ye is not apologetic for voicing his opinion that night, but admits that it set a strong expectation for his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy which followed:
“People have such a strong feeling about it. ‘Dark Fantasy’ was my long, backhanded apology. You know how people give a backhanded compliment? It was a backhanded apology…‘Let me show you guys what I can do, and please accept me back. You want to have me on your shelves.’ I don’t have some type of romantic relationship with the public. I’m like, the anti-celebrity, and my music comes from a place of being anti. That was the album where I gave people what they wanted.”
And the public seemed to forgive, at least by the numbers. His album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy received RIAA Platinum Certification in the US on January 11, 2011. In the summer of 2011, another million-and-a-half watched as he recruited Jay-Z for Watch the Throne. Last summer, he shared the wealth, sitting at the “helm” as he offered up a G.O.O.D Music grab-bag entitled Cruel Summer, hustling over 400,000 copies.
Seldom do we have a superstar that cherishes his own anonymity, what little of it may still exist. But in a time where every sound bite can become a mouthful very quickly, Kanye seems to be learning about the kinds of “spaces” he occupies, to use another “Warholian” term:
“Wasted space is any space that has art in it. An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have but that he—for some reason—thinks it would be a good idea to give them” (Warhol, 143).
Does Mr. West want to take up space with his Yeezus offering? Well, he does ask that you “Respect [his] trendsetting.” He references a French Corbusier lamp as his “greatest inspiration” for this album. “I lived in Paris in this loft space and recorded in my living room, and it just had the worst acoustics possible, but also the songs had to be super simple, because if you turned up some complicated sound and a track with too much bass, it’s not going to work in that space.”
‘Kanye being Kanye’
Perhaps the most endearing quality (to some, to others it may be infuriating) of Mr. West is the fact that he is, in his own words, an “opinionated individual.” He will not hesitate to state his opinions, no matter how race sensitive:
“I am in the lineage of Gil Scott-Heron, great activist-type artists. But I’m also in the lineage of a Miles Davis — you know, that liked nice things also.” He says, “I have the most Grammys of anyone my age, but I haven’t won one against a white person.”
It is with this duality that fans and critics can accept (or reject) a piece like Yeezus. One will come to expect references to French luxuries juxtaposed with jumbled “Swag-hili” speech.
Ultimately, from the interview there are times where I sit here and can say confidently that he is the Andy Warhol of our generation and make interesting connections to their “philosophy” and gravitas in pop culture. By the same token, Mr. West remains true to himself, as several responses can only be classified accurately by the phrase, ‘Kanye being Kanye.’
Warhol admits, ultimately, that he lied to every publication that wanted a piece of him.
“I used to like to give different information to different magazines because it was like putting a tracer on where people get their information. That way I could always tell when I meet people what newspapers and magazines they were reading by the things the would tell me I had said… The right story in the right place can really put you up there for months or even years” (Warhol, 79).
Kanye West may come across with a similar abrasion or insincerity in the June 11 Times article by Jon Caramanica. Tempered by the interviewer’s admission that “evident fatigue” is reflected in his given responses, I’d like to posit the exercise of analyzing the excerpt with a keen eye for ‘Warholian’ (if you will) philosophy.