Photo courtesy of Ovidiu Hrubaru / Shutterstock.com
Whatever credence you give to Kanye West’s self-proclaimed genius or messianic ego—however entertained (or disgusted) you are by his unapologetic misogyny, his combustible narcissism, or his jaw-dropping megalomania—you have to admit: The man knows how to get people’s attention.
That’s no small feat in the era of Trump. But with West, the creative chaos has focus and purpose, and his talent—the wellspring of his obsessive unpredictability—is genuine. Kanye West knows what he is doing. And he’s not crazy, even though he sometimes suggests that he is (“Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” he raps). The proof is in his work and life, which long ago melded into a bizarre form of spectacle-based performance art.
Consider the peculiar and seemingly chaotic (but not) release of West’s latest album, The Life of Pablo, the title of which is an oblique reference to another famous womanizing art genius, Pablo Picasso.
On Twitter he first announced the name of the new album as So Help Me God, then changed it to Swish, then teased his fans with the acronym T. L. O. P., before finally revealing the actual title. In the meantime, he had a Twitter fight with Taylor Swift over the lyrics to his song Famous, in which he muses about one day having sex with her. Then he doubled-down on the controversy in the song’s official video, which features Kanye lying naked in bed with some equally naked, life-like dolls of celebrities, including Trump, Rihanna, and, you guessed it, Taylor Swift.
When The Life of Pablo was finally released on February 14, it wasn’t actually “released” in the usual sense. It wasn’t “for sale,” it was only available for streaming on Jay Z’s music service Tidal. It stayed that way for six weeks, during which time West kept tweaking and re-releasing tracks with new background vocals and different mixes. On March 31, Apple “accidentally” released the album on its streaming service, Apple Music—which was odd, because West claimed it would never appear there—then took it down. But on April 1, the album was released on both Apple Music and Spotify, and was finally available for purchase on West’s website (after he tweeted that it would “never be for sale”). West continued to fiddle with the songs, however, while his label, Def Jam, explained that the album is a “living, evolving art project.” Then, on June 15, he took the album down and added an entirely new track called “Saint Pablo,” in which he claims he’s this generation’s Einstein. Kanye West’s mercurial genius in an atomic nutshell.
Controlled chaos is West’s oeuvre. Of course he’s married to Kim Kardashian, because who else’s life is sufficiently manic to feed his voracious muse? Kanye is channeling the energy of this moment in history with shrewd, manic precision.
Kanye West is known for creating great albums, for instance, but the entire concept of an “album”—as a collection of eight to 12 songs lasting 45 minutes or so—is a construct of the vinyl era and its inherent limitations. The digital era has no such limits, so he’s just taking the next logical step by deconstructing the whole idea of a finished album, not to mention such antiquated media rituals as press events, release dates, publicity parties, and all the rest. Music now flows in a constant, fluid stream, in infinite directions all at once—so why shouldn’t the artists who create it?
West brings his The Saint Pablo Tour to Xcel Energy Center on October 10, but what the songs will sound like in concert is anybody’s guess. And that is where West’s bizarre approach to this album starts to look like laser-focused marketing brilliance. Genius is not too strong a word for it—especially if, as I suspect, the shoot-from-the-hip spontaneity of it all is, in reality, a carefully orchestrated symphony of über-contemporary street theater.
I hope I’m right, because the future of the republic may depend on it. Kanye West says he’s running for president in 2020, and he already has a Super PAC.