I shall start this piece by throwing out some disclaimers.
One, I will be using the word “rock star” in its stereotypical sense. From this point on, I’m not talking about rock music but actual star quality. However, in our day and age; you can’t say “pop star” because it conjures images of dime-a-dozen Carly Rae Jepsens and you certainly can’t say “rap star” without immediate rebukes and disapproving grunts from Don Lemon or Colin Cowherd.
Two, read everything first and then form an opinion. The title alone will prompt some eye-rolling or people who claim that rap music is still beneath other genres but just bare with me.
Three, I believe Kanye West is a “good” rapper. He’s about a B to B+ for the most part. Then again, was Elvis a great songwriter or guitarist, was Mick Jagger a worldclass singer and was John Lennon really anything but a hipster Bono? Sometimes our pop culture icons are more well-known for their cult of personality rather than their actual talent.
Alright that’s out of the way now and its time for me to make a point. Kanye West is absolutely right. He is the rock star/artist of our generation. Its barely debatable at this point and the fact that it irritates people as opposed to ignored by people is a testament to the polarization of the fiery rapper.
We are at a dearth when it comes to true rock stars. Anthony Kiedis and Eddie Vedder clearly fit the bill but while both bands remain highly lucrative, they are a bit older and while their music clearly remains at a high level; age has matured them. That’s natural and no big deal and its not a detraction from their body of work. I’m also not advocating that heroin usage is cool and going clean is a “sell out” move. Its just when it comes to being pop culture lightning rods, neither of them fit the bill anymore.
Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day has a case. Green Day may not be the punks from Oakland anymore but their music has aged fairly well. They’ve shown a surprising ability to stay in the mainstream and continue to showoff some impressive crossover appeal. American Idiot was probably the biggest album until Adele came around in terms of name recognition and its place in pop culture. It came at a time when a younger generation was vehemently against its current President but while some artists talked about it; few were able to namelessly criticize its government via song, retain pop credibility and not piss off too many people. Hear that, Dixie Chicks?
But again, even after his “meltdown” (which while douche-y wasn’t exactly uncalled for); it seems that Green Day’s time as the pre-eminent voice in music has finally passed. Three albums released in quick succession will do that to a band but even though I’m a bit more tepid on “new” Green Day (though Uno! and Dos! are definitely fun, while 99 Revolutions might be one of the catchiest Green Day songs in a long time); I still look forward to new material by them. Still though, his name isn’t exactly well-known throughout the country. Odds are your parents or siblings couldn’t pick his name out of the crowd.
Julian Casablancas of the Strokes had a shot. A “cool” name, a voice and showmanship that was taken straight out of the “cool rockstar” playbook and youth was all on his side. Hell, the band earned a Rolling Stone magazine cover after one album in which the magazine began its review by saying “This is the stuff legends are made out of”. But Casablancas’s relationship with the media soured, the media moved on to other bands and while the Strokes retain popularity; they are a past memory it seems plus radio was never kind to them which they seem perfectly fine with.
Brandon Flowers of the Killers had a shot too. He had the looks, was willing to be controversial and his band strung together a few big time hits in quick succession. Then at 27 or so, he started acting too much like Bono and the last two albums (while favorites of mine) seemed to appear too milquetoast for anything.
Other bigtime bands such as the Black Keys, Mumford & Sons and even blink-182 just haven’t fully struck a chord as individuals which is great but when finding a “rock star” its not the greatest. Ya see, the press craves a rock star that generates headlines and sells papers (or online advertisements) and while Patrick Carney rips on Justin Bieber or Spotify; it doesn’t really shock anyone. Then again, he was just being honest.
Which brings me to Kanye West. I will cut to the chase. You either love or hate Kanye. You are sick of him or waiting for the next big soundbite from him to debate. You either see him as a mad genius or stark mad. He’s either passionate about his work or angry at everyone for not accepting it. He’s trendy while being avant garde. You name it, he might just well be the opposite in your opinion.
Kanye has made “weird” cool. Yes, in the same instance that David Bowie made glam and androgyny relevant in the years of Richard Nixon’s presidency. He pushed the envelope in ways that weren’t sexual, a la Madonna, but thought-provoking. He was brutally honest to the point of turning off various segments of America from Republicans to suburban Americans to really, everyone else.
While Lady Gaga has done a great job for her own image too, she almost seems like the starter of a trend but not necessarily one to keep it up for the duration of her career. She’s still cutting edge but she came out of the gates swinging and the country seems to just associate her with “trying too hard” now.
Every time he gets the chance though, Kanye sprints to another dimension of planned insanity. Love him or hate him, how can you not say “damn, that’s ballsy” about a guy who releases an album without an album cover, without a real single, with a highly controversial title and a song that declares himself a “God”. How can you marvel at John Lennon comparing the Beatles to Jesus (actually calling himself BIGGER than Jesus) yet say that Kanye is getting too big for his britches?
Kanye was initially the antidote to music heads who were sick of the gangsta rap revival and he almost started out as a guy who made people laugh. Gold Digger is a “fun” track but there’s some substance in it. Then Kanye turned a Daft Punk sample into a full-fledged behemoth hit. When you think you had him cornered, he started making electopop music cool before Ke$ha and T-Pain took it to the extreme and then decided to release an album of him singing in Auto-Tune lamenting about relationships and his personal life.
Without 808s & Heartbreak, it becomes a lot harder for rappers like Drake, Kid Cudi, B.O.B. and even to a degree Tyler, the Creator to find a place in the mainstream. Just like without Is This It? by the Strokes, it becomes tough for The Hives, The Vines, the Arctic Monkeys and The Killers to find a place on radio. Just like without Nevermind or Vs. by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, it becomes tough for bands like Bush to hit it big. You can go on throughout music and find out if you strip just one band from existence; it becomes awfully hard to imagine other bands following suit. Where’s The Who without The Beatles and Rolling Stones? Where’s bands like Yes or Cream without Pink Floyd? Where’s Elvis without Chuck Berry and Little Richard?
Just because we might dislike the genre, you can’t discount the importance of such acts. Then after melancholy Kanye was met with mixed reviews, he takes a 180-degree turn and creates My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that contains the braggadocio that made Kanye so polarizing in the first place mixed with some pretty non-mainstream samples. He starts sacrificing radio hits (with the exception of maybe All of the Lights) and starts creating a weird hybrid of progressive and industrial….rap? When has that phrase being uttered before?
But then Yeezus comes after the collaborative effort with Jay-Z that featured shades of various incarnations of Kanye (Otis is reminiscent of pre-808s Kanye) and we are starting to witness an artist that is as eccentric as David Bowie, as daring as Lou Reed, as well-known as Jay-Z, as controversial as Eminem and as charismatic as Jim Morrison. What’s so different about Kanye rocking a kilt as Morrison rocking snakeskin pants?
Kanye isn’t one-dimensional though. He’s probably the most talented producer out there, and while we tend to disregard producers as irrelevant to the final product; his ear for music is unmatched.
Look at the other big stars. Justin Timberlake’s music is stuck in 2005 while his celebrity has gapped his artistry. Jay-Z has released quality content but its getting a bit repetitive. Drake is rap’s Coldplay. Katy Perry will never be called transcendent.
I understand the idea that comparing Kanye to Kurt Cobain is sacrilege in some parts. But remember, the generation before him looked down upon him. People hated Elvis. People despised Jim Morrison. But for all of that, the next generation embraced them that much closer.
You might not like it, but its undeniable.