in defense of kanye west

kanye 1folks with access to basic cable television and/or an acceptable internet connection were treated to another exciting installment of kanye west’s unorthodox public relations practice last sunday night.  as critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter beck began his acceptance speech for his album of the year award at the grammys, west briefly stormed the stage in what turned out to be mock protest before returning to his seat, ostensibly docile and in good spirits.  the ensuing internet documentations of audience reactions bordered on priceless: numerous screen grabs and forever-looping vines captured multiple celebrities uttering phrases not suitable for television, while a clip of beyoncé mouthing “no, kanye, no!” as jay-z looks on in absolute horror went viral for an appropriately hilarious reason. 

what initially seemed like a humorous reference to west’s infamous 2009 tirade was quickly reframed by a post-grammy interview, in which west asserted that beyoncé was the rightful album of the year winner and that the award ceremony would do well to recognize true artistry. 

understandably, the internet erupted once again.

west elaborated even more the next morning to a tmz reporter at john f. kennedy international airport, assuring the gossip columnist that he did indeed enjoy beck’s music, but morning phase was not album of the year and even beck himself should know this fact.  again, for someone with a history of being vociferous at uncomfortable (or perhaps just inconvenient) times, this clarification still did not bode well for west.  social media was quick to collectively point out that beck played all of the instruments on morning phase and had a hand in its production and engineering yet beyoncé relied on a large team to create her own masterpiece, while a wide spectrum of people – ranging from forgettable high school acquaintances on facebook to michael mcdonald – asserted that west’s outburst was nothing more than a cry for attention from an untalented musician with an oversized ego.

west had been depicted as the villain once again, although this time his detractors merely proved the most salient points of his arguments.  as one of my more level-headed friends pointed out on facebook, “it’s 2015 and artistry is cultural relevance,” a position at the center of west’s post-grammy interview.  beck’s album was undoubtedly well-crafted, a nod to his near-thirty years as a recording artist, but was it memorable?  did it have substantial cultural impact? 

in comparison, beyoncé was surrounded by one of the most massive secret rollout campaigns in music industry history and has subsequently dictated how major recording artists consider unveiling their next highly-anticipated project.  the album also featured a one-to-one ratio of songs and music videos – another unprecedented and game-changing alteration to the album format – and spawned a handful of singles that resonated deeply with large audiences throughout late 2013 and into 2014.  was beyoncé’s album the best of 2014, if examined exhaustively and cohesively under a microscope?  probably not, but it arguably carried more cultural weight and ingenuity than beck’s contribution. 

west’s outburst also needs to be understood in the context of the grammy awards themselves, and the increasing antiquity of industry standards that they represent.  the music industry has had a long and complicated relationship with non-white, non-male artists, and with black artists in particular.  hip-hop was not recognized as a legitimate musical category until almost twenty years after it began to impact large swaths of american culture, and the category of best rap album has subsequently been whitewashed with artists like eminem and macklemore winning a collective 35% of the awards since its inclusion.  the grammys also created an “urban contemporary” category in 2013, a confusing addition that at best allows p.o.c. artists more chances at winning an award but, at worst, comes dangerously close to officially segregating the awards ceremony into white and non-white pop categories.

these antiquated issues are well-documented and are rehashed in some form each year before the awards show airs; in some ways, the committee’s white paternalism can be an ample source of humor and satire, a sign that the old guard is on the decline and drastically out of touch with cultural reception of music.  but the fact that race issues in the music industry are still so transparent midway through the second decade of the twenty-first century is incredibly frustrating to a wide variety of people, and must be especially so for those p.o.c. artists that routinely record grammy-caliber work.  that beck – a white male with a long, positive history in the music business – received the highest accolades for an album that broke or challenged few boundaries while beyoncé – a black female with an equally positive, albeit slightly abbreviated history in the music business – was snubbed for one that restructured the album experience and continued to expand the confines of modern pop and r&b music underscored this skewered patriarchal and racist perception of the grammy awards.

cultural relevancy is – by and large – the main focus of west’s position against the grammys and against that particular award, but his manner of speech and timing inevitably spawned other critiques of his opinion.  for those making secondary or tertiary arguments against kanye or in defense of beck, let me weigh them out and provide a bit of counter-intelligence.

first, the claim that beck is more deserving of the grammy because he played all of the instruments on morning phase does not hold up in the slightest.  while that feat may indicate an impressive musical talent and a prolific compositional ability, it does not automatically indicate that said musician will create a superior product.  that aspect also seems to have no bearing whatsoever on the industry’s decision in awarding artists, as recent recipients of the same grammy, like daft punk and adele, have had a host of collaborative artists, songwriters, and producers to assist them.  countless multi-instrumentalists (see ty segall, mikal cronin, etc.) self-produce fantastic albums year in and year out, yet they are never in serious contention for an award so venerated as album of the year.  i don’t believe that beck’s studio mastery had as much to do with defining his grammy nomination as it did to partially justify his win after the fact.

second, there is still a wild notion adopted by many that kanye west does not understand music, cannot intelligently construct a musical idea, and as such should not be allowed to pass judgement on what constitutes “good music.”  such notions are likely cultivated by only witnessing kanye west the celebrity and not researching or understanding kanye west the musician.  apparently it bears repeating that before he established a successful career as a rapper, west produced jay-z’s the blueprint and had a hand in crafting the sound of early 2000s hip-hop artits like ludacris.  the barebones constructs of beats that would be approved for use by multi-million dollar rappers must have an adequate, consistent rhythm and at least some harmonic and melodic variance, basic elements of musical knowledge west time and again has demonstrated his grasp of.  at this point, one could theoretically truncate the rest of west’s successful career and still use this brief period to illustrate his possession of musical knowledge and an ability to articulate opinions on other music around him.

the fact that west has maintained critically-lauded and commercially successful career under his own name erases any doubt of musical literacy, or of his qualifications to pass judgement on others.  without west’s eclectic musical taste and insatiable appetite for new sounds his 2007 album graduation would not exist, which would subsequently alter the contemporary hip-hop landscape.  graduation immensely expanded the sonic palate of mainstream hip-hop, rejecting the militant sounds of gangster rap that had dominated the landscape for nearly a decade in favor of electronic samples and references to house music.  his comparatively introspective lyrics throughout the album and its follow-up, 808s & heartbreak, ushered in a more cerebral, analytical breed of rappers like kendrick lamar and earl sweatshirt, while his shift to darker, moody undertones undoubtedly paved the way for artists in the vein of kid cudi and drake.

west’s capacity to understand artistry and cultural relevance is high, as he has seen the reception of his own work drastically change the musical playing field and has surrounded himself with artists capable of performing the same feat.  he doesn’t need to be humble, and he usually is not, although the fader has outlined instances in which west has relinquished his awards to artists he deemed more deserving, which should give pause to any accusations of a double-standard.

by and large, most of west’s deriders simply feel that he should have kept his mouth shut, that his comments were abrasive or insulting or unwarranted.  the non-confrontational nature of awards ceremonies may dictate that the time and place to speak one’s mind is elsewhere, but it is paramount that west went so convincingly against the grain, that he refused to adhere to an unwritten set of rules.  his comments solidified what many in the industry try to sweep under the rug: that recognition of true artistry often pales in comparison to a retention of the status quo and to keeping white male artists completely in the driver’s seat.  that so many subsequently lashed out against him is an unsettling reminder that it is midway through the second decade of the twenty-first century and a post-racial music industry is a spec on a five-dimensional plane that seems utterly unattainable.

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