Ye or Nay? Why We’re Still Conflicted About Kanye
On this episode of democracy-ish, Danielle and Toure are in search of a Lost Boy.
On Tuesday, Kanye West dropped his 10th album, “Donda,” named for his mother, which explores Kanye’s relationship with her as well as his Christian faith. But it’s tainted by cameos from musical supervillains Marilyn Manson and DaBaby.
Reviews from critics and even fans are mixed. Toure found “Donda” unimpressive, while Danielle hasn’t listened. She canceled Kanye around the time he claimed slavery was a “choice.”
What, if anything, does Kanye mean for the culture –– and why is he so disconnected from the Black community?
Kanye West may have revolutionized hip-hop, but his politics, his personal struggles and his slavish devotion to capitalism may have done him in.
This week, Kanye released the hotly anticipated “Donda,” his tenth studio album and the first since 2019’s “Jesus Is King.” Clocking in at nearly two hours and 27 tracks, it pays tribute to his mother, Donda West, Ph.D., who died in 2007.
In recent years Kanye has become notorious for missing his own publicized release dates. “Donda” was slated for July, but reports of guest artists appearing at his makeshift recording studio in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta persisted well into August. While Toure characterizes the album as “unimpressive,” many critics simply call it “unfinished.”
Perhaps it’s most telling that the music of “Donda” is overshadowed by Kanye West himself, who has always been a magnet for controversy. He has struggled with his mental health, latched himself to the Kardashian-Jenner clan and waded into politics to disastrous effect.
For Danielle, Kanye “stopped being fun a long time ago,” she says. “Folks will say he’s a genius, but he’s just a really sad and detached human being. And when I look at him, that’s what I see: a spectacle as to detract from the mental illness.”
She thinks music is powerful, but Kanye abuses that power.
“Music moves me, but he’s just not an artist I feel connected to,” she adds. “I don’t think he’s connected to community. I don’t think that he’s connected to anything other than Kanye.”
Whether you’re a Sunday Service stan or a Ye-naysayer, we can all agree that Kanye has an impact on the culture. Let’s get critical.
Episode Highlights –– Kanye the Lost Boy
Shakespeare, Socrates and … Saint Pablo
Unlike his (not-yet-ex-) wife Kim Kardashian and sister-in-law Kylie Jenner, Kanye is a self-made billionaire. He’s a Chicago-bred child of a single mom who famously dropped out of college and made a splash in the hip-hop scene, first as a producer and later as a solo artist. He burst on the scene in the late ’90s with an eclectic style, marked by genre-hopping, instant-earworm samples and clever wordplay. He made millions with best-selling albums over the last 20 years and billions as a fashion entrepreneur.
Somehow, Kanye evolved from criticism of George W. Bush –– shouting that he “doesn't care about black people” during a nationally televised benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005 –– to his high-profile endorsement of Donald Trump and eventually his own presidential run in 2020.
Along the way, Kanye argued that 400 years of slavery was a “choice,” a legacy that led to Black Americans today being “mentally imprisoned.” He once tweeted that Bill Cosby was innocent. Over the years he has compared himself to Leonardo da Vinci, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Shakespeare, Socrates and Andy Warhol, to name a few.
After Ye’s MAGA phase, should we even listen at all?
Toure sees a number of things to unpack about Kanye on the occasion of the “Donda” release.
“For one thing, a lot of folks are saying they refuse to listen to it at all,” he notes. “And I totally understand –– unless they continue to listen to R. Kelly and Michael Jackson or laugh at Bill Cosby’s jokes.”
Toure sees Kanye’s support for Trump, even as the former president spouted white supremacist rhetoric, as “very painful” for many folks, whether or not they were fans of Kanye’s music.
Danielle was sour on Kanye long before he ever donned a red MAGA hat.
Years ago she saw him perform live –– “I forget what album it was, but the motherfucker laid on his back the whole time, bitching and crying about Nike not letting him on their board,” she says.
“In a lot of ways he has pushed creativity forward. He has pushed ownership forward, obviously, because he’s a billionaire multiple times over. But the attitude that he has … the command that he has … and then the bullshit that comes out of his mouth. I’m just –– not for him.”
Yeezus walks … but our patience is running out
Toure sees “a deep sense of victimhood” in Kanye –– the conviction that he’s “so great and so brilliant that he belongs on the top level of whatever it is,” be it hip-hop, fashion or political power.
“When folks say no to him, he is still shocked,” Toure adds. “Part of that comes from his mother.”
As a music journalist, he interviewed Donda West a few times. She was a professor of English and a Fulbright scholar who raised Kanye on her own.
“She told me she worshiped the ground he walked on,” Toure says of Donda. “She told him that he could do anything, and she gave him the confidence to feel like he could accomplish anything. And that’s a beautiful thing as he was a kid in Chicago trying to become a hip-hop producer.”
However, that self-esteem spiraled out of control: “It has become this massive, egotistical explosion of look at me-ness,” Toure adds. “There is a reality show aspect to him … which doesn't actually serve anything. I think he's had a fairly extraordinary musical career. But the last three albums have been terrible. I made it through all of “Donda,” and it really was very unimpressive.”
Some people would lap up anything Kanye puts out, even if it was “12 tracks of silence,” says Danielle.
“I wouldn't be shocked if he tried that,” says Toure.
A traitor in our midst, but worth a listen
Toure thinks there are two separate questions to ask about the new album: “Can you listen to it with open ears –– and then, what do you think of it?”
A lot of people can’t get past the first question, he adds.
“And I respect that. Liking Trump, running for president –– his whole alignment with Trump was distasteful and disgusting, and really traitorous toward Black America. And it’s only because he has created so much really interesting music that I’m willing to give another album a chance.”
Toure will listen to anything Kanye puts out, even though he’s still angry with him for his political stance. “And usually, I’ve canceled people who fell in love with Trump.”
He even threw out his MyPillow, which he bought before he knew Mike Lindell was in Trump's pocket.
But music and musicians have a strange hold on us –– “at least on me,” Toure says. “Some of that is subconscious; it’s just deeper.”
He remembers Roxane Gay writing about this once: That she was disgusted by R. Kelly, but couldn’t stop her shoulders from moving when she heard the “Ignition” remix.
“The ‘Ignition’ remix gets me too,” he says.
Is Kanye making a ‘spectacle’ out of all of us?
Toure thinks it’s interesting “how many Black people have jumped to cancel Kanye, but I still hear Michael Jackson’s and R. Kelly’s music all over the place.”
Danielle thinks Kanye brought it upon himself.
“He canceled the Black community a long time ago. I think that he canceled Blackness in the desire to commodify it, in order to get closer to white people and whiteness, which I believe he thinks is better.
She personally canceled Kanye back when he went on his infamous “fucking TMZ rant about slavery,” she says. “I watched that clip multiple times over because I thought initially it was a joke … I thought he was being sarcastic. When I realized he wasn't, I was like, What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Sometimes she wishes Kanye “would have stayed a fucking producer and shut the fuck up. His desire to be looked at … his desire to be a spectacle, has in a way turned us into a spectacle and made it seem as if we were all as easily bought and sold the way Kanye was.”
Kimye: (Fame and power)²
Danielle often wonders about Kanye’s real motivations to be in a relationship with Kim Kardashian.
“Was it really about the fact that she just sees me and loves me? Or was it just, we look good together, and we're going to be Kimye … the most iconic couple?”
Whether or not there was (or still is) real love and commitment there, it’s hard to overlook the fact that “he had a real-life Barbie he could dress up and go to events with,” she says. “He could say, Look at her; I made this.”
Toure thinks it can, and probably is, both.
“When you’re at Kanye’s and Kim’s level, you only get there by constantly thinking about what you can do to boost yourself, to get more attention,” he says. “They both see that a partnership between themselves will give them both more attention, more energy, more media focus.”
At the same time, there are “very few people who can understand Kanye’s level and what he’s dealing with, and Kim is one of those people,” he points out. “Whatever pressures and stresses and anxieties go along with that. They understand each other.”
808s & Kanye’s heartbreak
Toure thinks of a famous anecdote about Marilyn Monroe, who came home to her husband after singing for the troops and said: You’ve never heard such cheering.
“Her husband, Joe DiMaggio, says, Yeah, I know what that’s like. When you have somebody who’s dealing with you on that level, you have a connection that somebody who’s never been out there on that kind of stage wouldn’t know.”
But if we’re diving into Kanye’s psychology, Toure thinks his mother Donda, not Kim, is the one who still holds power over him. They were extremely close, and she was instrumental in shaping his life and his massive success. She passed away in 2007 due to complications that arose during elective plastic surgery (mammoplasty and liposuction).
“I think he remains deeply guilty about what happened to her. He blames himself for the mishap that happened in surgery that led to her death … I wonder if he feels like some sort of a villain,” Toure muses.
“Of course he does,” Danielle replies. “Kanye is somebody who was completely broken and shattered by the death of their parent because his mother wasn’t just his mother, she was his best friend, his biggest champion, his real link to family.”
‘Lost Boy’ meets world
Danielle thinks Kanye “has been in constant search of trying to create that family or create that community he no longer has. He is completely and totally untethered.”
She suggests his interest in the Kardashians is twofold.
“They know how to create a spectacle, PR, spin … to sell product … and are very successful in doing so. But the other appealing side is the familial side, the fact they are in this together, that regardless of anything –– if shit falls apart, which often does in their lives –– they’re still there for each other.”
Toure agrees: “When you come from a small family and you encounter a big family, it’s exciting and refreshing and really interesting to become part of a big family. Now all of a sudden, you have sisters and a brother; people who are seemingly looking out for you.”
“Kanye is a Lost Boy,” says Danielle. “He has been a Lost Boy for quite some time now. And without proper therapy, medication –– you know, grief is a serious thing. Couple that with mental illness, which he himself has talked about.”
‘Mother Monster’ vs. massive ego
Danielle draws a comparison between Kanye and another larger-than-life pop star, Lady Gaga.
“Back in the day, I didn't understand the need for all of the spectacle,” she says. “Then I learned she could actually fucking sing. She has a powerful voice. And I’m like, why were you wrapping yourself in a meat costume? Why were you allowing the pageantry to take over what should have been just your pure, raw talent?”
She feels the same way about Kanye –– “It’s like he’s trying to outdo himself.”
But Gaga understood that “she could use spectacle to connect to community and use her platform to uplift,” says Toure. “Shining a light on trans kids, on gay people … showing up for that community as an ally. Let me help lift you up because you’ve lifted me up.”
Gaga’s rise was about creating community, Danielle points out. “She was Mother Monster for the marginalized, those who’ve been rejected from their high school gym class, who just didn’t feel like they belong.”
Some of Kanye’s idols and contemporaries in rap music bring a voice to those who are marginalized, too: “Making you feel like you weren’t just going through this shit alone,” she says. “I am here with you. The light is shining on me, but it’s shining on us.”
Kanye’s public presentation, however, “is just about Kanye,” Toure adds.
With friends like these… [cringe]
Kanye’s lack of connection to the Black community is in part due to the fact that he’s “constantly trolling us and saying things that will trigger us,” says Toure. “I don't think he actually believed any of Trump’s positions. He just knew that just being down with Trump would be triggering … that was the entire point.”
That’s painfully obvious even now, as we see Kanye hanging out with noted homophobe DaBaby and alleged rapist Marilyn Manson.
“I don’t know if that means he wants to be like a pro-wrestling heel who wants you to hate him, or that he’s just so wracked with guilt and shame and anxiety that he wants to associate with these sorts of people,” says Toure, who thinks Kanye is definitely in the midst of a “rough moment” even though his download and streaming numbers are “huge.”
But “there is a large portion of the black community that is like, I'm not fucking with him, and never will again,” he adds. “And it doesn’t seem like an audience that he can win back with the right collab or the right hit record.”
That said, Toure is “still curious about what he’s doing musically because this is one of the most interesting musical thinkers of his generation. If you care about hip hop, you want to see where he’s going, what he’s thinking about –– because he’s somebody who’s really trying to push the boundaries of hip-hop.”
Can Kanye create something that will outlast him?
Kanye’s self-imposed boundaries are much higher. Arguably, they’re stratospheric.
He sees himself as equivalent to Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Phil Knight and even Google.
But he has “not yet done anything that will outlast him,” Toure says. “Any institution that will live on once you are gone, like Apple, which will be here for another 100 years, or Disney, which is going nowhere.”
Toure does think that Kanye might be able to pull off something that has a bigger impact on the culture at large.
“I could see him using his brilliance to create some sort of immersive art experience in Wyoming, or some sort of space for future producers to come and have a foundation where they can learn and study, while it's all being paid for with interactive Kanye hotels that change hospitality or something.”
For Toure, the most interesting aspect of the “Donda” rollout is that Kanye is selling a device called a stem player (about $200) that allows the user to remix the music.
“The album becomes this plaything they can manipulate. This is something I’ve never seen done in terms of recorded music, which is generally sacred … Even if you hate the album, or you hate a given song, you can remake that song and put it out on social.”
Desperate times call for uplifting art
Toure notes that “there was a time when Kanye was sweeter and was loved.”
His first three albums were “bright and cheery and poppy and hooky. There was a sweetness and a youth to them. Then his mother passed, and after that, the music got dark and slower and angry, even if the anger was sort of sublimated. On ‘808s & Heartbreak,’ he’s clearly in a lot of pain. I think that has carried forward through to the other albums. Not necessarily in every song, but quite often.”
Toure thinks Kanye is still “struggling with a lot.”
That’s obvious, says Danielle. “But a lot of people struggle with a lot. A lot of celebrities struggle with a lot. It’s his narcissism that doesn’t allow me to have empathy for him at this stage. I had great empathy for him when his mother passed away and even for a couple of years afterward, but the caricature he has morphed into doesn’t allow room for empathy.”
On top of that, “we are living in such desperate, complicated, traumatic times,” she adds. “This is a time when we need and want artists to bring voice and visuals and texture to what we are experiencing, day in and day out.”
Bey is queen
She looks at Kanye in contrast to Beyonce, who in the midst of last summer’s uprisings gave us “Black is King.” “I think about the love letters she has written to the black community … at times when the world is telling us we’re not enough, and not only [that] … we don’t want you to exist.”
Beyonce reminds us of “the beauty and the power and the elegance and the grit” of Blackness, while Danielle sees Kanye as someone who consistently misses opportunities.
She wonders what people will think about him 10 or 20 years from no w.
“Where will his legacy lay?” she asks.
We'll be back next week –– if there’s still a country, “and when there will be a new Drake album out,” says Toure.
“Oh, that's exciting, isn't it? I don’t even know,” Danielle replies. “I don’t even know what matters anymore. But let’s all pray, folks. Let’s all pray for more distractions from what’s really happening.”
Check out the frustration, rage and absurdity that was the 2020 election on democracy-ish
as Danielle Moodie and Toure discuss the current state of the political climate and our country from a Black perspective.