Thursday July 23, 2015
Shad: In defence of Kanye West
Over 50,000 people so far have signed a petition asking for Kanye West to be tossed from the Pan Am Games closing ceremony here in Toronto.
We talked about this on our pop culture panel today, but as a fan and an artist I'd like to weigh in on this one myself for a minute.
Many supporters of the petition think West shouldn't play at the closing ceremonies simply because he isn't Canadian. I happen to disagree but I can allow that concern.
Others think West shouldn't play because they think he's arrogant. They don't like his personality. I always thought it was arrogant to judge the personality of a person you're not personally acquainted to ... but fine, I can allow for that reason too.
One thing that I can't let slip by though, is the contention that Kanye West is not strong enough musically to close the Pan Am Games.
Let's be clear about this much: Kanye West has sold 20 million albums and 100 million digital downloads. That's a lot. Of course popularity isn't the only measure of success and certainly isn't a great measure of artistic merit.
But West has also won 21 Grammy Awards. Which is as many as any artist of his generation, and the eighth most of anyone ever.
As for critical acclaim, his track record is even more impressive. Look at it this way: West has released 6 full-length albums. His first was immediately hailed as a classic that smashed the artificial boundary between "underground" and "commercial" hip hop.
His second release, less than two years later, was arguably even better, according to critics.
His third album spawned many of his biggest hits, while his fourth was recently called one of the most influential albums of all-time by Rolling Stone magazine.
That album, once again, bravely altered the trajectory of an entire genre and affected all of popular music. But amazingly none of those records are considered his best work.
That title belongs to his fifth album, which was met with perfect reviews virtually across the board. And finally his sixth album was yet another bold sonic shift that topped many critics' polls for Album of the Year in 2013.
So that's six for six. No misses, and not an even a single merely "good" record in his entire catalogue. All six universally acclaimed, wildly popular albums released over the course of 10 years. I can't think of another artist in the history of popular music that has achieved and sustained that level of excellence — in terms of both critical acclaim and commercial success — over that many albums, over that many years.
I don't have time to talk about his citizenship or his wife or why those conversations are hugely problematic to me to begin with. This is just to say that in terms of artistry and track record as a performer, Kanye West is pretty much unassailable.
Now West recently described himself not as a musician, producer, or even designer, but as a "pop artist" whose "medium is public opinion". So it's interesting to look at public opinion regarding Kanye West and see the kind of tension and complexity you find in good art.
This petition — along with the others this summer seeking to remove West from festivals like BluesFest in Ottawa and Glastonbury in the UK — has provoked thought, emotion, and public debate about race, fame, family, country, and art.
So whether this particular petition is successful or not, it seems West has succeeded artistically, regardless.