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KANYE WEST: New King of Pop?

Love him or hate him, from the looks of things Kanye is gunning for MJ’s crown.

Words: A. Fann
Images: NBC Universal

The phrase “arrogant bastard” is a befitting nomenclature reserved solely for the deserved (pronounced DEE-zur-VID), held in a special place only for the fully worthy and envy-generating creative geniuses on the planet (for now at least). In my lifetime I have and will witness just a few of those individuals that society will deem iconic. And of those branded with the title, there will be but even fewer who are truly genius… Love them or hate them, you love or hate them for something.

So the latest person to obtain the crown took his time to build his believers. While he believed it early on, only a small number of folk decided to listen.

Here is the detailed account of my experience:

The beginning…

He entered stage left at S.O.B’s, NYC nightclub. As the beat rose, the spot was lit around a meager and mildly common man, probably with glasses, donning a white suit (circa Don Johnson), a red shirt and a backpack. It’s the same night of the grand opening of some super sports bar owned by a gentleman that has decidedly taken on the label “Jay Hova.” And as religious zealots cringe all over the globe, the King of Brooklyn isn’t the only one calling on the messiah (for those who believe, one of mankind’s greatest and most ridiculed griots of all time) tonight for inspiration and/or validation through association. “Jesus Walks,” huh?

I turn to my companion and say, “I dunno man, maybe he should stick to producing.”

To quote another music great, “as he spit and stumbled over clichés,” I exited the venue just glad to have seen Common live and direct, with not much more thought given to the fairly new producer-turned-rapper.

Modern day, 23,000 ft above Somewhere, USA, I quietly sit nodding my head, reading, writing and wondering, “What in the world happened to make Kanye West such a pivotal and influential figure in popular culture?”

Not to belabor the moment, but when I realized that I was going to have to give Kanye West credit for awarding our 43rd President with the “low point of his presidency” (Bush said it), while reminding the folks reading this that there was a difference between his outburst against Bush versus his interruption at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, I could clearly see that Mr. West had set his sight on the world’s stage. Forget S.O.B.’s. [By the way, T.S. still hasn’t publicly thanked Beyoncé for her kind gesture in allowing the former to give her acceptance speech when the latter picked up her Video of the Year Award.]

“What you think I rap for, to push a fucking RAV 4?!” – Kanye West, “Run This Town”

There actually is a bar­. Whether it has been raised or simply out of reach is a good question. True enough, popular culture is subject to categorization and greatness starts to be recognized when you get a single-name acknowledgement by generation popular. Well, the standards have changed; let’s talk about that.

Spins were first. Bands, singers, groups, etc would work hard for spins on the radio. If your favorite station played your song and you heard it, it meant you were headed for the top. Then the gauge became live performances: how many people fell out, how many TV shows you performed on, etc. Next came the volume of “all seeing eyes.” How many people could you get to see your face and remember you? Now it’s all about personality/persona. What character are you? What message does your mere presence send? Enter video, worldwide access and the 24-hour news cycle. Now when you step in the booth, it’s for all the chips! This will be the greatest battle of all, the battle for the Kingdom of Pop. From the 1950s through the ‘80s so many factors and new variables played into the measuring process including how much money you made, how much fame you scored, who your significant other was, band-member changes, solos, riffs, lyrics, mortality, MTV awards, etc. The battlefield was full—tough times for all the one-hit wonders [insert your favorite obscure artist here], an association that true fans would never wish upon their faves. But far too often they only had just enough checked boxes to be mentioned later and briefly or to switch careers (within music of course).

New regimes sprouted up hoping to compete, megastars like those from country music gave us a quick dance to follow, while raging hormonal anarchists reminded us to rebel against the man. But no underdog would do the most to upset the balance of the Kingdom like the rebellious, dancing, lyrically hormonal, hip, street jibe that unknowingly launched a direct attack on the Princes, Madonnas and the incumbent King of Pop (the latter who was prophetically gone too soon).

With MJ’s passing we realized that the world has become a fickle place. This guy set the bar. This guy definitely had all of the boxes checked. As in the ancient times, a period of “games” is allowed to celebrate a fallen king or royal member and entertainment has been no different. With Housewives and kids on the Shore and in The Hills, our desire to laugh and cry with real-life “first world” celebrities has kept us entertained. But the wanting public (Read: the mob), whether they realize it or not, is looking for the next King Arthur to pull that creative sword from the stone. Alas, the global space seems poised and ready to crown the next King of Pop.

Moral victories are for minor league coaches, Ye already told you we major you cockroaches”

 

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you our new king, Kanye West. His influence and ability to drive and draw perspective is only matched by his own discovery. At times, his humbling anecdotes, in the face of a melodic backdrop that continues to keep each decade timeless, on realistic and provocative subject matter (simultaneously) keep our heads nodding. He has proven time and again that he can indeed deliver – not only what the people want, but also what the people need.

Arrogance is a privilege and a member’s only club. Who else can draw from internal strife and pain to deliver a story “Through the Wire,” take a left at Sierra Leone to “possibly” buy some diamonds, drop a complete album in autotune, and challenge the opinion of the leader of the free world?

Let us think back a bit to our true introduction to his influence. Jay-Z decides to change his handle to Jay Hova after “Jesus Walks,” after one of his producers/“little brother” drops gem after gem on his album. Let’s face it, we all “Rocked the Mic” that year and even saw Hov bring Ye out and onto the Hot 97 Summer Jam stage. The young gun was sitting in the lab, excited to be working with his hero, and he simply starts to talk about how he was going to change the game, hell even the world. We all just needed Kanye.

But one question remains: Does Kanye West’s influence cut across every facet of popular culture? Considering that there are an unlimited number of examples (both great and not so great) related to a host of experiences for which he has shared his double-edged creative prowess and unmatched ability to forecast or “speak his truth,” to those who are paying attention, Ye still comes out ahead.

Remember Kanye’s 2005 “Diamonds From Seirra Leone” video? Shot in the streets of Prague, the song and video not only lead a political discourse about blood diamonds, but also inspired Mercedes Benz to release an updated version of the unprecedented 1955 300C Gullwing which is, at best, one of the most classic vehicles ever produced.

And how can we forget how Ye commissioned Takashi Murakami to create an album cover and a conceptual anime short to support his vision for the album’s experience? Or his phenomenal jump into the art world, befriending and working closely under the guidance of beloved Vanessa Beecroft? Neither is Kanye a stranger to fashion, having designed a limited edition line of Air Yeezys for Nike (how many times now?) while simultaneously launching a limited edition collection of footwear for Louis Vuitton. By the way, it’s obvious, aside from his LV backpack and obsession with Ralph Lauren that he continues to channel one of his earliest influences, ’90s hip-hop, into everything he does.

He’s even broken into the film world via collaboration with Marco Brambilla, a concept video to introduce “Power,” West’s first single off his Dark Twisted Fantasy project. Dare we mention how Ye shut down the world when MTV (across all of their networks) premiered his first full-length film featuring Victoria Secrets muse Selita Ebanks, Runaway? This move to many, not only marks Kanye’s official run for MJ’s slot as the King of Pop, but also lunges Kanye directly onto MJ’s path circa the latter’s Thriller days. And we’re sure there’s still much more to come from the House of Ye.

While these are just a few of West’s “winning” moments in popular culture, there are those occasions when he misses, when pop-cult creators simply refuse to pass up the opportunity to capitalize on Ye’s antics—sound familiar? Vehemently referred to as “Kanye Moments,” West’s outbursts and over-the-top expression is best reflected by the South Park episode, “FishSticks.”  A parody play on Kanye (who accepts himself as a Gay fish by the show’s end) and his G.O.O.D. Music clan (think Carson Kressley & the Fab Five of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy meets Mr. White et al of Reservoir Dogs), based on a random photo taken during Paris Fashion Week ‘09, became a never-ending source for comedy shticks by West fans and antagonists alike for months.

But whether it’s his experience at the R.S.V.P Gallery in Chicago to his internships and front row status at global fashion events, at the end of the day it is his respect for the creative space that sets him apart from his peers. It is this space that he gladly populates and which is, very likely, the only ideal that he places above his own ego. His revelry in this space ushers in something we’ve kind of seen before in Michael Jackson—a superior creator status—but this time cut from a more modern sensibility.

While we’re not looking to Ye to start dancing in his videos as MJ did, we do appreciate the similarities. Like their shared status of identifier-cum-enhancer-cum-amplifier. In other words, Kanye West assesses the best of the best, and dares to make the thought behind “the best’s” importance in popular culture that much better. And like MJ, to label KW just an influencer would be an understatement.

“Hard to be humble when you’re stuntin’ on a Jumbotron” – Kanye West, “Devil in a New Dress”

Images courtesy of NBC Universal.

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