The Music Club

The Kanye-Taylor Debacle
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 17 2009 11:29 AM

The Music Club

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Homey-lover-friends,

Dr. Luke isn't Swedish? Next you'll tell me that the presents I'm going to unwrap a week from Friday are actually from my parents!

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Speaking of hot-shit producers: Yesterday, in the course of researching a piece, I talked with Jeff Bhasker, a rising beat-maker who had his hands all over a nice chunk of 2009 pop. Bhasker produced (or co-produced) songs on Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3, Alicia Keys' The Element of Freedom, and Kid Cudi's Man on the Moon. The guy knows his way around stark, chilly synthscapes, a skill he honed when Kanye West hired him to help write songs for 808s & Heartbreak back in 2008. One thing in particular that Bhasker said gave me cause for cheer: He's been in the studio recently with Kanye, working on new music.

Phew! Gotta say, I'm ready for Kanye's return. Last I'd heard, he was at an ashram in Pondicherry, India, getting his mind right after his Taylor Swift bum-rush and its fallout. His national tour with Lady Gaga was canceled without explanation (say what you will about either artist, that would have been a show). Vendors started selling "Kanye West Is a Whiny Bitch" T-shirts. Even Barack Obama, in a show of Chi-town tough love, threw 'Ye under the bus!

I won't break out the violins for Kanye, exactly, but it does seem to me that the backlash after this silly VMA fiasco was grossly incommensurate with the offense. That night, the public good will toward Kanye (most of us suffered his long-standing penchant for awards-show foolishness gladly or, at worst, indifferently) gave way to a stunning hateblast. One of the most depressing things I saw this year—however anecdotal it may ultimately be in its implications—was a video that compiled tweets in which people referred to Kanye by the N-word. Online comments sections are notoriously racism-riddled, but Twitter is different from a comments section (one would have thought, at least) because the commenters in question aren't anonymous. This wasn't orphaned hate speech—it was signed.

Kanye West might be the most significant hip-hop figure of the aughts, and he might be the most significant pop figure of the aughts, period. (Forgive the hedging, I'll make firmer claims when I'm not analyzing the decade in a weeklong e-mail exchange!) Unlike Jay-Z, who never wanted to be anything other than the biggest, most popular rapper in the world, Kanye wanted to defy genre in a way Jay never cared to do, to be both a rapper and something more (the symptom of a rap inferiority complex not unearned among artists of Kanye's generation, I suppose, who still remember when hip-hop was a brash, under-respected, upstart outsider). Hence the quotes Kanye gave surrounding Graduation about wanting to make an album that could, like the grandest rock music, fill stadiums; and hence 808s & Heartbreak, in which he tried to "transcend" rap and write universal pop melodies. (He invoked Johnny Cash and classic show tunes as inspiration in one interview.) André 3000 and Lil Wayne are among the rap stars to publicly tire of rap and stray from the ranch, but West was the most in-your-face of the bunch. Churlish as they were, his awards-show tirades always had, at their core, this howled message: "Give me more respect than you're giving me!"

With Kanye's VMA broadside, Beyoncé was the excuse, but the subtext went something like this: "Give me more respect than you're giving Taylor Swift"—a pop titan whose effortless-seeming crossover success Kanye probably, on some level, envies deeply. The world shouted back, "Get the fuck off the stage, you whiny bitch!"

I'm not denying Kanye's jackassery. I'm not suggesting that, if you felt the urge to hurl your shoe in the general direction of your TV (and his bad haircut) that night, shady racial politics necessarily underscored the impulse. And yes, this is a subject perhaps better served by a graduate thesis than a 700-word top-of-my-dome missive. But am I getting carried away if I suggest that, to some small but compelling degree, the Kanye-Taylor debacle (and its long, murky vapor trail) told us something about the limits of African-American crossover success, even in the age of Obama?

And, on that note!

This has been a pleasure, guys. When the world ends in December 2012, let's do a quick one of these to decide, just for the record, whether Lady Gaga, will.i.am, or Ke$ha was ultimately to blame for the apocalypse.

Jonah

Jonah Weiner is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

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