When Kanye West releases an album, controversy follows. From the infamous Taylor Swift incident that preceded My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to the Jimmy Kimmel Twitter rant of 2013’s Yeezus, our generation has repeatedly enjoyed the spectacle West inspires when he produces new music. Last month, Kanye released The Life of Pablo, and as usual, scandal came with it.
Using Twitter, West spent the weeks preceding his album’s release igniting feuds with Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose, professing Bill Cosby’s innocence and changing the title of his album. Some tweets were exciting, teasing tantalizing collaborations and an ever-growing TLOP tracklist. Others were profoundly disconcerting. He claimed to own Khalifa’s child due to his past relationship with Amber Rose, sex-shamed Rose for her background as a stripper and ignored mountains of evidence against Bill Cosby, claiming that the comedian is not a rapist.
Some suggest that West’s influx in Twitter activity was a publicity stunt to promote his album. There are few better ways to attract attention than publicly provoking a fellow rapper and defending a sex predator, but The Life of Pablo and its messy release contradict suggestions of calculated controversy. West tweeted his way through the entire release process, promising availability dates, breaking those promises and adding tracks. Publicly tweaking and delaying the most anticipated album of 2016 is hardly smart marketing. Furthermore, the dubious opinions present on West’s Twitter actually manifest themselves in his album on songs like “Famous,” in which he raps “I feel like me and Taylor [Swift] might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous.”
The fact that West’s Twitter is not mere publicity is problematic; the instances of tweeted reality in The Life of Pablo complicate our attempts to appreciate the album as a work of art. Most people dislike “Twitter Kanye,” preferring to think of “artist Kanye” as a separate person, but for better or for worse, The Life of Pablo melds Kanye’s public, private and artistic personas into one cohesive musical extravaganza.
So, if we admit that Kanye West is misogynist, and that parts of The Life of Pablo are misogynist, is it still conscionable to enjoy West’s work? The answer is complicated. We absolutely cannot pardon Kanye’s sexism, no matter how talented he is. But, we also shouldn’t renounce a multifaceted artist based on his worst characteristics.
The Life of Pablo is an expression of West’s character: musically eclectic and ranging lyrically from apologetic to disturbing. This often works in Kanye’s favor. He possesses a powerful ability to reach beyond his celebrity status and meditate on universal issues like insecurity, material/emotional wealth and love. Self-loathing honesty shines through beautifully on songs like “FML” and “Pt. 2,” in which he touches on depression, divorce and more. But songs like “Famous” depreciate Kanye’s artistry. The violent statement that a woman owes sex to a man (and the man claiming responsibility for her fame at that) is so disgusting and indefensible that it threatens the entire album’s integrity.
Kanye’s unfiltered personality and the contradictory fusion of artist and art in his work make him a captivating artist. At his best, he creates insightful and evocative music. At his worst, he is an arrogant misogynist, propagating horrendously sexist principles. For fans of West – and other misogynist artists like Arthur Miller, Ernest Hemingway and Woody Allen – this is a huge problem.
We want artists to fit into black and white categories: good people who make great work and whose transgressions are more tragic than trespassing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. Artists like West inhabit gray areas, inspiring us even as they repulse us.
Kanye West’s misogyny is inexcusable. His values regarding women are unforgivable. But for all the misogyny in The Life of Pablo, there is also humanity, and often the contrast between “good Kanye” and “bad Kanye” makes his work incredibly powerful. I believe that Kanye’s misogyny downgrades his work. I also believe we shouldn’t place art into absolute categories. We should recognize the spectrum of good and bad in artists like Kanye West, and try to learn from what we admire and what we find reprehensible.
I see The Life of Pablo as an opportunity to appreciate Kanye’s music and condemn his misogyny. By actively refusing to let Kanye off the hook, I hope to value his art while devaluing his ideals.
Les Polling ’16 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Winona, Minn. He majors in English.