The emperor’s got some more new clothes: has Kanye West the brand devoured Kanye West the musician?
Label boss, fashion maven and husband to Kim Kardashian, Kanye West is in danger of being famous simply for being famous, rather than for being a hip-hop legend
US musician Kanye West arrives to attend Givenchy's Fall/Winter 2014-2015 men's fashion show in Paris on January 17, 2014. AFP PHOTO FRANCOIS GUILLOT
He’s at it again. This week Instagram was the focus of Kanye West’s considerable attention. Speaking at a conference in Cannes, West talked about how he’d like to redo the popular photo-sharing app. This spot of web design could be slotted in between West’s other commitments as a producer, record label boss, film director, fashion dude and entrepreneur. Oh, did we mention the popstar part of the CV?
There’s nothing at all wrong with such avid multitasking. We’re all multitaskers and portfolio career workers to some extent. However, West takes this to another level entirely. So much so that the music has began to play second fiddle in many instances to West the brand.
But the music is still, at the time of writing at least, well worth shouting about. Most acts who are seven albums into their career have a few duffers in the bag already. Not West. Every album has produced nuggets. There are moments to love even in 808s and Heartbreak (2008), an album of downbeat blues created with the sparse clatter of a Roland 808 drum machine and Auto-Tune vocal-pitch tool.
West has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to flexing his creative gene, from such releases as his audacious College Dropout debut, Watch the Throne and the head-spinning My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as well as tour collaborations with Jay-Z, the man who initially brought West into rap’s big league as the Blueprint album producer.
And he’s never been shy about telling you about his prowess. He was like this back in 2004, when Dropout dropped and he came to Dublin to play two shows (one at the old Point and one at Vicar Street) in one night.
When West talked to The Ticket 10 years ago, he was already exhibiting signs of the creative grandstanding and occasional fits of pique to come. He ranted about getting fired from The Gap for rapping to customers, modestly judged his debut album to be “one of hip-hop’s greatest works”, detailed the amount of work he did to get Jesus Walks sounding just right, and wondered if magazines that put him on the cover should give him a cut of the revenue.
A decade on and, well, nothing has really changed all that much. He’s still got a mighty gob on him. But audiences have grown and are still increasing.
There was always a dovetail between West and celebrity – he emerged at a time when celebrity and culture converged like never before. Media coverage of his petulant behaviour and narcissism had already turned him into one of pop culture’s more ubiquitous figureheads. But his relationship with and recent marriage to Kim Kardashian has amplified this off the charts.
You can gauge West’s newfound level of fame by the fact that the newlyweds made global headlines when they turned up in a cinema in Portlaoise on a wet weeknight during their Irish honeymoon. People who know nothing about Kanye West’s place in the hip-hop pantheon sure know his name and face now.
It will be fascinating to see if this often ludicrously over-the-top coverage will have any effect on his actual music. Last year’s Yeezus contained a bit of bleating, whinging, whining and grumping from West about his life in the fast lane. All of this came, it must be said, in between pulsating, arresting, noisy and vivid sonic-whippery and cracking lines, such as: “Hurry up with my damn croissants”.
Such solipsism is part of a disconnect between reality and perception which many big successes face. You see it with the get- rich-quick, successful would-be gangsters as they try to figure out how to show they’re still street-smart when their biggest dilemma is really which of their luxury watches to wear.
Kanye West has never had to maintain that sort of face, but will his lyrical concerns change now that his life has changed? One thing we can be sure of: his days of rapping for customers of The Gap as he folds shirts and jumpers are long gone.
Kanye West plays Dublin’s Marlay Park on July 2nd, 2014