Last week, while visiting friends in Nashville, Tennessee, a local news brief covered Kanye West’s possible relationship with socialite Kim Kardashian. I found this surprisingly funny for a number of reasons—including but not limited to Nashville’s love of Country Music siren Taylor Swift. After all, it was West that launched a thousand Internet memes and committed ritual suicide to his Q-rating by bumrushing Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards with the Hennessy-fueled declaration that “Beyonce had one of the best video of all time!” On a day when there seemed to be plenty of other newsworthy stories to cover, why were Yeezy and Kim getting the TMZ treatment on an ABC affiliate in a mid-size media market? I think the short answer to that question is because we wanted them to. I also think the next wave of Kanye West’s “G.O.O.D. Fridays” will prove that our current news cycle has created a perfect climate for West to dominate all areas of media. Whether that’s a good (no pun intended) or a bad thing is still open for debate.
Kanye West: The Man Versus The Music
“What if somebody from the Chi that was ill got a deal / On the hottest rap label around / But he wasn’t talkin’ about coke and birds / It was more like spoken words / Except he’s really puttin’ it down / And he explained the story / About how blacks came from glory / And what we need to go in the game…” –Kanye West, “Through The Wire.”
Kanye West ingrains his personal life in his music, so the task of separating the two is a daunting one. From rhyming about hopes of marrying his longtime girlfriend on “Never Let Me Down” (“So I promise to Mr. Rainey I’ma marry your daughter / And you know I gotta thank you / For the way she was brought up…”) and subsequently breaking up with her (808’s & Heartbreak), nearly losing his life in a car accident, and losing his mother, you can literally follow the timeline of Kanye’s life through his lyrics. But if you can look solely at the numbers, it becomes rather obvious that a large number of people like Kanye West strictly for his musical talents. As of Wednesday’s Nielsen SoundScan report, West’s collaborative Watch The Throne album with Jay-Z has sold over 1.4 million units. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was also a domestic platinum seller. The album spawned a platinum single in “All Of The Lights,” and People magazine named it as the top album of the last decade. Even the melancholy 808’s & Heartbreak went platinum, and that album was powered by a quadruple platinum single (“Heartless”) and another triple platinum single (“Love Lockdown”). Prior to that—in 2007—Graduation was America’s top-selling Hip Hop album. If we factor in a slight decline in sales over the last few years—which conveniently coincide with the 2009 Taylor Swift incident—West remains one of Hip Hop’s most commercially successful artists.
In my opinion, this further complicates the love/hate dynamic. If you break down the number of Hip Hop/Rap artists to repeatedly release platinum selling albums in the last five years, a few familiar names begin to surface. Eminem, Lil Wayne, Drake, Jay-Z and The Black Eyed Peas emerge as the only artists to repeatedly sell more than 1 million copies of their albums. I chose to omit singles to eliminate “one hit wonders.” I also limited the list to the top three sellers in any given year to isolate the most mainstream artists—since, in theory, they risk the most by rhyming about controversial subjects.
Repeat Platinum-Plus Hip Hop Artists Since 2007
Of all the above artists mentioned, how many consistently address race, religion, sexuality and politics? I’m of the opinion that West is head and shoulders above his mainstream competition. Fans love when Immortal Technique, dead prez, Jasiri X and other artists rhyme about these topics. They should. But, if nothing else, for the sake of variety, having an artist on a major label with the potential to reach over one million listeners during each release keeps the dialogue moving. I think it’s implied that fans of independent Hip Hop music have a certain sensibility and may already know about 2008’s 509 Chicago homicides referenced by West on “Murder To Excellence.” But, to me, being among the top three sellers in any genre means you’re reaching listeners outside of your normal fan base. That’s not to say one audience is more important that the other. But reaching suburban listeners more in tune with Katy Perry than Public Enemy carries a certain amount of power and cultural capital.
Shared Blame For The 24-Hour News Cycle
“As a final insult to this beautiful culture / Scavengers feasting on the dead like a vulture / Snackin’ / How you keepin’ up with my rappin’ / You barely keeping up with Kardashians / You caught up in distractions…” –Talib Kweli, “Distractions.”
I genuinely wonder how much of that goodwill erodes when ‘Ye and Kim Kardashian start posting images of themselves together on Twitter. What two people may or may not have done behind closed doors is none of our business. But again, Kanye West ingrains his personal life in his music. So while I love the obvious connection between flipping LL Cool J’s line from “Illegal Search,” there’s also some subtext behind a simple line like, “Can’t a young nigga get money anymore?” I don’t want to have to hear about Kanye’s equal disdain for Kris Humpries and love for Kim Kardashian to get such lines. Kardashian is at best a socialite best used for hawking products and providing fodder for TMZ. At worst, she’s a jumpoff that got famous for leaking a recorded video of herself getting plowed by Ray J while lying in bed like a dead fish. As a listener, am I justified in thinking “TheraFlu” serves the dual purpose of announcing a possibly contrived relationship with Kardashian to drum up press for the next Kanye project? To be a fan of Kanye West means dealing with both the pride in a song like “Who Will Survive In America” and the dismay when he bumrushes Swift or takes shots at a middling NBA player while letting us know he’s smashing another starlet.
Of course, I think it would be disingenuous to write this without admitting the part that HipHopDX and other media outlets play in facilitating the 24-hour news cycle. Kanye tweets pics with Kim K because we’ll post them and distribute them to the masses. On their own, they have very little news value whatsoever. But it keeps Kanye’s name buzzing, and it’s essentially free press. We post such minutiae because you repeatedly click on it, read it, and we make money. And we have the numbers to prove many of you are interested in who Kanye is smashing on any given day. So really, we’re all at fault to some degree.
Universal Music Group: Corporate Thuggin’
“I step in Def Jam’s building like I’m the shit / Tell ‘em give me 50 million or I’ma quit…” –Kanye West, “Mercy.”
I feel like the real winner here is Universal Music Group. When “TheraFlu” dropped, it was a set up to Kanye’s official single “Mercy.” Roughly 24 hours before “Mercy” dropped, UMG let various sites like DX know that they would be subject to having advertising money pulled by opting to freely stream “Mercy” instead of directing people to iTunes for an official purchase of the single. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that mentioning a song and suggesting fans purchase it without streaming at least a snippet is akin to free advertising. The people who regularly populate DX’s comment section have accused us of being in bed with labels before. For what it’s worth, I can also prove that’s not true. But this looks like more of a grey area. It’s a case of one out of only three major distributors—Warner, Sony and Universal are the only ones left—pulling a power move and bullying media outlets into promoting one of their high-profile artists. In the interest of full disclosure, DX opted to post news of the release of “Mercy.” A Def Jam-sanctioned, free stream of the mp3 was provided later in the day.
I also find it interesting that UMG chose this route, after West essentially bypassed his label altogether in 2010 by giving away the bulk of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for free via G.O.O.D. Fridays. My only guess is that UMG was looking for a larger return on what was rumored to be a huge budget on a critically acclaimed album that boasted solid but not stellar sales. Either way the entire situation reeks of corporate bullying, vertical integration, entitlement and a bunch of other seemingly non Hip Hop qualities.
So now what? I can’t speak for everyone that may read this, but the numbers tend to lean in the direction that most of us are still Kanye West fans. His popularity may have taken a hit after bumrushing Swift in 2009, but West still moves the needle. Given all the racial epithets directed at him, and his response on songs like “Chain Heavy” (“Y’all forget that / I got called nigger on Twitter so many times / Yo I lived that…”), you can make a solid argument that the incident forced America to come to terms with some ugly truth about the state of race relations.
So either we genuinely still like the music or we’re at least mildly interested in both the commentary and the spectacle surrounding its release. That still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. The only concrete conclusion I can draw is that it all adds up to Kanye continuing to dominate the news cycle. For my part, I hope there continues to be a message behind the music once he has our attention.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @FourFingerRings.