Ye / Kanye West: the artist and the art

March 15 2021, by Niamh Baillie-Strong

In a world of cancel culture, publicised celebrity fights and frequent Instagram ‘apologies’, it’s hard to separate an artist’s work from their personal views, beliefs and affiliations. When the question of ‘separating the art from the artist’ arises, many names come to mind: Rhianna, Kyle Jenner, Neil Young and, of course, Kanye West. From ‘beefing’ Barak Obama to calling slavery ‘a choice’, Kanye West (now known as ‘Ye’) has been involved in a seemingly endless string of scandals over the past 10 years. As a result, one must consider whether Ye should still be held in such high regard, considered a figurehead of the hip-hop/rap movement and lauded as a role model for young musicians.

Ye first gained acclaim as a producer, contributing to both Jermaine Dupri’s album ‘Life in 1972’ (1998) and Jay-Z’s album ‘Blueprint’ (2001). He was known for his use of accelerated sample-beats and quickly became in high demand. When he released his debut solo album, ‘The College Dropout’ (2004) his career truly took off: sales soared, and critics were amazed by his use of witty wordplay and sophisticated humour that dealt with issues like politics and faith. ‘Jesus Walked’, a gospel track from the album, won him his first Grammy Award in 2005. Aided by his ‘flamboyant personality’, Ye quickly rose to stardom. His second album ‘Late Registration’ (2005) built further on the commercial success of his first and put his name firmly on the map. One of the biggest hits was ‘Gold Digger’, a song which is still prevalent today and covered in mainstream television shows such as ‘Glee’.  

After steadily building his profile for three years, Ye released ‘808s and Heartbreak’. This album was radically different from any of the work he had released before, focusing on the feelings of personal loss and regret, and utilising Ye’s vocal abilities (with Auto-Tune) instead of his signature style of rap. Despite the change in style, the record did incredibly well: it debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and sold just over 450,000 copies in its first week. His rapidly increasing success was abruptly cut short when he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards, sparking a backlash from musicians, the media and much of the general public.

After Ye’s interruption at the MTV Video Music Awards a series of other scandals ensued. He attempted, and failed, to launch his own fashion range at the 2011 Paris Fashion Week, and proclaimed that ‘BILL COSBY IS INNOCENT’ on Twitter in 2016. However, the increase in scandals did not seem to affect his widely acclaimed music, most notably in relation to ‘The Life of Pablo’ (2016) which again received world wide recognition. The gospel-tinged album further demonstrated Ye’s inventiveness as a producer as well as his provocative and insightful writing style. 

‘Ultralight Beam,’ the lead-off track of ‘The life of Pablo,’ perfectly demonstrates Ye’s talent in musical creation. The song is essentially a confession as well as a plea to God. Although it conforms to the rhetoric of gospel music it is completely stripped of the hoard of voices associated with the genre. His own voice is hardly used in the track (apart from a few passing blessings) – instead, the other voices tangle together within the song, tackling how to believe in God during times of vast unrest. Unlike his portrayal in the media, ‘Ultralight Beam’ is a confession of regret and fragility, something that greatly juxtaposes the controversial and erratic actions in his everyday life. 

Many consider Ye’s music to be good, but should we really idolise a man with such jarring views? The sincerity found in his music has, in recent history, never seemed to translate to the treatment of his contemporaries, family or the general public. So why do we find him so interesting? Is it because of his controversial views and provocative actions? Or is it simply because he is seen by many as a creator of enjoyable, ground-baking music?

Niamh Baillie-Strong, L6

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