On realness, ‘The Yeezus Effect’ and hip-hop in academia

West’s polarizing authenticity often brings him as much criticism as praise, making him America’s most beloved asshole. Photo courtesy of COMPOUND Entertainment.
West’s polarizing authenticity often brings him as much criticism as praise, making him America’s most beloved asshole. Photo courtesy of COMPOUND Entertainment.

Kanye West is America’s most beloved asshole. The critics love him, the media hates him and his fans are somewhere in the middle. One of my favorite recent West moments was his interview last year with Ellen DeGeneres on her daytime talk show. It was a typical post-Yeezus interview, with him stumbling in a stream-of-consciousness manner, one moment talking about ending bullying with his ridiculously priced clothing line, another moment claiming to be in the same tier of greatness as Pablo Picasso and Walt Disney. What made it especially absurd was the fact that he was preaching this high-level philosophy to a sea of soccer moms. But what stuck with me was his closing remark: “I’m sorry for the realness.” I think it hit me then why I have admired hime and been fascinated by him for so much of my life: Artists have brands, and West’s is realness.

Hip-hop is a recent phenomenon, but it has already become a subject of academic inquiry. Hip-hop scholars, however, have this weird, purist tendency to shun post-2000s rap and embrace the old-school. They tend to focus on what they deem “golden age hip hop,” an admittedly flourishing, but overly-glorified, style of hip-hop from the late ’80s to the early ’90s. They love to talk about Public Enemy and how their music was reflective of the crack epidemic and institutional racism at the time. Hip-hop scholars also love Compton rap collective N.W.A. for being one of the first groups to describe the harsh realities of inner-city life and for blatantly saying “fuck the police” on its record.

I am not saying these artists do not deserve respect, but if they have been so venerated in academia, then why hasn’t West? I think a lot of what West represents as an artist is exactly what acts like N.W.A, Public Enemy and 2Pac represented in their heyday – reality. In the same way Ice Cube waxed poetic about his reality – gang violence and police brutality in Compton – West raps about his reality: his broken family, his minimum wage job at Gap, his loneliness after the death of his mom and breakup with his fiancé. And with this honesty, this realness, West dropped his debut album The College Dropout and laid a saturated, exaggerated gangsta rap trend to rest.

This is just a small part of what I call “The Yeezus Effect,” a trend I’ve noticed in which, with every album that West has released, he has pushed the entire hip-hop landscape in a new direction. I have not even mentioned his sonic creativity and influence, from his high-pitched sampling techniques early on to his later use of Auto-Tune and string orchestration, but the bottom line is that West truly has a god-like control of hip-hop and pop culture.

This Winter Study, I decided to teach a Free University class on West, but specifically focusing on this “Yeezus Effect.” The four-part course was attended by a small but committed group who came to each class having listened to one or two assigned West albums. After I provided some background at the start of class on the subject material – say, West’s fourth studio album 808s & Heartbreak – I would open up the class to discussion and debate. A lot of our discussion on 808s was about West’s use of lengthy but sparse instrumental outros, as well as his artistic choice to employ the cold, synthetic device of Auto-Tune to sing some of his most emotional and vulnerable lyrics. We also talked about how the Yeezus Effect relates to 808s & Heartbreak by spawning an entire breed of new rappers willing to rap about sensitive topics of love and loss, like Drake, Kid Cudi and Childish Gambino.

As West’s career begins to wane (if we can assume that – it may have just reached another temporary lull), his name slowly begins to enter the academic canon. Notably, Washington University in St Louis now offers a semester-long course titled “Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics.” But of course, the College did it first.

More than anything, my Free University course proved to me that I can actively stimulate interest in not only some dope music, but also in one artist’s cultural influence on an entire decade of entertainment. When we study history, we often ask, “How did this person or event make a lasting impact on society?” Well, why can’t West be added to the conversation? Why can’t one of the 21st century’s cultural architects be a part of hip-hop and American history? Why can’t I be granted an excuse to say “let’s have a toast for the douchebags” in a classroom setting?