Why Kanye West might really be the greatest of all time
Ahead of the release of his seventh record, Kanye West has confidently declared 'Swish' the best album of all time. We shouldn't laugh, says Ed Power - he's a unique talent
Published 28/01/2016 | 02:30
The internet slapped its thighs and laughed out loud as Kanye West this week boasted his forthcoming album Swish would be the "best of all time". The jeers cannot have come as a shock to the controversial rapper, generally seen nowadays as ridiculous celebrity first, hip-hop pioneer second. When Kanye opens his mouth, the world dissolves into titters.
With Swish to be released on February 11, further rotten fruit will surely be lobbed in West's direction. Not only has he repeatedly declared himself the musical genius of our age (in addition to bigging-up his Zoolander-esque forays into high fashion). He also went and married Kim Kardashian, the reality star we love to loathe - thus signing both up to a lifetime supply of Twitter hate-bombs.
Yet amid the vitriol, perhaps we should reflect on how dreary pop would be in West's absence.
The recent deaths of David Bowie, Motorhead's Lemmy and Glen Frey of the Eagles, are a reminder that living in the fast lane, devil take the consequences, was once a crucial aspect of a rock star's job description. One reason Bowie was loved was because he wasn't afraid of coming across as entirely preposterous - for his amusement and ours. Part of being a pop artist, he understood, was looking like a prat every now and then.
Sadly, among the current generation of music "icons" - we use the term advisedly - only Kanye appears to appreciate that prancing about like an idiot, as he did for most of his 2015 Glastonbury headline slot, is a professional obligation.
Who of his peers has a personality similarly big enough to overshadow their music? Allied to this, Kanye shows a unique willingness to attract negativity should his art demand it. Compare his indifference to what the online community thinks, with, to pluck a random example, Taylor Swift's constant fishing for internet love.
Swift and her kind are pop stars trying to pass themselves off as your BFF. Kanye in contrast is happy to be hated, if that's what it takes to create interesting music.
He's egotistical and narcissistic and would probably be terrible company for longer than 15 minutes. Yet that all goes into what makes him special. He feels his music works best basking in the reflected glories of his ego - and if you can't handle it, that's your problem.
On top of that, can we agree West is the last of the true eccentrics? What other celeb at his level would have spent their 2014 honeymoon shuttling between Mullingar and Portlaoise, where he and his new bride are rumoured to have caught an X-Men movie at the local multiplex?
In passing the week on the rainiest fringes of Europe, it was as if he was parodying the jet-set lifestyle with which he and Kardashian are synonymous. He'd turned living it up into a post-modern prank.
The biggest compliment that can perhaps be paid to West is that it is possible to enjoy him as an attention-hogging anti-hero and remain almost entirely in the dark about his music. How many of us could be bothered slapping on his most recent album, 2013's mad and scary Yeezus - much less his full-fat 2010 double record My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? As should the case for every modern celeb, West exists entirely apart from his art, so that Kanye the inescapable celeb and Kanye that boundary-shattering rapper inhabit two entirely distinct spheres.
Also worth reflecting on is the gulf between West and his pop peers. Can you imagine Ed Sheeran or Adele declaring their upcoming LP the greatest of all time? It's a ludicrous idea, no matter that any pop star worthy of the name should always be a minimum 90pc convinced their latest project is indeed one of the best things to ever sit on a record store shelf.
If they don't believe in the genius of their vision, how can they expect the rest of us to show any interest?
True, there are grounds for suspecting the endless venom occasionally gets to West. Selling Confederate Flag-branded merchandise on the American leg of the Yeezus tour felt like a provocation aimed squarely at his detractors (he asserted he was "reclaiming" the Stars and Bars from rednecks).
Several days after bringing that same production to Dublin's Marlay Park, meanwhile, he appeared to have a mild breakdown on stage in London, with a rant to the effect that there was more to him than that 18-carat celebrity. Here was a very visible wobble from an artist who claims indifference towards public opinion.
We're going to venture out on a limb and predict Swish will not, in fact, be the greatest album of all time. But whether the record is a visionary offering from an artist at the peak of their powers or a bucketful of pants courtesy of a delusional ego-maniac, it nonetheless promises to be a major pop culture event.
The mere fact we're talking / tweeting / sharing Facebook posts about Swish shows just how far under our skin Kanye West has got.
Nobody outside Camp Kanye has even heard the record yet, and already victory is his.