When you're right, you're right. But, if you're right and egotistical or obnoxious or loud, sometimes people like to concentrate on everything but your rightness. Kanye West is all of these things and more. Let's push past the Twitter page and focus on this self-declaration: Kanye's backstage claim earlier this month during Saturday Night Live that he's "50 percent more influential than any other human being."
Who is as influential as Kanye? Who could, with little more than a week's notice, secure Madison Square Garden, nearly fill MSG, have millions more watching from movie theaters around the country, at 4 p.m. on a Thursday, no less, to debut an album?
Beyonce can probably fly (it's why she doesn't fall down). But other than Bey, only Ye. Who else could have every media outlet and the most influential cultural icons orbit around such an event? No one. Hip-hop is the most vital form of musical expression in pop culture. Kanye is the most vital influence in hip-hop.
The whirlwind of attention surrounding the release of Kanye West's latest album, The Life Of Pablo, is rivaled by no one. The anticipation wasn't on max because Kanye is a smart cultural manipulator, tricking us into nearly frothing at the mouth for every detail about the album and its ever-changing title. It's because he is legitimately 50 percent more influential than any other artist.
In fact, that math looks merciful. Does Ye even have peers? There are big-time acts who don't come within a couple 100 percentage points of Ye’s influence. As hip-hop has made culture unimaginable without it, Kanye has taken the center of hip-hop. He is at the very crux of cultural momentum.
When Rihanna’s new album, January's Anti ,was being rolled out, the culture was hype, but not this hype. When Drake drops Views for the 6 in April, the culture will be hype, but Drake won't command this much attention from the entire culture. Beyonce announcing something — from a tour to an album to a new hairdo — is the only thing that can rival Ye’s influence.
Though Kanye West's early work, like 2004's College Dropout and 2005's Late Registration (2007's Graduation is his least imaginative work), is amazing, its excellence is in mastering the already long tradition of chopping up soul beats to make soulful hip-hop. Since 2008's 808s & Heartbreak, with each album release, he's — in the words of Pitchfork's Jayson Greene — spawned legions of 17-year old rappers and singers and rapper-singers and singer-rappers.
Now, in 2016, Kanye looks up and there are so, so many Kanyes. With TLOP, Ye hasn't flipped hip-hop on its head again. He sat back and marveled, with last-call-like reflection. Not only at his personal ascent, but at that single, lonely, horny, resentful, mournful Kanye from 808s that started all of this.
That tortured version of Kanye took his most dark and painful expressions to their logical/emotional conclusion through a gauntlet of masterpiece albums — 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2012's Cruel Summer, and 2013's Yeezus. He always had something to prove, musically, to himself, to his peers, to the world.
That Kanye has receded into the background of his increasingly happy and stable love and family life. But his vision hasn't just come to fruition — it is being fervently perpetuated by subsequent generations.
Now, after Yeezus, with nothing else to prove, Kanye takes a victory lap. TLOP reflects the sonic places other artists — Drake, Kid Cudi, Big Sean, Chance tha Rapper — have taken his work. Although victory lap isn't quite the right phrase, because Ye sounds extremely grateful throughout the album.
TLOP is Kanye taking a tour, like a benefactor or architect visiting recently finished commissioned work, through the corridors from which younger artists have burrowed out. Actually, with TLOP, kind of like with College Dropout and Late Registration, Kanye provides a masterclass in how to execute the things younger artists are doing now.
In Jon Caramanica's New York Times review of TLOP, he writes that, in the Charlie Heat version of "Facts," Ye has completely absorbed Drake and Future's 2015 album What a Time to be Alive. No need to go overboard and give all the credit of their success to Ye, but even they would acknowledge they don't have the cultural space/currency to do what they do if it weren't for Ye.
Kanye is 38. A lot of the artists he so profoundly influenced won't see 30 for a while. Kanye isn't cherry-picking new stuff to stay relevant, or because he is out of ideas, or because he wants to show you he can do it better (which he can). No, he's giving young creatives something they all crave — a concrete example of what it is they want to do. He's a guide. Ye on that Obi Wan.
Kanye's mastery of hip-hop has bled into every other form of musical expression. His influence can be seen in the guttural turn of non-hip hop artists as far away as Justin Bieber and 88 Keys. Acknowledging this, Ye takes that lap with TLOP, high-fiving those at MSG and around the music world, before expanding his vision past music and into technology and fashion.
This is why TLOP feels sloppy, at least by perfectionist Ye standards. It's why Ye clearly wasn't sweating the title of the album or the details of the album release. He's transcended all of that. He aims to be an overarching cultural leader, not just a hip-hop one.
There aren't many examples of black artists being as thoroughly satisfied, thankful, hopeful, and inspirational. When black artists achieve a certain cultural platform, they understandably tend to use their newfound influence to express the pain of being black.
Kanye’s Yeezus did this, as did Beyonce’s "Formation" and Kendrick Lamar’s recent Grammys performance. Kanye is in the rare space of influence where he can take that narrative further. Instead of just airing grievances and feeling respected and heard — something incredibly hard fought in itself — Ye gives us a truly unique vision of blackness.
On TLOP we hear a seasoned, thankful artist. We hear a black person able to look past black plight and be thankful for the beautiful things in life — family, God, commitment, love, children.
How many other human beings can rival that influence or exist in that rarified cultural air? Just Ye.
The House of Yeezy: An Evening Dedicated to Kanye West
With: Audio and visuals from CLOUD celebrating the "music, philosophy, and artistic expressions" of Kanye West.
When: 9 p.m. March 23.
Where: 7th St. Entry, 701 1st Ave. N., Minneapolis.
Tickets: $10; more info here.