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Kanye West in Wyoming
Kanye West in Wyomingvia @complex

Kanye West and the problem with idolatry

In the wake of an album campaign that was disappointing on several levels, it’s time to reflect on fandom’s relationship with criticism

On the sparse, soulful “Wouldn’t Leave” – the central track on his slight new album, yeKanye West makes a love story out of Stockholm Syndrome. Specifically, the song tells the story of how Kim Kardashian West has stood by him on his worst days. He raps about his wife calling him in tears, when he was in the midst of a media storm around his recent comments that “slavery was a choice”, and facing a monumental backlash; “Had to calm her down ‘cause she couldn’t breathe”, West raps. According to the song, he told her to leave him, and she promised that she never would. More generally, the song acts as a dedication to “every down female that stuck with they dude”. It advocates for the woman who’s ride-or-die; the woman who stays put no matter what she’s put through.

West didn’t invent this gross narrative of possession-as-romance, but on “Wouldn’t Leave” – right down to the disturbing track title – he propagates it heavily. “I don’t feel like she’s mine enough”, goes the sweetly sung hook. “This what they mean when they say, ‘for better or worse’, huh?” It should go without saying that, in healthy relationships, both partners should feel empowered to leave whenever they have had enough of their partner’s behaviour. In healthy relationships, people don’t respond to criticism by saying, “so leave me”. Celebrating loyalty is one thing; idealising “down females” who will stay in relationships no matter what their partner does is another.

Being a Kanye fan can feel like being a long-suffering wife. He’s apologised to us on more than one occasion; in 2010, he made a whole album as penance for being rude at an awards show. To be a fan of one of the most divisive figures in American pop culture can feel like constantly firefighting; you’re always defending Kanye, and often defending him against douchebags and racists. But everybody has a limit of what they’re willing to put up with, and this year many reached it when he doubled down on his support for Donald Trump, aligning himself with the president and declaring “love” for him. For Kanye’s largely liberal fanbase, seeing him in a MAGA hat was enough to test the ride-or-die mindset.

For others, though, there was hope yet. Fans pieced together complex conspiracy theories on Twitter: perhaps this whole episode was a complex meta-commentary on celebrity culture, they theorised. Maybe it was performance art. Would ye, the rapper’s eighth record, be the artistic pay-off we deserved? In short: no. If the past few months of Kanye’s public life have been part of a performance art project, the conclusion is unclear – this album offers no answers. ye is the least considered and least original of Kanye’s releases by a mile.

Where all of Kanye’s previous albums felt like a new idea, this one is defined by its relation to others. Countless descriptions of it in the days since its release have posited it as some blend of Kanye’s previous releases: a manic Yeezus with the soul of Graduation, an opulent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with the stark introspection of 808s. The reality, though, is that none of the aforementioned albums would have been described in such a way – each is its own entity; a new idea. But ye, an unfocused stream-of-consciousness clocking in at less than 25 minutes, is just not. Its beats are occasionally brilliant, but lack innovation; the lyrics repetitive, uninsightful, and, for the first time, somehow old. As Meaghan Garvey writes in her excellent, precise review for Pitchfork: “ye reveals that the past month’s flailing attempts at iconoclasm were building up to exactly nothing.”

“Love doesn’t always mean idolising. Our artists and our public figures are fallible.”

But in the starkly binary world of the internet and “stan” culture, your favourite artist is either an infallible idol, or they’re “cancelled”. At some point, it’s as though we collectively decided our pop idols should be well-rounded, unproblematic, politically correct heroes. And in 2018, with publications beholden to advertising and to clicks, that culture largely controls critical discourse. Critic Rowland Manthorpe wrote eloquently about this for Wired last month, in a viral essay about the death of cultural criticism: “In this new model, there is only love, hate and aggressively nerdy detail,” he wrote. “Already, we see the way in which cultural criticism follows trending topics, a policy that favours stars, controversialists, and demagogues.”

There’s enough Kanyeisms in this record that true stans will continue to stan (and even for those left cold by it, there’s plenty of Kanye at his best on the more low-key release of Pusha T’s DAYTONA). For the rest of us, perhaps there’s a lesson in this controversy-filled, ultimately disappointing album campaign: it’s not wise to place so much unwavering faith in our stars. Remember the original Stan? He met a grisly end, as a result of projecting so much onto a person who didn’t know him at all. After Kanye’s Trump endorsement, Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a searing essay for The Atlantic, noted that perhaps we should have given more reaction to Kanye’s ignorant comments and lyrics in the past, rather than glossing over them in the name of idol worship. Going forward, we would do well to open our critical minds, rather than to see everything through a lens of who’s a fave, and who’s trash.

Healthy relationships are not built on making gods out of people. On “Wouldn’t Leave”, Kanye depicts an ideal romantic relationship as one where he’s deified; where his wife’s unshakeable faith in him means that she will never leave him. That sounds more like entrapment than love; and the same goes for the vice grip of fandom on criticism. Love doesn’t always mean idolising. Our artists and our public figures are fallible. Sometimes, they’ll let us down.