After thousands petitioned to stop Yeezy covering David Bowie, we make a case for music’s most divisive figure
Earlier this week, reports emerged that following David Bowie’s death, Kanye West was planning his own musical tribute with an album filled with Bowie covers, including “Changes”, “Let's Dance” and “Rebel Rebel”. While these rumours have since been denied by the rapper’s representatives, and seemingly sprung out of nowhere, the haters have awoken, and an online petition to stop Kanye from recording the imaginary Bowie cover album has now reached over 20,000 signatures. “David Bowie was one of the single most important musicians of the 20th and 21st century,” the petition reads. “It would be a sacrilege to let it be ruined by Kanye West.”
As we know, this isn’t the first time a campaign has been started to shut down Kanye. Last year, over 135,000 people signed an online petition demanding that his headline slot at Glastonbury Festival be cancelled because his presence was “an insult to music fans all over the world” and that he should “pass his headline slot on to someone deserving.” Looking at both petitions, there appears to be a running theme – the idea that Kanye doesn’t make “real” music, he doesn’t deserve his success, or that his music shouldn’t be well respected. But lets just pause, and rewind, for a moment.
Over the course of twelve years, Kanye has released six studio albums, with another on its way. His second, 2005’s Late Registration, arguably cemented him as one of hip hop’s most accomplished voices, combining maximalist, effervescent production with his distinctive winking (and audacious) lyrical style. His fourth album, 808s & Heartbreak, was hugely pioneering; eschewing hip hop conventions by throwing out his grit-filled rap style for elemental, Auto-Tuned vocals. The albums that followed, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus, are largely considered to be two of this decade’s most unique and innovative hip hop records, the former an astonishing mirror-facing portrait of America, and the latter its dark and twisted sister.
Kendrick Lamar, himself a hip hop futurist, has name-checked Kanye for teaching him to “always stay as creative as possible” and “never have any boundaries”, while Drake has credited the rapper as “a major influence, if not the biggest influence in my career,” adding: “Kanye’s mentored me through his decisions and I study the game overall, but him very closely.” Similarly, 22-year-old Chicago upstart Vic Mensa has praised the rapper’s debut album The College Dropout for raising the bar, saying: “it not only choked the lane on straight-up gangster rap, but it broadened the range for impactful rap. And that’s a lane we occupy now.”
Somewhat ironically, David Bowie himself believed the only artists who were being truly creative were rappers. In a 1993 interview with Bryant Gumbel, he commented: “I think that the white generation have come of age and they’re part of the administration – the people that brought rock ‘n’ roll to us in its white form,” adding: “I think the quality and significance of the social message has moved on very much fundamentally to the black and Hispanic market.”
Arguably, you don’t have to like Kanye, or even listen to his music yourself, to appreciate his contribution to music’s landscape. But the rapper still manages to inspire a huge amount of vitriol – and music aside, it’s perhaps easy to see why. Ever since he first emerged onto the scene, his inflated ego has become a running joke, probably due to exclamations like “my greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live” or, my personal favourite, “I am the greatest living rock star on the planet.” It’s not just his confidence (or arrogance) that has made people uncomfortable, either. He’s also been partial to the odd, poorly-timed outburst, like the awful, infamous moment he interrupted Taylor Swift at the MTV VMAs, or the time he publically slated Beck’s award win at last year’s Grammys.
Saying that, his voice and the publicity that affords has often been used in positive ways – particularly recently. He has been outspoken and candid about misogyny and homophobia within hip hop and how this is particularly problematic. He has also been consistently critical of racism within the industry and beyond, from hitting out at George Bush on national TV in 2005 to his discussion of the legacy of slavery, and how it has contributed to African American people’s reluctance to speak with confidence, and carve out their own space in public life.
It’s also worth noting that the very essence of being an entertainer is the ability to entertain, and rockstardom has historically been built upon showmanship and an unwavering (sometimes comical) self-belief. It was Mick Jagger that said, “as long as my face is on page one, I don’t care what they say about me on page seventeen,” and it was Lemmy that said, “If you're going to be a fucking rock star, go be one.” Both of those musicians were idolised for their no-fucks-given attitude. For Kanye to be vilified for the same reason feels both odd and incongruous.
Ultimately, whether you love Kanye or hate him boils down to one thing – what it is you value in an artist or public figure. He has spent his entire career taking personal, commercial and creative risks and, as a result, has pushed things forward – from making music that sounds like nothing else, to both criticising the fashion industry and embracing it as an important medium, to being unapologetic and brazen with his voice and opinion, to making public mistakes and acknowledging them. It seems as if the same reason some of us value Kanye, is the same reason others admonish him. Because of that, there will always be just as many people praising his presence as there are people spitting venom at his every movement. In the words of Kanye himself: “When you’re the absolute best, you get hated on the most”.