With ‘Vultures,’ Kanye Is Back at Square One

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Credit: Aus Taylor
Credit: Aus Taylor

Last Thursday, after a sweet ceremony, the late great Kobe Bean Bryant was honored with a statue outside of Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles. The ceremony was full of the quaint and charming details you might see on Sportscenter: Vanessa Bryant spoke, and joked about how it was Kobe who picked out the pose, so “if you don’t like it, tough shit.” Phil Jackson was in a reflective mood, talking about the relationship he had with Kobe and how it improved over time. The ceremony felt like a coronation for Bryant, and it was understood that he took a while to completely come into his own as a man. In June 2003, he was charged with sexual assault after an incident in Eagle, Colorado. Bryant settled with his accuser in civil court and issued a public mea culpa. In 2007, cameras caught him mouthing off to civilians about the Lakers, saying several teammates needed to be shipped out, in a mall parking lot. Then, in 2011, cameras caught him calling a referee a gay slur out of frustration. (Could you imagine LeBron James, who doesn’t make a statement unless it is in corporate-speak, doing any of this?)

I’m not hating on him. This is to say that Bryant was not perfect, or someone completely guarded from the limelight. Those inappropriate and immature behaviors don’t make all the times that he thrilled us less thrilling. The times he brought us to our feet don’t make his previous immaturity any less eye-rolling. It is all part of the legacy of Kobe Bryant. He lived a life to be watched: We watched him make mistakes and pay with his reputation; we saw him grow up and become a better teammate; we watched him become a father to beautiful children; we saw him tragically die trying to attend his daughter’s basketball game.

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Bryant’s ceremony happened a day before Kanye Omari West was to set to play his new album, Vultures, to a rabid crowd at the UBS Arena in Belmont Park, New York. In a lot of respects, Kanye is the rap version of Kobe: a fierce individualist who grew up with relative class privilege and transcended that privilege through sheer ambition and courage. Like Kobe’s brief stint in Italy, Kanye lived in Tokyo for a time with his mom, Donda West, a college professor. Like Kobe, Kanye wouldn’t be denied his greatness despite the people who doubted him. Like Kobe, Kanye takes every slight against him and pushes forward because of it. Like Kobe, he is prone to public mistakes; he’s enthralling to root for and against.

We’re no longer in the era of Kanye where his self-delusions can turn into musical magic. He’s a disconcerting antisemite who has shouted out his affections for Adolf Hitler. He’s said that “slavery was a choice,” and has had very public mental-health episodes. Whenever a clip of him goes viral, it would behoove folks to put their hand over their eyes. It’s embarrassing and ugly to look at; he can’t seem to say a normal sentence anymore.

Seeing him now makes his accomplishments feel like they come from an entirely different planet. At his peak, from 2004 to 2016, West was every bit the genius that he said he was. Somehow, his music was both cutting-edge and ubiquitous; freewheeling and structured; sentimental and hardheaded; immature and emotionally intelligent; dark and crowd-pleasing; Christian and sinful; Black music but easily enjoyed by white pop fans too. As the critic Paul Thompson said, the samples he would put on record “were obvious but effective.” Not a dig, either. A song like “Blood on the Leaves”, for example, that mixes Nina Simone talking about lynched Black bodies with a No Limit Record anthem sounds like it should be basic, but literally no one has ever thought of that before.

But Kanye was also often abrasive, even early on. A song like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” shows that even the “Old Kanye” was a maniac: “I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven/When I awoke I spent that on a necklace/I told God I’d be back in a second/Man it’s so hard not to act reckless.” Think about that for a second: This was West openly admitting to materialism over spiritual glory. Of course a person who would get a necklace over going to heaven would end up marrying a Kardashian. That desire to be the biggest artist of all time, someone who could headline arena tours and be widely discussed at dinner parties and beyond, was admirable and encouraged until he started saying that Taylor Swift owed him sex.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t excited for the show. I was, and even that scared me. The comedian Bill Burr has an excellent joke about Kanye that has aged perfectly. Burr said that if any other man talked about himself like Kanye did, you would think he was a fascist dictator like Hitler. Ye’s support for Donald Trump, no matter how icky it makes you feel, isn’t the least bit surprising: Both men are symptoms of the unchecked ego of the American male, the id of the oversharer, and people who whine if they don’t get their way. In Trump, West sees the social class that he struggles to fit in with because of his lack of formal education. (The underappreciated thing about West, despite his middle-class beginnings, is that he is not well-read at all). In Kanye West, Trump sees himself — as another member of the masculine mind that the pygmies won’t deny. The fact that I can know all of this about Kanye, and still want to see him perform, is a testament to my respect for his artistry and pop-star bona fides, and the fact that I am probably more weak-willed than I like to admit.

This was the kind of megalomaniacal event that doesn’t seem to happen much anymore in music. Taylor Swift is the Person of the Year, but dads take their daughters to see her well-crafted and precise show. You get your money’s worth. West gets onstage, doesn’t rap, plays music that will come out on streaming, and still brings us to our feet. He’s a star, no matter the disgusting things that come out of his mouth. As “Carnival” played at the UBS Center, and Playboi Carti came out to celebrate his cutting-edge vocal mutations — only possible because of Kanye’s contributions to rap music — fans started yelling the words to it even though the album wasn’t fully out yet. Euphoria was happening all around me, and I partook in some of it as well. I felt as conflicted and sinful as Kanye did on The College Dropout.

Vultures is a serviceable record. The production, in typical post-My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy fashion, is sparse. While it won’t be confused for a masterpiece, it shows that West is still good at being a producer. He puts Ty Dolla $ign in position to sound as bubbly as he’s been since the Obama era. “Paid” is another flirtation in electronic and dubstep music; fans of 808s and Heartbreak will recognize the piercing drum pattern on the song. “Paperwork” takes inspiration from the buzzing baile-funk sound popularized in Brazil and catching fire online. Freddie Gibbs, another eccentric loudmouth, shows up on “Back to Me,” and although the production on that song sounds like the ending to an HBO series, Gibbs’ verse is strong.

Elsewhere, “Burn” sounds like a cheeky, vintage Kanye feature; here he’s at his most likable. He isn’t quite shifting the culture in real time anymore, but this could be a foundation for something going forward — if his head allows it. The use of gospel is still as prevalent as ever, and so is the way it interacts with the album’s secular content: The yin and yang of loving secular culture in all its filth while wishing that he was in a more conservative world is what Kanye made his bones on, and Vultures has that. The charming immaturity on Dropout is here; there are shades of The Life of Pablo throughout; “Carnival” sounds like it could have been on both Pablo and Yeezus. He’s slightly less divorced on this record; now he is a dad slowly finding that pep in his step that felt missing the past couple of years.

It seems like we are back at square one with Kanye. Vultures was released to relative fanfare. The overarching response seems to be “some of this goes, ngl.” Isn’t that where we started? There might not be any statues of Kanye anytime soon, but he was as memorable as ever at that event, and the music isn’t even half as good as it used to be. Kobe was able to find some tranquility through fatherhood and mental peace; Ye, on the other hand, is still where he started: sinful and spiteful. On the Vultures closer, “King,” he says: “I’m crazy, bipolar, antisemite, and I’m still the king.” You don’t miss the old Kanye; because he’s always been this way.

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