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Whether you love the video for Kanye West’s “Famous” or hate it, one thing is clear: In 2016, he has recaptured the throne and is again the king of rap. More than a decade after The College Dropout, no one else can make listeners cheer, squirm, or stare in amazement the way ‘Ye can.
The visual for “Famous,” inspired by Vincent Desiderio’s sprawling painting “Sleep,” that he premiered last night at the Forum in Los Angeles gave us exactly what we expect from Kanye: the unexpected. The camera voyeuristically observes the nude bodies of celebrities who all have some sort of connection to the MC: Taylor Swift, Amber Rose, Kim Kardashian, Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Bill Cosby, and Ray J, among others. It’s thought-provoking, problematic, and most importantly, it created a larger-than-life moment that asked viewers a variety of uncomfortable questions about celebrity at large, and Kanye’s relationship to it. It’s everything we demand of Kanye, and this far into his career, he still delivers better than any of his peers.
Kanye has always worked with a chip on his shoulder, but recently he’s had real underdog status. Yeezus, released in 2013, was his most divisive album since 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak—critically admired, but too far left for many fans. The singles that followed in 2014 and 2015 largely came and went. The kinetic energy of the 2015 Brit Awards live performance of “All Day” didn't translate to the studio version. “Only One” almost felt too personal for the public to hear. “FourFiveSeconds” didn’t mirror the star power of its artists. Meanwhile, Kanye’s fashion ventures with adidas and his family life took up more of his time than ever. The music began to feel like an afterthought. Less than a year ago, some were wondering if Kanye’s run was creeping to a halt.
Meanwhile, Drake was sliding into Kanye’s spot. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late focused on stripped-down bars rather than pop singles. His methodical takedown of Meek Mill got more mainstream attention than any rap beef in recent memory. “Hotline Bling” gave him yet another inescapable summer anthem. Kanye could only pay homage. “Let’s be honest. He got last summer,” he told GQ in 2014.
But holding down the top spot isn’t easy. Drake’s most recent album, Views, feigned ambition with its long tracklist, but the songs clung to Drake’s predictable formula of Tweegram rhymes and half-baked apologies. His record-breaking numbers continue his reign as a pop titan, but the new work didn’t shift the culture.
Kanye’s long play at recapturing the crown was grounded in spectacle. He debuted an early version of his most recent album The Life of Pablo to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden in Feb. 2016, letting his followers hear the music while taking in his new Yeezy Season 3 collection. But days later, the release of the album was chaotic and clumsy: pharmaceutical villain Martin Shkreli threatened to banish the album into Wu-Tang purgatory, and Kanye directed viewers of his SNL performance to a download link that missed a song and died shortly after it went up. Kanye announced the album would only stream on Tidal, and it was illegally downloaded more than 500,000 times within the first three days. Then, despite Kanye’s claims that it would never happen, Pablo was later added to Spotify and Apple Music.
Kanye is a rock star who still snaps the world to attention.
But however disorienting the album was for the first, say, few months, Kanye was back. “Real Friends,” “No More Parties In L.A.” and “30 Hours” delivered the introspective Kanye who convinced us to relate to him in the first place, despite his existence in a very distant world. He brazenly fucks models one moment (“Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1”) and protects his family the next (“Wolves”). He astutely uses stars like Rihanna, Chris Brown, Young Thug, and Chance the Rapper with the wisdom of a Phil Jackson. He brought a sound that was bouncier and more digestible than Yeezus, while also making successful forays into dancehall (“Famous”) and house (“Fade”). But the most memorable part of Pablo isn’t any individual song, so much as it's Kanye’s concept of the album as a “living, breathing” piece of art. He’s still adding new songs and making small changes to old ones. He gets to obsessively tinker over his creation in a way that mimics the internet. That shifts the culture.
The Life of Pablo also validated the prince who could take Kanye’s place: Chance the Rapper. The Chicago youngster is clearly from 'Ye’s lineage, but he is already learning from his idol and covering new ground. Chance eschewed radio and retail outlets to connect with fans. Kanye chastised the Grammys for not giving him and Beyoncé awards, while Chance, with his latest mixtape Coloring Book, seemingly persuaded the Academy to consider streaming albums for its nominees. And while Kanye’s claim that Pablo is a “gospel” album didn't quite pan out, Chance’s Coloring Book feels earnestly spiritual, with its communal approach to spreading a message. Kanye boasts about his own successes and expects fans to be inspired; by contrast, Chance asks listeners, “Are you ready for your miracle?” and expresses gratitude. Chance couldn't care less about becoming the king, which makes him the best successor. Kanye may not be the “2Pac of product” yet, but a quote from the West Coast legend does apply here: “I may not change the world, but I may inspire the mind that does.”
Except Kanye is a rock star who still snaps the world to attention. Like he did last night. “Famous” will bother people just as much as it makes them think. The celebrities—or, more accurately, likenesses of them—in the video appear naked, but they aren’t depicted sexually; the only thing that makes them special is their celebrity. And since the lyrics of the song mostly deal with normal people, listeners are forced to imagine themselves being watched in such moments of vulnerability.
Of course, like many rap kings before him, Kanye’s power moves can be problematic when it comes to women. The “Famous” video strips agency from Rose and Swift, both of whom have had their privacy violated at the expense of Kanye. Even if the concept is sound and the bodies are fake, the video continues a trend of Kanye trying to exert control over women who have made their own decisions to separate from him. While previous Kanye albums have a playful misogyny that seems to be in on the joke, Yeezus and The Life of Pablo (and their accompanying press runs) showed a kind of contempt for some women without the veiled attempts to mansplain or mollify it.
Maybe he will see it differently as fatherhood and married life set in, the way it happened for Jay Z and Snoop Dogg. Still, Kanye is brazen with his risks; while Drake’s passive misogyny coyly names his exes and leaves trolls to find them, Kanye does the trolling himself. The least rap deserves is a king who is willing to do his own dirty work—and take the heat for it—instead of passing the task.