Like a lot of fans of Ye — the artist formerly known as Kanye West — I went from just hearing his music to listening to him when I heard his 2004 quasi-spiritual opus Jesus Walks. I became curious about his next interview, his next project, his take on who I should be listening to, because once I heard that Arc Choir sample at the beginning of Walks, I was in. To date, Ye has sold more than 160 million records, won 24 Grammys and built a fashion/media empire that’s pushed his net worth north of $2 billion.
In May 2009, the Fray and American Idol winner Kris Allen both hit the Billboard charts with covers of Heartless while Ye’s original was still on as well. Four months later he’s at the MTV Video Music Awards interrupting Taylor Swift to give Beyoncé flowers she did not want, given the circumstances. It wasn’t a gaffe. For 10 years he kept that moment with Swift alive. He did it with music videos, song lyrics and occasionally more directly in interviews. He manufactured the controversy, used it as a muse and then monetized it, all while continuing to produce hip-hop symphonies like Heartless.
I’ll leave the debate about his genius to others. All I know is Ye has always understood what works.
For the better part of two weeks, he took that understanding and his platform to peddle dangerous antisemitic comments and harmful anti-Black sentiment and to resuscitate debunked conspiracy theories about the murder of George Floyd.
In response, other platforms have kicked him off of theirs. He’s been suspended from Instagram and Twitter. His appearance on HBO’s The Shop: Uninterrupted was pulled because the LeBron James-produced show has zero tolerance for hate speech of any kind and will never allow our channels to be used to promote hate. His interview on the hip-hop podcast Drink Champs was posted and up over the weekend before the blowback forced YouTube and Revolt TV to pull it down. The show’s host, veteran rapper N.O.R.E., is currently on an apology tour.
It seems no one wants Ye on their platform, and yet he is everywhere. Like I said: He knows what works.
So ask yourself: Is Ye still working for you now?
The antisemitic statements?
The anti-Black gestures he peddles as fashion?
His coziness with conservative star Candace Owens, a Black woman who routinely questions the existence of anti-Black sentiment in America despite her own accounts of being a victim of a hate crime in 2007?
Is that all working for you now?
The story of 21st century America cannot be told without hip-hop, and you cannot tell the story of hip-hop without Ye. His name will be remembered. For what, though, is no longer clear.
We used to play Ye’s Good Morning every day at the start of the ESPNLA morning radio show I co-hosted with Keyshawn Johnson and Jorge Sedano. We stopped after Ye went on TMZ and said Black people chose to be enslaved for 400 years.
I felt a freedom in doing something that everybody tells you not to do, he also said that day, offering a glimpse into what has made him both a cultural icon and a prime example of the poster child for arrested development. There have been many artists who use shock value to draw attention to their work. When it comes to Ye, I’m wrestling with how he chooses to shock. Thoughtful lyrics that challenge longstanding power structures like the Catholic Church or law enforcement is very different from suggesting our ancestors did not fight for their freedom for shock value.
Ye couched his remarks as free speech. I call it blasphemy. We’re both right, and therein lies the rub.
I appreciated his criticism of President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and laughed off his disrespect of Swift as Kanye being Kanye. Even after he compared himself to Solomon Northup, whose memoir 12 Years a Slave was turned into the award-winning film, I assumed he misspoke. No one with as much power and influence as Ye would dare to compare himself to … but yes, he did.
Year by year, track by track, sneaker by sneaker, tweet by tweet, he shows us why we should follow and why we should tune out. Like so many people, I kept finding ways to carve the artistry from the artist even though I knew they were one and the same. Then one day, I just stopped.
Jesus Walks was a long time ago for both of us, it would seem. I didn’t cancel him. I didn’t suggest anyone else cancel him.
It just stopped working for me. I’m aware of his gravity because he looms so large, but I am no longer a satellite in his orbit.
This week, in a plot twist worthy of HBO’s House of Dragons, Ye announced he was acquiring Parler, a fledgling social media platform that Owens’ husband runs. The superstar is already lobbying for his good friend, President Trump — also known as the King That Never Was — to join him. Perhaps a consolidation of power of sorts. I couldn’t be surprised if this was all just part of Ye’s next muse.
He has always understood what works.
Is he still working for you?