If you told me about 2012 Kanye West back in 2004, I wouldn’t have liked him very much. I was obsessed with his debut album, The College Dropout, for reasons that do not exist in the Kanye of today.
Cruel Summer is a high point in self-mythologization for Kanye West. He’s gone from “Jesus Walks” to occasionally comparing himself to God, and, more often, portraying himself as something of a demigod–an artist on a plateau above that of a mere mortal. It’s a small step up from the reinvention he gave himself as the infallible musical great on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne, but points to an ever-growing chasm between how Kanye portrays himself and how we used to listen to him.
Summer itself is largely without great impact. It’s undeniably The Kanye Show when he’s on a track and feels somewhat incomplete when he’s not (the sole exception being “Creepers,” a fascinating exercise in Kid Cudi’s attempts to seamlessly fuse his mental processes and the recording process). However, Kanye’s overgrown ambition makes the whole record worth listening to, as his ostentatious, ever-curating fingerprints mold Summer‘s DNA.
Judging lines on Cruel Summer as if they’re from the perspective of a College Dropout-era Kanye is inflexible. His references to clothes, cars, and money used to highlight an endearing character flaw, but now they are part of his mission statement. Kanye’s original contradiction–a guy who wants to display socially conscious lyricism but can’t help rapping about Mercedes and Polo–was part of the reason he was such a breath of fresh air: he felt like a real person. That self-recognition of his own complicated nature seems to be missing as of late.
Instead, the vulnerable persona has been transformed into a sheet of armor. “And now I’m rapping ‘bout money, hoes and rims again” used to come along with a shrug and a smile, but the materialistic boasting is no longer delivered with even the hint of a smirk. Kanye’s bragging is no longer accompanied by the recognition that materialism is a double-edged sword, even when he is using it to say something significant.
Watch The Throne was an album about being black and at the top, and pushing boundaries through amassing wealth. When Kanye incorporates materialism into his verses it’s to make social statements. That Lamborghini Murcielago is a status symbol, and he uses it to talk about race and power, desires and restrictions.
Whether such statements of fiduciary power are a potent tool for social progression is another question entirely. The idea of money as power and having Kanye and Jay-Z as the forefront of black identity comes with problems best laid out by Cord Jefferson in his recent column on Watch The Throne and the Black Panthers. However, as flawed as Kanye’s premise may be, the fact remains that he’s thinking way past the clothes and the gold that detractors are pointing to. To see it though, it’s necessary to accept that he is a different artist than he was eight years ago and rapping from a completely different perspective.
What initially drew people to Kanye was how regular he was. In a hip-hop culture that had raised larger-than-life than life personas and extraordinary personal histories (the superstar in rap preceding Kanye was 50 Cent) he was a talented everyman, confident in his talent and with a knack for saying what a lot of people felt. He talked about being in debt, working at the Gap, and dropping out of college. The last song on his album was a ten-minute storytelling session of how he went from a normal guy with pipe dreams to producing for Jay-Z and getting a solo deal on Roc-A-Fella Records, and he told it so matter-of-factly that it sounded both inevitable and doable. He was open about loving his mom, dating a girl he met from before he was famous, and he having more ambition than money. He was relatable.
A listener doesn’t have to relate to an artist to enjoy the music. However, it’s interesting to remember how much of our interest in Kanye was originally rooted in our similarities and how very few of them exist now. He’s grown into his confidence to become a truly larger-than-life persona; verbally sparring with presidents, jetting off around the globe on a whim, and taking an interest incorporating allusions to high art and fashion so readily that they feel like a pillar of his music rather than a throwaway line or crutch. He made $35 million last year and wants you to know it. As far as his public image goes, Kanye’s made himself into about as unrelatable a character as they come.
Despite that, he’s still one of the most fascinating people in hip-hop and his shift from the talented producer-rapper from Chicago to the grandiose, self-proclaiming deity he embodies today isn’t losing him any fans. The reason for that is how great a story that transformation is. It’s a tragic epic that has taken the public eye into its very core while actively playing out on the world stage. The past decade of Kanye West’s life play out with an air of loss that is often ignored, but lends him the image of a doomed hero.
While it’s clear that Kanye has elevated himself in image from the regular guy of the College Dropout years to whatever it is he’s trying to be right now, it bears mentioning that since Graduation he had to lose, painfully, everything that made him regular in the first place. His mother, fiancee, anonymity, bottom row of teeth and ability to live a normal life are all gone. Desperate, irrevocable regrets interacting with events that played out on news broadcasts and in tabloids are what made 808s & Heartbreak his most powerful singular statement album to date, and that rumination on a life he will never be ever to lead is going to color all of the boundless braggadocio that makes up the current incarnation of Kanye West.
The reinvention he’s gone through over the past few years has placed Kanye West, artist on a new plateau while leaving our sense of Kanye West, human being in an inscrutable nether world. On Cruel Summer, Kanye claims that God is talking to him, but what’s really being said?