In late May 2013, on the eve of the release of his sixth solo album, Kanye West sat down with New York Times music writer Jon Caramanica and gave one of the most memorable interviews of this past year. It was a brilliant, obnoxious mix of cartoonish overstatements and grandiose aphorisms, most of which were—like so much of West’s career—more right than wrong. At the interview’s end West declared, with characteristic modesty: “I understand culture. I am the nucleus.”
Shortly thereafter, the nucleus went nuclear. In mid-June West unleashed Yeezus, one of the most confounding and aggressively alienating albums ever released by a major pop artist. Lyrically it was an ill-humored stew of scattershot anger, juvenile shock-peddling, and preening, grotesque misogyny. Musically it was a revelation, a work of bruising and savage beauty—seething, incendiary, new. Taken as a whole it felt like a paradox, a work born of stunning confidence yet ravaged by petty insecurity. Many people hated it; many others loved it, but reservedly; Lou Reed loved it nearly unreservedly, a stance that now seems vaguely portentous. Six months later, confusion still abounds. The album has appeared on countless year-end lists but the placements feel halting and apologetic: apologetic for putting it on at all, apologetic for ranking it first, apologetic for putting it on but not ranking it first. West is the avant-gardist and the Internet commenter rolled into one, visionary, vain, and perpetually aggrieved.
Many years from now, when people talk about Kanye West—and oh, they will—2013 will loom large in their tales. This year West commanded the cultural conversation to a degree rare for a pop artist and unprecedented for a hip-hop artist. Yeezus was the most widely discussed album of the year, the most widely discussed album since West’s last album, and the work and its maker sparked conversations about the place of hip-hop in the cultural hierarchy, the complex interplay of race, class, and social capital, whether something like a poly-artist might exist in contemporary culture, whether only something like a poly-artist might exist in contemporary culture. Yeezus also probably inspired more far-ranging and necessary discussion of misogyny in hip-hop than any album before it, although still probably not enough, nor soon enough. (For all Yeezus’ sins, the self-pitying woman-bashing of 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak, dressed up as emo truth-telling, seems perhaps more insidious and probably more influential.)
Through it all West has emerged, unmistakably, as the first hip-hop star to be widely spoken of in the terms of genius. Whether or not we agree with this is beside the point (I think the mantle is deserved, but find it deeply unjust that he’s the first to receive it): It has happened, and it is hugely significant. His ascendance is evidenced by the amount and diversity of attention his work attracts, the extreme critical and cultural benefit-of-the-doubt extended to him, preciously rare for any artist in any form. When Yeezus dropped, its most immediately beloved track was the closer, “Bound 2,” the hit buried at the end and the nearest thing the record offered to “classic” Kanye. There was the cleverly obscure soul sample, the lovely hook from Charlie Wilson, the irrepressible play of the lyrics, knowingly sending up his own tabloid romance: “Yo, we made it Thanksgiving / Maybe we can make it to Christmas.” A perfect line: funny, stupid, arrogant, simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating. It doesn’t even bother to rhyme.
Then last month the video came out, four minutes of West and his fiancée, Kim Kardashian, having what must be unpleasantly nerve-wracking sex atop a speeding motorcycle, careening through the world’s most garish Trapper Keeper. It seemed the latest and greatest installment of Kanye West Goes Too Far, until renowned art critic Jerry Saltz weighed in, dubbing the video “the New Uncanny,” comparing it to Jeff Koons and Lars Von Trier, and suggesting it deserved a spot in the next Whitney Binennial. At which point we all nodded vigorously, then slunk away to quickly delete our Trapper Keeper tweets. And that is the kind of year it’s been for Kanye West.
Both in spite of and because of everything above, West also pisses a lot of people off. He’s the avant-gardist and the Internet commenter rolled into one, visionary, vain, and perpetually aggrieved, a man who’ll complain that he should be even more famous than he is in one breath, then complain about everyone else’s celebrity-obsessed culture in the next. He comes off as an asshole, and not in the cool aloof way that Dylan came off as an asshole once upon a time, where you watch Don’t Look Back and think, yeah, but he would have been nice to me. I’m not sure there’s ever been a star of West’s magnitude so lacking in conventional “star power,” that magnetizing-yet-distancing distancing quality that cordons off its holders from the vulgarity of common judgment. West isn’t lacking in sanity, he’s lacking in social graces, and for all his hunger for adulation he’s oddly unconcerned with personal appeal. In an era in which the very idea of likability has been worn away by billions of unthinking mouse-clicks, he’s something like post-likable.