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How Kanye West’s Online Triumphs Have Eclipsed Kanye West

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010
  • comments (8)

Kanye West in his latest online trailor, "Runaway."

If there’s a reason I haven’t written about Kanye West and his recent online triumphs, maybe it’s the feeling that, in the process, I’d somehow be getting played. These triumphs, after all, are in the field of Getting People To Talk About Kanye West. Week after week, he has maintained the spectacle of himself: an eminently retweetable Twitter feed; the blog-baiting novelty collaborations with international pop star Justin Bieber and mere internet pop star Bon Iver too; his well-timed apology to Taylor Swift; the revelation, presumably with his silent nod, that West keeps a blue-blooded Yale undergrad in his inner circle, Cassius Clay, who provides him with fashion tips — news which hit just in time for Fashion Week.

Maybe there are people working with him on these kinds of stunts, but I get the sense that Kanye is generating the lot of these ideas. I imagine he likes being in control of every aspect of the production, the medium being the message and so on. Online he is a wise fool, first playing into people’s perceptions of “Kanye West,” then off those very perceptions, sending himself up, pulling back his own veil, bringing back the caps lock. Despite many attempts, Kanye West is incapable of being parodied, largely because Kanye West has already figured out a way to be a parody of Kanye West. He can and will and has sublimated all bad press about “Kanye West” into plot points for a much larger storyline that we don’t know about. Got Played?

So let’s talk about “GOOD Fridays.” Punning off his label name and, maybe, a certain controversial Rolling Stone cover, West will deliver a new free track on his Web site every Friday until Christmas. Sometimes West tweets about the tracks leading up to the big day. He also hints at the collaborators weeks in advance, which means West scores both anticipatory blog coverage — theories about what the track might possibly sound like I mean Bon Iver? Will this be anything but a disaster? and so on — and Official Blogger Takes when the internet finally hears the tracks, decides whether they “lived up” to the hype that the bloggers themselves helped create, etc. Keep in mind also that these tracks are released on Fridays, the end of the news cycle, so if it’s a dud, no stench will linger. The song will have already done its ‘work’ for West before it was released anyway, and goes gently into the weekend. Come Sunday, West will rise again.

There have been six “GOOD Friday” tracks so far; all of them are, in fact, pretty good. Lower expectations (the implication, truth or not, is that West only has a week), excellent equipment (one glance at Kanye’s racks and we’d realize he’s not just buying YSL suits), friends who themselves could use a promotional push, and of course West himself, who even if he lacked songwriting ability he could compensate with Kanye-ness — all these conditions mean that we’re not going to get anything that ever sounds bad, and likely will be better than most rap songs released this year anyway. The songs vary in mood and mode too, from the aggressive boast of “Monster” to the neo-soul number “Lord Lord Lord,” showcasing the variety Kanye’s abilities in the process.

It bums me out that music is so devalued at this point that Kanye West — one of the greats — is giving away his entire album a track at a time here because albums are basically just ‘promotional materials’ for ‘artist brands.’

Point being, the full-time job of being the celebrity personality “Kanye West” has not impeded his full-time job of being the forward-thinking hip-hop producer Kanye West. A humility is implicit here: West remains open to new ideas and new ways to do things, he works his ass off, he constantly wants to improve himself in every regard, from shoe selection to Twitter swag to the lyrics and vocal performances of his newest songs. There are apparently these short films he’s working on too. No joke.

As for my other foot dropping? It bums me out that even the most significant mountain-moving type pop artists like Kanye West have to be “good at Twitter” in order to put a dent in the zeitgeist. That his music — very little music anymore, not even the best stuff — can’t do the kind of heavy lifting that movies and video games and television can without this extra-song-and-dance. It bums me out that Kanye West, who is Kanye West, has 1.2 million Twitter followers, while Ashton Kutcher, who is Ashton Kutcher, has 5.9. It bums me out that music is so devalued at this point that Kanye West — one of the greats — is giving away his entire album a track at a time here because albums are basically just “promotional materials” for “artist brands.” It bums me out because I like albums, not artists — so also it bums me out that Kanye West, who knows how good these songs are (he tells us so), week after week raises the expectations of what “free new music” sounds like, glossing over the fact that it took a lot of major label money and quality studios for Kanye to develop this sound. Rome is burning, so…  It bums me out that he’s contributing to the speed with which we are willingly consuming “free new music,” which is to say all new music, which rarely gets more than a second or third listen because there’s always some new Great Kanye West track to get to. It bums me out that Kanye West, in order to be “Kanye West,” is devaluing Kanye West’s Music.

You’d be right to ask what else he can do. It’s a tough spot. “Nowadays rappers, they like bloggers,” is what Swizz Beatz says on “Lord Lord Lord,” which came out this past Saturday. The line would be more accurate if all bloggers started from the position of being top-notch writers and were now forced to blog to stay relevant. But even still, the idea of “keeping a pulse” on the internet is a real thing both rappers and bloggers worry about. Slowly the work itself becomes secondary, less ambitious; slowly people become “really proud of their tweets.” Is it really too risky at this point to just check out for a year? It might be. You can’t die, otherwise we will do nothing in memory of you.

  • Gentry

    We’re still not sure which, if any, of these songs will appear on his upcoming full-length. How would that affect your thoughts on these GOOD Friday songs as part of his “artist brand” if none of them got any sort of physical release?

  • Colin

    I think the disappointment about “having to be good at Twitter” to help an album succeed and comparing it to the way that videogame/film/television marketing works really misses the mark here.

    Kanye sells himself as an auteur, a full ego. OF COURSE he has to maintain a level of highly public real time communication with his fan base to make this work. NOT SO with a video game or a movie. No one is going to follow a twitter accounbt for Mafia or Resident Evil 3D. But people WOULD follow an account for Mila Jovovich or a lead videogame engineer. Kanye’s social media and blogging presence is about marketing Kanye, and the music that he makes gets a nice boost in publicity from his own strong brand as a public personality.

    In short, to make this comparison accurate, Kanye would have to have a highly successful Twitter account for “GOOD Friday” not one for himself as a star persona.

  • Ezra

    Good article – not sure I necessarily agree with the end conclusion (Kanye couldn’t put out a best-selling album without Twitter? I’m not sure – also, he doesn’t necessarily need to be the one “leaking” tracks), but it was a really entertaining read.

  • Oldmanraps

    First, in regards to Kanye remaining a “forward thinking hip-hop producer”: I don’t think he’s producing the lionshare of these Good Friday tracks, and even if he was, most of them–let’s be honest–are not much more than glorified loops.

    Second, do you really think songs like the Bieber remix or “Lord Lord Lord” belong on an album? One is too much of a novelty, the other is far too scatter-brained (and long-winded) to bear repeated listens in that context.

    I think that dude is definitely making a serious and concerted push to keep his name on our lips, and doing a damn good job of promoting himself, but I don’t think his joke-raps about boobies and coochies really rank him up there with “the greats.” Do you?

  • pong

    I very much agree with the larger point here, which is that musical acts have to *do something* other than simply making music in order to be attractive to industry execs. I have heard numerous people in the record industry say that a band is much, much more viable as a mainstream prospect if they’re already operating like a business.

  • B Michael

    Yeah, I think the general thesis of the article misses the mark. Kanye’s online presence enhances his brand–suck it, it’s a brand–as an entertainer. It in no way detracts from the music, and you could be unable to operate a computer and still get “everything” from West’s music.

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