Do I have to write about Kanye? Of course I don’t. I’m the only one making me do this. But since I’m going to anyway, maybe the question is, why is this entry harder to write than the others?
Kanye West has always been an open wound. All the disruptive self-aggrandizing, and courting public hate with double the energy that he does adulation, and embracing celebrity merely as a step that must be conquered on the road to divinity – despite his best effort, none of this has ever read as convincing, because his vulnerability has always been so inconcealable. Kanye’s is a mind constantly at war with itself, and his only strategy is infinite escalation.
Take away the obsession with building a fashion empire, the MAGA hat moment, and the Joel Osteen tour that hopefully won’t actually happen, and you’re left with a classic tortured artist archetype. This, I think, is the reason I’m a little apprehensive about writing about Kanye. His mental illness is not what makes him great, but it’s difficult to discuss his work without addressing it.
Evaluating Kanye got really complicated in the 2010s. In the aftermath of the Taylor Swift thing, Kanye opened the new decade with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, widely considered to be his magnum opus. It’s an epic statement record, overflowing with rich production and unexpected collaborations. For a minute, loving Kanye was easy.
Then came Yeezus, as divisive and confrontational an album as he’d released. Lou Reed wrote a glowing review shortly before he died, saying things like, “No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet.” In the same piece, he used the descriptor “classic manic-depressive,” years before West made his bipolar diagnosis public.
Then came The Life of Pablo, a record most notable for Kanye’s inability to finish it. Then there was the abbreviated tour, full of stops and starts, unnerving moments like Kanye ending a show by telling Jay-Z not to send killers after him, and a hospitalization for temporary psychosis.
Then came 2018’s Ye, a brief, confusing record whose cover reads “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome”. And finally, this year’s Jesus Is King – ostensibly a gospel album, which may or may not be part of a ploy to start a church for tax exemption purposes. It’s impossible to separate either of these records from West’s illness, or his dalliances with Trump and Osteen. And the music is not very good.
At this point people have plenty of fair reasons, both musical and non-musical, to write Kanye off. But just as I don’t think it’s fair to attribute Kanye’s artistic significance to his mental illness, I also don’t think it’s reasonable to dismiss his work in this decade because of his public behavior, or the extent to which his condition has increasingly undercut the quality of his output. I’m confident Kanye still would have been a major talent had he not been burdened by mental illness; we’ll just never know what that would have looked like. This is the Kanye we have.
Alright, so which song do I go with here? I considered a bunch: no one could argue with “Devil in a New Dress” or “Runaway,” but picking something from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy feels too safe. “New Slaves” was an option, but if I’m honest I don’t go back to Yeezus often. I actually really like The Life of Pablo, but I don’t think it has one clear standout that works as well outside of its shambolic context.
So, “All Day” it is. This 2015 non-album single is in some ways reminiscent of Kanye’s early, more beloved work, but it’s infused with an eerie haze that feels much more Pablo-era. In recent years West has rarely sounded as confident on the mic as he does here. Best of all, the melody is based on something Paul McCartney whistled, leading to a co-writing credit for Sir Paul and his comment in a subsequent interview: “It’s a great record, sonically it’s brilliant, but quite a few people said, ‘You can’t be connected with this, there’s, like, 40 N-words!’”
No one but Kanye was going to give us that.