Critical Backlash: Why Kanye West is the Most Important Artist on Earth

Photo by Wongoz

Kanye West is about to save the music industry. Or maybe he already has. Graduation is going to sell hundreds of thousands of albums this week; conservative estimates are putting it at well over 600,000, which is about 10 times more than the Dreamgirls soundtrack sold while occupying the same spot on the top of the charts earlier this year. When the dust settles, he might be the first artist to sell a million in his opening week since 50 Cent in 2005. I’m sure that irony isn’t lost on the producer/MC, who turned a much-publicized, made-for-TV “feud” with 50 into a rallying cry for the hip-hop community, which turned out in droves this week for both Graduation and Curtis (which will likely crack the 500k mark as well).

But as I’m sure you well know if you’re reading this blog or spend any time on Hype Machine (or in college dorms), West’s appeal extends far beyond the dungeons of rap. On his last album, he worked with the irrefutable Jon Brion, the only guy in pop music whose appearance could be trusted to improve a Spoon song, much less those of luminaries such as Elliott Smith and Aimee Mann. The first single from Graduation was “Stronger,” a track that’s Daft Punk sample is so unedited he might as well have just dropped rhymes over the source material. This is a guy who rapped over a Swedish indie-pop band on a mixtape and wound up playing a festival with them backing him up. Oh, and he put Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy in his music video.

As the numbers are about to showcase, West is in the utterly unique position of being able to appeal to everyone. [Continue reading…]

Okay, maybe not old people. But consider: How many musicians can drop an album that simultaneously races up the charts, gets bumped at clubs, earns kudos from hip-hop heads and pop critics alike, and anticipates the underground zeitgest? None of them, or at least none with West’s unbelievable mass appeal.

And now, the rub: By his very existence, Kanye West makes the music industry better. He bridges the gaps between art and commerce, between mainstream and indie, between critics and listeners, and perhaps even between what’s left of rap’s racial divide. The quality of the album itself is almost irrelevant (which is why I’m not going to discuss its aesthetic merits) in terms of the impact he’s making, though it’s inarguably better than Curtis: What matters is not that he does an impressive job of sampling Daft Punk (he doesn’t), but that he sampled them at all. If you’re an average, casual everything-but-country music consumer, this might just raise the bar for you a little bit. Not that French house needs much more exposure these days, but it certainly won’t hurt things – and if another hundred kids pick up Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s I See a Darkness because of the “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” video, that can only be good for music as a whole. Expand your horizons, West has been telling America, and maybe this time they’ll – we’ll – listen.

But this isn’t about just making the world safe for electronica or indie-folk, though it’s hard not to cheer on seeing the quality of pop-chart music rising as the torrent of indie rock culture gushes toward the top 40’s sales drought. Somewhere in the middle of all that is West, straddling the divide with a Louis Vuitton backpack and pulling everything together. More importantly than any indie signifiers, he’s actively trying to make art and turning that into staggering commercial success, something which can’t go unnoticed in the bottom line-driven music industry. If nothing else, I don’t hear any compromises on Graduation. I’m glad that, at least this week, a million other people aren’t going to hear any, either. Unless they bought Curtis.

Kanye West – “Barry Bonds” (ft. Lil Wayne): mp3


Critical Backlash is a column where I complain about things. Click below for more.