Kanye West had quite a night at the Grammys.
But beyond gracing the Grammys stage for the first time in 6 years, Kanye caused his biggest stir by deciding in favor of––and then almost immediately deciding against––interrupting Beck, winner of the Album of the Year award.
He was totally right to do both.
For the record, I love Beck. I have since Odelay; I even bought Guero during my holier-than-thou-high-school-music-snob days. He’s talented: he can be silly, sensual, or serious, he’s got a knack for understatement, he plays more than a dozen instruments. Though he can’t rap, he’s one of the few artists in our current space with any sort of mystique, or ability to think outside of radio’s homogenized box. But, having heard both, Beyonce’s album blew his out of the water.
Beyonce was more creative, more daring, more personal. She’s an artist who built an empire on being nearly impenetrable, and to be as vulnerable as she was on her self-titled album takes more effort than Beck put into his recent work. Not only that, but her album’s rollout managed to put to bed both the industry practice of hyping fans for major releases with fluff singles and the ability for any artist to blame the state of a full-length record on release rollout or label pressure. And, since its release, we’ve seen the model copied: J.Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive released without a single and is the second highest selling rap album of the year, with just over 800,000 copies.
Beyonce’s record is changing the way artists release records, changing popular perceptions of her music, and breaking records in a way none of her releases have done before.
The same just cannot be said about Beck’s Morning Phase, great as it may be.
Still, Kanye’s past behavior at the MTV Video Music Awards may lead some to believe that he’s less concerned with the rewarding of excellence than he is with the rewarding of his friends. But Kanye has dozens of friends and collaborators in the music industry, and has only done this sort of thing twice.
Kanye, from his onstage rants to his TV and radio interviews, is deeply concerned about himself and those in his circle. But he’s also concerned for black art and black representation. Rap is being parceled off and sold for scraps (see: 808 drums in country songs, Iggy Azealia, Macklemore, twerking classes, and the overarching effort to homogenize Hip Hop while demonizing its community of origin) and Rock N’ Roll in its original (read: blackest) form is what we’ve come to call R&B (even though Sam Smith and Adele singing R&B is called “Pop’’ by labels and radio heads alike). What you’ve got is a terrain in which black expression is safe from neither white subversion nor white co-opting.
But let’s get something straight: Kanye West isn’t dumb.
He nearly lost all of what is most precious to him––his influence––the last time he pulled a similar stunt at a show of lesser import. It took one of the greatestalbums of the lastdecade to get it back.
He’s got a daughter, a clothing line, and even loftier dreams now, some six years later. He’s not giving that up for anyone, not even Beyonce.
Kanye may view himself as the greatest singular artistic force of his time, but he also views himself as black in a landscape often unwelcoming of such people and their expression. He was ‘bout four-five seconds from wylin’… but he had sense enough to fall back.