Kanye West, Drake and a week of never-ending fatigue
We've had three-and-a-half hours of new, high-profile and controversial hip-hop this week. Is it worth the effort?
I'm tired. As a fan of Kanye West, as a music critic, as a human being, I'm exhausted.
I'm not a Drake fan. In fact, I've never really 'got' him. But he's swimming around my brain this week, too.
If you've not been paying attention, both men, both of whom are arguably the two biggest names in rap and hip-hop if not quite all of music right now – Drake's streaming stats are frightening but with 50.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify he actually lags behind Ed Sheeran (72 million), The Weeknd (74.5 million) and Justin Bieber (83.3 million) – have released brand new, severely long albums this week.
Kanye, in terms of monthly listenership contrast, boasts 45 million on the green-tinted streaming giant. He'll perhaps console himself with record-breaking first-day streams, at least.
That day was Sunday. The album is Donda; Kanye's long-awaited, regularly-delayed, evolving, stadium-filling listening party playlist 10th studio effort.
It was supposed to stand as a heavenly tribute to his late mother, yet the final product casts her as a barely-present supporting character. Instead, the real headlines would concern the involvement of Marilyn Manson – currently accused of numerous sexual assault crimes – and rising rapper DaBaby – who is at least trying to face up to recent homophobic remarks that rightly resulted in heavy criticism and various forms of banishment.
Kanye West, however, brought the sinners forth for some kind of quasi mock-crucifixion via the prism of celebrity narcissism and/or voyeurism or something.
In staging a recreation of his childhood home at the third - and, for now at least, final – listening party last week, he brought out both Manson and DaBaby onto the makeshift porch, presumably in a bid to make some wider confused point about 'cancel culture' and the notion of angels and demons.
To say that this wasn't well-received would be a major understatement.
The UK Independent, for instance, awarded Donda zero stars out of five, with journalist Roisin O'Connor noting on Twitter that she could not "in good conscience award a star rating to an album that knowingly involves a man whom multiple women have accused of rape, torture, sexual assault, psychological and physical abuse, grooming and blackmail".
Which, quite honestly, is fair enough. It's this writer's general opinion that critics should engage with problematic art – and O'Connor did engage, even if the 'no stars' decision led to predictable, miserable abuse directed towards her on social media from Kanye super-fans – but there are lines and Kanye inarguably crossed one with his decision to work with Manson and DaBaby on his album and parade them for the public's attention.
It's worth noting that Chris Brown is also present on Donda, though it is the presence of Manson in particular that has developed the most headlines and outrage. Kanye seeks headlines and outrage, of course. This writer – and longterm fan – contends that he is capable of more refined provocation. And at the risk of repetition, it ought to be underlined in the strongest of terms – platforming these specific individuals is actively harmful to others and deserves censure.
At this point, it is difficult to know where to go from here as a Kanye West fan, especially those of us who seek to defend and protect both his vulnerable state of mind and apparent genius even in the face of continual, increasingly volatile transgressions.
There is, of course, an actual album in the conversation. One that was rush-reviewed as is common practice these days. For the record, Donda surfaced without much ceremony last Sunday afternoon at approximately 1.15pm. NME's three-star review was online by 5.18pm. Donda runs for one hour and 48 minutes. Do the maths.
Even hipster bible Pitchfork, which often takes its time drawing a decimal point-assisted conclusion, had its review live by Tuesday morning (six out of 10, for the record). It's just the modern way, depressing as it is.
Bet the house that you'll never own on two things in contemporary pop culture; a superstar will bloat their album to the point that art primarily becomes streaming-friendly content, and the remaining critical outlets that we have left will work overtime to get their hot takes online as fast as humanly possible even if forming a considered verdict is rendered near-impossible.
Clip via Kanye West
Having listened through the entire thing about eight times (you really do have to put the work in with Kanye, in every conceivable sense), I'd offer that Donda is too sprawling by design to fully grasp, but there are at least 10 songs that knocked me out.
If you even have a passing curiosity when it comes to Kanye West, a dense, troubled near two-hour album isn't going to bring you in. Check out 'Jail', 'God Breathed', 'Off The Grid', 'Hurricane', 'Moon', 'Believe What I Say', 'Keep My Spirit Alive', 'No Child Left Behind', 'Remote Control' and the truly spellbinding 'Jesus Lord', which contains one of the verses of the year courtesy of Jay Electronica.
Which brings us to Drake, a noted nemesis of Kanye and supposedly a key catalyst in the arrival of Donda. The whispers say that Kanye didn't want to go up against Drake's new album Certified Lover Boy – and yes, it is actually called that – because he'd likely lose the chart battle.
And maybe he would. But surely, even with all its flaws and crimes, Donda is the more arresting prospect than yet another formless wallpaper effort from Drake, one which invokes R. Kelly via a sample and lists his name in the writing credits.
This is the part where I become a hypocrite, having hit 'play' on Certified Lover Boy for the first time at approximately 7.30am on Friday morning.
It's shorter than Donda, but not by much. Just the one hour and 26 minutes this time. I can't review it because of two reasons. First, nobody should be putting out a Certified Lover Boy review until at least after the weekend. Reminder; it's an hour-and-a-half long. Come on, people. Please.
Second reason? I couldn't finish it.
I got as far at the penultimate track and my brain just gave up. In a week addled by pop culture fatigue and wrestling with the existential crisis that comes with being a Kanye West disciple in 2021, it turns out that another meandering navel-gazing feature-length auto-fellatio adventure from Drake isn't something that I can handle right now. Oh, and there's a Right Side Fred sample. I'm not making this up.
But here's the thing. Much as we hate to admit it; some artists are critic-proof.
They simply don't need us. All we can hope is to be part of the conversation, perhaps add something to it. As far as both Kanye West and Drake are concerned this week, I've heard enough for now.
Hey, at least ABBA are back.